[K:NWTS 21/3 (Dec 2006) 53-61]

Justin Martyr1

James T. Dennison, Jr.

"To the Emperor Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus Pius Augustus Caesar, and to Verissimus his son": thus begins the First Apology of Justin Martyr. The Roman Emperor to whom the work is addressed, Antoninus Pius, ruled the imperium from 138 to 161 A.D. His rule is part of the Antonine era which spanned 96-192 A.D. and included the reigns of the following Caesars: Nerva (96-98 A.D.); Trajan (98-117 A.D.); Hadrian (117-138 A.D.); Antoninus Pius (138-161 A.D.); Marcus Aurelius (161-180 A.D.); Commodus (180-192 A.D.). Hadrian ("Hadrianus" in Justin's address above) had adopted Antoninus five months before his death because his chosen heir died prematurely. "His son", Verissimus, is Marcus Aurelius, adopted in 138 A.D. as `son' of the emperor. This formidable triumvirate (Hadrian, Antoninus, Aurelius) comprise the rulers of the world during the heart of the second century of the Christian era.

Edward Gibbon (The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Em-pire) esteemed the reigns of Hadrian and Antoninus Pius as the Golden Age of Rome—in fact, the Golden Age of Mankind: "the human race was most happy and most prosperous" from 117-161 A.D. And the designation "Pius"? it appears to confirm Gibbon's opinion. The Roman Senate granted the title to Antoninus for the devotion ("piety") he showed in deifying his predecessor, Hadrian (the custom for all Roman emperors, by decree of their successors, from Julius Caesar on). Gibbon, following the lead of the Roman historians (Julius Capitolinus and Cassius Dio), elevates the predecessor and successor to the level of demigods. It would appear that we are to believe that the Roman empire became uncommonly pacific—even utopian—under Antoninus.

But then, why Justin's Apology? Why the need to present a defense (Greek, apologia) of the Christian faith to the emperor? Justin explains: "on behalf of men of every nation who are unjustly hated and reviled" (First Apology 1; Library of Christian Classics [LCC] 1:242). Justin is referring to Christians who were being persecuted in Antoninus's Golden Age. Or were they? Many modern historians are dubious about Justin's alarmist language. According to our modern scholars (echoing Gibbon, et al), Antoninus's reign was "dull", "quiet", "uneventful"—no blood baths of executed senators, no civil wars, no iron-fisted social repression—none of these are recorded during Antoninus's reign. Justin's portrait of persecuted Christians is overblown, his Apology overexcited (so our modern `experts').

Eusebius of Caesarea, whose Ecclesiastical History is the primary source for events in the patristic era, agrees with Justin. He even lists the martyrdom of Telesphorus, Bishop of Rome, as falling at the beginning of Antoninus's reign (138 A.D.). Have Eusebius and Justin manufactured stories of persecution and martyrdom in order to gain attention and toleration for a Christian minority? Strange Christianity that! i.e., deceive in order to survive. It is more likely that the Pollyanna view of Antoninus's reign is manufactured. But more on this below.


Justin is another "Martyr" (Tertullian calls him "The Martyr"), though his destiny was involuntarily thrust upon him. He was not obsessed with the martyr's crown as was Ignatius of Antioch (†110 A.D.). Justin was born a Samaritan in Neapolis (Colonia Flavia Neapolis)—modern day Nablus, near Jacob's ancient well north of Shechem (cf. Jn. 4:5, 6). The emperor Vespasian (69-79 A.D.) had erected Neapolis between Mounts Ebal and Gerizim in 72 A.D. This "new (Roman) city" (Greek, Neapolis) featured fresh springs, magnificent views and the monuments of an imperious megapower (remember 70 A.D.! no citizen of Jerusalem could forget that date!!). In this fresh pagan splendor, pagan Justin was born and raised. He tells very little about his childhood so that the year of his birth is guesswork: most scholars estimate ca. 100 A.D. From his writings, one thing is not guesswork—he received an excellent education.


Some time during the reign of Hadrian, shortly before Antoninus Pius was elevated to the imperial seat, Justin began an intellectual odyssey in search of truth. From his pagan background, he was accustomed to associating truth with the intellect and so his journey took him to the schools of the philosophers. It is this pursuit of philosophical truth which has misled scholars in identifying Justin's conversion as the embrace of "true philosophy". In other words, faith in Christ was a philosophical arrival. Nothing could have been further from the heart (and mind) of Justin. In Christ, Justin found the One who surpassed all pagan philosophies, replaced his "uncircumcised" past and displaced even his Samaritan context. To paraphrase the apostle Paul, united to Christ Jesus, Justin put aside all the "beggarly elements" of his unbelieving past.

Justin details his story of coming to Christ as follows. His search for truth first took him to Stoicism, the philosophy of fatalistic resignation. Justin arrived eager to discuss God with the teacher, but the latter refused to discuss theology until Justin had first completed the entire Stoic curriculum. Justin moved on to the school of the Peripatetics, so-called because they walked about when discussing philosophical matters. But the teacher wanted paid first before admitting Justin to the ambulatory circle. Justin turned his back on this venal greed as unworthy of genuine philosophy. Next he sought out the Pythagoreans who based all knowledge on the primacy of number/mathematics. But they demanded that Justin first study geometry, astronomy and music before discussing God. Justin moved on to Platonism. While contemplating the Platonic concept of God, Justin met an "old man" on the beach at Ephesus (his intellectual odyssey had taken him to Asia Minor). This unnamed man directed Justin to the Old Testament in confutation of the errors of Plato and the other philosophers. Opening the Scriptures, Justin found not only the God of the Old Testament, but the God and Father of our/his Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. His journey was over! About 135 A.D., Christ became the delight of his mind and heart. "We through the name of Jesus have believed . . . [and] have been stripped through the name of his first-begotten Son of the filthy garments, i.e., of our sins; and being vehemently inflamed by the word of his calling, we are the true high priestly race of God" (Dialogue with Trypho 116; The Ante-Nicene Fathers [ANF] 1:257). Justin likens his effectual calling to that of father Abraham. "What larger measure of grace did Christ bestow on Abraham? This, namely, that he called him with his voice . . . to quit the land wherein he dwelt. And he has called all of us by that voice, and we have left already the way of living in which we used to spend our days, passing our time in evil after the fashions of the other inhabitants of the earth; and along with Abraham we shall inherit the holy land, when we shall receive the inheritance for an endless eternity, being children of Abraham through like faith. For as he believed the voice of God and it was imputed to him for righteousness, in like manner we, having believed God's voice spoken by the apostles of Christ, and promulgated to us by the prophets, have renounced even to death all the things of the world" (ibid., 119; ANF 1:259).


From Asia Minor, Justin made his way to Rome where he is reputed to have established a (catechetical?) school. Tatian, of Diatessaron fame (the first attempt at a "harmony" of the four gospels), is alleged to have been one of his students. Justin managed to attract the ire of a Cynic teacher named Crescens who vigorously opposed his Christianity. Eusebius maintains that Crescens helped secure the death of Justin shortly after the accession of Marcus Aurelius (161 A.D.). Justin himself states, "I too therefore expect to be plotted against and fixed to the stake by some of those I have named, or perhaps by Crescens, that lover of bravado and boasting" (Second Apology 3; ANF 1:189). Crescens however does not appear in the record of Justin's trail and execution (The Martyrdom of the Holy Martyrs; ANF 1:305-6).


All sources agree that Justin was executed while Junius Rusticus was Prefect of Rome (162-168 A.D.). Beheaded along with six other Christians, Justin testified to his faith in "the maker and fashioner of the whole creation, visible and invisible; and the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God . . . the herald of salvation" (ANF 1:305). We learn from this trial narrative that Justin had left Rome after his first visit/residence, for he says, "I am now living in Rome for the second time." He even gives his address: "above one Martinus, at the Timiotinian Bath." When asked to abjure Christ and sacrifice to the Roman gods, Justin responded: "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 Savior. Do what you will, for we are Christians, and do not sacrifice to idols" (ANF 1:306).


Eusebius is aware of at least eight works from the pen of Justin—only three survive: The First Apology; The Second Apology; The Dialogue with Trypho (ca. 155-160). The apologies may have been written shortly after 150 A.D. because Justin mentions "that Christ was born a hundred and fifty years ago under Quirinius" (First Apology 46; LCC 1:271). Trypho was a Jewish teacher with whom Justin carried on a conversation about the relationship between the Old and New Testaments.

Defense of Christianity

Liberal church historian, Adolf von Harnack, maintained that Christianity was application—the application of Hellenistic or Greek philosophy to Jewish-Christian soil. In other words, Christianity is but a more advanced, developed and sophisticated form of Greek philosophy sprouting from roots in Jewish and Christian culture. For Harnack (and all liberals since), Justin's pursuit of "true philosophy" is proof of the Greek philosophical trajectory of early Christianity. For liberal Harnack, Justin Martyr (recreated in Harnack's own German idealistic and evolutionary/developmental image) is the prime example of one who turns Christianity into the perfect philosophy. Harnack's thesis dominates textbook treatments of Justin up to the present day through his massive History of Dogma.

But how does Harnack's reconstruction comport with Justin's own testimony? Does Justin present his conversion to Christianity as a perfecting of the philosophical odyssey, i.e., Christianity the supreme Graeco-Roman philosophy? Justin writes that in turning from his pursuit of philosophy, he was "possessed" by a love of the Old Testament prophets, the "words of the Savior" and "those men who are friends of Christ." This does not read like a perfecting of philosophy; rather it reads like a full and complete break with pagan philosophy for the Word of God in the prophets, gospels and epistles. This break is confirmed in the Dialogue with Trypho. Justin appeals throughout to the Scriptures; he does not appeal to Hellenistic philosophy. The love of Christ as Savior, as the love of the Word of God, has jettisoned Justin's quest for true (pagan) philosophy. Divine revelation displaces and replaces human wisdom—a virtual Pauline echo! The displacement and replacement motif also echoes the redemptive-historical turning point in the ages, i.e., the "fullness of time" (Gal. 4:4) which has brought fulfillment to the promises of the Law and the Prophets in the Gospel of Christ Jesus our Savior. In sum, from the time of his conversion, Justin's method is the antithesis of Christianity and paganism. Viewed in this light, it is not a philosophical synthesis which dominates Justin (Harnack and most textbooks to the contrary), it is the antithetical revelation of God in Christ.

In defending his Christian faith and the Christian faith of his brothers and sisters in Christ, Justin specifically rebuts the charge of atheism. Disregard for the traditional pagan gods was regarded by the Romans as "atheism"; hence Christians were deemed "godless". As to the charge of rejecting gods who are no gods, Justin pleads guilty. But with reference to the one true God, his Son and his Spirit, Justin confesses that he worships and adores these (First Apology 6; LCC 1:245). Justin also defends his fellow Christians against the charge of being "criminals". Specifically, Christians were accused of incest ("brothers and sisters") and cannibalism ("This is my body . . . my blood") (First Apology 26; LCC 1:258). Justin declares to the emperor, his adopted son Marcus Aurelius, and all pagans: Not Guilty!

Justin's Hermeneutic

Recently, a Norwegian scholar named Oskar Skarsaune2, has examined Justin's works so as to explore the Martyr's mind and heart in interpreting Scripture. Shifting the focus away from philosophy (as Justin himself does) to exegesis, Skarsaune reviews Justin's approach to the Bible; more specifically, he considers the relationship between the Old and New Testament in Justin's thought. In short, Justin is a promise-fulfillment biblical theologian. That is, he considers all matters in the Scriptures Christocentrically—especially as he uses the "proof from prophecy" to show that Jesus of Nazareth is the promised Messiah of the Jewish Scriptures. From Genesis to Revelation, Christological exegesis dominates Justin's interpretation of the Bible. While identifying typological or figurative anticipations of Christ in the former testament, Justin nonetheless argues for a real participation by the Old Testament believers in the grace of God in Christ. Abraham is united to God through Christ by grace; Moses is united to God through Christ by grace; David is united to God through Christ by grace—even as we are united to God through Christ by grace. Salvation in every era of redemptive history has been through effectual union with Christ by grace.

But what difference exists between the former (Old Testament) revelation and the latter (New Testament) revelation? Justin notices two distinctions in particular. First, the ceremonial and impermanent elements in the law are left behind to the believer, while the moral and permanent elements in the law (i.e., the Ten Commandments) remain. "For if there was no need of circumcision before Abraham . . . of feasts and sacrifices, before Moses; no more need is there of them now, after . . . Jesus Christ the Son of God has been born without sin" (Dialogue with Trypho 23; ANF 1:206). "[God] sets before every race of mankind that which is always and universally just, as well as all righteousness . . . And hence I think that our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ spoke well when he summed up all righteousness . . . in two commandments" (ibid., 93; ANF 1:246).

The second difference is found in the eschatological Israel, i.e., as Paul expresses it, the "Israel of God" (Gal. 6:16). Justin understands the New Testament people of God to be the new Israel. The church as a Jewish-Gentile body replaces and displaces the former (Old Testament) Israel. Justin even forcefully suggests that Gentiles have been substituted for Jews under the new covenant: "we find it also predicted that certain persons should be sent by him into every nation to publish these things, and that rather among the Gentiles [than among the Jews] men should believe on him" (First Apology 31; ANF 1:173). The church displaces the synagogue and temple; the one body of Christ replaces the nation of Israel.


Justin was a Chiliast. From the Greek word chilioi (Rev. 20:2-7), a chiliast is one who believes in the millennial reign of Christ upon the earth for a thousand years. In other words, Justin was a premillennialist, although an historical premillennialist in distinction from a dispensational premillennialist. "I and others, who are right-minded Christians on all points, are assured that there will be a resurrection of the dead, and a thousand years in Jerusalem" (Dialogue with Trypho 80; ANF 1:239). All of which goes to prove that Justin was not right about everything.

Antoninus Pius

In conclusion, I return to Antoninus as promised above. Justin attests that one factor inducing him to consider Christianity as the truth of God was the way in which Christians died when persecuted. "For I myself, too, when I was delighting in the doctrines of Plato, and heard the Christians slandered, and saw them fearless of death . . . perceived that it was impossible that they could be living in wickedness and pleasure" (Second Apology 12; ANF 1:192). Asia Minor, where Justin sojourned for a time, was the site of the most famous martyrdom in the early church—Polycarp of Smyrna. It was also the location of persecutions under Pliny and Trajan. Justin's apologies in fact may be part of a defense of Christians in the face of a wave of persecution at Rome and beyond. As we have shown, persecution took Justin and six companions shortly after the end of Antoninus's reign. Hence, executions of Christians, however sporadic or occasional, are attested in Justin's context, Justin's works, Justin himself.

But what of Gibbon's halcyon days of the Roman empire under Hadrian and Antoninus? Most historians follow Gibbon in believing there is little or no evidence of hostility to the church in the years 138-161 A.D. And so Justin's testimony is dismissed. But the idyllic portrait of Antoninus's reign is misleading. There is a wall in Scotland, north of Hadrian's famous barrier, which was erected by Antoninus from the Firth of Forth to the Firth of Clyde (ca. 37 miles) in order to keep the barbarians out of Roman Britain. It failed. And there are hints of bloody disturbances elsewhere during Pius's reign, i.e., revolts in Mauretania (Morocco), Germany, Dacia (Romania), Judea and Egypt. There are even suggestions of turmoil in Rome itself.

And there is the rescript of Antoninus preserved in Eusebius's Church History (4.13) documenting imperial enmity against Christianity. Though regarded by most scholars as a Christian forgery, the rescript has the air of authenticity when placed alongside undoubted declarations of Roman suppression of "atheists" (i.e., Christians). Hence we may rightfully be more suspicious of a propaganda campaign to cover up Antoninus's ?infrequent hostility to Christianity, than dubious about the reports in Christian sources of persecution against the church during his reign.

Whatever the truth in this instance, Justin had discovered "the way, the truth and the life." Not even an imperial rescript (if genuine) could deter him from confessing his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ—even if it meant the martyr's crown. "Our Jesus Christ, who was crucified and died, rose again and, ascending into heaven, began to reign . . . There is joy for those who look forward to the incorruption which he has promised" (First Apology 42; LCC 1:269).


1This is the latest in a series of articles on the church fathers of the 2nd century and beyond. Previous publications include: "Ignatius of Antioch." The Outlook 53/9 (November 2003): 10-13; "Irenaeus of Lyons." The Outlook 52/11 (December 2002): 9-10; "Melito of Sardis." The Outlook 53/4 (April 2003): 7-8; "Origen: A Review." Kerux: The Journal of Northwest Theological Seminary 19/2 (September 2004): 16-29; Cf. also "Athanasius, the Son of God and Salvation." The Outlook 52/9 (October 2002): 14-15; "Arius `Orthodoxus'; Athanasius `Politicus': The Rehabilitation of Arius and the Denigration of Athanasius." Kerux: The Journal of Northwest Theological Seminary 17/2 (September 2002): 55-71; "Augustine and Grace." Kerux: The Journal of Northwest Theological Seminary 18/3 (December 2003): 38-52. Forthcoming in 2007 will be "Irenaeus and Redemptive History".

2 Cf. "The Conversion of Justin Martyr." Studia Theologia 30 (1976): 53-73; The Proof from Prophecy: A Study of Justin Martyr's Proof-Text Tradition (1987); "Justin Martyr," in Magnae Saebø, Hebrew Bible/Old Testament: The History of Interpretation (Volume I: From the Beginnings to the Middle Ages) (1996) 389-410.