By Bill Warren, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary
Justin Martyr, the best-known Christian apologist of the second century, wrote the earliest extant defenses of Christianity we have from the period after the New Testament. Motivated by seeing Christians willing to die rather than recant their faith in Christ, he moved from being a follower of Greek philosophers to being a follower of Christ.
Viewing Christianity as the pinnacle of philosophy and truth, Justin defended Christians against the unsubstantiated charges that were being brought against them: “We demand that the charges against the Christians be investigated, and that, if these be substantiated, they be punished as they deserve; [or rather, indeed, we ourselves will punish them.] But if no one can convict us of anything, true reason forbids you, for the sake of a wicked rumor, to wrong blameless men, and indeed rather yourselves, who think fit to direct affairs, not by judgment, but by passion.” (Justin Martyr, Apology I, Chapter 3) Little did he know that later he himself would suffer from unsubstantiated charges of wrongdoing because of being a Christian.
As for his background, Justin was one of the few non-Jews from the land of Israel, having been born in Samaria near modern day Nablus, apparently with a Roman father who had Roman citizenship. Justin studied most of the major philosophical schools of thought of his day, thereby giving him a strong platform for his later defenses of Christianity as the true philosophy that all should follow. He shifted from one philosophical school to another, with Socrates and Plato capturing his attention mostly, prior to his conversion.
His conversion (told in his Dialogue with Trypho, chapters 3-8) was related to this philosophical search for truth and meaning. One day as Justin was seeking a quiet place for contemplating on the deeper meaning of life, he noticed an older gentleman following him and began a conversation with him.
At first, the conversation was about philosophies, but then the older man turned it to the Old Testament prophecies about Christ, and finally to Christianity itself. Justin was moved by an inward flame of desire to become a follower of Christ. After his conversion, he taught Christian philosophy in Rome.
As a Christian, Justin wrote a number of works, with two Apologies and a Dialogue with Trypho having survived. These works provide great insights into the church in the middle of the second century. For example, Justin mentions that Christians were being charged with being atheists since they wouldn’t worship the popular gods of the Roman Empire. His reply is a wonderful example of Christian truth shining forth: “And we confess that we are atheists, so far as the 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. But both Him, and the Son … and the prophetic Spirit, we worship and adore, knowing them in reason and truth, and declaring without grudging to every one who wishes to learn, as we have been taught” (Apology I, chapter 6).
Justin highlights that Christians indeed reject all the false gods of the Roman Empire and popular culture, with the exception that they worship the one true God, maker of heaven and earth, who revealed himself in Jesus as the Lord of all.
Much of our knowledge of early Christian worship services comes from Justin’s writings. In Apology I, chapter 67, he describes a typical Christian worship service as happening on Sunday.
All the Christians gather and then the “memoirs of the Apostles or the writings of the Prophets are read, as long as time permits;” followed by a message and encouragement to faithful Christian living, with the Lord’s Supper and then an offering for the poor taking place at the end of the gathering. This is the first mention we have of the Gospels being read by Christians in worship settings, a key element that shows their growing status in the early church.
Justin also noted that Christians even at this early stage were opposed to the practice of “exposing” babies (leaving them outside to die in the elements or to be claimed by others).
He said that Christians saw such practices as evil and sins against God, especially since even the babies who were rescued were generally caused to be prostitutes (Apology I, chapter 28). This strong opposition to the ancient devaluation of human life at the initial stages shows how early the reverence for and sanctity of life stance became the practice of Christians.
As for Justin’s martyrdom, the story is told in The Martyrdom of the Holy Martyrs (Martyrdom). The actual date of Justin’s martyrdom is not certain, but the time frame is between AD 165 and 167. In reaction to Justin’s teachings in Rome, Crescens, an opponent of Justin, stirred up persecution against Christians, with several then arrested, including Justin and some of his Christian friends.
When Justin was then brought before Rusticus, the Roman prefect over the case, Rusticus demanded that he “obey the gods at once, and submit to the kings” (Martyrdom, chapter I). Justin refused and stated that he obeyed the only true God, the creator of all, as a Christian. After some further debate, Rusticus asked, “Are you not, then, a Christian?” Justin replied, “Yes, I am a Christian” (Martyrdom, chapter II). After Justin’s friends likewise confessed to being Christians, they were all beaten and then beheaded, with Justin afterwards becoming known as Justin the Martyr, or Justin Martyr as we call him.
So what are the major theological lessons learned from Justin’s life and death? Justin serves as a great reminder through his teachings that we are indeed just one God away from rejecting all the “gods” of this world since we also reject all false gods and accept only the Lord God Almighty.
We as Christians don’t believe in the false gods that people tend to create for their own needs and desires. We will only worship the one true God who came and supremely revealed Himself to us in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Also, Justin is a shining example of how we should “always be ready with reference to the one asking you to defend the hope that is within you” (1 Pet. 3:15).
Justin gave solid apologetic answers for his Christian faith and the overall Christian story and lifestyle in the arenas of philosophy, Judaism, Christian heresies (he wrote a lost piece against the teachings of Marcion, a heretic who was rejected by the church in Rome about AD 145), and political forums (seen in his writings to the powers behind the public trials of Christians).
Indeed, Justin Martyr died as a powerful example of how Christians would not deny Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord.
Today we need to be ready at all times to give a solid presentation of why we worship and follow the one true God who gives us true life in our Savior and Lord Jesus Christ, the incarnation of the one true God, and teaches us how to live life as He meant for it to be lived in this world. May we be as faithful in living out our allegiance to Christ as Justin Martyr was!
Bill Warren Ph.D. is the NOBTS Landrum P. Leavell, II, Professor of New Testament and Greek and Director of the H. Milton Haggard Center for New Testament Textual Studies at NOBTS.