Book Reviews

Day Twelve: St. Justin Martyr: First Apology, Chaps. 1-11

Who: Justin Martyr was a Philosopher who converted to Christianity and became a tireless evangelist and apologist. Justin wrote more Christianity than any other person prior to his time. He is classified herein as Eastern, since he a native of Samaria and his thought patterns were Eastern. However, he spent the last years of his life in Rome, where he was executed as a martyr (c. 165).

What: An apologetic (defence) essay to explain what Christians believe and do.

Why: Justin is demanding the Emperor to investigate accusations and unjust persecution against Christians so that they at least may face a fair trial.

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When: Around 156 AD

I've been wanting to read Justin Martyr’s apologies for some time now, so I'm glad for the opportunity during this reading plan. Over the next six days we’ll have read the whole essay.

The first of his major works (that we still have), this defence of the Faith is addressed to the Roman Emperor with a very long name, Titus Ælius Adrianus Antoninus Pius Augustus Caesar, and his adopted sons and the Senate.

Justin appeals to their sense of justice, love of reason, philosophy and pursuit of truth in order that the charges often brought against Christians may be fully investigated to see whether any punishment should fall upon the Christian population or not.

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During this time, Christians were being punished purely for identifying as “Christians” with little more evidence used against them than maybe “evil rumours” which were doing the rounds.

Justin argues that even with convicted criminals, they at least investigate the claims before punishing that person, but in the case of Christians, they only “receive the name as proof” against them, which is unjust.

The Emperor’s sons were philosophers, which in Greek and Roman times was more like a profession, since it had its own clothing style to display this (similar to how you'd recognise a vicar today by the white dog collar). To this end, Justin argues that there are those who wear the “garb” of philosophers, but who “do nothing worthy of their profession”, yet not all philosophers are punished for this just because they claim the name.

Similarly, there were poets who would get a laugh by insulting the gods and who also “taught atheism”, yet to the contrary of how Christians were treated, the Romans “bestow prizes and honours upon those who euphoniously insult the gods”!

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“Why, then, should this be?”, Justin asks, especially since the Christians “pledge [themselves] to do no wickedness” but yet are still charged with atheism for teaching that the gods of old were in fact demons deceiving the people, calling themselves by different names to be worshipped. Apparently Socrates was killed by men driven with evil passion from demons for trying “to bring these things to light, and deliver men from the demons” and charged “as an atheist and a profane person” — a charge which was similar to what the Christians were accused of.

Here Justin does a nice contrast between the reasoning used by the Greeks in condemning Socrates, and the pure Reason (Jesus) which condemns them all for following demons. The word play is lost in English, but the word for “reason” is logos and so he says that the Greeks used their own reasoning (logos) to pass judgement, but that they, along with the Barbarians, were condemned by Reason Himself (the Logos), “who took shape, and became man, and was called Jesus Christ”. It is because of this, Justin argues, that the Christians denounce the gods as being “wicked and impious demons”.

Now, to modern ears, what the Christians were accused of will sound strange: their charge was that of atheism! But back in the early second century “atheism” was a phrase which was applied to those who denied the Roman gods. Justin gladly admits this too, but with some added clarification; “we confess that we are atheists, so far as gods of this sort are concerned, but not with respect to the most true God, the Father of righteousness”.

Justin makes the point that if the Emperor is to try people for wrongdoing, that “each one who is convicted may be punished as an evil-doer, and not as a Christian” – to judge them as a person by their life and deeds, rather than an assumption of them due to a name they claim.

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The end part of these opening chapters close off with a denouncement of idols and their futility, since they are mere items crafted by men who are “intemperate” and who “are practised in every vice”, which is contrasted with the formless God who formed all things and who needs nothing offered to Him, since “He is the provider of all things”.

In speaking of how the True God should be worshipped, in contrast with the demonic practices of the Roman gods, he explains that,

[God] accepts those only who imitate the excellences which reside in Him, temperance, and justice, and philanthropy, and as many virtues as are peculiar to a God who is called by no proper name

Contrasted with “the wicked demons” who work with the “lust of wickedness which is in every man” to draw them to “all manner of vice”, the Christian God is a stark contrast to those which the Emperor is familiar, even with regards to the kingdom which he has heard Christians look for. “You suppose, without making any inquiry, that we speak of a human kingdom” but goes on to explain that it is not so with Christians, since their minds are fixed elsewhere.

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This ends the first eleven chapters of this massive apologetic work. Come back tomorrow for the next installment!

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