“AWAY WITH ATHEISTS!”: A Look At Justin Martyr and the Start of Apologetics

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What is a Christian? What a profound question to contemplate and consider. With the numerous number of denominations, sects, and subsects of Christianity, the definition certainly varies depending on who you ask. Yet, even in the Second Century, many were asking the question and many ideals arose. There seems to have arisen a passion, a passion that could not be extinguished by the Old Laws of Judaism. A passion that could not be hindered by the buffet of gods the Romans put on display for worship. A passion that Christ, Himself, started. Justin Martyr considered what it meant to be a Christian in a time when persecution of Christians was slowly beginning and martyrdom stories were making the rounds. In a world full of mystics, magicians, and pagans, Martyr took a stand in defense of Christianity in the face of unwarranted persecution by Rome in a writing that has been heralded by many a theologian even to this day. In this blog, I will take a look at Justin Martyr’s First Apology as a rebuke of Christian persecution, a growing problem under the oppression of Rome in the Second Century and as the beginning of the apologist movement.

As the aftermath of the Temple’s destruction in the Second Century started to take shape, Christians became more recognized in the Roman Empire and misunderstandings about their practices would become fuel for the ridicule and accusations against them. Chief among these accusations were cannibalism and incest[1] which certain Christian writers worked to combat and even point out instances of hypocrisy. For an ancient world struggling to define what a Christian was, there was a need for clarification. For the Christian movement and church which sought to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, there was need for defense. Both of these needs would be met in a genre of writing known as apologetics with Christian writers who were passionate in their faith. Perhaps these writers were even passionate enough to die for them.

Apologetics has been used for centuries as a method to engage society, philosophy, and science in a defense of God and the Christian faith. Margaret Miles says of Christian apologetics in the Second Century, “The primary themes of Christian apology were the unique truth of Christianity, the harmlessness and innocence of Christians, the folly of pagans, and animosity toward Jews.”[2] Moreover, these writings sought to show that Christianity was not a threat to the state and provided a defense against charges of immorality[3]. Among the writings produced during this time was First Apology by Justin Martyr in which he wrote to Emperor Antonius Pius and his two sons (Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Veras) in an effort to speak out against the persecutions against Christians without a fair trial or any evidence against them, but he also writes to defend Christians against rampant falsehoods running throughout the Roman Empire about them[4]. This was a mixture that came together in harmony to give us a window to view Second Century Rome and the basis the Roman government used to carry out unwarranted persecution against Christians in their empire.

A small tidbit of Martyr’s past is relevant at this juncture. Justin Martyr was once a Platonist[5] which makes First Apology all the more interesting. He says of that time in his life “I fully expected immediately to gaze upon God”[6] until he was approached by an older man on a seashore who instilled in him the idea that Martyr should focus on the Prophets and those who are friends in Christ to the point that he conceded Christianity as the “only sure and useful philosophy.”[7] This backdrop makes Martyr a man with experience in other philosophical and heretical ideals of the time. Through this context, First Apology has a deep, personal connection for Martyr which seems to be reflected in his passion and bluntness throughout the writing.

“Away with the atheists” was a repeated cry in this world in which Romans struggled to identify a new religious group in their midst that was not licensed and lacked images, sacrifices, and temples[8]. On this point, Justin Martyr profoundly agreed, but within a different context than what we would consider to be an atheist today. To Martyr, a Christian was an atheist in regards to the polytheism in the Roman Empire, but they were believers in the one true God and His Son, Jesus Christ[9]. Martyr made it clear from this stance that Christians would not bend and worship Roman gods because they were false and blasphemous. While this stance provided a unique embracing of the term “atheist” by a Christian, it also provided a framework for Martyr’s writing in which he seems to convey the message (as I put it): “We’re atheists in regards to paganism and polytheism, but that doesn’t make us criminals!”

Martyr takes on both the false allegations of cannibalism and incest in brilliant fashion in an attempt to disarm the Roman authorities of their ammunition for persecution and marginalization of Christians. In First Apology, Martyr makes a case of comparison between Christians and magicians to illustrate a malpractice of law under Roman authority. Justin begins by listing his concerns about magicians and he asserts they are guilty of evil deeds aided by Satan as he also acknowledges he is unaware if the magicians are guilty of anthropophagy (among other charges), but he does know they are not executed, persecuted, or marginalized under the same pretense like Christians are[10]. His point is not without merit. The contrast he points out is that the Roman Empire is trying to go after what they consider atheism towards their beliefs, but only selectively doing so. In this light, I would argue Martyr is saying the unjust practice of law is hypocritical and certainly a thorn in the side of Rome’s campaign against the Christians.

Martyr continues on in First Apology in Chapters 66 and 67 where he gives insight into the Eucharist in an attempt to dispel the cannibalism rumors in the light of proper understanding. Justin makes a case that the Gospels speak to Jesus calling the bread His body and calling the chalice His blood as Martyr also outlines the practice of the Eucharist that is still pretty much in place today emphasizing the important concept that Christians where not eating other human beings[11]. This kind of distinction would have made it clearly obvious that the Eucharist was operating under a theological and religious context of metaphorical representation and not one of literal flesh and blood.

Yet, something else is present in Chapter 66 specifically. Justin Martyr makes mention of Mithraism, which was a mystical religious movement present around this time that focused on the worship of the Persian sun god Mithra and borrowed several rituals from Christianity with the Eucharist being among them[12]. Martyr makes mention of this to show that Christians are not with the Mythraic movement and does his best to distance himself and Christians from it as he labels those who initiated the mystic rituals as “evil demons”[13]. For Martyr, it appears to be extremely important that Christianity be viewed as something outside of anything Rome had ever seen, but also that they were not inherently evil nor did they deserve to be singled out and persecuted solely for being Christians.

With one allegation against Christians engaged, it is important to note Martyr’s defense against allegations of incest since this was the other of the two big allegations against Christians in the Second Century. He states, “Lest we molest anyone or commit sin ourselves, we have been taught that it is wicked to expose even newly-born children, first, because we see that almost all those who are exposed (not only girls, but boys) are raised in prostitution.”[14] Martyr is making a case for the sacredness of a child’s life and links it to prostitution which strikes a chord with Rome at this time. As Martyr points out, Rome allowed money, taxes, and tribute from prostitutes in the Second Century (even perhaps making prostitutes out of their own families) and he points out that those who do this “may by some chance be guilty of intercourse with his own child, or relative, or brother.”[15] Here, Martyr deals a devastating blow to the Roman authority and shows the contrast in thought between Christianity and Rome during this time. By pointing out hypocrisy yet again, he puts holes in the “perfect” armor around the Roman government.

So, what is a Christian? Clearly the Roman Empire could not answer the question in the Second Century as they struggled to come to grips with a new religion in their midst. Justin Martyr makes a case in First Apology for what a Christian is not. Clearly there were misconceptions that were rampant during this time that Martyr sought to put an end to. He magnificently takes on some of the other sects that were present in society and makes an argument that Christians should be treated fairly with the Empire, and at the very least, respected as people. From the terminology presented in his writing, Martyr saw Christians as a beacon of good in a society run and infiltrated by evil in various forms. What he does well is in the contrasts between Christianity and other religions be it by practice or belief and his passionate plea for equality stands as a model for many (including myself) in the Apologetics field and in the churches suffering global.

First Apology is significant for a number of reasons. First, it gives us a glimpse of what thought was like in Second Century Rome. Polytheism and paganism ran wild in Rome during this time and Martyr took a stand for monotheism and Jesus Christ. Second, for me, Martyr’s writing stands as a testament of defiance against oppression. In today’s society (especially in North America) we have voices that are marginalized, silenced, or discarded simply because they are representative of minority. It seems Christianity was the minority in Justin Martyr’s time and Rome certainly suppressed Christians simply because Christians had differing views, lifestyles, and beliefs. Martyr masterfully exposed the inadequacies in persecution and shows that Rome has work to do not only on themselves, but with their people. Third, First Apology stands as a torch that helped light the way for modern day apologetics. The unfortunate reality today is that few are vested in apologetics and even those that are seem to be on differing sides of fences. Martyr’s writing stresses unity in the face of oppression and perhaps Christians today could learn to stand together in the name of Christ from Martyr’s example. Any sermon preached today revolving around this writing should focus on these significant areas presented and drive the point home that the ways of the world (which include racism, division, oppression, persecution, and marginalization) run counter to the Christian commitment and we must stand united under the blood of Christ.

Justin Martyr rebuked the persecution of Rome in First Apology and he showed their government that the accusations against them were farfetched and had no truth or domineering power over Christianity. As he states, “You, indeed, may be able to kill is, but you cannot harm us.”[16] Indeed, the Christian movement continues today despite the persecution Martyr fought against proving the eternal nature of the afterlife and the movement that Christ initiated and Martyr defended. Martyr himself would be sentenced to death by Rusticus with six other martyrs for the “crime” of not sacrificing to Roman gods or obeying the Emperor’s demands for adoration[17]. This fate for Martyr underscores his convictions and dedication to his beliefs, even to death. The unwillingness to conform to the ways of Roman society in the Second Century and the desire to prove how different Christians were from the rest of the world were at the forefront of his writing and the passionate plea for equality cannot be marginalized or underappreciated given his fate. Justin Martyr was the apologist all apologists should aspire to be.

[1] Margaret R. Miles, The Word Made Flesh: A History of Christian Thought. (Wiley-Blackwell, 2004): p.24.

[2] Margaret R. Miles, The Word Made Flesh: A History of Christian Thought. (Wiley-Blackwell, 2004): p. 22.

[3] Margaret R. Miles, The Word Made Flesh: A History of Christian Thought: p. 22.

[4] Justin Martyr, First Apology

[5] Thomas B. Falls, Saint Justin Martyr, vol. 6 of The Fathers of the Church (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press: 1948): p. 10.

[6] Thomas B. Falls, Saint Justin Martyr, vol. 6 of The Fathers of the Church: p. 11.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Mortin S. Enslin, “Justin Martyr: An Appreciation”. The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series 34, no. 2 (Oct., 1943). JSTOR. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1452083 (accessed September 22, 2014): p. 183.

[9] Thomas B. Falls, Saint Justin Martyr, vol. 6 of The Fathers of the Church (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press: 1948): pp. 38-39.

[10] Thomas B. Falls, Saint Justin Martyr, vol. 6 of The Fathers of the Church: pp. 62-63.

[11] Thomas B. Falls, Saint Justin Martyr, vol. 6 of The Fathers of the Church (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press: 1948): p. 106.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Thomas B. Falls, Saint Justin Martyr, vol. 6 of The Fathers of the Church (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press: 1948): p. 63.

[15] Thomas B. Falls, Saint Justin Martyr, vol. 6 of The Fathers of the Church: p. 64.

[16] Thomas B. Falls, Saint Justin Martyr, vol. 6 of The Fathers of the Church (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press: 1948): p. 34.

[17] Thomas B. Falls, Saint Justin Martyr, vol. 6 of The Fathers of the Church: p. 14.

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charlestinsley

My name is Charlie Tinsley and I blog about The Bible. In particular, I post my thoughts, commentaries, and Bible Study teachings I have done. I hold a Bachelors Degree in Science in Religion Summa Cum Laude with a Biblical Studies Minor. I am currently studying for a Masters In Divinity at Eastern Mennonite Seminary with PhD ambitions in the study of Theology. I am married and have been for several years and I currently reside in Virginia.

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