Saint Justin Martyr
The cut and thrust of philosophical debate led him to the Truth
On one of his first missionary journeys, Saint Paul found himself in Syria. He was at a crossroads and needed to decide where he would travel to preach the Gospel. Do I head east and bring the Gospel to the gentiles of Mesopotamia, Persia, India, and China? Or do I travel west, to the Greeks, Romans, Franks, and the people on the rim of the Roman Sea (the Mediterranean)? The Acts of the Apostles relates the mystical event that happened next: “During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them” (Acts 16: 9–10). Macedonia is in Greece. So Saint Paul’s sails opened and he tacked west. The rest is history.
In the person of Saint Paul, the Church herself turned toward Greece and her philosophical tradition. It was the plan of God that His Church would decisively encounter philosophical truth, not myth and custom, as its partner in dialogue. This intellectual engagement began the long process of melding philosophical truth with theological revelation, which transformed early, Jewish-based Christianity into something new—the powerful synthesis of theology, philosophy, spirituality, and structure known as Catholicism.
Today’s saint was a philosopher in the Greek tradition, born around 100 A.D. in Samaria to Greek parents. Saint Justin wrapped himself in the white, toga-style cloak of a Greek philosopher even after his conversion. He is the most well-known apologist of the second century, the only true Christian thinker known between the time of Saint John the Evangelist and Origen in the first half of the third century. Justin mercilessly criticized the intellectual dead end of the ancient paganism in which he was raised, seeing it as not merely neutral but as an obstacle to discovering the truth.
Justin loved the idea that Christ the Logos was the same in substance but different in person from the Father. Theological truth expressed in the concepts of Greek philosophy was very satisfying to him, because it was very true. Justin also provided some of the very first words on the Holy Eucharist outside of the New Testament itself: “And this food is called among us the Eucharist…we (have) been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.” What a clear and remarkable testament to Christianity’s early belief in the Eucharist!
Justin moved to Rome to teach philosophy and spent decades there writing and interacting with the higher echelons of Roman society. But even a thoughtful intellectual was not immune from persecution for being a Christian. Sometime between 162 and 168 A.D., Justin and six companions were called to answer for their beliefs before the Prefect of Rome. The record of the trial has been preserved and shows the Prefect demanding that Justin sacrifice to the gods of Rome. Justin and his friends refuse and are threatened with torture and death. They respond: “Do as you wish; for we are Christians, and we do not sacrifice to idols.” What bravado! They sternly refused to be idolaters. They were duly led away, scourged, and beheaded.
Justin chose, as the Church chose, the God of the philosophers over the false gods of paganism. This was a choice for truth over illusion. As Tertullian would later write: “Christ has said that he is truth, not custom” (De Virgin. Vel. 1, 1). The Christian God is both Father and the Prime Mover; the God of Jesus Christ and the Uncaused Causer; the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and thought thinking itself. He is Father and He is Almighty. He is everywhere, because He is nowhere. He is paternal and close at hand but forever mysterious and inaccessible. He gives a name, “I am Who am,” which is a riddle. We take this complex understanding of God for granted today. But the labor of early Christians like Saint Justin Martyr dug the deep intellectual foundations into which were later driven the piers of sound doctrine. It takes very smart people to make simple points.
Saint Justin, you surrendered your life rather than worship an idol. Your refusal to abjure your faith gives an example to all Christian intellectuals and teachers that the deepest truths are not found only on a page but must be lived, and sacrificed for, even unto death.