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  • Adam Butler

The Life & Writings of Justin Martyr

One of the earliest apologists in Christian history, Justin Martyr (c. 100–165), is regarded as a significant figure in both Biblical defense and philosophical thinking. In fact, Martyr is often referred to as one of the most important second century apologists, due to the amount of substantive writings, especially in contrast with other thinkers and church leaders of his time. Similar to the prevalent arguments proposed against the Judeo-Christian worldview in the modern era, Martyr dealt with and thought rightly about the same subjects of controversy. Namely, his contribution to Biblical authority is highly revered.


In addition, however, Martyr wrestled with objections against the Word of God, combated many common misunderstandings and misconceptions of Christianity, and placed a great deal of emphasis on the defining doctrine of the Christian faith, the gospel of Jesus Christ. This approach to the faith was all-too appropriate for the lack of intellectualism which permeated the early church, and understandably so, being that the early church leaders had just begun thinking through doctrinal issues. After all, Martyr’s life and ministry took place a mere 70 years after the ascension of Jesus. His work, then, proved to be greatly impactful for centuries following his life and death.


Early Life—A Searcher After Truth


Martyr was born to Priscus the son of Baccheius, in Neapolis. From an early point in life, Martyr was on the quest for truth. “Thirsting for knowledge, he gave himself to study, and was eminent in all the learning of those times.” His frequent travels provided ample opportunities to be become associated with many prominent scholars, theologians, and philosophers. The destination which ultimately served as the primary source of his study was Alexandria; the city was already an intellectual powerhouse, and Martyr took advantage of all it had to offer in pursuit of knowledge.


He describes himself as an earnest searcher after truth among the various philosophies of the time, Stoic, Peripatetic, Pythagorean, Platonic, until the day that, as he was meditating by the sea-side, he met one who showed him the unsatisfying character of philosophy as such, and bid him turn to the Bible, with prayer for a comprehension of such matters.

Before his acceptance of Christian theology, Martyr thought through the ramifications of many different worldviews. Ultimately, he settled on Platonism. He did not stay within this realm however, but moved from Platonism to Stoicism, and then to Pythagorianism. It was through this fascination for truth that his desire for Christianity came into being as well. Martyr writes, “A divine flame was immediately kindled in my soul, and I felt a sincere affection for those prophets and excellent persons who were friends of Christ.” It was here, via thorough research and study of the Biblical texts, that Martyr’s focus on the writings of the Apostles became his primary area of study, and ultimately what led to his burden for apologetics.


Understandably, Martyr’s apologetic endeavor began with refutations of the previous worldviews to which he once adhered. For example, as S. Finley explains, “He then with great eloquence exposes the absurdity of the Pagan creed and concludes his address, with these exhortations, ‘Come hither, O ye Greeks, and partake of most incomparable wisdom, and be instructed in divine religion, and acquaint yourselves with an immortal king.’”


The significance of him as a writer is a matter often overlooked in the greater scheme of history. A. W. F. Blunt says, “His writings were well known to and freely used by later authors such as Tatian, Athenagoras, Irenaeus, Tertullian.” He was even prominent enough of a writer that at lease one forged document was penned using his alias.


Written Works of Martyr


Martyr’s written works are few, but lengthy. They are primarily apologetics for the Christian worldview. One of the most significant of his works is his dialogue with a Jew named Trypho. This written account of a conversation between Martyr and Trypho occurred in Ephesus, around the year 135. Though not much is known about Trypho, the debate is lengthy, and is ultimately a defense of the Judeo-Christian worldview, as opposed to Orthodox Judaism, to which Trypho held. It is understood, according to Allert, that the assumed audience of the book is predominately Jewish as well. He writes, “...it appears clear that Justin’s choice and use of certain [Old Testament] texts are made because of the presuppositions of his audience, who are Jews.” This is to say that the dialogue places significant emphasis on the Jewish law, the idea of a coming Messiah, and the election of Israel. “These appear to be distinctly Jewish concerns in order to convince them that the messianic expectation of Israel is found in Jesus.”


Within this particular text, Martyr’s intellect for philosophical thought is made evident. “In Justin’s concept of God, existence was dependent upon God as the First Cause, the Unmoved Mover, or as the Unbegotten and Incorruptible.” This concept of God as a space-less, timeless, immaterial, supreme being, is still being argued through logically deductive arguments among philosophers and theologians in modern times. The fact that Martyr was arguing using the same process of thought suggests that few new and innovative methods of apologetics have arisen since the early apologists; cultural contextualization, however, has proved to be a bigger threat.


One such example is also prevalent among skeptics of modern opposing views. Trypho raises the objection to Martyr that many professing Christians were eating meat offered to idols, a cultural practice which is addressed by the Apostle Paul (1 Cor. 8–11). Martyr responds, "Even from the fact that there are such men, acknowledging that they are Christians, and that they acknowledge Jesus who was crucified to be both Lord and Christ, and yet do not teach His precepts, but rather those that issue from the spirits of error, we, the disciples of the true and pure teaching of Jesus Christ, become more faithful and stronger in the hope that was announced by Him."


His argument is suggesting that the existence of Christians who claim Christianity but do not live out the practices therein does not disprove the truthfulness of Christianity. Again, Martyr’s passion and area of thought was in absolute truth; his objective was to provide sound, Biblical and philosophical answers to objections to Christianity.


His other most well-known works are aptly titled Apologies. The word, in this sense, is from the Greek word apologia, meaning “answer” or “defense.” The works, of which there are two, were written during the era of heavy religious persecution against Christianity. His First Apology addresses just that; Martyr defends not only the truth of the Christian worldview, but also the religious practice thereof. He writes, “For from a name neither praise nor punishment could reasonably spring, unless something excellent or base in action be proved.” Essentially, he is calling out the injustice of a government that persecutes Christians for the sake of simply being Christians.


Throughout the Apologies, various other themes emerge as well, one of which is his emphasis on the person of Moses. Namely, he uses Moses as a foreshadowing figure of the Messiah; this Christ-centered hermeneutical approach to the Old Testament is ultimately displayed throughout his Dialogue with Trypho as well.


A final theme disclosed in the Apology is the argument for the divine Logos of Christ. Focusing more prominently on a theological analysis of Christian ideals, Martyr delves into the meaning of the trinitarian persons. He addresses this doctrine in the First Apology, saying, “...he gives the second place to the Logos which is with God, who he said was placed crosswise in the universe; and the third place to the Spirit who was said to be borne upon the water, saying, "And the third around the third.” Martyr was among some of the earlier adherents to a view of the trinity that acknowledges the Biblical presence of all three persons. After all, this topic would be the subject of many major heresies in years to come.


Martyred for Christ’s Sake


Though most historians agree to circa 165 for the date of Martyr’s execution, an exact date is uncertain. It is affirmed, however, that the beheading took place under Junius Rusticus. According to Allert, this account coincides with the accounts of Eusebius, Taitian, and even Justin himself. What is clear is the reasoning for the death, which is martyrdom. Justin Martyr was condemned, along with six other men, in a traditional legal process for bearing the name of Christianity.


According to the writings of Justin himself, he understood that his life and ministry was one which would most likely cause authorities to plot against him. Martyr’s student, Tatian, also alluded to the fact that Cynic Crescens, who was debated by Martyr in the public arena, wanted him and Martyr dead.


With an appropriate name for such a fate as his, Justin Martyr’s contributions to Christian thought ultimately proved to be the death of him. However, this type of life was precisely predicted by Christ himself, the very one to whom Martyr’s life was a witness. From Biblical canonicity to philosophical arguments for the existence of God, Martyr’s approach to Christian apologetics set the stage for apologist for generations to come. His life and works are still revered as crucial examples in church history. He should also be an inspiration to those facing persecution as well, but ultimately as a means of directing readers back to the one source of truth—God’s Word.


 

Craig D. Allert, Revelation, Truth, Canon, and Interpretation: Studies in Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, (Leiden: Koninklijke Brill, 2002).

Lukyn Williams, Justin Martyr: The Dialogue with Trypho, (Madras: Diocesan Press, 1930), ix.

[Unknown], “Justin Martyr: Suffered at Rome, A.D. 163,” The Sunday School Visitor, (New York: Protestant Episcopal Press, 1835).

S. Finley, “The Life of Justin Martyr, Abridged From Cave and Others,” Assembly’s Missionary Magazine, or, The Evangelical Intelligencer, (1805).

A. W. F. Blunt, The Apologies of Justin Martyr, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1911).

Thomas B. Falls St. Justin Martyr: Dialogue with Trypho, (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2003).

Justin Martyr Dialogue with Trypho Translated by A. Lukyn Williams, (Madras: Diocesan Press, 1930).

Justin Martyr, First Apology, Retrieved from HYPERLINK "http://www.basilica.org" www.basilica.org.

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