In Rome at the birth of Christianity, it was a faith that shunned popular vices and amusements that provoked a hatred that took the form of blackening the character of Christians. Christians were accused of all kinds of wickedness. Their assemblies for worship, instruction, and the celebration of the eucharist were none other than secret gatherings for incest, child murder, and cannibalism.
As prophesied in the last days before Jesus returns to rescue the Saints and to judge the world, Christians will be persecuted and martyred as was the early church in the days of Justin Martyr.
“Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” Matthew 24:9-13
Justin Martyr represents a pioneer type of Greek Apologist. He is concerned not only with the refutation of attacks against Christians; he is also concerned to show that philosophy is truth, reason as a spiritual power, and Christianity the fullness of both. Christianity was, for him, not a theory but philosophic truth itself and this he served with unswerving devotion and courage. The heart of Christianity, which for him was indispensable, was God’s care and love for men and women revealed in the Bible and supremely in Jesus Christ. This places him in the mainstream of the Christian tradition and not on the outskirts as one who grievously distorted the Gospel of Christ by his excursions into philosophy.
We only know that Justin taught in Rome in the reign of Antoninus Pius and that he was martyred during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. from which we infer that his birth occurred either late in the first century or early in the second-century AD. His martyrdom may have been the outcome of a conflict with Crescens, a cynic philosopher whom Justin had convicted of ignorance—certainly, there are ominous forebodings in the Second Apology that this might happen. For the actual account of his death between 162 and 167 AD, we are dependent on the Acta Martyrum et Sanctorum Manuscript Collection, Justin and his companions are brought before Rusticus, the prefect of Rome, and commanded to sacrifice to the gods. On examination, Justin testifies to Christianity as the truth. After a brave refusal to sacrifice, Justin and those with him are condemned to be beaten with rods and beheaded. They pass to their deaths praising God and confessing Christ; later faithful Christians secretly carry away their bodies in order to give them a decent burial.
In the opening chapters of the Dialogue with Trypho the Jew (which in its final form probably dates from c. 160 c.e.), Justin gives a graphic account of the studies through which he had passed before becoming a Christian convert. From youth, he appears to have been of an earnest and religious type of mind intent on finding intellectual peace and satisfaction. With this hope in mind, he undergoes instruction from a Stoic, a Peripatetic, a Pythagorean, and finally a Platonist teacher. The Platonic philosophy immediately impresses him: “The perception of immaterial things quite overpowered me, and the contemplation of ideas furnished my mind with wings.” It was while a Platonist that Justin became a Christian through the agency of an old man who kindled a flame in Justin’s soul: “A love of the prophets, and of those people who are friends of Christ, possessed me.” Christianity was the one, sure, worthy philosophy.
In a statement recorded in the Acta Martyrum, which almost all scholars regard as based on good historical tradition. According to this account Justin, in answer to the Prefect Rusticus’s question, “What teachings do you hold?” said, “I have tried to learn from all teachings, but I came to adopt the true teachings, which are those of the Christians.” Justin found the truth only after much searching. The use of testimony sources in Justin’s First Apology, in addition, confirms that he was converted to Christianity through reading the Old Testament with Christians.
We possess few details of Justin’s life following his conversion and baptism. He seems to have come to Rome and to have stayed there some time. In Acta Martyrum it is stated that he had resided twice in Rome. This is consonant with what we know of the various schools of thought that Christian teachers established in the capital city of the Empire (so Valentinus had connections with Alexandria and Cyprus as well as Rome). It is not therefore to be assumed that Justin established a permanent school of Christian philosophy in Rome. It may be that he taught in other cities at different times in his career. Justin’s special task was Christian apologetics or the defense of the faith. Eusebius vividly describes his work: “But Justin was the most noted of those that flourished in those times, who, in the guise of a philosopher, preached the truth of God, and contended for the faith, also, in his writings.” Again the Acta Martyrum speaks of him sitting in the house of Martinus, a recognized meeting place for Christians, and there conversing with any who visited him, imparting to them the true teaching. The persons condemned with Justin are those whom he had gathered around him; “I took delight,” says one Evelpistus, “in listening to Justin’s discourse.” This is a picture of a philosophical evangelist informally training disciples. One of the most famous of these was Tatian, the brilliant Assyrian, who came from the neighborhood of Nisibis beyond the Euphrates and who became famous as the author of the Diatessaron, the first harmony of the Gospels. Justin’s school may well have engaged in literary production—indeed may have provided the material from which Tatian later was to compose the Diatessaron.
“Our object must not only appeal for toleration of the Christian faith but even more win people to the Christian faith. The Christian way of life has to be shown as the highest ideal of ethical conduct the world has yet seen.”
Justin Martyr shows the actual truth of Christianity and its positive worth. He begins by demonstrating that Christians are monotheists who worship God and then Jesus Christ according to His secondary rank, and then the Prophetic Spirit. Christian worship is essentially reasonable worship. Justin then gives examples of the moral power and elevation of Christ’s teaching and produces analogies between the Christian doctrines of immortality, resurrection, the end of the world, and the teaching of nature and philosophy. He also gives some of the pagan fables about the exploits of the sons of gods and shows how irrational it was for believers in these tales to persecute believers in the facts of Jesus’ life. Justin’s object in this part of the First Apology was to disarm unbelief and to show that Christianity was not contemptible or novel but essentially rational. He seeks to show (a) that the teaching of Christ and the prophets is alone true and is older than all other writers; (b) that Jesus Christ is alone begotten as the Son of God being His logos and First-born and Power and appeared on earth as a teacher for the conversion and restoration of the human race; (c) that before Christ came some, influenced by the demons, related through the poet’s mythological tales intended as a travesty of the future revelation. After showing the irrationality of allowing impostors such as Simon Magus and Menander and heretics like Marcion to go unmolested, Justin then passes to the main burden of his argument. This consists of elaborate proofs of the fulfillment of prophecy. The main facts of Christ’s life and work and the mission of the Apostles to the world had been predicted in great detail centuries in advance. He also explains the different kinds of prophecy and defends them against the charge of fatalism. In a remarkable passage, Justin replies to the objection that since Christ came so late in time, those who lived before His coming were not accountable. Quite the opposite—the divine logos had been in the world since the beginning and those who lived according to reason, whatever their race, were really Christians though they have been thought atheists; so among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus, and among the barbarians Abraham, Ananias, Azarias, Misael, and Elias and many others. On the other hand, those who lived irrationally were the enemies of Christ and so wicked. From all these “fulfilled” predictions, the Christian belief in Christ as the firstborn of God and the universal Judge of humankind is totally justified. Justin next passes to a demonstration that mythology was used by demons to imitate Christ although they had failed to understand the predictions of the Cross, which were also clearly evident in nature and human life. He then tries to show that Plato was directly dependent on Moses for his account of the origin of the world and of the second and third power in the Universe. In the concluding part of his work, Justin gives an account of the Christian sacraments of baptism and the eucharist, which is of great value to students of the early liturgy. Those who are to be baptized are “brought to the place where there is water” where they are regenerated and illuminated. Baptism is in the Name of the Trinity. In the Eucharist, after a reading from the Memoirs of the Apostles or the prophets, intercession is made for the Church and those in the world. The Ruler prays extempore over the elements and the deacons distribute the eucharistic gifts to those present and then take them to the absent.
Justin’s Second Apology is much shorter than the First and was apparently called into existence by his indignation at an outrage that had recently occurred—typical of the indignities to which Christians were subjected. A dissolute man, angry with his Christian wife for having rebuked his vices, had charged her teacher Ptolemaeus with being a Christian. As a result, Prefect Urbicus sentenced Ptolemaeus and two others to death simply because they were Christians. Justin then divulges that he himself expects to fall a victim to the malice of Crescens, “that lover of bravado and boasting” whom he had publicly shown to be an ignorant demagogue. He then goes on to discuss two popular objections to Christians: (a) Why did they not kill themselves if they were so willing to face martyrdom? Justin replies that God’s creation is good and to kill themselves would prevent the spread of the living doctrines; Why did their God not protect them? Justin replies by declaring that God placed the world in charge of angels, but some of these fell, and to them and their offspring are due to the evils that good people suffer. In contrast to the demons is the one ineffable God and His begotten logos, who became man to deliver man from the demons. God in fact spares the world for the sake of the Christians. In all ages, those who followed reason have been persecuted by the demons but the time of judgment will come. Christianity is superior to all other teachings because it reveals the whole logos of God. Another reason why God allows people to suffer is because of the blessedness won through discipline and probation. They are as athletes who prove their virtue by risking death. The way in which Christians regard death is a crowning proof of the truth of their religion and the falsity of the slanders reported about them.