An Attempted Union of Hellenism and Christianity in Justin Martyr’s First Apology

Justin Martyr (who may have lived from 100 AD until his martyrdom in 165 AD) was born into a prominent Greek family in Palestine. He grew up and was educated in Hellenistic schools where he developed a love of Platonism. However, he also became enamored with the altruism of the new Christian lifestyle, as well. In this way, Justin Martyr is a fascinating glimpse into the two polarities of Western Civilization: philosophy and theology; Socrates and Jesus.

After traveling widely, Justin settled in Rome and founded a unique school of philosophy and theology. After a public debate with a pagan, he was delivered to the imperial authorities and killed. His debate was with the Cynic thinker, Crescens, who reported Martyr to the authorities. Justin Martyr was beheaded along with six companions, as described by Martyr’s student, Tatian, and later by Eusebius.

(An engraving of Justin Martyr presenting a book to the Emperor Titus)

His most famous surviving work is his so-called “First Apology,” addressed: “To the Emperor Titus Ælius Adrianus Antoninus Pius Augustus Caesar, and to his son Verissimus the Philosopher, and to Lucius the Philosopher, the natural son of Caesar, and the adopted son of Pius, a lover of learning, and to the sacred Senate, with the whole People of the Romans.” It is written like a letter, but it reads like a political treatise or a manifesto. Regularly in the text, Justin refers to “we” when defending Christians of all stripes. In the text, Justin pleads for “reason” as his call for both “pious” and also “philosophic” men to reconsider the blame placed on the Christians. The Christians were persecuted in Rome for introducing unfamiliar beliefs, and like the Jews, they were politically blamed for various tragedies, such as the great fire of Rome during Nero’s era. In a word, the Christians were scapegoats.

At any rate, Justin dismisses charges against Christians. First, he dismisses the prejudice of the name “Christians,” for it is an irrational prejudice and many Christians are good people. He does not accept grouping all Christians into one box, and labeling them wicked. Similarly philosophy contains within itself a wide group of doctrines. Then, Justin gives a fascinating little account of the rise of demons, which he claims Socrates attempted to bring to light via “reason and examination” and he was then blamed for introducing new divinities into the city of Athens, much like the Christians being wrongly blamed by Rome. Justin then claims that the reason (logos) of Socrates then became man in the form of Jesus Christ, in allusion to the pseudo-gnostic gospel of John. This harmony between Socrates and Jesus is fascinating in the writings of Justin Martyr. His doctrine (particularly in Chapter XLVI) is that the Logos was present prior to the arrival of Jesus, and thus Plato and Socrates and others were actually Christians, but they didn’t know it. Thus, oddly enough, Christianity actually predates Christ, according to Justin Martyr. At one point, he goes so far as to say that the narrative of Jesus Christ (that he was born of divine origins, was crucified for his teaching and rose from the dead to ascend into heaven) is little different from certain pagan beliefs about Jupiter and other deities like Asclepius, Bacchus, or Hercules. Only Christianity is wrongly persecuted, while others are not. And in addition, Jesus taught civil obedience, as well (“render unto Caesar…”) so Christians are not seeking to cause civil unrest.

Justin Martyr defends Christianity against charges of atheism and evil-doing by again citing the writings of Plato, and he also gives an apologia for the future ‘kingdom’ sought by the Christians. He defends Christianity against the charge that it is a dangerous mystery cult. Justin maintains hope that by presenting the what he calls the “truth” of the Christian perspective. He hopes he can persuade minds who are seeking to escape the darkness of ignorance. Justin makes the distinction between sober-minded men, and ignorance. He sees his letter as an educational document, capable of reorienting those in search of truth and justice.

Justin Martyr’s letter lasts sixty-seven short chapters. He concludes by asking the rulers of Rome to either listen to his words, or else despise them as nonsense, but not to continue to persecuting the Christians. He also concludes with a warning that continued persecution will incur the wrath of God.

A few other works survive that are attributed to Justin Martyr, including a “Second Apology” addressed to the Roman Senate, as well as a brief dialogue.

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