Justin explained Christianity to his curious pagan world. He was an educated pagan who became drawn to Christianity initially through his searches in philosophy. He then went on to promote Christianity himself through dialogue with pagans and Jews and through his writings. He was beheaded for refusing to sacrifice to the Roman gods.
Patrick Duffy tells his story.
Justin was born around 100 AD at Nablus (Shechem) in Samaria. His parents were of Greek origin. He was well-educated in rhetoric, poetry and history before turning to philosophy, which he studied at Ephesus and Alexandria. From his youth he had a thirst for rational enquiry (Greek logos) and searched for the truth for his life and for the true God in Greek philosophers, especially Plato, with some success.
In his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, Justin tells that one day an old man he met on the seashore told him that only through revelation and prayer would he find his way to God and “true philosophy”.
This led Justin to begin reading the Old Testament prophets and to see them fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus then became for him the truth for life, the Logos that made everything else comprehensible and the source of the art of living virtuously. He became a Christian when he was about thirty-three and remained a laymen. “It is our duty to make our teaching known,” he wrote, so he travelled from place to place proclaiming the gospel.
He kept his high regard for philosophers saying that they, like the Old Testament prophets, had the seeds of the true word, but it was only Jesus who is the really true Word. And he sought to spread knowledge of Christianity as the true philosophy.
Unapologetic Christian apologist
Apologia (meaning “the defence or justification of an idea or an act”) was the title Plato had given to the speech Socrates made before his death defending his way of life, his beliefs and actions. Justin is regarded as the first Christian apologist as he defends and gives good reasons for the Christian way of life. But he also had a missionary concern and zeal, wanting to explain the content of the faith in a language and on a wavelength comprehensible to his time.
The post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on Evangelisation in the Modern World quotes him, saying that we should recognise the many “seeds of the Word” in religions other than Christianity that are a genuine “preparation for the gospel” (Evangelii Nuntiandi 53).
Justin’s First Apologia was addressed to the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius (138-161), along with his Second Apologia, addressed to Romans in general, set out a positive exposition of Christianity and tried to convince the readers of the injustice of the persecution of Christians. Chapters 61-67 of the First Apologia give a very interesting account of how baptism, the Eucharist and Sunday were celebrated in Rome around 150 AD. His Dialogue with Trypho is a later work telling of his search for God in the Greek philosophers and presents Jesus as the supreme exemplar of virtue and truth.
Later years and death at Rome
Justin seems to have lived at Rome in his later years, promoting Christianity through his writings and his through dialogues with Jews and pagans. He was beheaded with five other men and a woman for refusing the request to sacrifice to the gods. His reply was: “No right-minded man forsakes truth for falsehood”.
A model for dialogue
Pope Benedict (Audience 21-3-07) praised Justin’s choice of philosophy – as distinct from the pagan religions – as a medium for dialogue about the true religion and as a method of critiquing cultural fashions and fads.
Pope John Paul II also described Justin as a “pioneer of positive engagement with philosophical thinking – albeit with cautious discernment…. Although he continued to hold Greek philosophy in high esteem after his conversion, Justin claimed with power and clarity that he had found in Christianity ‘the only sure and profitable philosophy’ (Dial. 8: 1)” (Fides et Ratio, n. 38).