Justin Martyr

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JUSTIN MARTYR (c. 100163/5) is generally regarded as the most significant Christian apologist of the second century. With him Christianity moved from competition with the popular Hellenistic mystery cults, which attracted chiefly persons of limited education and culture, to competition with philosophies that appealed to persons of higher education and culture. In his apologies he presented Christianity as "the true philosophy" uniting the wisdom of both Jews and Gentiles.


Although born at Flavia Neapolis (modern Nablus) in Palestine, the site of ancient Shechem in Samaria, Justin claimed neither Jewish nor Samaritan ancestry. His grandfather was named Bacchius (a Greek name), his father Priscus (a Latin name), and, according to his own statements, he was uncircumcised, reared according to Gentile customs, and educated in the Greek fashion. His writings, however, reveal considerable familiarity with Jewish customs and thought, particularly in handling the Scriptures.

From his youth, Justin possessed a serious religious and philosophical interest. In quest of truth (God) he studied successively with Stoic, Peripatetic (Aristotelian), Pythagorean, and Platonist teachers. The Stoic, Justin reports, disappointed him; the teacher failed to help him further his knowledge of God. The Peripatetic evinced greater interest in collecting fees than in education. The Pythagorean, a philosopher of some note, rejected Justin when he found the latter had no acquaintance with music, astronomy, and geometry. Downcast but not despairing, Justin turned to Platonists, whose emphasis on the spiritual and on contemplation caused his spirit to soar.

Like many others after him, Justin crossed the Platonist bridge to Christianity. Witnessing the fearlessness of Christians in the face of death, he was convinced that they could not be living in wickedness and pleasure as their detractors charged. Further, he was influenced by an unidentified elderly Christian "philosopher," perhaps in his native Palestine or in Ephesus, where he went as a young man. Although some scholars have characterized Justin's account of his conversion to Christianity as an idealization, most have defended it as authentic, if somewhat stylized. The conversion itself entailed less a substantive shift than a change of commitment from Greek (Socrates and Plato) to Hebrew (the prophets and Jesus) truth. Justin opted for Christianity, he explained, "not because the teachings of Plato are different from those of Christ, but because they are not in all respects similar, as neither are those of the others, Stoics, and poets, and historians."

This philosopher-evangelist taught in Rome during the reign of Antoninus Pius (r. 138161). His students included Tatian (fl. 160175), the brilliant Assyrian founder of the Encratites, and Irenaeus (c. 130c. 200), bishop of Lyons and noted antiheretical writer. Justin suffered martyrdom early in the reign of Marcus Aurelius (r. 161180); he was betrayed by a Cynic philosopher named Crescens, whom he had bested in an argument. Summoned before the Roman prefect Rusticus, according to a reliable early martyrology, Justin and several companions who were apprehended at the same time refused to offer the sacrifices required by law, saying, "No right-thinking person falls away from piety to impiety." By command of the prefect they were scourged and beheaded. The date of his death is uncertain, but traditionally it has been commemorated in the Roman calendar on April 13 and 14.


Although Justin was the first prolific Christian author, only three of his writings are extant in complete form. Works that have perished include the following treatises: Against Marcion (Marcion, d. 160?, was the founder of a heretical anti-Jewish sect); Against All Heresies ; two titled Against the Greeks; On the Sovereignty of God; Psaltes ; and On the Soul. The works that survive in their entirety are 1 Apology, 2 Apology, and Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew. The second Apology is often characterized as an appendix to the first, but it seems to have been occasioned by different circumstances and probably was written several years later.

In 1 Apology, addressed around 150 ce to the emperor Antoninus Pius, Justin weaves together a refutation of stock pagan charges against Christians and a positive case for Christianity as the true religion. He calls for a halt to punishment of Christians for the name alone and demands an impartial investigation of the common charges of atheism, immorality, treason, social aloofness, and theological absurdity. Justin holds that pagan sources reveal ample analogies to Christian teachings on the resurrection, the virgin birth, the life and death of Jesus, and Christ's Sonship. Thus while pagans have not been excluded from the truth, they have obtained this truth by imitation of the prophets or the Word, which became incarnate in Jesus, and they have mixed the truth with falsehood. Christianity alone expounds pure truth. Before Christ, the Word was in the world so that whoever lived reasonably, that is, according to the teaching of the Logos, the divine Word, or universal reason, such as Socrates or Heraclitus, was a Christian. Concluding 1 Apology with an explanation of Christian baptism, the Eucharist, and the Sunday liturgy, Justin then appends the rescript of Hadrian.

In 2 Apology, a very brief work addressed to the Roman Senate, Justin enters a plea for three Christians condemned to death by the prefect Urbicus at the urging of an irate husband whose wife divorced him for infidelity after she converted to Christianity. Confessing that he expects a similar fate because of the hatred of the Cynic Crescens for him, he offers to debate Crescens before the Senate itself. Why do not all Christians simply commit suicide if they love death so much? Because, replies Justin, the death of all Christians would mean the end of those instructed in divine doctrines and perhaps even the end of the human race, for God delays his final judgment for the sake of Christians. Christians do not differ from others in whom the Logos dwells, for all of these have suffered persecution inspired by demons. They differ only in the fact that they possess the whole truth because Christ "became the whole rational being, both body, and reason, and soul." Thus they do not fear death; rather, by dying, they prove the validity of their faith.

In Dialogue with Trypho Justin ostensibly reports a debate in Ephesus between himself and a Jew named Trypho, a recent refugee from Palestine during the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132135). Some scholars have identified Trypho as Rabbi arfon, but this is improbable. Although the work could reflect an actual dialogue, in its present form it cannot be dated earlier than 1 Apology, from which it quotes. Because Rabbi arfon remembered the Temple, destroyed in 70 ce, he most likely would not have been alive at the date required for the debate. Some scholars, moreover, have argued that the Dialogue, in which Justin makes skillful use of Jewish arguments based on scripture, was not an apology to Judaism per se but rather was addressed to Gentiles who cited Jewish objections to Christian claims (as did Celsus in his True Discourse, c. 175). It has also been argued that the Dialogue was designed as a treatise to prop up the faith of wavering Christians.

The longest of Justin's extant writings, the Dialogue consists of four major parts. After narrating at length the story of his conversion (chaps. 110), Justin proceeds to explain why Christians no longer keep the whole Mosaic law (1131). Christianity, he claims, is the true Israel under a new covenant. The new covenant, requiring religion of the heart, has supplanted the old one, which required sacrifices, observance of the Sabbath, fasts, observance of dietary laws, and circumcision. Christians still keep the eternal (moral) law, but not the ritual law prescribed to Israel because of its hardness of heart and transgressions. In the longest section (32114) Justin replies to Jewish objections to Christian claims concerning Jesus as fulfiller of Jewish messianic hopes and as Lord. He bases his argument wholly on the citing of Old Testament texts and types. In the final section (115142) he makes a case for the conversion of the Gentiles by citing Old Testament texts. The rather one-sided "dialogue" ends with an appeal to Trypho but not with a conversion.


Justin was not a theological giant. As his rejection by his Pythagorean teacher indicates, Justin lacked cultural depth. In his apologies, moreover, he wavered back and forth, relying now on citation of authorities and now on logical argument. As one of the first to grapple seriously with questions posed by more cultured Gentiles, he wobbled and tottered, very uncertain of his footing.

Nevertheless, because he tried, Justin established a permanent niche in Christian history. As a philosophical evangelist, he dared to undertake the difficult task of reinterpreting the biblical message in the idiom of what most scholars now recognize as Middle Platonism. Unlike other Christians of his day, even his own pupil Tatian, he acknowledged the truths found in Greek philosophical thought, especially Platonism. Although he sometimes ascribed such insights to borrowing from Moses and the prophets, he developed the more credible theory of illumination or inspiration by the preexistent Logos. Thus Socrates and Heraclitus, in advance of Jesus' advent, merited the title of "Christian." Whereas they, however, grasped truth partially, in Jesus the whole Logos dwelt bodily, thus vouchsafing to Christians the whole of truth.

The significant place that Christians ascribed to Jesus both in worship and in doctrine posed for Justin and other apologists an urgent theological problem: how to preserve belief in one God while recognizing Jesus as God. The eventual solution was the doctrine of the Trinity, but Justin's thinking did not reach that far. In his doctrine of God he wedded the Platonist idea of God as unknowable and transcendent, the unmoved first cause, nameless and unutterable, and the biblical conception of a living creator, the compassionate Father who has come near in Jesus Christ. Often the former idea dominated. For his understanding of the Logos he appropriated and developed elements of earlier Christian tradition in relation to either Stoic or Middle Platonist concepts. The Logos is God's personal reasonnot only in name but numerically distinct from the Fatherin which all partake but which in Jesus Christ became a man. Lest this dualism that he posits of God land him in ditheism, however, Justin emphasized the unity of the Father and the Logos prior to creation. The Logos is not eternal, as in later thought, but a product of the Father's will from the beginning, thus subordinate to the Father in person and function. His universal activity, Justin liked to say, is that of the Logos spermatikos, or Seminal Logos. Justin did not clearly differentiate the activity of the Holy Spirit from that of the Logos, though he evidently did believe in a personal Holy Spirit. The Spirit's chief office is prophetic inspiration.

Justin turned to Christian philosophy for the same reason that most people turned to one of the philosophies current in his timeas a means of salvation. Here he sounded two notes: truth and victory over demons. In line with his Platonist philosophical assumptions, he emphasized human freedom. In each person dwells a spirit or a part of the Seminal Logos. Thus each person has power of choice morally. None inherits sin or guilt; that comes from actual sin, which is the result of letting demons lead one into sin. Christianity offers two things to remedy this situation. One is the teaching and example of the Incarnate Logos, who was both divine and fully human. To live by his teaching is to avoid sin. The other is the power to overcome demons, the demons that Justin, like his contemporaries, believed to be everywhere in fearsome power. Through his death and resurrection Christ has triumphed. Demons, frequently exorcised in his name, are now subject to him.

Justin did not elaborate on his understanding of the church and the ministry, but he did supply some of the earliest extant evidence on Roman baptismal and liturgical practice in the second century, including the earliest liturgy. A period of instruction, the length of which is not indicated, preceded baptism. Prayer and fasting came immediately before. Baptism itself was in the name of the Trinity and accompanied by a confession, but Justin did not mention laying on the hands after baptism. The Eucharist was celebrated following baptism. The weekly liturgy combined a service of the word and a eucharistic service. Held on the "day of the sun," a designation Justin employed with some reservation, it consisted of reading "as long as time permits" the "memoirs" of the apostles or the writings of the prophets, exposition by the person presiding (presumably the elder or bishop), prayers said in a standing position, presentation of the bread and wine mixed with water, prayers and thanksgivings by the one presiding "to the best of his ability," distribution and reception of the bread and wine by those present, dispatch by the deacons of remaining portions to those absent, and a collection of alms for orphans, widows, the sick, visitors, and other needy persons.

Justin ascribed considerable significance to both baptism and the eucharistic meal. In baptism the Holy Spirit brings new birth (as promised in John 3:34). Baptism is "illumination" (photismos ) by the Logos, which empowers one to live a truly moral life, thus achieving the goal of the philosopher. In the eucharistic meal the divine Logos unites with the bread and wine in such a way that they become the body and blood of the incarnate Jesus. This food, consecrated "by the word of prayer which comes from him," and thus no longer ordinary and common, fortifies the recipient with the mind and power of the Logos to live the Christian life. Although Justin uses the word change to describe the effect of consecration on the elements, his understanding should not be confused with the later doctrine of transubstantiation.

Suspended between two worlds, Greek and Hebrew, Justin sometimes did not know which way to lean. When in doubt, he opted for the biblical, as his eschatology (doctrine of "last things") indicates. In support of Christian messianic convictions he held tenaciously to his belief in the second coming of Christ, though he seems not to have worried about its delay. The first advent of Christ, he contended, was in lowliness; the second one will be in glory. The delay of the second coming, according to Justin, is a sign of God's patience with a recalcitrant humanity for the sake of Christians. Justin also sided with biblical authors on resurrection and the millennium. He was not wholly consistent here; in the Dialogue he envisioned the millennium inaugurated by a resurrection of the righteous and concluded by a general resurrection and judgment, as in the Revelation to John. He cited the judgment as a major part of his argument against persecution of Christians. Both human beings and angels would be judged according to their use or abuse of free will, and the wicked would be condemned to eternal fire. In his apologies Justin also spoke of a world conflagration, but his attention to this Stoic idea seems to have been more an accommodation to Gentile thinking than a contradiction of his belief in an eternal Jerusalem.

See Also



The standard critical edition of the text of Justin's writings is that by J. C. T. S. Otto, Justini philosophi et martyris opera, 3d ed. (Jena, 18751881). Reliable English translations of the three authentic works of Justin can be found in volume 1 of The Ante-Nicene Fathers, edited and translated by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (1867; reprint, Grand Rapids, Mich., 1975). A more up-to-date translation of the Dialogue is A. L. Williams's Justin Martyr: The Dialogue with Trypho (London, 1930). Excellent introductions to the life and thought of Justin are L. W. Barnard's Justin Martyr: His Life and Thought (Cambridge, U.K., 1967) and E. F. Osborn's Justin Martyr (Tübingen, 1973), which revise and correct Erwin R. Goodenough's one-sided judgments in The Theology of Justin Martyr (1923; reprint, Amsterdam, 1968). Willis A. Shotwell's The Biblical Exegesis of Justin Martyr (London, 1965) supplies useful information about Justin's knowledge of Judaism.

E. Glenn Hinson (1987)