Justin Martyr

Justin Martyr

Justin Martyr was born around AD 100 at Flavia Neapolis (today Nablus) in Samaria. It is believed he was born into a pagan family and that his father might have been a Roman diplomat. Although he was born in Palestine he was not a Jew. (1)

Justin became interested in philosophy as a young man and at first joined the school of a Stoic philosopher. Later he met a follower of Plato. "The perception of immaterial things quite overpowered me, and the contemplation of ideas furnished my mind with wings, so that in a little while I supposed that I had become wise; and such was my stupidity, I expected forthwith to look upon God, for this is the end of Plato's philosophy." (2)

Justin renounced both his former religious faith and dedicated his life to the service of Christianity. He became convinced that the prophets of the Old Testament who foretold the Messiah, and the Christians who proclaimed that the Messiah had come, possessed the truth he sought. He traveled to Rome about 150 AD and set up a school next to a public bath to teach philosophy. "This was a relatively safe way to spread the Christian faith; to be found at prayers was a capital crime, but to set up a lectern, to enquire and teach enquirers, was not against the law." (3)

Persecution of Christians

The first persecution of Christians organised by the Roman government first took place under Tiberius, and later by Nero in 64 AD after the Great Fire of Rome. As the historian Tacitus reported: "Nero fastened the guilt... on a group hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of Pontius Pilate, and a most detestable superstition, checked for the moment, began to break out again not in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome." Tacitus tells us that the Christians were massacred in large numbers, either being burned alive on sacrificial pyres or exposed to wild beasts and packs of savage dogs in the arena. (4)

Christians were sometimes punished for their pacifism or their unwillingness to sacrifice before the Roman gods. Romans worshipped the gods in temples where they made sacrifices of animals and precious things. The Romans believed that blood sacrifices were the best way to communicate with the gods. There is evidence of individual members of the sect in the reign of Domitian. However, it would be incorrect to refer to it as "persecution" since no general pogrom was instituted; what happened was that the emperor targeted a number of influential Christians whom he personality disliked. (5)

References to Christians faded from pagan history until the reign of Trajan when Pliny the Younger, who was appointed as governor of Bithynia and Pontus (in present-day modern Turkey) in 110 AD, received complaints from the local Greek population about the behaviour of the Christians in the province. Pliny told Trajan that as long as the Christians were willing to make a sacrifice of wine and incense before a statue of Trajan they were released. If not, they were taken away and executed. (6)

Under the rule of Hadrian attempts had been made to be more tolerant to Christians. Hadrian stated that merely being a Christian was not enough for action against them to be taken, they must also have committed some illegal act. In addition, "slanderous attacks" against Christians were not to be tolerated, meaning that anyone who brought an action against Christians but failed would face punishment themselves as they could be charged with malicious prosecution. (7)

Hadrian saw the Jewish religion as the main threat to the Roman Empire. In 132 AD, Simon Bar Kokhba, led a rebellion of the Jews of the Roman province of Judea. The Romans suffered heavy casualties and soon most of Palestine was in Bar-Kochba's hands. Hadrian sent his best general, Sextus Julius Severus, who had been serving in Britain, to deal with the crisis. In 134 he began a war of attrition, never engaging the enemy in strength, but instead cutting off food supplies, severing communications and ambushing rearguards. Bar-Kochba was finally besieged in the fortress of Bethar, six miles south-west of Jerusalem. Late in 135 the Romans took the stronghold and Bar-Kochba was killed. (8)

The First Apology of Justin Martyr

Antoninus Pius also considered the Jews rather than the Christians as a major problem that had to be dealt with. During his reign he had to deal with two massive Jewish revolts. By contrast, there had never been a Christian rising, nor even so much as a Christian riot. The Jews hated the Christians as renegades who had appropriated the scripture and traditions of Judaism. As a result the Jews often tried to distract Roman attention by foregrounding the Christian threat and investigating persecutions against them. (9)

It is estimated that by 150 AD there were between 50,000 and 100,000 Christians compared to about four or five million Jews in the Roman Empire. Justin decided that Christianity needed to go on the offensive. In around 155 AD he produced The First Apology of Justin Martyr, Addressed to the Emperor Antoninus Pius. Justin argues that it was the study of Greek philosophy that led him to Christianity. He attempted to explain Christian practices and rituals. He condemned the idea of Christians being persecuted for their beliefs and urged Antoninus Pius to only punish evil actions, writing, "For from a name neither approval nor punishment could fairly come, unless something excellent or evil in action can be shown about it." (10)

Justin also reasserted the idea that Christianity was superior to other religions. The morals of the Christians were of a higher standard than those of the average pagan. Christians believed that virtue would be rewarded in heaven and sin punished in hell. Their sexual ethics had a strickness that was rare in antiquity. Justin believed that they alone would go to heaven, and that the most awful punishments would, in the next world, fall upon the non-Christian. (11)

Justin argued that Socrates was a Christian and like Jesus died the death of a martyr. He also stated that Christians had to be prepared to die for their beliefs. (12) "Justin cited the Sermon on the Mount, the Christian belief that human life is sacred, their famous concern for and love of children, their pacifism, their turn-the-other-cheek compassion, philanthropy and lack of hatred even when persecuted to emphasize the role of the Law of Love as the apogee of morality, entailing truth, purity, generosity, humility, courage, patience, universal love and absence of racial prejudice." (13)

In about 156 AD Justin published The Second Apology of Justin Martyr. Justin now emphasized the importance of martyrdom. "Since we do not place our hopes on the present order, we are not troubled by being put to death, since we will have to die somehow in any case". He also insisted that Christians are not willing to compromise their pacifist beliefs: "The devil is the author of all war... We, who used to kill one another, do not make war on our enemies. We refuse to tell lies or deceive our inquisitors; we prefer to die acknowledging Christ." (14)

Marcus Aurelius and Justin Martyr

Emperor Antoninus Pius died on 7th March 161 AD and was replaced by Marcus Aurelius. (15) One of his first decisions was enforce the requirement to sacrifice to the Roman gods. The first recorded example of this concerns three Christians, Carpus, Papylus, and Agathonice, who were traveling through Pergamum. The Roman governor Pergamos ordered them to sacrifice to their gods in the name of the emperor. Carpus was the first to refuse and he was hung up on a meathook and "scraped". Despite seeing his friend treated this way, Papylus, refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods. So did Agathonice, a woman, and the three of them were burned alive. (16)

Justin Martyr
Justin Martyr

In 165 AD Justin was ordered to appear before the prefect, Junius Rusticus, where he was cross-examined by the cynic philosopher, Crescens. He was asked what doctrines do you practise. He replied: "I have tried to learn all doctrines, but I have committed myself to the true doctrines of the Christians, even if they do not please those with false beliefs." Rusticus warned that "those unwilling to sacrifice to the gods are to be scourged and then executed in accordance with the laws." Justin refused and Rusticus asked him that "if you are scourged and beheaded, do you believe that you will ascend to heaven?" Justin replied: "I hope for it if I am steadfast in my witness. But I know that for those who live the good life there awaits the divine gift even to the consummation." (17)

Crescens asked Justin if Christians welcomed death and martyrdom, they should kill themselves. Justin replied that the two things were not the same, and that mass suicide by Christians would mean that the word of God could not be spread. Crescens commented that if God was on the side of the Christians, he would rescue them. Justin replied that since God permitted free will, it allowed evil men like Crescens to rise up. The purpose of martyrdom was the belief that this public act of witness, was intended to give heart to the less intrepid Christian brethren and to make a demonstration of faith before unbelievers. Justin and five of his followers were then scourged with whips and beheaded." (18)

Primary Sources


(1) Justin Martyr, The First Apology of Justin Martyr, Addressed to the Emperor Antoninus Pius (c.155)

And when we say also that the Word, who is the first-birth of God, was produced without sexual union, and that He, Jesus Christ, our Teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, we propound nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you esteem sons of Jupiter. For you know how many sons your esteemed writers ascribed to Jupiter: Mercury, the interpreting word and teacher of all; Aesculapius, who, though he was a great physician, was struck by a thunderbolt, and so ascended to heaven; and Bacchus too, after he had been torn limb from limb; and Hercules, when he had committed himself to the flames to escape his toils; and the sons of Leda, and Dioscuri; and Perseus, son of Danae; and Bellerophon, who, though sprung from mortals, rose to heaven on the horse Pegasus. For what shall I say of Ariadne, and those who, like her, have been declared to be set among the stars? And what of the emperors who die among yourselves, whom you deem worthy of deification, and in whose behalf you produce someone who swears he has seen the burning Caesar rise to heaven from the funeral pyre? And what kind of deeds are recorded of each of these reputed sons of Jupiter, it is needless to tell to those who already know. This only shall be said, that they are written for the advantage and encouragement of youthful scholars; for all reckon it an honourable thing to imitate the gods. But far be such a thought concerning the gods from every well-conditioned soul, as to believe that Jupiter himself, the governor and creator of all things, was both a parricide and the son of a parricide, and that being overcome by the love of base and shameful pleasures, he came in to Ganymede and those many women whom he had violated and that his sons did like actions. But, as we said above, wicked devils perpetrated these things. And we have learned that those only are deified who have lived near to God in holiness and virtue; and we believe that those who live wickedly and do not repent are punished in everlasting fire.

(2) Justin Martyr, The First Apology of Justin Martyr, Addressed to the Emperor Antoninus Pius (c.155)

Plain singing is not childish, but only the singing with lifeless organs, with dancing, and cymbals, &c. Whence the use of such instruments, and other things fit for children, is laid aside and plain singing only retained.

(3) Justin Martyr, The First Apology of Justin Martyr, Addressed to the Emperor Antoninus Pius (c.155)

Not only our works, but also our thoughts, are open before God.

(4) Justin Martyr, The First Apology of Justin Martyr, Addressed to the Emperor Antoninus Pius (c.155)

Christ is the first-born of God, and we have declared above that He is the word of whom every race of men were partakers; and those who lived reasonably are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists.

(5) Justin Martyr, The Second Apology of Justin Martyr (c.156)

But since we do not place our hopes on the present order, we are not troubled by being put to death, since we will have to die somehow in any case.

(6) Justin Martyr, The Second Apology of Justin Martyr (c. 156)

The devil is the author of all war... We, who used to kill one another, do not make war on our enemies. We refuse to tell lies or deceive our inquisitors; we prefer to die acknowledging Christ.

(7) Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho (c. 160)

I can wish no better thing for you, sirs, than this, that, recognizing in this way that intelligence is given to every man, you may be of the same opinion as ourselves, and believe that Jesus is the Christ of God.

(8) Justin Martyr, Fragments of the Lost Work of Justin on the Resurrection (c. 160-165)

But since the adversary does not cease to resist many, and uses many and diverse arts to ensnare them, that he may seduce the faithful from their faith, and that he may prevent the faithless from believing, it seems to me necessary that we also, being armed with the invulnerable doctrines of the faith, do battle against him in behalf of the weak.

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(1) Reinhold Plummer, Early Christian Authors on Samaritans and Samaritanism (2002) page 14

(2) Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho (c. 160)

(3) Henry Chadwick, A History of Christianity (1995) pages 53-54

(4) Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome (c. 118) 15.44

(5) Leslie W. Barnard, Justin Martyr (2009) page 15

(6) Pliny the Younger, letter to Trajan (c. 112)

(7) Leslie W. Barnard, Justin Martyr: Life and Thought (1967) page 173

(8) Anthony R. Birley, Hadrian: The Restless Emperor (2000) pages 272-274

(9) William H. Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution of the Early Church (1965) page 334

(10) Justin Martyr, The First Apology of Justin Martyr, Addressed to the Emperor Antoninus Pius (c.155)

(11) Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (1946) pages 330-331

(12) Justin Martyr, The First Apology of Justin Martyr, Addressed to the Emperor Antoninus Pius (c.155)

(13) Frank McLynn, Marcus Aurelius (2010) page 282

(14) Justin Martyr, The Second Apology of Justin Martyr (c.156)

(15) Cassius Dio, Roman History (c. AD 215) 71.33.3-5

(16) Everett Ferguson, Encyclopedia of Early Christianity (2013) pages 307-308

(17) Frank McLynn, Marcus Aurelius (2010) pages 289-290

(18) Glen Bowerstock, Martyrdom in Rome (1995) page 72