JUSTIN MARTYR: A FLAME IN THE MIND
PHILOSOPHY IS NOT everyone’s cup of tea but the philosophers do shape the world’s ideas and quietly influence the culture in the way we view our world. Christians have always had to cope with the philosophical outlooks prevailing in their own time. Justin Martyr, the first in a long line of Christian philosophers was no mere academic cloistered in the academy. He confronted the Emperor with what he came to call the Christian philosophy, explaining to him the true character of Christian life and truth among the Christians. He wanted to confound the gossip that had established itself in the popular mind, but his courageous defence of the faith resulted in his martyrdom.
The Restless Search
Flavius Justinus was born in the Roman colony of Neapolis in Samaria. He was one of a group who followed the Apostolic Fathers and came to be known as the Christian Apologists. Their primary concern as Christian philosophers and theologians was to give a reason for the faith that was in them. They saw their task as explaining Christianity in terms familiar to the educated Greeks and Romans of the second century after Christ. After the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 a Roman colony was established in Neapolis and Justin’s father was an officer in that colonial administration.
As a well-born Roman citizen Justin was well educated in a classical education of Greek and Latin, but soon realised that education is not everything, as a deep thirst for truth raged in him in his researching of the popular philosophies. The popular philosophies could not quench that thirst. Stoicism was not concerned whether God cared for man or not, and the travelling philosophers teaching Aristotelian philosophy, thought more about fees than teaching truth. What began to affect Justin was the philosophy of Socrates and Plato’s notions of the invisible world.
Thanks to a Nameless Old Man
Often it is in chance situations that ‘the penny can drop’. Justin was on the beach in A.D. 132 quietly ruminating on Plato when a little boy happened to kick his ball towards Justin who returned it. Justin spoke to the boy’s grandfather, and this conversation was a turning point in his life and a blessing to the Church from that day on. The old man helped Justin see the weaknesses in Plato’s thinking Justin had missed. He turned Justin’s attention to prophets more ancient than the Greek philosophers who told the truth about God and foretold the coming of Christ. This lit a flame in Justin’s mind, his soul, and that is how Justin described the effect of the old man’s words. There blossomed in him a love of the prophets, and Justin said those men who are friends of Christ, possessed him; and whilst revolving his words in my mind, I found this philosophy alone to be safe and profitable.
Justin continued to teach philosophy but he now explained Christianity as the true philosophy. He saw all truth as God’s truth, and from St. John learned that any truth in the Greek or pagan philosophies was the Word or Logos reaching out to sinful humanity. Plato’s God was the God of the Bible and Socrates was a Christian before Christ, just as Abraham was. Moses and the Old Testament writings were older than the Greek philosophies, and any truth the Greeks had was borrowed from the Jewish prophets.
A Voice for Oppressed Believers
Justin defended Christian truth against pagans, Jews, and erring Christians. He continued teaching in Rome, writing works that equipped Christians for generations to come. His Apology, addressed to the emperor Antoninus Pius in A.D. 150, appealed for justice and liberty for Christians. The Apology demonstrated the reasonableness of Christian truth and dispelled the gossip against Christians, that they held cannibalistic rituals and engaged in gross immorality. He contrasted the moral power of Christ’s teaching with the irrational fables of paganism, appealing to the emperor to honour Christian truth if reasonable and true, or despise it if it is nonsense ‘But do not execute innocent Christians because you cannot escape the coming judgement of God…’
Holding the Line, Paying the Price
Justin also defended Christianity in public discussions with the heretic Marcion and the Cynic philosopher Crescens. This was a plot by Crescens to bring Justin and six of his students to the attention of the Roman prefect Rusticus probably around the year 165. When these Christian believers refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods as demanded, they were condemned, scourged, and beheaded. Justin’s feast day is June l.
Arthur Middleton is Rector of Boldon and a Tutor at St. Chad’s College Durham