Who Was Justin Martyr? Justin Martyr Biography

Justin Martyr was one of the first Christian apologists of the early church. An apologist is someone who defends or explains the Christian faith. He is sometimes known as “Justin, the Philosopher and Martyr” because he was the earliest example of a Christian, who was a philosopher, but used his philosophical training to argue for the legitimacy of Christian thought as supreme to Judaism and the philosophies of his day. He also met a martyr’s death in AD 165

Justin was born in the town of Flavius Neapolis sometime between AD 100 and 110. The city of his birth is near the Old Testament town of Shechem, and it is now called Nablus in Israel. He was raised in a pagan family, being the son of Priscus and the grandson of Bacchius. Justin was not Jewish, but Jewish people occupied Judea to the south and Galilee to the north from where he was raised. 

Justin was an eager student. There were no traditional schools in singular locations as there are today. Students would sit under a single teacher who represented a specific school of thought. Justin first learned under a Stoic teacher, but the Stoics seemed to emphasize ethics more than knowing about God. Stoics thought it frivolous to speculate about whether or not God knew people directly. Justin next sought to learn from a Peripatetic teacher (or one who taught about life through the lens of Aristotle). However, Justin found that teacher to be more interested in collecting tuition than educating his students. Justin then tried out a Pythagorean teacher, but that teacher asked his students to study music, astronomy, and geometry before getting to the weightier matters of God. Justin had no patience for a longer process. Therefore, Justin moved on and found a teacher of Platonism. This is where he first enjoyed learning about metaphysical reality. However, even the teacher of Platonism could not hold his attention for long. 

One day in about AD 133, Justin found himself walking in a field not far from the seashore, when an anonymous older Christian man entered into a conversation with Justin. The Christian man shook the confidence of the young Justin by pointing out how the Hebrew prophets were older and wiser than Justin’s favorite philosophers, and those prophets had personally witnessed God’s interaction with the people of Israel in the Old Testament. Justin thought and prayed much about the matter. As a result, Justin converted to Christianity but continued to wear a philosopher’s clothes. He never took on a position of church leadership, but he functioned as a teacher of Christianity much like his rivals from the most prominent philosophical schools.

We next find Justin in Rome, which had an overall population near one million in the mid-second century. There was no centralized leader of the churches in Rome or one centralized location in which all Christians met. Instead, there were various house churches or other small groups meeting in various places, led by presbyters (or elders) and served by deacons. It was easy for heresy to creep into some of the Roman house churches, so Justin’s teaching on the traditional faith from the Scriptures as handed down by the Apostles and their disciples was invaluable to the establishment of Christian orthodoxy. During Justin’s time in Rome, he met and debated the heretic, Marcion. “Marcion taught that the New Testament contradicted the Old Testament, Justin held that the New Testament fulfilled the Old Testament.” There had been surges of persecution of Christians in Rome, but since AD 110, when Emperor Trajan wrote a letter to Pliny the elder, those persecutions had been local but not city-wide or empire-wide.

In about the year AD 153, Justin submitted a petition to Emperor Antoninus Pius on behalf of the Christians in the Empire, who were being persecuted and even martyred—not because the Christians committed any crimes against Roman citizens or the empire but because the Christians would neither renounce the name of Jesus Christ nor worship the emperor. Justin turned a typical petition into a longer apologetic work to explain and defend the Christian faith. Most petitions to the emperor were fifteen times shorter than Justin’s First Apology. A Second Apology also exists, but scholars are not in agreement as to whether the Second Apology should be considered as a separate work from the First Apology or merely an appendix to the First Apology. Either way, the Second Apology was written shortly after the First Apology and is a little more philosophical in nature than the First Apology.

We next find Justin in Ephesus, a major cultural and political center in Asia Minor. It was there that Justin engaged an educated Jewish scholar and escapee of the Bar Kokhba War, who was named Trypho. A carefully edited account of their two-day discussion was published as Justin’s longest, still-existing work, Dialog with Trypho the Jew. In the Apologies, Justin had defended Christians against outrageous accusations and explained Christian beliefs and practices. In the Dialog, Justin explained the superiority of Christianity to Judaism.

Shortly thereafter, Justin reappeared in Rome and continued teaching Christians and debating non-Christian teachers in the city. One of his students, Tatian, would become a well-known Christian philosopher and apologist, who wrote a biographical account of Justin’s work in Rome. According to Eusebius, Justin angered an anti-Christian teacher in Rome by the name of Crescens. Justin’s student, Tatian, describes Crescens’ love of money and his hate for Justin, who bested Crescens in debates in Rome. Crescens convinced a local leader by the name of Junius Rusticus to convene a tribunal to hear Justin’s case, along with six other Christians and try them for crimes against the state. Justin and the six refused to renounce Jesus Christ, to worship the Roman emperor, or bend in any other sinful way. The seven Christians were whipped and eventually beheaded. Justin’s last words were, “We desire nothing more than to suffer for our Lord Jesus Christ, for this gives us salvation and joyfulness before his dreadful judgment seat, at which all the world must appear.” Christians remember well a statement that Justin had made in his First Apology a decade earlier than his trial, “ . . . and you, you can kill us, but you cannot hurt us.” Justin Martyr’s life and legacy are celebrated by the Eastern Orthodox Church and Roman Catholic Church every year on June 1.

  1.  See Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church: Volume Two—Ante-Nicene Christianity, A.D. 100-325 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1910), 710; A. Cleveland Coxe, “Introductory Note to the Epistle of Barnabas” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenæus in Ante-Nicene Fathers, American edition (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), 159; and Paul Parvis, “Justin Martyr,” in Early Christian Thinkers: The Live sand Legacies of Twelve Key Figures (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 2.
  2.  Justin Martyr, 1 Apology, 1.
  3.  Edwin Yamauchi, “Justin Martyr” in Great Leaders of the Christian Church (Chicago: Moody Press, 1988), 40.
  4.  Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church: Volume Two—Ante-Nicene Christianity, A.D. 100-325 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1910), 713.
  5.  Johannes Quasten, Patrology: Volume 1—The Beginning of Patristic Literature from the Apostles Creed to Irenaeus (Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, 1990), 196.
  6.  Justin Martyr, Dialog with Trypho the Jew, 3-8. See also Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church: Volume Two—Ante-Nicene Christianity, A.D. 100-325 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1910), 713.
  7.  Justin Martyr, 2 Apology, 13.
  8.  Paul Parvis, “Justin Martyr,” in Early Christian Thinkers: The Lives and Legacies of Twelve Key Figures (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 4.
  9.  Edwin Yamauchi, “Justin Martyr” in Great Leaders of the Christian Church (Chicago: Moody Press, 1988), 40.
  10.  Paul Parvis, “Justin Martyr,” in Early Christian Thinkers: The Lives and Legacies of Twelve Key Figures (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 6.
  11.  Paul Parvis, “Justin Martyr,” in Early Christian Thinkers: The Lives and Legacies of Twelve Key Figures (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 7.
  12.  Paul Parvis, “Justin Martyr,” in Early Christian Thinkers: The Lives and Legacies of Twelve Key Figures (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 8.
  13.  Tatian as quoted in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 4:18.
  14.  Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church: Volume Two—Ante-Nicene Christianity, A.D. 100-325 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1910), 715.