Biography of Justin Martyr

Early Christian Apologist

Justin Martyr
Justin Martyr, also known as Saint Justin.

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Justin Martyr (100–165 A.D.) was an early Church Father who began his career as a philosopher but found that secular theories about life did not make sense. When he discovered Christianity, he pursued it so zealously that it led to his execution.

Fast Facts: Justin Martyr

  • Also Known As: Flavius Justinius 
  • Occupation: Philosopher, theologian, apologist
  • Born: c. 100 A.D.
  • Died: 165 A.D.
  • Education: Classical education in Greek and Roman philosophy
  • Published Works: Dialogue with Trypho, Apology
  • Famous Quote: “We expect to receive again our own bodies, though they be dead and cast into the earth, for we maintain that with God nothing is impossible.”

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Born in the Roman city of Flavia Neapolis, near the ancient Samaritan city of Shechem, Justin was the son of pagan parents. His exact birth date is unknown, but was probably in the early years of the second century.

Although some modern scholars have attacked Justin's intellect, he did have an inquisitive mind, and he received a sound basic education in rhetoric, poetry, and history. As a young man, Justin studied various schools of philosophy, looking for answers to life's most puzzling questions.

His first pursuit was Stoicism, started by the Greeks and developed by the Romans, which promoted rationalism and logic. Stoics taught self-control and indifference to things beyond our power. Justin found this philosophy deficient.

Next, he studied under a Peripatetic or Aristotelian philosopher. However, Justin soon realized the man was more concerned with collecting his fees than with finding the truth. His next teacher was a Pythagorean, who insisted Justin also study geometry, music, and astronomy, too burdensome a demand. The last school, Platonism, was more intellectually complex, but it did not address the human issues Justin cared about. 

The Mysterious Man

One day, when Justin was about 30 years old, he encountered an old man while walking along the seashore. The man spoke to him about Jesus Christ, and how Christ was the fulfillment promised by the ancient Hebrew prophets.

As they talked, the old man poked holes in the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, saying that reason was not the way to discover God. Instead, the man pointed to prophets who had had personal encounters with God and foretold his plan of salvation.

"A fire was suddenly kindled in my soul," Justin said later. "I fell in love with the prophets and these men who had loved Christ; I reflected on all their words and found that this philosophy alone was true and profitable. That is how and why I became a philosopher. And I wish that everyone felt the same way that I do."

After his conversion, Justin still considered himself a philosopher instead of a theologian or missionary. He believed Plato and other Greek philosophers stole many of their theories from the Bible, but since the Bible came from God, Christianity was the "true philosophy" and became a belief worth dying for.

Major Works by Justin

In about 132 A.D., Justin traveled to Ephesus, a city where the apostle Paul had planted a church. There, Justin had a debate with a Jew named Trypho over the interpretation of the Bible.

Justin's next stop was Rome, where he founded a Christian school. Because of the persecution against Christians, Justin did most of his teaching in private homes. He lived above a man named Martinus, near the Timiotinian Baths.

Many of Justin's treatises are mentioned in the writings of the early Church Fathers, but only three authentic works survive. Following are summaries of their key points.

The Dialogue with Trypho

Taking the form of a debate with a Jew at Ephesus, this book is anti-Semitic by today's standards. However, it served as a basic defense of Christianity for many years. Scholars believe it was actually written after the Apology, which it quotes. It is an incomplete survey of Christian doctrine:

  • The Old Testament is giving way to the New Covenant;
  • Jesus Christ fulfilled Old Testament prophecies;
  • The nations will be converted, with Christians being the new chosen people.

Apology

Justin's Apology, a landmark work of Christian apologetics, or defense, was written in about 153 A.D. and was addressed to the Emperor Antoninus Pius. Justin tried to show that Christianity was not a threat to the Roman Empire but rather an ethical, faith-based system that came down from God. Justin made these major points:

  • Christians are not criminals;
  • They would rather die than deny their God or worship idols;
  • Christians adored the crucified Christ and God;
  • Christ is the incarnate Word, or Logos;
  • Christianity is superior to other beliefs;
  • Justin described Christian worship, baptism, and the Eucharist.

Second "Apology"

Modern scholarship considers the Second Apology only an appendix to the first and says Church Father Eusebius erred when he judged it a second, independent document. It is also debatable whether it was dedicated to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, a famous Stoic philosopher. It covers two main points:

  • It details prefect Urbinus's injustices toward Christians;
  • God permits evil because of Providence, human liberty, and the last judgment.

At least ten ancient documents are attributed to Justin Martyr, but evidence for their authenticity is doubtful. Several were written by other men under Justin's name, a fairly common practice in the ancient world.

Killed for Christ

Justin engaged in public debate in Rome with two philosophers: Marcion, a heretic, and Crescens, a Cynic. Legend has it that Justin defeated Crescens in their contest, and stinging from his loss, Crescens reported Justin and six of his students to Rusticus, the prefect of Rome.

In a 165 A.D. account of the trial, Rusticus questioned Justin and the others about their beliefs. Justin gave a short summary of Christian doctrine and the others all confessed to being Christians. Rusticus then ordered them to offer sacrifices to the Roman gods, and they refused.

Rusticus commanded them to be scourged and beheaded. Justin said, “Through prayer we can be saved on account of our Lord Jesus Christ, even when we have been punished, because this shall become to us salvation and confidence at the more fearful and universal judgment-seat of our Lord and Saviour.”

Justin's Legacy

Justin Martyr, in the second century, tried to bridge the gap between philosophy and religion. In the time following his death, however, he has been attacked as being neither a true philosopher nor a true Christian. In fact, he did set out to find the true or best philosophy and embraced Christianity because of its prophetic heritage and moral purity.

His writing left a detailed description of the early mass, as well as a hint of the three Persons in One God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — years before Tertullian introduced the concept of the Trinity. Justin's defense of Christianity stressed morals and ethics superior to Platonism.

It would take more than 150 years after Justin's execution before Christianity was accepted and even promoted in the Roman Empire. Still, he set an example as a man who put his faith in the promises of Jesus Christ and even bet his life on them. 

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