St Justin Martyr at the Crossroads of the Roman Empire

Gregory DiPippo

On the calendar of the Novus Ordo and in the Byzantine Rite, today is the feast of the Church Father St Justin, who was martyred for the Faith at Rome around the year 165. Although his few surviving writings are in Greek, his career illustrates very well the providential role which the Latin-speaking Roman Empire served in the spreading of the Gospel through the Mediterranean world.

He was born around the year 100 at Flavia Neapolis, roughly 45 miles north of Jerusalem, a city whose very name is a mixture of Latin and Greek: ‘Flavia’ from the family name of the emperor Vespasian, who built it on the site of an old Samaritan village, and ‘Neapolis’, Greek for ‘new city.’ His own name and that of his father, Priscus, were typically Latin, but his grandfather’s name, Bacchius, was Greek. In his “Dialogue with Trypho”, he describes his encounters with the various philosophical schools then flourishing in the Roman world, the Stoic, Peripatetic, and Pythagorean, then finally the Platonic, which he believed brought him closer to God than any other. But an elderly man whom he met by chance explained to him that the Old Testament prophets were superior to the founders of the philosophical schools, since they had their wisdom directly from God, and furthermore, what they had prophesied was fulfilled in the coming of Christ.

Justin’s conversion was inspired not only by this encounter and the study of the Scriptures, but also by the heroic deaths of the martyrs, and the lives of the Christians, which have always been the most important witnesses to the truth of the Faith. These convinced him so thoroughly that Christianity was the only true philosophy that he began to travel from one city to another, wearing the garb of a philosopher, and preaching the new religion. From this, the Greek-speaking church honors him with the epithet “the Philosopher.” The Dialogue mentioned above recounts a debate which he had with a famous rabbi named Tarphon (Hellenized as “Trypho”)about the meaning of texts of the Old Testament; this most likely took place at Ephesus, one of the great intellectual and cultural centers of the ancient world.

Of course, such a career was only made possible by the Pax Romana, and the imperial system of roads, all of which, as the proverb says, lead to Rome itself. St Justin eventually settled there in the reign of Antoninus Pius, and founded his own philosophical school, grounded in the teaching of the Christian Faith. Early in the reign of Marcus Aurelius, he was denounced for this by a Cynic philosopher named Crescens, and after a brief trial, beheaded along with six others. The precise date of his death is unknown, but the urban prefect who sentenced him, Rusticus, is known to have held that office from 162 to 168.

(The church of St Pudentiana, which partially incorporates the remains of the baths of Timothy near where St Justin Martyr lived in Rome. Image from Wikimedia Commons by globustut.by, CC BY-SA 4.0)

In the passage of time, most of his writings were lost, and despite the undoubted authenticity of his martyrdom, which is described by a personal student of his named Tatian, and later by the Church historian Eusebius, there is no tradition of devotion to him in the West. His feast was only added to the calendar of the Roman Rite in 1882 by Pope Leo XIII, himself very much a scholar and man of letters, who took a great deal of interest in the Church Fathers.

In his encyclical on Christian philosophy Aeterni Patris, Pope Leo sums of the career of St Justin very nicely as follows:

“Iamvero cum his insanientis doctrinae magistris mature congressi sunt sapientes viri, quos Apologetas nominamus, qui, fide praeeunte, ab humana quoque sapientia argumenta sumpserunt, quibus constituerent, unum Deum, omni perfectionum genere praestantissimum esse colendam; res omnes e nihilo omnipotenti virtute productas, illius sapientia vigere, singulisque ad proprios fines dirigi ac moveri. Principem inter illos sibi locum vindicat S. Justinus martyr, qui posteaquam celeberrimas graecorum Academias, quasi experiendo, lustrasset, pleneque ore nonnisi ex revelatis doctrinis, ut idem ipse fatetur, veritatem hauriri posse pervidisset, illas toto animi ardore complexus, calumniis purgavit, penes Romanorum Imperatores acriter copioseque defendit, et non pauca graecorum philosophorum dicta cum eis composuit.

But the learned men whom We call apologists speedily encountered these teachers of foolish doctrine and, under the guidance of faith, found arguments in human wisdom also to prove that one God, who stands preeminent in every kind of perfection, is to be worshipped; that all things were created from nothing by His omnipotent power; that by His wisdom they flourish and serve each their own special purposes. Among these St. Justin Martyr claims the chief place. After having tried the most celebrated academies of the Greeks, he saw clearly, as he himself confesses, that he could only draw truths in their fullness from the doctrine of revelation. These he embraced with all the ardor of his soul, purged of calumny, courageously and fully defended before the Roman emperors, and reconciled with them not a few of the sayings of the Greek philosophers.”

(St Justin Martyr depicted in a fresco in the Stavronikita Monastery on Mt Athos, Greece, by Theophanes the Cretan, 1545. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

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