Saint Justin the Martyr
Feast Day: April 14th
"Is this not the task of philosophy to
enquire about the divine?"
--Saint Justin Martyr.
St. Justin, Martyr
of the Martyrs by St. Alphonsus De Liguori
St. Justin was one
of those glorious saints that have illustrated the Church of Christ by their
extraordinary learning, as well as by their eminent virtues. He wrote in
defense of Catholic truth against pagans, Jews, and heretics, and presented to
the emperors and Roman senate two famous "Apologies," wherein he vindicates
the innocence of the Christians, and proves that the crimes imputed to them
were mere calumnies of the pagans. By the sanctity of his life, and the zeal
and energy of his preaching, he converted many infidels, and finally
terminated his brilliant career by a glorious martyrdom.
St. Justin was born about the beginning of the second
century at Neapolis, the capital of Samaria, of Greek parents, who were
idolaters. Having gone through the usual elementary course of studies, he
found himself inspired with a great desire to know something concerning the
Great Cause, or Creator of all. Having in vain sought for truth among the
Stoics, Peripatetics, Pythagoreans, and those of the Platonic school, God was
pleased to satisfy his yearnings after a wonderful manner. Having wandered one
day into a solitary place in order that he might with more quietude enjoy his
meditations, he met with an old man of very venerable appearance, who told him
that if he wished to arrive at the knowledge of the true God, he should leave
the study of philosophy, and begin to read the Prophets, who in their writings
had manifested to man the mysteries of God, and announced Jesus Christ His
Son, through whom alone we can arrive at the knowledge of the true God. "But,"
continued this venerable personage, "above all things, pray to the Lord to
illuminate thy mind; because these things are not to be understood except by
those unto whom God hath given the knowledge of them." Having pronounced these
words, he disappeared.
After this interview, Justin applied himself continually
to the reading of the Holy Scriptures, from which he derived that blessed
knowledge which made him embrace the faith and receive the sacrament of
regeneration about the year 133, being then about thirty years of age. The
constancy and fortitude of the martyrs, in suffering tortures, and laying down
their lives for Jesus Christ, as he himself confesses, contributed much to his
conversion, from which time he dedicated himself entirely to the love of Jesus
Christ, and the advancement of his religion. To this end he received the holy
order of priesthood, and exerted himself continually in the conversion of
infidels and heretics, as considering himself called by God to the defence of
His Church. Hence he used to say: "Since I have obtained from God the grace to
understand the Scriptures, I labor to make them understood by others also,
lest my neglect should be punished at the tribunal of God." And again: "I am
determined to manifest the truth, although I should be cut to pieces."
Having proceeded to Rome, he instructed many in the
doctrines of the Christian faith; and there about the year 150 composed and
presented to the Emperor Antoninus Pius, and to the Roman senate, his first
"Apology," wherein he demonstrates the truth of the doctrines, and the
sanctity of life, which the Christians professed. He adds, that many of them
had lived in a state of inviolate purity for sixty or seventy years; and that
Christians are so enamored of this angelic virtue, that they either live in
perpetual continency, or embrace the married state for the holy purpose of
training children in the love and service of God; their desires being placed
in the joys of eternal life, which they expect through the death of Jesus
In testimony of the truth of the Christian faith, he
brings forward the fulfillment of the prophecies, which had been preserved by
the Jews, the avowed enemies of the Christians. "We have seen," says the
saint, "those prophecies fulfilled in our own days, by the birth of Jesus
Christ from a virgin; by His preaching and miracles; by His Passion,
resurrection, and ascension into heaven; by the reprobation of the Jews and
the destruction of Jerusalem; by the conversion of the Gentiles, and the
establishment of the Church throughout the entire world! These prophecies, so
perfectly fulfilled, must convince us that Jesus Christ is truly the Son of
God, who shall come one day to judge mankind, as hath been foretold, and as we
The Church in those days kept concealed from the
uninitiated the celebration of the most holy mysteries; but St. Justin thought
it necessary to explain them, in order to contradict the infamous calumnies of
secret lewdness and infanticide, which were being circulated against the
Christians. Wherefore having explained the sacred ceremonies of baptism, he
proceeds to speak of the Eucharist in the following terms: "He that presides
in the assembly is presented with bread and a chalice of wine, with water;
whereupon, in the name of the Son and the Holy Ghost, he renders glory to the
Father. And by these gifts doth he make thanksgiving, which all the faithful
confirm by the word 'Amen.' The prayers, praises, and thanksgiving being
terminated, the deacons take of the bread and the wine, mixed with water, over
which all these holy prayers have been recited, and having distributed them
among those present, they carry some to the absent also (The deacons of the
ancient Church frequently carried the Eucharist to the Christians who were in
prison for the faith). This food is by us called Eucharist; of which no one
can partake who believeth not our doctrines, and who hath not been cleansed
from sin in the laver of regeneration. This is not common food or drink; but
as Jesus Christ our Savior was, for our redemption, by virtue of the divine
word, composed of flesh and blood; so we are aware that, by virtue of the
prayer containing His divine words, the food by which we are nourished is the
flesh and blood of the Word Incarnate." Thus we see that the present doctrine
of the Catholic Church is that which was believed and practiced in the
apostolic times, in which our saint flourished.
St. Justin proceeds to describe the meetings of the
faithful: "Upon the first day of the week, a general meeting takes place,
when, as time permits, the prophecies, and writings of the apostles, are read.
The reading being terminated by the Lector, he who presides makes an
exhortation, to excite the people to the imitation of worthy actions. We then
all rise, and place ourselves in prayer, which being finished, bread and wine
with water are prepared, over which the bishop or priest recites the prayers
and thanksgiving, the people answer Amen; and, finally, the distribution of
the holy gifts is made by the deacons. The richer sort make a liberal
collection, which by the president is distributed to widows and orphans, to
the sick and those in prison, to pilgrims or other persons in need. The reason
why we meet on Sunday is, because it was the day upon which God began' the
creation of the world; and upon which Jesus Christ arose from the dead."
It is believed that, although this "Apology" of St.
Justin did not cause the persecution to cease, it made a favorable impression
on the Emperor Antoninus Pius, as is inferred from his letter, written to the
cities of Asia Minor, in favor of the Christians, and recorded by Eusebius.
Our saint composed other works in defense of Catholic
doctrine, against the Marcionites and Valentinians; and also his Dialogue with
Trypho, against the pertinacity of the Jews. Marcus Aurelius having succeeded
Antoninus Pius in the empire, the persecution was renewed; and one Crescens,
who, although styling himself a Cynic philosopher, was in reality a very
shallow fellow, took occasion to exclaim loudly against the Christians. St.
Justin, in public dispute, frequently convicted him of the most violent
malice, and the greatest possible ignorance of the doctrine and practices of
the Christians, and was induced to publish, and present to the emperor, his
second "Apology," in which he defends his religion against the calumnies of
Crescens and others.
In showing that Christians had been unjustly put to
death, he relates that a married couple had both been guilty of incontinency;
the woman, having been converted to the Christian religion, used all her
endeavors to withdraw her husband from his shameful practices; but he, instead
of amending, accused her and one Ptolemy, who had been the means of her
conversion, of being Christians. The prefect, Urbicus, sentenced them to
death; whereupon a certain Christian, named Lucius, exclaimed: "With what
conscience, O Urbicus! dost thou condemn a man who hath been guilty of no
crime?'' Lucius, together with another Christian, received a similar sentence.
A very short time after the publication of this
discourse St. Justin was apprehended, together with six other Christians of
his acquaintance and brought before Rusticus, the Prefect of Rome, who
exhorted him to obey the imperial edicts. The saint replied: "No one can be
reproved or condemned for obeying the precepts of our Savior, Jesus Christ."
The prefect asked him what kind of learning he
professed. Justin answered that he had learned the doctrines of various sects,
and had finally embraced Christianity, although it was despised by those who
were led away by errors and false opinions. "Unhappy wretch!" exclaimed the
prefect, "dost thou then delight in this discipline?" Justin: "Yes, because it
teaches me the true doctrine." Rusticus: "Which is this doctrine?" Justin:
"The true doctrine which we profess is, to believe in one only God, the
Creator of all things, visible and invisible, and to confess Jesus Christ, the
Son of God, the foretold by the Prophets, the preacher of salvation unto men,
and the Master of those who happily observe the divine precepts. But neither
have I a tongue to express nor a mind to conceive anything worthy of His
infinite dignity;--to do so, I would need the mind and the spirit of the
prophets, who, inspired by God, foretold His coming."
The prefect asked him where the Christians were in the
habit of assembling. Justin replied: "Where they please, and where they can.
Dost thou imagine, perchance, that we all assemble in the same place? The God
of the Christians is not confined to a place; He is invisible, and fills both
heaven and earth; and is everywhere adored and praised by the faithful." "But
I wish to know," rejoined Rusticus, "where thou and thy disciples assemble."
The saint answered: "As for myself, I dwell at the Timothean baths: this is
the second time I have come to Rome, and I am scarcely acquainted with any
other place in the city; if any one should wish to seek me, I am ready to
communicate to him the doctrines of truth." Rusticus: "Thou art then a
Christian?" Justin: "So it is: I am a Christian."
The prefect then turned to St. Justin's companions, and
interrogated them, one after the other, concerning their faith. They all
confessed themselves Christians, and manifested a desire to die for Jesus
Christ. Rusticus then said to Justin: "Tell me, thou who dost believe that
thou hast the true wisdom, whether thou art persuaded that thou shalt ascend
into heaven, after I shall have caused thee to be scourged and beheaded." The
saint replied: "If I shall suffer these punishments, I hope to receive the
reward which is prepared for those who observe the commandments of Christ."
The prefect asked: "Dost thou, then, really imagine that thou shalt ascend
into heaven;" "This I do not only imagine, but I know it," replied the saint,
"and am so fully assured of it, that I entertain no doubt whatever."
Finally, the prefect, turning to all those confessors of
Jesus Christ, said to them: "Go ye together, and unanimously sacrifice to the
gods." Justin, answering for all, replied: "No man in his senses could abandon
religion to become a participator in impiety." The prefect hereupon threatened
that their non-compliance would be followed by the most unrelenting tortures.
Justin said: "There is nothing which we more earnestly desire than to endure
torments for the love of our Lord Jesus Christ, and thus attain unto
salvation; for this it is that will enable us to present ourselves with
confidence at the tribunal of that Judge before whom all the world must
necessarily appear." To this the other martyrs assented, adding: "Do quickly
what thou art about. We are Christians, and will never sacrifice to idols."
The prefect then pronounced against them the following
sentence: "Those who have not wished to sacrifice to the gods, nor obey the
edict of the emperor, shall first be scourged, and afterwards beheaded, in
pursuance of the law." The martyrs were forthwith led to the place of
execution, where the sentence being carried into effect, they received the
glorious crown of martyrdom, in the year 167, or the following. Their bodies
were privately carried away by the Christians, who gave them honorable
interment. The Acts of these martyrs are found in Ruinart and Tillemont.
THE LIFE OF
blood of the martyrs flourished in its hundred-fold increase, as Saint Justin
has well observed: "We are slain with the sword, but we increase and multiply;
the more we are persecuted and destroyed, the more are deaf to our numbers. As a
vine, by being pruned and cut close, shoots forth new suckers, and bears a
greater abundance of fruit; so is it with us."
Saint Justin was a layman
and the first great Christian philosopher who wrote books of sizable length. His
own writing gives details of his life. According to his account his pagan
parents were of Greek origin. He was given a liberal education and devoted
himself particularly to rhetoric, poetry, and history. He then moved on to the
study of philosophy, and he studied the system of the Stoics, then gave it up
because it taught him nothing of God.
He applied to the school of
Pythagoras but was told that a preliminary knowledge of music, geometry, and
astronomy would be required. He came into contact with a respected Platonist,
however, who led him to the science of God.
One day, while wandering
near the seashore, reflecting upon one of Plato's maxims, he saw an
impressive-looking old man, whom he engaged in a discussion about the maxim. The
man told him of a philosophy nobler and more fulfilling than any he had yet
studied-- one that had been revealed by God to the Hebrew prophets and
culminated in Jesus Christ.
Justin was inspired to
study the Scriptures and to learn about Christianity. He found that while the
teachings of Plato are not identical to Christianity, they led him to embrace
the teachings of Jesus. He is said to have become converted by his reading and
by observing the heroism of martyrs. He became a Christian at the age of 30 and
was baptized at Ephesus or Alexandria, both cities that he visited.
In his teaching as well as
his writing, he described the faith of the Christians and what took place at
their meetings, an approach that most early Christians avoided in order to
protect their rites from profanation. He tried to show that faith was compatible
with rational thought.
He traveled much and held
disputations with pagans, heretics, and Jews. At a time when Christians were
continually subjected to persecution by the civil authorities, his first open
defense of Christianity was addressed to the Emperor Antonius Pius, along with
the emperor's three adopted sons. His second great public defense, written about
the year 161 was addressed to the Roman Senate itself.
Justin did not believe that
everything he learned before becoming a Christian must necessarily be untrue.
"Those who have been inspired by the creative word of God, see through this a
measure of the truth," he wrote. "We are taught that Christ, the first-born of
God, is the word of which the whole human race partakes, so that those who
before him lived according to reason may be called Christian, even though
accounted atheists." Justin wanted to embrace people like the Greek Socrates and
the Jewish father Abraham into the fold of Christianity.
At last he came to Rome,
where he opened a Christian school, with Tatian as one of his students. At some
point he presented his Apology to the emperor Marcus Aurelius. He argued
in public with a Cynic named Crescens, whom he accused of ignorance and
misrepresentation. It is believed that it was through the machinations of
Crescens' followers that Justin was arrested.
He was brought before
Rusticus, the prefect of Rome, and records of his trial still exist. He stated
his beliefs openly. When asked to sacrifice to idols, Justin replied, "No
right-minded man forsakes truth for falsehood." He was sentenced to be scourged
and beheaded. Six other Christians, including a woman, died with him (Bentley,