Apologetics · History · Theology

Who Was Justin Martyr?

The Life Of Justin Martyr

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Justin Martyr is hailed as a saint in most Christian traditions and rightly so. He is known to have been one of the greatest early defenders of the Christian faith and its ethical practices within the Roman empire. He was born around 100 A.D. in the area of Flavia Neapolis in the region of Samaria. He often identified himself as a Samaritan and was born of Greek (gentile) descent. He was known to have been heavily influenced by Greek philosophy, namely Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, leading Stoics, and Pythagoreans. He received a hellenistic education, being taught by Greek philosophers of his day, but much of their logic and arguments left Justin Martyr with a desire for more, because he often felt as if those educating him failed to answer the issues of theology and metaphysics. There were also many philosophers who would pressure him into affording a fee for their speaking or requiring him to learn prerequisite information before allowing him to be their student.

Eventually, Justin Martyr found himself astonished as he heard of a philosopher of platonism. Platonist philosophy would be his main area that he would adopt as he began his studies more seriously. As Justin Martyr continued his studies in philosophy he eventually encountered an older Christian man who told him of the biblical prophets and the testimony of Jesus Christ, to which he abandoned his previous philosophical beliefs to fully embrace the study of true philosophy under the words of God spoken through the prophets of the Bible, this was his conversion into Christianity. 

After learning and studying the deep riches of the Word of God, he began to dress, speak, and act as a philosopher in his travels around the Roman Empire’s regions. He would teach those who would listen to the true philosophy that is fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ as a way to preach the gospel to those he came across. Eventually he arrived in Rome, where he established his own school to teach this true philosophy to his students. This led him to debate with many opposing philosophers who would demonize and spread lies about the Christian faith. And eventually Justin Martyr was led to be martyred along with those who he taught.

Works Of Justin Martyr

Justin Martyr wrote quite extensively in defense of the Christian faith and in critique of the politics, justice, philosophies, and beliefs that were popular among the people of the Roman Empire. The most notable of these would be his first apology, his second apology, his dialogue with Trypho, and his discourse to the Greeks. There are other great and thorough works of his, but for the sake of this paper we will be focusing on the aforementioned works of his.

The First Apology Of Justin Martyr

The first apology of Justin Martyr deals with some serious themes as they pertain to the Christian Church and their relationship and interactions with the Roman Empire during the second century. Justin Martyr opens his letter by addressing the accusation that Christians are atheists in regards to their rejection of the pagan gods of Roman society. Justin Martyr makes the argument that such accusations are illogical, therefore making it unjust to persecute Christians for their rejection of the Roman gods, mainly because not even the citizens of Rome worship or pay tribute to the entire pantheon of pagan deities. In other words, all of the Roman citizens focus their worship to select gods they deem worthy of their honor, and therefore all must be atheistic in some sense of their refusal to worship certain deities; and yet, they are theistic in the sense that they do worship and honor others. 

Another key point that Justin Martyr reasons from is the ethical concerns of condemning Christians in an unjust manner or with false accusations. He raises the argument that many Christians are being condemned as law breakers falsely because of their own religious beliefs in the Judeo-Christian God Yahweh. He asserts the concept that it is actually the rulers and judges responsibility to judge with a correct judgment. If a man being a Christian or not commits a legitimate crime then they should be punished for their crime, but if a man being a Christian or not is an innocent and lawful person then they should be rewarded by the governmental officials. At this point in time there were many false accusations against Christians and many were unjustly punished even when being innocent of the crimes that were brought against them. 

But, if some Christians are committing criminal acts, then they should receive the punishment that they are due, but the whole of Christian believers should not be punished for the criminal acts of the few unlawful individuals. Justin Martyr gives several examples of how the Christians body pursues virtue, honesty, and integrity as a whole; one of the primary reasons to support their virtue is their endeavors to protect children rather than abandoning them to the streets to be torn apart by wild beasts. This display clearly shows the love that Christians have and their willingness to sacrifice their own comforts to show charity and grace to others. 

He then goes on to explain that their actions are not to receive their own glory and honor before men, but because of their souls’ longing and hope for eternal life with their God, they strive to honor and glorify him before all men. This is something that Justin Martyr firmly believed that the early renowned Greek philosophers believed as they reasoned for the truth within reality of the eternal soul and the high and all powerful eternal being that is sovereign and above all things. This is an interesting way for Justin Martyr to reason, because often it seemed like Christians and Jews alike rejected the popular philosophical systems. Justin, on the other hand, was passionate about philosophy and found a way in which he could appeal to the Roman leaders with their own philosophical foundations. 

He eventually found himself reasoning for the truth of Jesus Christ as the Son of God and his resurrection from the Old Testament prophets who foretold the birth, life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The Romans had a deep respect for prophecy and fulfillment so this was a way which Justin could prove that the God of the Jews was true, and this God was also the one who the Christians worshipped. If the Jews were legally allowed to pay tribute and honor to their God, then there would be no reason for the Romans to reject the faith of the Christian Church. 

He then transitions into an explanation of the sacraments and ordinances that the Christians practice. It was common belief at the time that the Christians were practitioners of cannibalism due to the sacrament of the Eucharist/ Communion/ the Lord’s supper. But Justin Martyr states that while they receive the bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ, that they were truly eating the physical forms of bread and wine, yet accepting it with faith as the body and blood of Christ, there were not true acts of cannibalism and therefore the accusations made against them were false. Justin Martyr then explains the primary purpose of the Church gatherings on Sundays. They would fellowship with one another to read and listen to the biblical scriptures, pray for both their brethren and their enemies, and collect voluntary offerings of charity to be given to the poor, sick, hungry, and weak within their community and congregation.

The Second Apology Of Justin Martyr

Unjust condemnation of Christians to death was an issue that prevailed in the surrounding empire and its citizens. One example that Justin Martyr gives is of a husband and wife. Both partners used to conduct themselves in lawlessness as they loved their own selfish desires and pleasures over the love for the one true God and others, but the wife later was convinced of the truth of Christianity. This created much tension between both spouses as now they live lives contrary to one another in both mind and deed. Eventually this tension led the wife to go through the proper channels for a divorce, which although successful resulted in her unjust condemnation before the Roman officials and leaders. 

One of the leaders had a close acquaintance who happened to be a Christian as well; he called out the wrongful judgments upon this woman and outed himself to be a Christian as well to the judge. This led to him being unjustly condemned and punished also. This was commonplace in the Roman Empire at the time and Justin Martyr used this example to show that both the wife and the latter man did nothing evil, wicked, or immoral in regard to their behavior and actions, but were punished as if they were vile criminals.

At this point Justin Martyr shifts the focus of his letting from addressing the wrongdoings of the  Roman centurions to directly applying the truths of the Roman Empire and how they have been treating professing Christians to himself. He states that what he is saying is true and can be accounted for, but if any want to deny these truths then let them discover that they are no philosophers, themselves, and to be unwise in regard to their dealings with Christianity in regard to justice and fairness.

Many secularists and pagans would bring up to the Christians that if what they believed about God was true, then why would they not just kill themselves on the spot so that they can experience pure peace, love, and joy that is only found in the ultimate presence of God in his heavenly kingdom. To which Justin Martyr was wise to respond with addressing the truth God-given purpose of mankind here in the mortal realm. That it would be contrary to the will of the God whom they serve to off themselves simply to enjoy his perfect presence. For God has charged his people with the task of spreading the news of his Gospel and as light and salt to the Earth. Preserving it and exposing the darkness to God’s glorious light. To kill themselves would fly right into the face of what God has purposed for his creation, thereby actually rendering Christians who perform such an act to be in sin. This is why Christians are to hold fast to their firm foundation, because even in the midst of their own persecution the gospel is being proclaimed which God desires to spread across all of the ends of the Earth.

The Dialogue Of Justin With Trypho, A Jew

Justin Martyr’s dialogue with Trypho is just that, the recorded conversation of two men as they question one another in deep meaningful discussion. The conversation begins with an introduction of both men and what they value in wisdom. And they also question which manner of philosophy each other holds to and how it relates to their theistic beliefs. 

Justin Martyr reasons that the value of philosophy is immense as it pervades all existence and it’s study is most honourable by God. This is due to the fact that in order to begin study in philosophy one must investigate evidence and reason with logic from their to make appropriate conclusions about all factors of life; therefore to study philosophy is to make an attempt to understand objective truth and the reality of all nature and phenomena because they all stem from God himself since he has created all things. He goes on to explain his journey into reading many of the great greek philosophers and their main proponents throughout history, which eventually led him to a deep respect for Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle. It even led him to accept the one true God of Christianity!

Justin Martyr then begins to explain the manner of his conversion to Trypho. As Justin Martyr went on his journey in education and philosophy he found himself disappointed with where it left him, until he came across the philosophy of Plato and the popular platonists of his day. Through the philosophy of Plato he found himself valuing reason and logic as it related to the reality of existence and truth; this then led him to the idea of an all-eternal, all-powerful, and all-knowledgeable singular theistic being. He found this philosophical concept of God in line with what the the Judeo-Christian concept of God, which eventually convinced him of the truth of the biblical texts and the truth of Christianity specifically. 

The concepts that led him to this conclusion and the acceptance of the biblical God are these, natural theology as God reveals himself through his creation, the nature of the soul, the necessary relationship and distinction between creator and creation, and the nature of mankind in their need for purpose and order. He firmly believed that while Plato himself may not have known the proper names of all he was describing, that he confessed faith in an unknown deity that is in line with the biblical God. Therefore, since the prophets of the Old Testament wrote extensively on the topics directly related to the biblical God, Justin Martyr was convinced that truth philosophy is found in the writings of the Bible because they begin and end with the truth and reality of who God is.

The next topic in the dialogue deals with Trypho’s accusation of against Christians for their non-observance attitude toward the laws of the scriptures that the Jewish people hold so dearly. Trypho charges Justin that what is so troubling to him and other Jewish people is that while Christians profess to believe in the same God of their own scriptures that they pay no mind to what he had commanded for his people to do in order to be right with God and that they show no change in their lives, celebrating no sabbath, festivals, or feasts in accordance with the scriptures they claim to believe in. To this challenge, Justin Martyr gives a wise and biblical response. Justin Martyr states that while Christians do wholly believe in the books of both the Old and New testaments, that they believe that the letter of the law has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. 

It is the Christian understanding that all of the texts of the law and the prophets were written not in order to make mankind righteous, but to show their need for mercy and grace. And ultimately the law and prophets were completely kept and fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. This is why Christians are a people of repentance rather than legalism. While this is control to the Jewish mindset at the time it is firmly understood by Christian scholarship and I am convinced that Justin Martyr understood this as well; that the most biblical form of Jewish beliefs would have been more focused upon repentance as well even while still upholding the law culturally in obedience to God. The ultimate summation of Justin’s response to Trypho can be summed up in his claim that the Jewish leaders of his did simply had been misinterpreting the main essence of the eternal law of God that is taught in the holy scriptures, because of this they have strayed away from God by their legalistic obedience to the law rather than growing closer to their God.

Another challenge that Trypho brings against the Christian idea of the messiah being fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth, is that in the book of Daniel the Messiah comes in full glory and power, in his mind this is completely contrary to the way Jesus actually came and lived. But, Justin Martyr is quick to make a distinction that is foreign to most Jewish people, this distinction is between the Messiah’s first and second coming. While the second and final advent of the Messiah will be in full glory and power, the first is depicted in the book of psalms and many of the prophets. Psalm 110 specifically portrays an image of the messiah that would first advent in a humble and meek manner rather than in his fullness of glory and power. The Jewish people more commonly understood Psalm 110 to be speaking of their former king Hezekiah, but Justin Martyr corrects their understand and points the Psalm to Jesus of Nazareth as a way to show that the first coming was prophesied to be in a low and humble manner.

Influence Of Justin Martyr

Justin Martyr is arguably one of the most influential Early Church Fathers with respect for their development of apologetic thought. This is where his strengths lie but even with all of his great motivation and gifts bestowed upon the body of Christ, I would argue that he falls short in the depth of his theological beliefs. This is not to say that Justin Martyr is in any way heretical, but rather his theological development was lacking, but this may be due to the fact that there were many theological issues yet to be brought up and needed to be defended against and therefore further elaborated upon. What he did get completely correct are the core essential truths of Christianity that form the foundation of the true faith of the Church, namely the gospel message and the person of Jesus Christ. 

Apart front the writings and ministry of Justin Martyr there would have been a large gap and greater struggle within the Christian Church in its ability to reason against the faulty reasoning for their continual persecution and ridicule in the Roman Empire, this is Justin Martyr’s greatest strength and for that reason he was called as one of the foremost Christian apologists by God. 

He valued the sophistication and nuance that the early Greek philosophers offered and would use their inspiration as he reasoned to convince others of the truth of Christianity. While this was not commonplace, in fact many believe that this kind of method was discouraged in the biblical texts, we find that it can be a useful tool to share the gospel message with others. Justin Martyr was convinced that many of the earliest Greek philosophers were in fact unknowingly disciples of the one true God. 

While this may be a stretch I believe that it would not be impossible for Yaweh to reveal himself in different ways to different people, but only in a way that continues to confess the biblical truths of scripture and the gospel message. For instance this would not say that God has revealed himself in the form of various religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Celticism, Gnosticism, and so on. But rather, that if one becomes convinced that there is  only one true and eternal God who is worthy to be worshipped by his creations nd that mankind cannot in of themselves earn his favor but must rely on the display of his grace and mercy, well it would seem that this kind of faith would be consistent with the Christian faith in so far as they are simply ignorant of proper names of certain beings and concepts. So, while they reasoned in the logical and necessary belief in an ultimate divine being that pervaded all reality and sustained it, it would seem that to firmly believe that they believed in the God of the biblical narrative is a bit of a stretch. I would hope and pray that Saint Justin was correct in his conviction. But, one cannot automatically assume that those who profess something that sounds like the biblical portrayal of God automatically means that they had true faith in the true God of the Bible. This I believe is one of his prime shortcomings, but it is far overshadowed by the depth of his biblical knowledge. He was a man who knew his Bible well, as he reasoned from it to share the truth of Jesus Christ to both the Jewish elitists, commoners, Roman pagans, and leaders of his day.

Bibliography

Bokser, Ben Zion. “Justin Martyr And The Jews”. The Jewish Quarterly Review 64, no. 2 (1973): 97. doi:10.2307/1453625.

Eliot, George. The Mill On The Floss, n.d.

Evans, C. Stephen. A History Of Western Philosophy. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, n.d.

Justin, and Thomas B Falls. Saint Justin Martyr. Washington: Catholic University in association with Consortium Books, 1948.

Justin, Irenaeus, Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. The Apostolic Fathers With Justin Martyr And Irenaeus. New York, NY: Cosimo Classics, 2007.

Justinus, and Leslie William Barnard. The First And Second Apologies. New York N.Y.: Paulist Press, 1997.

Lieu, J. “Review: Justin Martyr And The Jews”. The Journal Of Theological Studies 54, no. 1 (2003): 306-308. doi:10.1093/jts/54.1.306.

Oppy, Graham Robert. The History Of Western Philosophy Of Religion. Durham: Acumen, 2013.

Sena Pera, Juan Pablo. “Justin: Teacher, Philosopher And Martyr”. Romanitas – Revista De Estudos Grecolatinos, no. 7 (2016): 198. doi:10.17648/rom.v0i7.14528.Taliaferro, Charles, and Philip L Quinn. A Companion To Philosophy Of Religion, n.d.

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