August/ September 2018 - Vol. 99

Witness of the Early Christian Martyrs
mosaic of martyrdom of St. Justin
Justin Martyr
edited by Charles E. Moore

Justin died 165 AD
in Rome

After the death of the last of Christ’s apostles, a new era for Christianity began. As the faith spread across the Roman world, it met many challenges to its claims and practices. Internally, heresies and cultic expressions began to confuse and divide the church, demanding response from its theologians.

 Externally, persecution – never far away for the early Christians – grew, the Roman Empire having outlawed the Christian religion. A key reason that the Roman government – typically tolerant of the diverse beliefs of its many conquered peoples – so despised Christians was the exclusive devotion of these men and women to the rustic Hebrew figure of Christ, whom they worshiped as the Son of God. Accustomed to pantheons of lesser and greater divinities, Rome might have better tolerated Christians if they had not refused to participate in the obligatory emperor worship – a required show of loyalty not just to a god but to the empire itself. Refusal to profess Caesar as lord was seen as treason and prosecuted with torture and summary execution.

It was into this world that Justin was born, to a pagan, gentile family living in Flavia Neapolis (the biblical town of Shechem). His education left him unsatisfied, as his teachers failed to engage the bright boy’s mind. Always curious about God, Justin bounced from one school to another, seeking answers to his questions with teachers from the refined Stoic, Aristotelian, Pythagorean, and Platonic philosophical traditions.

While Plato’s ideas very much appealed to him, it was not until Justin met an old Christian man while walking near the beach (possibly at Ephesus) that he found the truth he was looking for. Their conversation convinced Justin that the ancient prophets were a more reliable source of truth than the philosophers. He changed the course of his life and study, giving his heart and well-trained mind to God. Traveling and teaching, he began to speak of
 Christianity as the “true philosophy.” He adopted the traditional gown of a philosopher, eventually traveling to Rome, where he founded a small school after the custom of the classic philosophers.

This began a period of public work and teaching. Justin was an outspoken apologist for the faith, addressing his First Apology directly to the emperor in response to persecution of Christians. Well-versed in philosophy and comparative religions, he sparred with opponents both inside and outside the faith, refuting  heresies and advocating for Christians in the wider public sphere. His position that “seeds of Christianity” predated Christ’s incarnation allowed him to look favorably on elements of pagan thought that corresponded with or supported the tenets of Christianity, and thus he could refute the accusations of even the most educated of his pagan neighbors.

But his combative defense of the faith eventually made him enemies in the city. One of the philosophers he had argued with, a Cynic named Crescens, became a bitter enemy. According to Tatian, one of Justin’s students, Crescens plotted against Justin and likely betrayed him to the authorities.

Whatever prompted their arrest, Justin and a group of his fellow Christians (likely his students) were captured and brought before the Roman prefect, Junius Rusticus. He addressed Justin, the obvious spokesman of the group. “Obey the gods at once,” he demanded, “and submit to the emperors.”

Justin, accustomed to defending his faith, replied immediately, “To obey the commands of our savior Jesus Christ is not worthy of blame or condemnation.”

“What kinds of doctrines do you believe?” Rusticus asked.

“I have studied all faiths,” Justin returned, “but I have believed in the true doctrines, those of the Christians – even though they do not please those who hold false opinions.”

Rusticus felt the barb. “Are those the doctrines that please you, you utterly wretched man?”

“Yes,” Justin replied.

“What do you believe?” the prefect asked again.

Justin answered, “We worship the God of the Christians, whom we believe to be one from the beginning, the maker and fashioner of the whole creation, visible and invisible, and the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who has been preached beforehand by the prophets as the herald of salvation. Since I am only a man, anything I can say is insignificant compared to his boundless divinity as the Son of God.”

Rusticus questioned him further. “Where do you Christians meet?”

“Where each one chooses and can,” Justin said, “Do you imagine we all meet in the same place? Not so – the God of the Christians is not limited by place, but being invisible, fills heaven and earth. He is worshiped and glorified everywhere by the faithful.”

 “Tell me where you assemble,” Rusticus pressed, “or into what place you collect your followers.”

“I live above a man named Martinus at the Timiotinian Bath,” said Justin. “I don’t know of any meeting in Rome other than this. If any wish to join me, I teach them the doctrines of truth.”

“Are you not, then, a Christian?” Rusticus demanded.

“Yes,” Justin said. “I am a Christian.”

Justin’s companions were also questioned, and gave steadfast witness to Christ. With their loyalties established, the prefect addressed Justin once again. “Listen, you who are called learned, you who think you know the truth. If you are scourged and beheaded, do you believe you will go up to heaven?”

Justin replied, “I hope that, if I endure those things, I shall have God’s gifts. For I know that all who have lived faithfully will abide in his favor until the end of the world.”

“You think you will ascend to receive some reward then?” Rusticus asked.

“I do not ‘think’ it, but I know and am fully persuaded of it,” Justin declared.

“Then let us come to the point of the matter,” the prefect continued. “You have come here together. Now sacrifice, with one accord, to the gods.”

“No right-thinking person falls away from piety to impiety,” Justin said.

“Unless you all obey, you will be mercilessly punished,” Rusticus threatened.

“Through prayer,” Justin replied, “we can be saved on account of our Lord Jesus Christ, even when we have been punished. This shall become salvation and confidence for us at another judgment seat – the more fearful and universal one of our Lord and Savior.” The other Christians agreed with Justin’s witness. “Do what you will,” they said. “We are Christians and do not sacrifice to idols.”

With this, the trial was concluded. Rusticus pronounced their sentence. “Let those who have refused to sacrifice to the gods and yield to the command of the emperor be scourged and led away to suffer the punishment of decapitation, according to the laws.”

Justin and his companions were taken to the customary place of execution. In accordance with their sentence, they were beaten and then beheaded. Their fellow Christians secretly retrieved their bodies and gave them an honored burial as martyrs, rejoicing that their companions had remained faithful and inherited eternal life.

This article is exceprted from Bearing Witness: Stories of Martyrdom and Costly Discipleship, edited by
Charles E. Moore, and published by (c) Plough Publishing House, Walden, New York Robertsbridge, England/ Elsmore, Australia

Source:Drawn primarily from The Ante-Nicene Fathers, edited by Philip Schaff, et al. Schaff's introduction and textual notes give more detail to the story than is given here.

top illustration: Mosaic of St. Justin Martyr, Mount of the Beatitudes, Galilee, Commons Wikimedia 

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