It began with a chance meeting on the streets of Ephesus between two men from the recently-renamed Roman province of Palestina. Justin of Neopolis, a Greek philosopher-turned-Christian, had crossed the path of Rabbi Tarfon, who was himself fleeing the terror of the revenge of the Roman armies for the revolt of Shimon bar Kochba. Justin, ever eager to spread his faith, had engaged the Jewish rabbi in debate, one which had now gone on for several hours and gathered a large crowd.
Justin had begun trying to demonstrate to the rabbi that Jesus of Nazareth, called the Christ by his followers, was indeed the Messiah proclaimed to Israel by her prophets, and more than that, was Deity Incarnate. But as the debate wore on and the stubborn rabbi refused to admit what Justin saw as the plain and simple logic of his arguments, the debate had taken a turn. Faced with Tarfon’s claims from Scripture that the true Messiah would raise up Israel over the nations, Justin found himself arguing that Jesus had done so–through the Christians. The rabbi had happily taken up that thread, showing from the same prophets that Justin had been quoting that the true people of God were those characterized by keeping the Torah–particularly the commands, like circumcision, the Sabbath, and the feasts, that the Greek Christians had largely abandoned.
“Those commandments were only given because of your hardness of heart,” Justin answered, annoyance creeping into his tone despite himself. “God commanded you to wear the blue cord in your cloaks as a reminder to keep his commandments and to wear phylacteries with holy words written on parchment contained within to excite your passion for him. But you didn’t, did you? Your own prophets tell us that you fell into idolatry. You even sacrificed your own children to idols!”
Rabbi Tarfon smiled thinly. “A Greek is hardly in a position to criticize a Jew for idolatry.”
“But we Christians have repented of our idolatry, and found our salvation in Christ!”
“As we Jews repented of ours, and were redeemed by the God of our fathers from slavery in Babylon. But tell me, Justin, since you say that the commandments of the Holy One, blessed be he, were given only because of the stubbornness of our hearts–and I’ll admit, we’re a stiff-necked people–then what of those Jews who lived before your Christ? Did they not keep the Torah? And were they not still ‘saved,’ as you put it?”
“Yes, of course,” said Justin. “But . . .”
“Hold a moment. You have had your say. Let me ask my questions. What then of those who believe in your Christ? If someone–a Jew by birth, say–has believed in and obeys him but wishes, however, to observe these commandments, will he be saved?”
Justin hesitated, and when he answered, his words were carefully chosen. “In my opinion, Tarfon, such a one will be saved, if he does not try to persuade other men—I mean those Gentiles who have been circumcised from error by Christ—to observe the same things as himself, telling them that they will not be saved unless they do so. This you did yourself at the commencement of the discourse, when you declared that I would not be saved unless I observe these institutions.”
Tarfon raised an innocent eyebrow. “Why then have you said, `In my opinion,’ unless there are some who affirm that such will not be saved?”
“There are such people, Tarfon,” Justin answered; “and these do not venture to have any intercourse with or to extend hospitality to such persons; but I do not agree with them. But if some, through weak-mindedness, wish to observe such institutions as were given by Moses, from which they expect some virtue, but which we believe were appointed by reason of the hardness of the people’s hearts, along with their hope in this Christ, and wish to perform the eternal and natural acts of righteousness and piety, yet choose to live with the Christians and the faithful, as I said before, not inducing them either to be circumcised like themselves, or to keep the Sabbath, or to observe any other such ceremonies, then I hold that we ought to join ourselves to such, and associate with them in all things as kinsmen and brethren.”
Rabbi Tarfon kept a pleasant expression and refrained from losing the reins on his inner smile as he quickly moved the debate to its conclusion. For he had been watching some of the audience from the corner of his eye, men and women who by their dress were plainly Jews, but who had begun the debate nodding in approval and quietly cheering the Christian. They could only be Nazarenes. But as the debate had worn on and he had cleverly turned Justin to arguing not for this Yeshua HaNetzeri who had stirred up so much trouble in Galilee and Judea, but against Israel and against Torah, the rabbi had watched their faces fall by degrees, until they turned red with anger at Justin’s accusation of “weak-mindedness.”
Rabbi Tarfon glanced at the fading sun and made his way quickly to the nearest synagogue for the evening prayers. Though he had little hope that the Jewish heretics would repent of their madness, perhaps seeing how well the Greeks repaid their foolish attempts to give them God without Torah would blunt their enthusiasm to try to draw other Jews and Gentiles into their sect. And even if it didn’t, word of Justin’s insult to the Torah would spread through the Jewish community in Ephesus. The rabbi finally let his smile rise to his face. No, neither Justin nor the Nazarenes would find new converts among the Jews in Ephesus.1
1 Adapted from Justin Martyr’s work, A Dialogue With Trypho, a Jew (particularly chapter XLVII).