St. Justin Martyr

St. Justin Martyr (ca. 100-ca. 165) is the first Christian apologist of non-Jewish heritage whose writings have survived.

Justin was born near the site of modern Nablus, Israel, of parents who practiced the Roman religion. By 132 he had become a Christian and had studied philosophy at Greek schools. He then traveled and spoke about the Christian religion, entering into violent controversies with non-Christians (Romans, Greeks, and Jews). He finally established himself in Rome, where he taught and composed his books.

Of Justin's writings only a portion survive: his two Apologies and his Dialogus. These works, however, preserve his method of explaining Christianity to new or possible converts and his method of argument in controversy. Justin was well grounded in Greek philosophy and Greco-Roman mythology. He adapted Platonism to suit his doctrinal and apologist functions, and he translated the Platonic doctrine of the Logos into a new form—the logos spermatikos. Logos was God's message of salvation for men. Justin held that fragments and pieces of Christianity were to be found, like seeds, in the religions and in the thinkers preceding Christianity but that only Jesus had given the full revelation of the Logos. He knew Judaism well and had a thorough knowledge of Latin and Greek literature. Many of his concepts and terms are derived from the Stoics of his day.

Justin's method of explaining Christianity follows a pattern. He first tackles the objections of non-Christians that Christians are atheists or seditious revolutionaries plotting the overthrow of the Roman state. He then illustrates the preeminence of Christianity by describing its ethicomoral code and its doctrine. He also compares these with the dogmas of the Greco-Roman religion; and he describes the way in which Christian worship, prayer, and way of life differ from the Roman way and thus demonstrates the truth and beauty of Christianity.

In his controversies, Justin sets up a straw man, Trypho, who speaks for Greco-Roman religion. The tone is anti-Jewish. Justin holds that Christianity eliminated the need for Judaism. From Judaism he derived a millenarist theory (there will be a final period, 1,000 years in length, of prosperity and peace before the end of the world). He condemned Judaism because, he said, Christianity had inherited all that was valuable, religiously, doctrinally, and messianically, in Judaism. Thus Judaism as a religion had been evacuated of all meaning and value. This became common doctrine in the Christian Church and persisted into the 20th century.

Scholars find the writings of Justin very informative about Christianity at the beginning of the 2d century. He knew the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. He described the prevalent Christian worship, which included the essential elements of the modern Mass, and he stated that sections of the Gospels and the Jewish prophets were read at liturgical gatherings. His other source of importance is that he constitutes some sort of bridge between the early Judeo-Christianity of the first Christians in Palestine and the Western type of Christianity that became dominant about the 4th century. He died by execution between 163 and 167. It is said that his opponents denounced him to the authorities as seditious.

Further Reading on St. Justin Martyr

A scholarly yet readable study is the work by Leslie William Barnard, Justin Martyr: His Life and Thought (1967), the first major work on Justin Martyr since the 1920s. Archibald Robertson, The Origins of Christianity (1954; rev. ed. 1962), devotes a chapter to Justin Martyr. Also useful is Henry Chadwick, Early Christian Thought and the Classical Tradition (1966).

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