Death of Justin Martyr

Dan Graves, MSL

Death of Justin Martyr

Christians have always had to respond to the philosophies of their age. The first in a long line of Christian philosophers was Justin. But he was more than just an egghead academic. He addressed his arguments to the mighty Roman emperor himself, and ended up pouring out his life in a courageous defense of the faith.

Flavius Justinus was born in Samaria, near where Jesus had talked to the Samaritan woman by the well (John 4). Justin, too, thirsted after truth and eventually drank of the water Jesus offered. He was the first Christian philosopher to explain Christianity in terms familiar to Stoics and the followers of Plato.

As a well-born Roman, Justin received a classical education in Greek and Latin. Searching for truth, he studied various popular philosophies. But none of them filled his hungry heart. The Stoics showed little concern with whether God cared for man or not. The followers of Aristotle's philosophy were more interested in collecting fees than in teaching truth. The Pythagoraens required intensive preparation in music, arithmetic, and geometry. Finding these philosophies empty, Justin became a Platonist because he admired the notions of the invisible world held by Socrates and Plato.

About A.D. 132 while walking in contemplation by the sea, Justin met an old man whose name has been lost to history, but whose faithful witness has blessed the church down to this day. The old man talked with Justin and patiently showed him weaknesses in Plato's thinking that Justin had not seen before. Philosophers could not arrive at full spiritual truth through unassisted reason, said the old man. But the ancient prophets of Israel who knew God had revealed him and foretold the coming of the Christ. Justin listened and believed.

He continued as a teacher of philosophy, but he now explained Christianity as the true philosophy. He believed that all truth was God's truth. Borrowing from the Gospel of John's treatment of the Word ("Logos" in Greek), Justin taught that any truth in the Greek or pagan philosophies was the Word or Logos reaching out to sinful humanity. He believed Plato's God was the God of the Bible and Socrates was a Christian before Christ, just as Abraham was. Moses and the Old Testament writings were older than the Greek philosophies, and any truth the Greeks had was borrowed from the Jewish prophets.

Justin ardently defended the Christian faith against pagans, Jews, and heretics. He taught in Rome at the house of Martinus on the Via Tiburtine and wrote works which equipped Christians for generations to come. His Apology, written about 150 and addressed to Emperor Antoninus Pius, appealed for justice and liberty for Christians. Christianity was a persecuted minority in Justin's day, and his Apology showed the reasonableness of Christian truth. After refuting baseless accusations against Christians, such as that they had cannibalistic rituals and engaged in gross immorality, Justin contrasted the moral power of Christ's teaching with irrational pagan fables. Justin appealed to the emperor: "if these things seem to you to be reasonable and true, honor them; but if they seem nonsensical, despise them as nonsense, and do not decree death against them who have done no wrong...For we forewarn you, that you shall not escape the coming judgment of God..."

Not only did Justin teach Christianity as the ultimate truth and write in its defense, he also defended Christianity in public discussions. Two men he publicly debated in Rome were the heretic Marcion and the Cynic philosopher Crescens. It seems that Crescens was hot at being defeated in public debate and brought Justin and six of his students to the attention of the Roman prefect, Rusticus, around the year 165. When the Christian believers refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods as demanded, they were condemned, scourged, and beheaded. Standing a firm witness to Christian truth even in death, Justin gained the name "Martyr" by which he is still known.

Pope Leo XIII set Justin's feast for this day, April 14 Annually.

Bibliography:

  1. Aland, Kurt. Saints and Sinners; men and ideas in the early church. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970.
  2. The Ante-Nicene Fathers: translations of the writings of the fathers down to A.D. 325. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, editors. New York, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1899.
  3. Barnard, Leslie W. Justin Martyr : his life and thought. London, 1967.
  4. Glimpses # 50. Worcester, Pennsylvania: Christian History Institute.
  5. "Justin Martyr; Philosopher, Apologist and Martyr." htpp://justus.anglican.org/resources/bio/175.html.
  6. "Justin Martyr, St." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford, 1997.
  7. Lebreton, Jules. "Justin Martyr, St." The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
  8. Various encyclopedia and internet articles.

Last updated May, 2007.

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