Justin Martyr, Philosopher, Apologist, and Martyr
1 June 167

Justin was born around 100 (both his birth and death dates are approximate) at Flavia Neapolis (ancient Shechem, modern Nablus) in Samaria (the middle portion of Israel, between Galilee and Judea) of pagan Greek parents. He was brought up with a good education in rhetoric, poetry, and history. He studied various schools of philosophy in Alexandria and Ephesus , joining himself first to Stoicism, then Pythagoreanism, then Platonism, looking for answers to his questions. While at Ephesus, he was impressed by the steadfastness of the Christian martyrs, and by the personality of an aged Christian man whom he met by chance while walking on the seashore. This man spoke to him about Jesus as the fulfilment of the promises made through the Jewish prophets. Justin was overwhelmed. "Straightway a flame was kindled in my soul," he writes, "and a love of the prophets and those who are friends of Christ possessed me." Justin became a Christian, but he continued to wear the cloak that was the characteristic uniform of the professional teacher of philosophy. His position was that pagan philosophy, especially Platonism, is not simply wrong, but is a partial grasp of the truth, and serves as "a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ." He engaged in debates and disputations with non-Christians of all varieties, pagans, Jews, and heretics. He opened a school of Christian philosophy and accepted students, first at Ephesus and then later at Rome. There he engaged the Cynic philosopher Crescens in debate, and soon after was arrested on the charge of practicing an anauthorized religion. (It is suggested that Crescens lost the debate and denounced Justin to the authorities out of spite.) He was tried before the Roman prefect Rusticus, refused to renounce Christianity, and was put to death by beheading along with six of his students, one of them a woman. A record of the trial, probably authentic, is preserved, known as The Acts of Justin the Martyr.

Three works of Justin have been preserved.

  1. His First Apology (in the sense of "defense" or "vindication") was addressed (around 155) to the Emperor Antoninus Pius and his adopted sons. (It is perhaps worth noting that some of the fiercest persecutors of the Christians were precisely the emperors who had a strong sense of duty, who were fighting to maintain the traditional Roman values, including respect for the gods, which they felt had made Rome great and were her only hope of survival.) He defends Christianity as the only rational creed, and he includes an account of current Christian ceremonies of Baptism and the Eucharist (probably to counteract distorted accounts from anti-Christian sources).
  2. The Second Apology is addressed to the Roman Senate. It is chiefly concerned to rebut specific charges of immorality and the like that had been made against the Christians. He argues that good Christians make good citizens, and that the notion that Christianity undermines the foundations of a good society is based on slander or misunderstanding.
  3. The Dialog With Trypho The Jew is an account of a dialog between Justin and a Jewish rabbi named Trypho(n) (probably a real conversation with a real rabbi, although it may be suspected that Justin in editing it later gave himself a few good lines that he wished he had thought of at the time), whom he met while promenading at Ephesus shortly after the sack of Jerusalem in 135. Trypho had fled from Israel, and the two men talked about the Jewish people and their place in history, and then about Jesus and whether he was the promised Messiah. A principal question is whether the Christian belief in the deity of Christ can be reconciled with the uncompromising monotheism of the Scriptures. The dialogue is a valuable source of information about early Christian thought concerning Judaism and the relation between Israel and the Church as communities having a covenant relation with God. Toward the end of the dialog, Trypho asks, "Suppose that I were to become a Christian. Would I be required to give up keeping kosher and other parts of the Jewish law?" Justin replies: "Christians are not agreed on this. Some would say that you must give them up. Others, such as myself, would say that it would be quite all right for you, as a Jewish convert to Christianity, to keep kosher and otherwise observe the Law of Moses, provided that you did not try to compel other converts to do likewise, and provided that you clearly understand that keeping kosher will not save you. It is only Christ who saves you." They finally part friends, with Trypho saying, "You have given me food for thought. I must consider this further."

An interesting feature is the dispute about texts. Justin would quote a passage from the Septuagint (LXX), the standard Greek translation of the Jewish Scriptures, and Trypho would reply, "That is not an accurate translation of the Hebrew. You Christians have been tampering with the text!" He never (at least as reportd by Justin) denies that Justin is correctly quoting the Greek manuscripts as they existed at the time, never brings forward an uncorrupted translation that has been preserved by Greek-speaking Jews.

The subsequent history of this dispute about translations is that the Jews, who had produced the LXX translation between 285 and 132 BC, repudiated it as unreliable and produced several subsequent translations, chiefly that of Aquila (around 140), which were close literal translations of the received Hebrew text -- what we may by an anachronism call the Masoretic Text (MT). Many Christians, on the other hand, noted that the LXX is the version usually quoted in the New Testament, even when it differs from the Hebrew. They recalled a Jewish story to the effect that the translation had been produced by 70 (or 72) scholars (hence the name), each working separately, and that their results when compared agreed perfectly; and they took this story as an indication that the LXX was an inspired translation, and that when it disagreed with the Hebrew, so much the worse for the Hebrew! The earliest Latin versions of the Bible (known collectively as the Old Latin (OL)) are translated from the LXX. However, when Jerome was called to produce a new version of the Latin Bible, he translated directly from the Hebrew (except for the Psalms, where he produced two versions), and this reduced the prestige of the LXX in the West. For many years scholars, noting the differences between the LXX and the MT, supposed that the LXX was simply a sloppy translation. However, the Dead Sea Scrolls included many Hebrew manuscripts of portions of Old Testament books (Samuel is the outstanding example) that had readings that agreed with the LXX against the MT. Accordingly, it is now widely held that the LXX is an accurate translation of Hebrew manuscripts representing one of several versions, but not always the version that ultimately prevailed in Hebrew circles and came to be what we call the MT. As for why it happened that the LXX was so often better suited to Christian purposes in proof-texting than the MT, several explanations come to mind:

  1. The early Christians, who were for the most part Greek-speakers, started their search for good proof texts by reading the LXX, and they accordingly found all the places where the LXX gives them what they want and the MT doesn't, while they completely missed all the places where the MT gives them what they want and the LXX doesn't.
  2. The Jews, in their subsequent sorting out of their various manuscript traditions, wherever the rival claims of two readings were otherwise roughly balanced, tended to be more hospitable to a reading that did not furnish aid and comfort to their opponents.
  3. The early Christians, being Greek-speakers steeped in the LXX, tended to remember the details of life of Christ in a way that was colored by the LXX. For example (not a very good example), Matthew (27:34) tells us that before Our Lord was crucified, he was offered wine with gall added. It is unlikely that gall was actually used (it has no relevant pharmacological properties), and I assume that Matthew was using the term simply to refer generically to a bitter-tasting substance. However, his use of this particular term is undoubtedly influenced by Psalm 69:21, considered as a prophecy of the crucifixion. As noted, this is not a very good example, because it does not involve the wording of the LXX. But my point is that a Christian writer, describing an event in the life of Christ while thinking of an Old Testament passage that he believes foreshadows that event, will, without sacrificing factual accuracy, naturally allow that passage to affect his choice of details to mention and words in which to describe them, and if he has been reading the LXX, then the LXX will be a more impressive version to cite than the MT if you are trying to match the event as recorded with the alleged prediction of it.

From the First Apology:

On finishing the prayers we greet each other with a kiss. Then bread and a cup of water mixed with wine are brought to the leader and he, taking them, sends up praise and glory to the Father of the Universe through the name of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and offers thanksgiving at some length that we have been deemed worthy to receive these things. When the leader has finished the prayers and thanksgivings, the whole congregation assents, saying, "Amen." ("Amen" is Hebrew for "So be it.") Then those whom we call deacons give to each of those present a portion of the consecrated bread and wine and water, and they take it to the absent.

Justin's works are found in the multi-volumed set called The Ante-Nicene Fathers, and in various other collections of early Christian writings. You can find the 38-volume (I think) Ante-Nicene, Nicene, and Post-Nicene Fathers, Edinborough edition, at the web site http://www.csn.net/advent.

The translation is by Protestant editors and is many years old. The web site is maintained by Roman Catholics, and also contains many articles from the Catholic Encyclopedia, which is also old enough to be in the public domain, and is not to be confused with the New Catholic Encyclopedia, which is from around 1970. The web site has a pointer to a site at Wheaton College which also has the Fathers, but I find the format at this one more accessible.

For those who have CD-ROM readers attached to their computers, I recommend the SAGE Digital Library, which costs $60 and contains the 38-volume set of the Fathers mentioned above, plus the Bible in the KJV and some other public domain translations, plus Calvin's Institutes, plus the Complete Works of John Wesley (14 volumes), the Augsburg Confessions, and much more. For details, phone 1-800-297-4307, or ask your local Christian bookstore. [ Editor's Note: you can also go to http://www.ageslibrary.com. ]

Refs: L W Bernard, Justin Martyr, His Life and Thought (Camb UP, 1967); Hans von Campenhausen, The Fathers of the Greek Church, tr Stanley Godman (NY, Pantheon, 1959); H Chadwick, "Justin Martyr's Defense of Christianity," Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, XLVII (1965) 275-297; Justin Martyr, The Dialogue With Trypho, tr A L Williams (NY, MacM, 1931).

Prayer (traditional language)

Almighty and everlasting God, who didst find thy martyr Justin wandering from teacher to teacher, seeking the true God, and didst reveal to him the sublime wisdom of thine eternal Word: Grant that all who seek thee, or a deeper knowledge of thee, may find and be found by thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
Prayer (contemporary language)
Almighty and everlasting God, who found your martyr Justin wandering from teacher to teacher, seeking the true God, and revealed to him the sublime wisdom of your eternal Word: Grant that all who seek you, or a deeper knowledge of you, may find and be found by you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
Psalm 16:5-11 or 116:1-8
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
John 12:44-50 (St3)