St. Justin: Philosopher, Apologist, and Martyr

By Margaret Nornberg

The following essay was selected as the third-place winner of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ religious liberty essay contest on the theme “Witnesses to Freedom.” The essay contest was co-sponsored by the OSV Institute for Catholic Innovation. For her essay, Margaret Nornberg was awarded a $500 scholarship.

Religious freedom is a human right, originating in mankind’s God-given free will. Although all have a moral obligation to the virtue of faith, this area of human life is beyond the scope of civil law. It is impossible to force anyone into belief, for one cannot believe what one does not freely accept. Coercing conversion is therefore inherently unjust, even should the religion be true—and still more so should it be false. Ultimately, religious freedom means that each human person has both the right and the duty to seek the truth, a right upheld and a duty fulfilled by the early Roman martyrs who gave their lives for the Church.

The late Roman Empire stood in opposition to religious freedom—not only in its anti-Christian laws, but also in its culture. By the second century, the old pagan religion had degenerated into two extremes: on the one hand, a cynical despair of finding truth anywhere; on the other, a religion synthesized of the beliefs of the countless cultures the empire had conquered.[1] These dual nightmares of subjectivism, the idea that no religions are true and the idea that all are, strike at the heart of religious freedom by denying the very existence of objective truth.

In those times arose the martyrs to testify to the source of truth: Christ and the Church He founded. Among the greatest of these was Saint Justin Martyr, an Ante-Nicene Father whose whole life challenged both the letter and the spirit of the Roman persecutions. Not only did he call for an end to the laws prohibiting his religion, but his lifelong love of truth and reason shone in stark contrast to the subjectivism of those times. As a philosopher who sought the truth, as an apologist who defended it, and as a martyr who gave his life for it, Saint Justin Martyr lived and died a witness to true religious freedom.

Even before his conversion, Justin’s fervent desire for truth was already apparent. Born near Shechem, Samaria around the year 100, he was raised a pagan and received a good education in history, poetry, rhetoric, and philosophy.[2] This study of philosophy led the young Justin to a hunger for truth and knowledge of God, and he passed through several schools of Greek thought before settling on Platonism.[3] But even in the philosophy of Plato and Socrates, he did not find the answers to his questions. These he ultimately discovered in Christianity, of which he learned in conversation with an old man who approached him as he walked alone on the shore.[4] Moved to a love of Scripture and Christian doctrine by the man’s advice, Justin was soon baptized, likely in Ephesus.[5]

By the time Justin embraced Christianity as the only "safe and profitable" philosophy,[6] hostility toward that religion had spread throughout the empire. To the Romans (polytheistic ad absurdum), Christian monotheism seemed practically atheism, while Christians’ refusal to worship the emperor seemed an act of rebellion.[7] Sinister rumors about secret Christian rites abounded. Misunderstandings of the doctrine of the Real Presence, for example, led to bloody tales of cannibalistic rituals: "An infant covered over with meal, that it might deceive the unwary, is placed before him who is to be stained with their rites: this infant is slain…. Thirstily—O horror!—they lick up its blood; eagerly they divide its limbs."[8]

Disturbed by these charges of atheism, sedition, and darker horrors—charges Pliny the Younger called "crimes themselves inherent in [Christianity]"—the Roman authorities began brutal persecutions to exterminate "this contagious superstition."[9]

As a former pagan, Justin knew of these rumors; as a Christian apologist, he strove to correct them. In his Apologies, he entreated the emperor and the Roman people to judge Christians on the basis of their deeds alone, and not to condemn them merely for their religion.[10] "[I]f no one can convict us of anything," he argued, "true reason forbids you, for the sake of a wicked rumour, to wrong blameless men, and indeed rather yourselves, who think fit to direct affairs, not by judgment, but by passion."[11]

Countering the charges brought against the Christian faith, Justin explained the truth of the Church’s doctrines. Against the charge of atheism, he professed belief in the one true God. "We confess that we are atheists, so far as gods of this sort [the demonic pagan gods] are concerned," he said, “but not with respect to the most true God, the Father of righteousness."[12] In response to the charge of sedition, he explained that Christians had no desire either to supplant any authority nor to commit any crime: "[W]hen you hear that we look for a kingdom, you suppose… that we speak of a human kingdom; whereas we speak of that which is with God… And more than all other men are we your helpers and allies in promoting peace, seeing that we hold this view, that it is alike impossible for the wicked, the covetous, the conspirator, and for the virtuous, to escape the notice of God."[13]

Finally, to dispel the rumors of horrible and obscure rituals, Justin elucidated the rites of Christian worship, including the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist.[14] "And if these things seem to you to be reasonable and true, honour them," he concluded; "but if they seem nonsensical, despise them as nonsense, and do not decree death against those who have done no wrong, as you would against enemies."[15] Thus the greatest of the first apologists defended the truth of the Christian faith and the right of Christians to practice it.

But Justin testified to truth and freedom in more than his writings. In the year 165, during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, he was arrested in Rome along with six companions.[16] When ordered to make sacrifice to the emperor, Justin refused with a profession of faith, and, strengthened by his courage, his companions likewise declared themselves Christians, upon which they were beheaded.[17] Justin provided in his martyrdom a greater witness to the truth than he could have hoped to give in any apology.

True religious freedom, the right and duty to seek the truth, has had few greater witnesses than this philosopher, apologist, and martyr. Saint Justin loved truth at a time when the world doubted its existence, and he defended his right to believe in it with his pen and with his life. His steadfast faith is a model for the Church in all ages—and in this age. As the same subjectivism he faced rears its head again in modern culture, Catholics need more than ever his example and intercession.

           Saint Justin Martyr, pray for us!

[1] Rod Bennett, Four Witnesses: The Early Church in Her Own Words (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2002), 273, Kindle.

[2] Mike Aquilina, The Fathers of the Church: An Introduction to the First Christian Teachers (Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, 2013), 86; Benedict XII, Church Fathers: From Clement of Rome to Augustine, trans. L’Osservatore Romano (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008), 17.

[3] Justin Martyr, Dialogue of Justin, Philosopher and Martyr, with Trypho, a Jew, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume One: Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Philip Schaff (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2010), 305-311.

[4] Justin Martyr, Dialogue, 307-312.

[5] Aquilina, Fathers, 87; Justin Martyr, Dialogue, 312.

[6] Justin Martyr, Dialogue, 312.

[7] Bennet, Four Witnesses, 1709.

[8] Minucius Felix, The Octavius of Minucius Felix, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume Four: Fathers of the Third Century, ed. Philip Schaff (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2006), 332.

[9] Pliny the Younger, "To the Emperor Trajan," in "Letters of Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus," trans. William Melmoth, in Letters of Marcus Tullius Cicero and Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, volume 9 of The Harvard Classics (New York: P. F. Collier and Son, 1909), ed. C.W. Eliot, 404-407.

[10] Justin Martyr, The First Apology, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume One, 247-249; Second Apology, 304.

[11] Justin Martyr, First Apology, 247-248.

[12] Justin Martyr, First Apology, 250.

[13] Justin Martyr, First Apology, 252-253.

[14] Justin Martyr, First Apology, 289-291.

[15] Justin Martyr, First Apology, 291

[16] Aquilina, Fathers, 87; Benedict, Church Fathers, 18.

[17] Martyrdom, 504-507.

Margaret Nornberg writes from Waunakee, Wisconsin.