Church Fathers: St. Justin Martyr

By Thomas V. Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 31, 2015

St. Justin Martyr, generally considered the most important of the Greek apologists, was born between 100 and 110, the son of a pagan Priscus in Flavia Neapolis, Palestine.

Justin tells us in his own writings that as a young man, he dallied with a few different schools of philosophy, yet found most of them unsatisfying. He passed quickly on from the Stoics because they had no interest in talking about God. He considered studying with a Peripatetic (Aristotelian), but the teacher demanded tuition up front, so Justin moved along to a Pythagorean master. Justin was attracted to the Pythagorean doctrine, but the teacher told him that before he could study philosophy he must first learn astronomy, music and geometry.

Too impatient for this, Justin at last decided to study Platonism. He was pleased with the Platonist notion of God until he met an old man (probably in Ephesus, c. 130-135) who showed him its insufficiency, and convinced him to investigate the prophets and Christianity. Soon Justin converted, being convinced that this faith was “more lofty than all human philosophy,” and “that this Christian philosophy alone was sure and profitable.”

One thing Justin tells us had already impressed him about the Christians, even while he was still a Platonist, was their utter fearlessness of death. By this he concluded, contrary to the slanders against them, that they must not be wicked men or pleasure-seekers:

For I myself, when I discovered the wicked disguise which the evil spirits had thrown around the divine doctrines of the Christians, to turn aside others from joining them, laughed both at those who framed these falsehoods, and at the disguise itself, and at popular opinion; and I confess that I both boast and with all my strength strive to be found a Christian.

Justin continued to wear the philosopher’s mantle or pallium, and gave a philosopher’s defense of the faith. He opened a school of Christian philosophy in Rome, in which one of his students was the apologist Tatian the Syrian. There, around 155, he wrote his first apology, directed to the Emperor Antoninus Pius (132-161) and his son, the soon-to-be philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius.

Soon afterward he wrote a second, shorter apology, addressed to the Roman Senate in protest of the execution of Ptolemy, a Christian catechist. In this work, he also attacked the Cynic philosopher Crescens, accusing him of being an ignorant anti-Christian bigot, as well as “base and thoroughly depraved.” It is likely that this Crescens was the one who later denounced Justin, resulting in his martyrdom (c. 165) under the prefect Rusticus along with several other Christians, of which event we have a genuine account based on an official court report.

Justin was a prolific writer, yet only three of his works are extant, all preserved in the 14th-century Paris Codex. These are his two Apologies and his Dialogue with the Jew Trypho. Many other non-extant works by St. Justin are mentioned by Eusebius and other writers: the Liber contra Omnes Haereses, Against Marcion, Discourse Against the Greeks, Refutation (also against the Greeks), On the Unity of God (based on both Scripture and Greek philosophy), On the Soul, and Psalter. In addition, four fragments of a treatise On the Resurrection are reproduced and ascribed to St. Justin by St. John Damascene in his Sacra parallela.

Justin’s style is convoluted and he wanders frequently from topic to topic, but his good faith comes through clearly. He is earnest and forthright in trying to persuade others of the truth; if they will not listen, at least he will not be held accountable for keeping silent.

The Apologies

Justin is known to have written two apologies, but many scholars believe that what we call the Second Apology, mentioned above, is merely a postscript or appendix to the first one, rather than the separate second apology mentioned by Eusebius.

At any rate, the First Apology is concerned with refuting various accusations leveled against Christians (atheism, immorality, civil enmity), and then explaining and justifying Christian doctrine and worship. This work ends with an appeal to the emperor’s justice. Justin urges him, if he will not be convinced of Christianity himself, at least to forbid persecution of Christians simply for being Christians.

To encourage Antoninus Pius in this last respect, Justin appends a letter written by the emperor Hadrian to the proconsul of Asia around 125. This document, of great historical importance, had issued the following four regulations to ensure greater justice in trials against Christians:

1. The Christians should be sentenced through a regular procedure before a criminal court;

2. A condemnation can take place only if there is proof that the defendants committed an offense against the Roman law;

3. The punishment must be proportionate to the nature and the degree of their crimes;

4. Every false accusation must be punished severely. [Quasten, Patrology Vol. 1, p. 200]

What we call the Second Apology adds further arguments in Christianity’s defense, requests that the First Apology be published, and again demands justice for Christians.

The tone of Justin’s direct addresses to Caesar is that of a challenge—he makes it very clear that he and his fellow Christians have no fear of death, indeed that there is nothing the emperor can do to harm them, but that for Caesar’s own eternal good, he should investigate these matters and behave justly toward the followers of Christ.

In Defense of Christians

Justin asserts that the pagan gods are demons. When Socrates questioned their divinity he was accused of atheism and killed, and now the demons are causing the same things to happen to Christians. Justin admits that Christians can be called atheists, but only in the sense of denying false gods, not the God who created all things: “And we confess that we are atheists, so far as gods of this sort are concerned, but not with respect to the most true God, the Father of righteousness and temperance and the other virtues, who is free from all impurity.”

Defending the Christians against charges of immoral behavior and civil disturbances, Justin shows the high moral standard demanded by Christ in matters such as chastity, patience, forgiveness, the swearing of oaths and civil obedience. Granted, not all who call themselves Christians are so in truth: “And let those who are not found living as He taught, be understood to be no Christians, even though they profess with the lip the precepts of Christ; for not those who make profession, but those who do the works, shall be saved, according to His word [Matt. 7:21-23].”

He shows the hypocrisy of accusations made against the Christians. Many of the immoralities alleged of Christians are widely known to be practiced in pagan rituals. Christians are persecuted for saying men ought not to worship idols, yet even some of the pagan poets have said the same. Christians are also attacked for not worshipping the same gods as the pagans, yet there are many different varieties of worship among paganism itself—Justin points out the irony of some pagans worshipping animals while others use those same beasts as sacrificial victims.

The Dialogue with Trypho

The other extant work by Justin, the Dialogue with the Jew Trypho, is the oldest extant Christian apology against Judaism. It is a two-day conversation with an educated Jew named Trypho, thought to have been the Rabbi Tarphon mentioned in the Mishnah. It was written at least after the First Apology. The introduction and much of chapter 74 are lost. The details of Justin’s conversion given above are related at the beginning of this work.

The Dialogue, by far Justin’s longest work, can be divided roughly into three parts. In the first, Justin shows the temporary and symbolic nature of the old Law. In the second, he shows how adoration of Christ as God is consistent with monotheism. In the third, he proves that Christians, not Jews, are the new Israel and the recipients of the promises of God’s covenant.

Some of the points touched on again and again throughout the Dialogue are as follows: Justin contrasts physical circumcision (which he says was to set the Jews apart for suffering!) with circumcision of the heart, which is an attribute of Christians. He finds in the Jewish prophecies two advents of Christ, the first dishonorable and the second glorious, and points out symbolism of the Cross in the Old Testament. He echoes the teaching of St. Paul that the Jewish Law was given as a burden because of the hardness of hearts. He finds many names given to the Son of God in the Old Testament: Angel, Wisdom, Day, East, Sword, Stone, Rod, Jacob, Israel.

Justin gives a detailed exegesis of Psalm 22 (“My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”), showing how it applies to Christ and why Christ quoted it on the Cross.

As St. Paul parallels Christ with Adam, St. Justin parallels Mary with Eve (according to Quasten he is the first Christian writer to do so):

[Christ] became man by the Virgin, in order that the disobedience which proceeded from the serpent might receive its destruction in the same manner in which it derived its origin. For Eve, who was a virgin and undefiled, having conceived the word of the serpent, brought forth disobedience and death. But the Virgin Mary received faith and joy, when the angel Gabriel announced the good tidings to her that the Spirit of the Lord would come upon her, and the power of the Highest would overshadow her: wherefore also the Holy Thing begotten of her is the Son of God; and she replied, ‘Be it unto me according to thy word.’

The prophets

In all of Justin’s writings, the prophets of the Old Testament are central. For him the fulfillment of their predictions is the “strongest and surest proof” of the Christian faith. If there are any similarities between Christianity and pagan myths, it is because demons, hoping to confuse men, introduced distorted versions of the prophecies into to the Gentile lands where it was predicted that many would come to believe. On the other hand, the points of agreement between Christianity and pagan philosophy are partially due to the philosophers’ familiarity with the books of the Jews. In particular, Justin claims (with many of the early Jewish and Christian apologists) that Plato was familiar with and indebted to Moses.

Justin on God

Justin is of the opinion that because God is without origin, He is therefore nameless, because anyone who has a name has been given it by some elder. The words we use for God, like “Father and God and Creator and Master,” are not names in the strict sense, “but appellations derived from his good deeds and functions.” Even the word God is not a name, but “an opinion implanted in the nature of men of a thing that can hardly be explained.” Justin’s preferred “name” for God, at any rate, is Father, because it accurately reflects His having created all things.

For Justin, God the Father’s transcendence of the created world is such that a mediator is necessary by which He communicates with it. This is the Logos, the Son of God, who is the sole means by which God manifests Himself to human beings.

There are hints of the subordinationist error in Justin’s account of the relation between the Father and the Logos. It seems that for him, the Logos was originally a power in God and only was generated as a separate divine Person in order to create the world and subsequently manifest Himself in it. Justin insists that all the appearances of God in the Old Testament (under the form of an angel, or in the burning bush, for example) were of the Son, not the Father. It is almost as though the Father is “too transcendent” to be capable of manifesting Himself in a visible form, while the Logos is able to do so because He is “not as transcendent” as the Father.

Justin uses the Logos to draw a connection between Christianity and pagan philosophy. Everyone carries an implanted seed of the Logos in his reason, and some men allowed the Logos to teach and direct them, thereby finding at least part of the truth. Justin goes so far as to say that “those who lived reasonably [before Christ] are Christians”—among these were Socrates, Heraclitus, Musonius, and the Jewish prophets.

However, the Logos manifests itself fully only in Christ: “For the seed and imitation imparted according to capacity is one thing, and quite another is the thing itself, of which there is the participation and imitation according to the grace which is from him.” But since all truth comes from the Logos, “Whatever things were rightly said among all men, are the property of us Christians.”

Free will, reason and morality

Justin comments more than once on the importance of free will and reason:

In the beginning [God] made the human race with the power of thought and of choosing the truth and doing right, so that all men are without excuse before God; for they have been born rational and contemplative. And if any one disbelieves that God cares for these things, he will thereby either insinuate that God does not exist, or he will assert that though He exists He delights in vice, or exists like a stone, and that neither virtue nor vice are anything, but only in the opinion of men these things are reckoned good or evil. And this is the greatest profanity and wickedness.

He insists that eternal punishment for the wicked is not simply a way to make people live well through fear; rather, it is an essential part of a moral universe. If there is no eternal punishment, “God does not exist; or, if He exists, He cares not for men and neither virtue nor vice is anything.” Here again the denial of good and evil is equated with denial of God’s care for human beings.

While God knows all that men will do, His foreknowledge does not cause people to sin. The Stoic view of fate comes in for some criticism here. If some men were decreed by fate to be good, and others decreed by fate to be evil, there would be no reason to praise or blame anyone. Further, if fate decreed men to be good or evil, men would not pursue both and waver between the two, as they are seen to do, but they would choose one path and stick with it. Finally, if fate were the cause of both good and evil it would be in contradiction with itself.

Angels

Justin was an early witness to the cult of the angels, who watch over and protect mankind from on high. His concept of angels includes some kind of physical body, since he says the sin of the angels was to have sexual intercourse with human women (seemingly his interpretation of Genesis 6:4). His awareness of the demonic origin of pagan beliefs and mysteries, as well as of persecution of Christians by Jews and Romans, has already been mentioned.

Eschatology

Justin was a millenialist, though he admitted that many good Christians did not hold this view. He also held that all the souls of the dead go to Hades, where they must stay until the end of the world, with the exception of the martyrs who go straight to heaven when they die. Yet even in Hades the good and the evil are separated, in anticipation of their eternal reward or punishment respectively.

Liturgy

In the First Apology Justin describes in detail the rites of Baptism and the Eucharist. Of Baptism, also called illumination, he writes:

As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water.

And for this [rite] we have learned from the apostles this reason. Since at our birth we were born without our own knowledge or choice, by our parents coming together, and were brought up in bad habits and wicked training; in order that we may not remain the children of necessity and of ignorance, but may become the children of choice and knowledge, and may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed, there is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again, and has repented of his sins, the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe; he who leads to the laver the person that is to be washed calling him by this name alone. For no one can utter the name of the ineffable God; and if any one dare to say that there is a name, he raves with a hopeless madness. And this washing is called illumination, because they who learn these things are illuminated in their understandings. And in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and in the name of the Holy Ghost, who through the prophets foretold all things about Jesus, he who is illuminated is washed.

Justin actually describes two different kinds of Eucharistic services: the Eucharistic liturgy for the newly baptized and the regular Sunday Mass. The latter begins with a reading from the gospels and prophets followed by a sermon, which the liturgy following baptism seems to omit. Between the two descriptions he mentions the prayers of the faithful, the kiss of peace, the collection for those in need, and the deacons bringing the Eucharist to those who are absent.

His description of the Eucharistic prayer in the liturgy for the baptized is as follows:

There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen. This word Amen answers in the Hebrew language to ge'noito [so be it]. And when the president has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion.

In the description of the Sunday service, Justin mentions that the priest offers the prayers and thanksgivings “according to his ability,” implying that the exact form of the prayer was left up to the individual celebrant. Elsewhere, though, he mentions that the prayer contains Christ’s words at the Last Supper. Quasten comments: “For this reason, one may speak of a semirigid type of liturgy, because there are regular elements in it, but there is also still room for the personal composition of the consecrating priest” [Patrology Vol. 1, p. 215].

Though in describing the ritual Justin refers to “bread and wine and water,” he clarifies and emphasizes that when blessed, it becomes the body and blood of Christ:

For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.

There has been debate about whether Justin considered the Eucharist to be a sacrifice. While in some places he emphasizes the insufficiency of all external sacrifices and says that prayer is the only worthy sacrifice, he does in the Dialogue with Trypho identify the Eucharist as the sacrifice Malachi says will be offered by the Gentiles to God in every place.

Quasten offers the following solution:

What Justin really rejects is the material sacrifice of creatures as practised by the Jews and pagans. By means of his concept of sacrifice he attempts to bridge the gap between pagan philosophy and Christianity just as he uses his concept of the Logos for that same end. His ideal is… the oblatio rationabilis, the spiritual sacrifice which the Greek philosophers declared to be the only veneration worthy of God. … Justin agrees with the pagan philosophers as well as with the prophets of the Old Testament, that external sacrifices must be abolished. There is no longer any room for bloody material sacrifices. The Eucharist is the long desired spiritual sacrifice… because the Logos himself, Jesus Christ, is here the victim. … [Justin] appropriated for Christianity the highest achievements of Greek philosophy, and stressed at the same time the new and unique character of Christian worship. He retained an objective sacrifice while on the other hand he emphasized the spiritual character of Christian worship, by reason of which it excelled all pagan and Jewish sacrifices. Thus the term, oblatio rationabilis, in the canon of the Roman Mass expresses better than any other Justin’s concept of sacrifice. [Patrology Vol. 1, p. 218]


Previous in series: Introduction to the Greek Apologists
Next in series: The Other Greek Apologists

Thomas V. Mirus is an administrative assistant and writer at CatholicCulture.org. A jazz pianist with a music degree, he often takes the lead in our commentary on the arts. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: mclom2107 - Apr. 17, 2015 4:13 AM ET USA

    Enjoyed learning more about St. Justin. Thank you for this.