Thursday, June 01, 2017

Saint Justin the Philosopher - Fearless Christian apologist and martyr

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June 1 is the feast day of St. Justin Martyr, one of the most remarkable early Christian saints, beheaded during the reign of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, circa AD 165. Born in Flavia Neapolis in Syria, Justin was remarkable as a philosopher. We are fortunate that many of his writings have come down to us from antiquity, including two Apologies (that is, defenses) for Christianity, and the Dialogue with Tryphon.

In his first Apology addressed to the emperor Antoninus Pius, Justin provided a lively defense of Christianity and a takedown of traditional paganism from the the point of view of a man who was well-versed in both. From this Apology, we have one of the earliest descriptions of the Christian liturgy, as follows in part:
And this food is called among us Εὐχαριστία [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, "This do in remembrance of Me, this is My body; and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, This is My blood;" and gave it to them alone. Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn. [The First Apology of Justin Martyr, Chapter 66: Of the Eucharist.]
It is interesting here that Justin, probably writing in the 150s AD, indicates that the followers of Mithraism imitated the rites of Christianity, not the other way around as is commonly claimed today.

The second Apology, which is considerably shorter, is addressed to the Roman Senate. In this document, Justin offers some remarkable testimony regarding his own conversion to Christianity:
For I myself, too, when I was delighting in the doctrines of Plato, and heard the Christians slandered, and saw them fearless of death, and of all other-things which are counted fearful, perceived that it was impossible that they could be living in wickedness and pleasure. For what sensual or intemperate man, or who that counts it good to feast on human flesh, could welcome death that he might be deprived of his enjoyments, and would not rather continue always the present life, and attempt to escape the observation of the rulers; and much less would he denounce himself when the consequence would be death? [The Second Apology of Justin Martyr, Chapter 12: Christians proved innocent by their contempt of death]
Justin himself proved equally fearless of death when his time came. An authentic account of Justin's celebrated martyrdom in Rome during the reign of Marcus Aurelius has also come down to us from antiquity. Excerpted below is Justin's spirited debate with the Prefect of Rome:
Justin and others that were with him were apprehended [their names are recorded as Chariton, Charites, Pæon and Liberianus], and brought before Rusticus, prefect of Rome, who said to Justin, "Obey the gods, and comply with the edicts of the emperors." 
Justin answered: "No one can be justly blamed or condemned for obeying the commands of our Savior Jesus Christ."
Rusticus: "What kind of literature and discipline do you profess?" 
Justin: "I have tried every kind of discipline and learning, but I have finally embraced the Christian discipline, how little soever esteemed by those who were led away by error and false opinions."

Rusticus: "Wretch, art thou then taken with that discipline?" 
Justin: "Doubtless I am, because it affords me the comfort of being in the right path."

Rusticus: "What are the tenets of the Christian religion?" 
Justin: "We Christians believe one God, Creator of all things visible and invisible; and we confess our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, foretold by the prophets, the Author and Preacher of salvation, and the Judge of mankind."
The prefect inquired in what place the Christians assembled. 
Justin replied, "Where they please, and where they can: God is not confined to a place: as he is invisible, and fills both heaven and earth, he is everywhere adored and glorified by the faithful."

Rusticus: "Tell me where you assemble your disciples." 
Justin: "I have lived till this time near the house of one called Martin, at the Timothin baths. I am come a second time to Rome, and am acquainted with no other place in the city. If any one came to me, I communicated to him the doctrine of truth." 
Rusticus: "You are then a Christian?" 
Justin: "Yes, I am."
The prefect went on to question the other Christians in like manner. Having received a similar response, he turns his attention again to St. Justin:
The prefect says to Justin: "Hearken, you who are called learned, and think that you know true doctrines; if you are scourged and beheaded, do you believe you will ascend into heaven?" 
Justin: "I hope that, if I endure these things, I shall have His gifts. For I know that, to all who have thus lived, there abides the divine favor until the completion of the whole world."
Rusticus: "Do you suppose, then, that you will ascend into heaven to receive some recompense?"
Justin: "I do not suppose it, but I know and am fully persuaded of it."
Rusticus: "Let us, then, now come to the matter in hand, and which presses. Having come together, offer sacrifice with one accord to the gods."
Justin: "No right-thinking person falls away from piety to impiety."
Rusticus: "Unless you obey, you shall be mercilessly punished."
Justin: "Through prayer we can be saved on account of our Lord Jesus Christ, even when we have been punished, because this shall become to us salvation and confidence at the more fearful and universal judgment-seat of our Lord and Savior."
Thus also said the other martyrs: "Do what you will, for we are Christians, and do not sacrifice to idols."
Rusticus the prefect pronounced sentence, saying: "Let those who have refused to sacrifice to the gods and to yield to the command of the emperor be scourged, and led away to suffer the punishment of decapitation, according to the laws."
The holy martyrs having glorified God, and having gone forth to the accustomed place, were beheaded, and perfected their testimony in the confession of the Savior.
The above dialogue is taken from The martyrdom of the holy martyrs Justin, Chariton, Charites, Pæon and Liberianus, who suffered at Rome.

Included at the end of the extant writings of St. Justin Martyr is an epistle purportedly written by the emperor Marcus Aurelius to the Senate whereby he credits the Christians with his miraculous victory over the Germans. While this letter is considered spurious by many today, it is worthy of a longer examination in a separate post.

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