Saint Justin, also known as Justin Martyr, was one of the first Christians to meet Greco-Roman thinkers on their own ground by using philosophy as a tool or handmaid (servant) to defend the gospel message. But what else did he contribute to historic Christianity? Here’s your crash course on the life and accomplishments of Justin Martyr—and why he still matters today.
Who Was Justin Martyr?
Saint Justin (c. 100–165) was born in Flavia Neapolis (modern-day Palestine) to pagan parents. He studied in the ancient cities of Alexandria and Ephesus where his pursuit of truth led him to examine the Greek philosophical systems of Stoicism, Aristotelianism, Pythagoreanism, and Platonism, ultimately adopting the tenets of the Platonists. His conversion to Christianity was sparked by a conversation he had with a wise, elderly Christian man who instructed him on how Christ had fulfilled the writings of the Hebrew prophets. Justin subsequently started a school in the city of Rome where he taught philosophy and proclaimed that Christianity served to fulfill the highest intellectual and moral aspirations of classical philosophy—Platonism in particular. He therefore served as an early Christian apologist in the Roman empire of the second century. Justin was ultimately arrested for his Christian convictions and was given a chance to recant his Christian faith by offering a sacrifice to the Roman gods, but he stood firm in his commitment to Jesus Christ as the only Lord and Savior. Roman authorities executed him early in the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. He was later dubbed “Justin Martyr” because of his martyr death.
What Did Justin Martyr Write?
Among several works (only some still in existence today), Justin Martyr’s two most important apologetics-related works are his Two Apologies. In his First Apology, he attempts to demonstrate the moral credibility of Christianity by appealing to the state for tolerance of the fledgling Christian religion (Christians were being unfairly persecuted and falsely accused of cannibalism, for “eating” the body of Christ, and atheism for refusing to recognize and worship the various Roman gods). In his Second Apology, Justin attempts to demonstrate the intellectual credibility of Christianity by arguing that the Christian faith uniquely fulfills the insights and intuitions of classical philosophy.
What Did Justin Martyr Believe?
Justin Martyr had a number of apologetic insights that emerged from his attempts to show that Christianity possessed greater explanatory power than the philosophical and religious systems of classical Rome. The following are three of his most important arguments for historic Christianity:
- Justin insisted that the final revelation in Christ was to be preceded by the insights of classical Greek philosophy. Thus pre-Christian cultures could recognize and embrace certain divine truths that came through the Logos (a reference from the Gospel of John chapter 1, where Jesus the pre-incarnate Word is recognized as a universal rational principle).
- Justin viewed philosophy as a helpful tool of general revelation to guide people toward the Christ of special revelation.
- Justin saw the courage that the persecuted Christians demonstrated as a powerful apologetic for the truth of the Christian faith.
Why Does Justin Martyr Matter Today?
Justin Martyr’s thinking that Greek philosophy paved the way for the final revelation that came in Christ would later be strongly criticized by the church father Tertullian, who would dramatically ask: “What has Athens [representing the philosophy of the academy] to do with Jerusalem [representing the Scriptural theology of the church]?” Yet Justin Martyr was skilled both in his use of philosophy and in his appeal to Scripture. In his work The Dialogue with Trypho (a Jewish scholar), Justin’s apologetics views take a decidedly biblical and Christological focus.
Evangelical Christians can learn a great deal from studying church history and the great thinkers who presented and defended the faith in the past. Justin Martyr’s wisdom, courage, and single-minded commitment to Christ are worthy of emulation by today’s believer.
Other articles in the Christian Thinkers 101 series: St. Augustine; C. S. Lewis; Blaise Pascal; St. Anselm; St. Athanasius; St. Thomas Aquinas; Jonathan Edwards; Søren Kierkegaard; St. Bonaventure; Martin Luther; John Calvin; Irenaeus; Tertullian; St. Basil; St. Jerome
Reflections: Your Turn
When you read about early Christian martyrs, like Justin, what do you think of them? Could you exercise such courage?
- For analysis of Justin Martyr’s life and thought, see A History of Apologetics by Avery Dulles.
- For a contemporary Christian philosopher’s assessment of Justin Martyr, see Paul Copan’s blog post “Doing Philosophy as a Christian: The Example of Justin Martyr.”