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Justin Martyr, the First Outstanding Apologist of the Second Century

Johnson Thomaskutty,
Faculty of New Testament, Union Biblical Seminary, Pune, India


Prologue

While Christian community as a whole is undergoing difficult situations in the Indian context, it is the responsibility of the Church to raise its voice and bring the issues before the civil authorities of our country. As active participants of the religion of love and peace, the Christians of India must raise their voice against the injustices and marginalizing tendencies of the fundamentalist communities toward the minorities. At this critical juncture, an apology that highlights the truth of the Bible has to be taken up with seriousness. Christ is the “fulfillment” of the entire religious and philosophical systems, and He recapitulates “everything and all” for a radical transformation. This principle must remain at the heart of our teachings, preaching, missions, exegeses, and living. Justin Martyr had taken up this “pinnacle-formula” in order to develop his philosophical, apologetical and theological exercises.

I Justin's Life

The Apostolic Fathers are the earliest Christian writers outside of the New Testament, belonging to what is called the ‘sub-apostolic age'. Their writings form a bridge between the New Testament and the Apologists who wrote later in the second century, the most noteworthy being Justin Martyr. They help us to understand the transition from the apostolic church of the first century to the Catholic Church of the end of the second century, as described by Irenaeus.

Justin Martyr is generally regarded as the first outstanding 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 to 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.

Among the Fathers of the second century Justin's life is the best known, and from the most authentic documents. In both "Apologies" and in his "Dialogue" he gives many personal details, e.g. about his studies in philosophy and his conversion; they are not, however, an autobiography, but are partly idealized, and it is necessary to distinguish in them between poetry and truth; they furnish us however with several precious and reliable clues. For his martyrdom we have documents of undisputed authority. In the first line of his "Apology" he calls himself "Justin, the son of Priscos, son of Baccheios, of Flavia Neapolis, in Palestinian Syria". If his own statement is authentic, then he was born around 100 (both his birth and death dates are approximate) at Flavia Neapolis (ancient Shechem, modern Nablus) in Samaria (i.e., the middle portion of Israel, between Galilee and Judea) of pagan Greek parents. Flavia Neapolis, his native town, was founded by Vespasian (A.D. 72). Its inhabitants were all, or for the most part, pagans.

Justin was brought up with a good education in rhetoric, poetry, and history. He studied various schools of philosophy in Alexandria and Ephesus, joining himself first to Stoicism, then Pythagoreanism, then Platonism, looking for answers to his questions. While at Ephesus, he was impressed by the steadfastness of the Christian martyrs, and by the personality of an aged Christian man whom he met by chance while walking on the seashore. This man spoke to him about Jesus as the fulfillment of the promises made through the Jewish prophets. Justin was overwhelmed. "Straightway a flame was kindled in my soul," he writes, "and a love of the prophets and those who are friends of Christ possessed me."

Justin became a Christian, but he continued to wear the cloak that was the characteristic uniform of a professional teacher of philosophy. It seems that St. Justin had property, studied philosophy, converted to Christianity, and devoted the rest of his life to teaching what he considered the true philosophy, still wearing his philosopher's gown to indicate that he had attained the truth. He engaged in debates and disputations with non-Christians of all varieties, pagans, Jews, and heretics. After his conversion, he opened a school of Christian philosophy and accepted students, first at Ephesus and then later at Rome, where he openly and fearlessly engaged in apologetic controversy until his martyrdom about 165. He probably traveled widely and ultimately settled in Rome as a Christian teacher.

The names of the father and grandfather of Justin suggest a pagan origin, and he speaks of himself as uncircumcised. He received a good education in philosophy, an account of which he gives us at the beginning of his "Dialogue with Trypho, A Jew"; he placed himself first under a Stoic, but after some time found that he had learned nothing about God and that in fact his master had nothing to teach him on the subject. A Peripatetic whom he then found welcomed him at first but afterwards demanded a fee from him; this proved that he was not a philosopher. A Pythagorean refused to teach him anything until he should have learned music, astronomy, and geometry. Finally a Platonist arrived on the scene and for some time delighted Justin. His conversion to Christianity had changed his thought-world as a whole, and he found in Christianity the fulfillment of his previous philosophical comprehension.

II Writings

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: (1) “Discourse to the Greeks” (a discussion with Greek philosophers on the character of their gods); (2) “Hortatory Address to the Greeks”; (3) a treatise “On the Sovereignty of God”, in which he makes use of pagan authorities as well as Christian; (4) “Psaltes”; and (5) a treatise “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.

The “Dialogue” is a later work than the “First Apology”; the date of composition of the latter, from the fact that it was addressed to Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius, and Lucius Verus, must fall between 147 and 161. What is designated as the Second Apology was written as a supplement to the first, on account of certain proceedings which had in the meantime taken place in Rome before Lollius Urbicus as prefect of the city, which must have been between 150 and 157.

1. First Apology

In 1 Apology, addressed around AD 150 to the emperor Antoninus Pius, to the emperor's sons, to the Senate and to the Roman people as a whole, 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.

The 1 Apology can be divided into three main divisions. The first twenty Chapters deal with the proper relationship between the authorities of the State and Christians; Chapters 21 to 60 seek to demonstrate the superiority of Christianity over paganism; and Chapters 61-68 offer explanations of Christian practices. At a time when the Christian religion was grossly misunderstood, such explanations were significant features of the Christian apology. Justin Martyr first asks the rulers of the state for justice, for fair treatment to Christians, based upon facts, not prejudice. As citizens, Christians can rightly be called upon to give an account of their life and doctrine; they in turn can expect to be judged in accordance with philosophy and piety, not by force and tyranny. To punish Christians simply because they call themselves Christians, without showing they have done evil is, says Justin, to act unjustly.

He further says: Christians do not wish to live by lying; they desire to make their abode with God, the Father and Creator of all, and they make haste to confess their faith in the belief that the righteous will be rewarded, and that the wicked will be assigned to eternal torment. Christians do not worship idols made with human hands, Justin asserts; such practice is both stupid and disrespectful to God, who is of ineffable glory and form. Christians more than all other men, are good citizens and allies in fostering peace, since they believe that it is impossible for the wicked to hide from God, and that each man receives eternal punishment or salvation according to the merits of his actions.

As citizens Christians have been instructed by their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, to pay their taxes to the officials of the state. Christianity is indeed superior to pagan religion; for what Christians believe, they learned from Christ and the Prophets who spoke the truth. Jesus alone is properly the Son of God, since He alone is the first begotten of the Father, and having become man by His will, He taught Christians their doctrines for the conversion and restoration of mankind.

2. Second Apology

In 2 Apology, a very brief work addressed to the Roman Senate. It consists of fifteen short chapters written in protest against the unjust execution of three Christians by Urbicus, the prefect of Rome, solely because they dared to confess that they were Christians. Justin reports that Christians are sarcastically asked why they do not kill themselves and go immediately to God, thereby saving the state the trouble. Why do they confess to being Christians? The answer is simply that man is not the master of his own life. God created the world for the sake of mankind; God is pleased with those who follow His perfections and are displeased with evil. If Christians were to commit suicide, no one would be instructed in the divine doctrines, and they would be acting in opposition to the will of God. Christians confess their faith on being interrogated because they have done no wrong and they believe that it is wicked to die.

The further question as to why God permits Christians to be persecuted when He has the power to help them is answerable in terms of man's freewill and in terms of the hatred of demons that are permitted to persuade men to do evil. Justin concludes by suggesting that a wise ruler will for his own sake judge the case of the Christian with justice, lest he condemn himself in the eyes of God by convicting the innocent.

3. Dialogue with Trypho, A Jew

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 (132-135). Some scholars 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. It has also been argued that the Dialogue was designed as a treatise to prop up the faith of wavering Christians.

The Dialog With Trypho the Jew is an account of a dialog between Justin and a Jewish rabbi named Trypho(n) (probably a real conversation with a real rabbi, although it may be suspected that Justin in editing it later gave himself a few good lines that he wished he had thought of at the time), whom he met while promenading at Ephesus shortly after the sack of Jerusalem in 135. Trypho had fled from Israel, and the two men talked about the Jewish people and their place in history, and then about Jesus and whether he was the promised Messiah. A principal question is whether the Christian belief in the deity of Christ can be reconciled with the uncompromising monotheism of the Scriptures. The dialogue is a valuable source of information about early Christian thought concerning Judaism and the relation between Israel and the Church as communities having a covenant relation with God.

Toward the end of the dialog, Trypho asks, "Suppose that I were to become a Christian. Would I be required to give up keeping kosher and other parts of the Jewish law?" Justin replies: "Christians are not agreed on this. Some would say that you must give them up. Others, such as myself, would say that it would be quite all right for you, as a Jewish convert to Christianity, to keep kosher and otherwise observe the Law of Moses, provided that you did not try to compel other converts to do likewise, and provided that you clearly understand that keeping kosher will not save you. It is only Christ who saves you." They finally part friends, with Trypho saying, "You have given me food for thought. I must consider this further."

Recapitulation

Justin was resolutely opposed to paganism and had no time for syncretism. He was very critical of Greek philosophy in places. But, at the same time, he portrayed Christ not as a complete outsider but as the fulfillment of the best in Greek thought. He did this by exploiting the Greek concept of the Logos or Word in which all men participate. He also held that Plato and other philosophers had borrowed some of their ideas from the Old Testament.

Justin anchored his Christian faith in his Greek heritage. When he became a Christian he did not renounce philosophy, he became a better philosopher, a true philosopher. He said that the relationship between the philosophers and Christ is that between the incomplete and the complete, between the imperfect and the perfect. So while Justin was positive toward his Greek past, he was not bound by it. The Word gave understanding to the philosophers, it is true, but now the Word himself has appeared in Christ.

The imperfect must be tested and corrected and completed by the perfect. Justin repeatedly aligned himself with Socrates, who like the early Christians was called an atheist because he rejected the pagan gods and suffered for his belief. But he said that Christ is vastly superior to Socrates. ‘For no one trusted in Socrates, so as to die for this doctrine. But in Christ… not only have philosophers and scholars believed, but also artisans and entirely uneducated people have despised glory, fear and death'. In due course Justin himself demonstrated the Christian's willingness to die for this faith. In short, Justin's apologetical approach in the face of religious persecution, majority-minority clashes, and heretical and pagan philosophical proliferation is a paradigm for the Christian community in the global context, particularly in the present day Indian scenario.

For Further Reference:

1. Hinson, E. Glenn. “Justin Martyr”. The Encyclopedia of Religion. Vol. 8. Ed. Mircea Eliade. New York: McMillan, 1987: 220-223.

2. Lane, Tony. The Lion Concise Book of Christian Thought. Sydney: A Lion Book, 1984.

3. Magill, Frank N. Ed. Masterpieces of Christian Literature: In Summary Form. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1963.

4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wi ki/Justin_Martyr

5. http://www.newadvent.org/c athen/08580c.htm

6. http://justus.anglican.org /resources/bio/175.html

7. http://www.earlychurch.org .uk/justin.php

8. http://www.christianitytod ay.com/ch/131christians/ev angelistsandapologists/mar tyr.html?start=2


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