A Note on Trypho
A correction to a misrepresentation of Trypho.
by Peter Kirby (May 8, 2003)

This quote, often in abbreviated form, is sometimes used to support the idea that there were doubts in antiquity about the historicity of Jesus:

"But Christ--if He has indeed been born, and exists anywhere--is unknown, and does not even know Himself, and has no power until Elias come to anoint Him, and make Him manifest to all. And you, having accepted a groundless report, invent a Christ for yourselves, and for his sake are inconsiderately perishing."

The context of the quote is The Dialogue with Trypho by Justin Martyr, chapter 8. It is easily available in English translation online.

I am not making any claims to the historicity of the dialogue itself--as far as I am concerned, Trypho could be entirely the invention of the writer. I refer to the character speaking in the text.

Trypho is not referring to the non-existence or obscurity of Jesus, whose historicity he takes for granted throughout the debate, but the Messiah--the expected anointed one. The Jewish interlocutor is stating that Jesus has been made up into a Christ by the Christians; if the actual Messiah was born and lived somewhere, then that Messiah is entirely unknown. The idea that Christ is unknown, if he exists, does not fit well the erroneous substitution of the meaning "Jesus" (as in "Jesus--if He has indeed been born, and exists anywhere--is unknown, and does not even know Himself, and has no power until Elias come to anoint Him, and make Him manifest to all") for the story of Jesus is known, and Jesus could not be alive in the time of Trypho and needing Elias to anoint him.

The Jewish opponent Trypho accepts the historicity of Jesus throughout the Dialogue yet doubts that Jesus was the Messiah ("Christ" in Greek). In chapter 32, Trypho said, "These and such like Scriptures, sir, compel us to wait for Him who, as Son of man, receives from the Ancient of days the everlasting kingdom. But this so-called Christ of yours was dishonourable and inglorious, so much so that the last curse contained in the law of God fell on him, for he was crucified." (Trypho is referring to Deut. - Anyone hung on a tree is accursed!) In chapter 36, Trypho said, "Let these things be so as you say--namely, that it was foretold Christ would suffer, and be called a stone; and after His first appearance, in which it had been announced He would suffer, would come in glory, and be Judge finally of all, and eternal King and Priest. Now show if this man [Jesus] be He of whom these prophecies were made." In chapter 49, Trypho said, "But if this man appear to be Christ, he must certainly be known as man [born] of men; but from the circumstance that Elijah has not yet come, I infer that this man [Jesus] is not He [the Christ]." In chapter 74, Trypho said, "We know that you quoted these because we asked you. But it does not appear to me that this Psalm which you quoted last from the words of David refers to any other than the Father and Maker of the heavens and earth. You, however, asserted that it referred to Him [Jesus] who suffered, whom you also are eagerly endeavouring to prove to be Christ." Justin Martyr concludes by saying in chapter 142, "I can wish no better thing for you, sirs, than this, that, recognising in this way that intelligence is given to every man, you may be of the same opinion as ourselves, and believe that Jesus is the Christ of God." It is pretty clear that Trypho accepts the historicity of this man, Jesus, who was crucified, yet doubts that Jesus was the Messiah ("Christ").