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The Motherlode of Truth from Justin Martyr (1st-Century Fridays #15)

The Motherlode of Truth from Justin Martyr (1st-Century Fridays #15) October 1, 2021

Hi and welcome back! Now, we come to the last 1st-Century Friday post for a while. After this, we may revisit my master list as time goes on, but I think we’ve finally hit the wall on writers who were even vaguely contemporaneous with Jesus. However, I’m taking us out with a bang. Today, let’s check out Justin Martyr — and see why today’s Christians have reason to fear what he had to say about their religion’s earliest days.

Justin Martyr lookin lean here
(Wikimedia.)

(Series tag. In 1st-Century Fridays, we’re meeting the ancient contemporaries of Jesus — and seeing what, if anything, they have to say about him and Christianity’s earliest days and adherents. Here’s the largely-canonical list of contemporaries you might have seen around. We examined this list (and color-coded it!) in full here.)

(See also: Fronto, a 2nd-century critic of Christianity; Hell in the 2nd Century; Hell in the 2nd-4th Centuries.) 

Everyone, Meet Justin Martyr.

Justin Martyr lived during one of Christianity’s wackiest, most tumultuous times: between 100-165 CE. As you might suspect from the name, he was supposedly martyred to death.

Born in Samaria, he might have technically been Greek but identified as a Samaritan, and thus a Gentile and originally a pagan. Yes, Samaritan as in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

That parable exists for a very good reason: the long-running and very mutual antipathy between Jews and Samaritans. Josephus (who lived between 37-100 CE) talks about them a bit in his Jewish War book, enough to get the idea that the Jews of his day absolutely haaaaated Samaritans — and they hated the Jews right on back. That doesn’t seem to have changed a whole lot by the time Justin Martyr came of age.

Justin Martyr flailed around a bit trying to find a life philosophy that satisfied King Him. Eventually, he ran into an elderly Christian along the seashore. This Christian claimed to feel much more certain about his religious claims than the pagan philosophers Justin Martyr had encountered. Christian certainty, along with the example of ascetics’ fervor, convinced him. And so our boy became a Christian. He opened a school to teach his religious beliefs to others.

Catholics claim to have “the authentic account” of Justin Martyr’s death. Apparently, he ran into trouble with his local government for refusing to sacrifice to the pagan gods of the Roman Empire. The Catholic Encyclopedia tells us here that Prefect Rusticus had Justin Martyr and his students tortured and then beheaded around 165 CE. Encyclopedia.com thinks this account is accurate, which is interesting on its own.

Now, many Christians consider Justin Martyr an important saint.

What Justin Martyr Wrote.

Before he left this life, Justin Martyr created a wealth of writing. Of this wealth, we still have two works of apologetics and a dialogue.

The First Apology addresses itself to Emperor Antoninus Pius. Justin Martyr probably wrote it between 155-157. It mostly consists of him defending Christians from seriously-negative public opinion. Historians also make note of Chapter LXVII, which describes the customs of Christians at the time. (Archive link.)

This apology may have been sparked inspired by the recent martyr’s death of Polycarp, who’d been burned at the stake. A letter about the incident had been circulating around the Empire.

The Second Apology supplements the first one. Justin Martyr must have written it between 150-157 CE. He addresses it to the Roman Senate, which at the time was busily persecuting Christians. In it, he defends Christians from various accusations. (Archive link.)

The third surviving work, Dialogue with Trypho, likely got written between 155-160. In this one, Justin Martyr records a conversation about Jesus as the Jewish Messiah with a potentially-fictional rabbi. Often, people identify Trypho as Rabbi Tarfon, who really existed, though this identification is not at all universally accepted by Jewish scholars. (Archive link.)

Since Dialogue ends with Trypho deciding to check more carefully into Christians’ claim that Jesus really was their long-awaited Messiah, I’m guessing the character is indeed fictional. In reality, Jesus flunked almost all of the requirements Jews had for the real deal, which is probably why Jews rejected Christianity so hard then (and now).

The First Concern of Justin Martyr: Christian Immorality.

It’s beyond clear that — like most very early apologists — Justin Martyr’s first concern was addressing accusations of immorality and hypocrisy among his religion’s followers. Christians’ abysmal inability to behave like decent human beings, much less their complete inability to follow their very own added-on rules, was already a big problem for Christian leaders.

In Chapter IV of The First Apology, Justin Martyr begins by stating how unfair he thinks it that Christians get criticized and condemned “by the mere application of a name” — namely, “Christian.” Romans were normally very generous with the religions of their conquered nations. However, they held a very low opinion of Christians as a group. Justin Martyr writes:

For from a name neither praise nor punishment could reasonably spring, unless something excellent or base in action be proved. And those among yourselves who are accused you do not punish before they are convicted; but in our case you receive the name as proof against us, and this although, so far as the name goes, you ought rather to punish our accusers. For we are accused of being Christians, and to hate what is excellent (Chrestian) is unjust. [Ch. IV]

(See that use of “Chrestian” there? Not accidental.) In Chapter VII, Justin Martyr demands that Christians all be tried by their own example. Any bad Christians must be simply considered bad apples, as Christians demand critics do even today.

Interestingly, he’s talking about criminal accusations are here. That’s perfectly fair. However, this reasonable demand has since morphed into Christians denying non-believers the right to hold any negative opinions about Christians as a group — no matter how many Christians we’ve ever met and been done wrong by.

The Second Concern: Sedition.

Next, Justin Martyr sweeps into accusations of sedition against Christians. He tries very hard to stress to the Emperor that any time Christians talk about “a kingdom,” they mean their god’s Heavenly kingdom. Indeed, he writes, Christians seek nothing but peace with the Empire. To prove this point, he sets up an if-then:

For if we looked for a human kingdom, we should also deny our Christ, that we might not be slain; and we should strive to escape detection, that we might obtain what we expect. [Ch. XI]

A while back, we studied the progression of Christianity from despised little sub-sect of Judaism to most powerful religion in the Western world. And we saw that this assertion isn’t true at all. Christian leaders definitely sought temporal power. And when they got it, they immediately began using it to its fullest extent. In fact, they only sought more. The only reason they stopped flexing power — where they actually have stopped at all — was that countries’ governments finally gained enough power to make them stop. And even in those countries, their leaders clearly continue to dream of regaining that power.

If only Justin Martyr’s assertions had ever been true! But even today, Christians insist the same thing. They think we don’t know that “God’s Kingdom” sits very comfortably on Earthly thrones.

The Third Big Concern: Hypocrisy.

Next, Justin Martyr addresses accusations of rampant hypocrisy. This part made me laugh because Christians still recycle his response today. In fact, its opposite becomes a very popular accusation to hurl at non-Christians. See if you can spot the lie:

For if all men knew [about Judgment Day and Hell], no one would choose wickedness even for a little, knowing that he goes to the everlasting punishment of fire; but would by all means restrain himself, and adorn himself with virtue, that he might obtain the good gifts of God, and escape the punishments. [Ch. XII]

Then, he claims that Roman leaders fear widespread adoption of Christianity:

But you seem to fear lest all men become righteous, and you no longer have any to punish. [Ch. XII]

Because obviously, once people become Christian they don’t break laws anymore. And that gives officers of the law nothing to do! Poor dears! Why oh why does the Roman Empire so dislike the idea of more of its people becoming good and moral citizens?

Again: If only Christians could behave like they believe their own dogma.

Justin Martyr Compares Christianity to Heathen Religions.

In his First Apology, Justin Martyr spends a lot of time drawing big comparisons between various Greco-Roman myths and Christianity itself. It’s one of the funniest things Christian apologists do:

  • Christians: We’re totally new and unique among all religions! Obviously that makes our religion the realest and truest! For real! You should join ours! [Josh.org; Got Questions]
  • Also Christians: Look at how strangely similar other world religions are to our own! How would adopting our religion be such a long stretch, then? C’moooooonnnn! [Ark EncounterThe True Son of Heaven]

‘Ere he goes:

[W]e propound nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you esteem sons of Jupiter. [Ch. XXI]

He goes on to name:

  • Mercury, Asclepius, Bacchus, Hercules, the Dioscuri (Castor and Polydeuces, who became the constellation Gemini), Perseus, and Bellerophon
  • Ariadne and other mortals “set among the stars” by the gods
  • Various Roman emperors deified after death

And see, see, Justin Martyr tells us: Jesus was even born of a virgin — just like the other demigods! And he worked miracles — just like demigods could! Perhaps most funny of all, Chapter LV talks extensively about the symbolism involved in pagan beliefs — comparing it to the symbolism used in Christianity. Don’t miss that chapter. It’s very obvious that Christians at the time didn’t yet have an understanding of Jesus as a literal human who’d lived and died on this good dark earth.

It’s interesting to me that so many modern Christians insist that their religion is 100% totes for realsies unique among all religions (it is not; it was just a new fusion of existing 1st-century religious ideas, then modified over the centuries to follow), but here’s Justin Martyr shooting that claim in both feet in his First Apology.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea. LambChopSuey was right: Justin Martyr’s apologetics are just such a gold mine of Christian dishonesty.

Recurring Themes.

The Second Apology continues along similar lines. Justin Martyr talks a lot about demons influencing all the negative opinions about Christians as a group, as he did in The First Apology. Then he declares again that this demonic activity represents a fulfillment of Christian prophecy.

Among other licentious things, Romans seem to have thought Christians drank blood in debauched rituals. Though Justin Martyr condemns these rumors as “falsehoods” perpetrated by demons, he goes to great pains to make Christians’ general obsession with blood seem as normal and as similar to paganism as he possibly could. Even if they were doing such things, he says, it wouldn’t be bad really:

[W]e are doing what you do before that idol you honour, and on which you sprinkle the blood not only of irrational animals, but also of men, making a libation of the blood of the slain by the hand of the most illustrious and noble man among you? And imitating Jupiter and the other gods in sodomy and shameless intercourse with woman, might we not bring as our apology the writings of Epicurus and the poets? [Ch. XII]

See? See? It’s not so different, he tells his audience of Roman senators.

He ends by badmouthing his fellow Samaritan, Simon. Justin Martyr felt that Simon was an imitator of Jesus — and a really awful one, at that. We met Simon (along with the heretic Marcion, briefly) in The First Apology, in Chapter XXVI. Why, Simon even had a former prostitute, Helena, who traveled with him — and a disciple, Meander! According to Justin Martyr, Rome had put up a statue of Simon with an inscription: “Simoni Deo Sancto,” meaning “To Simon the holy God.” And this move was 100% not okay with Justin Martyr.

Even today, Christians sure dislike competition. They especially dislike competition that plays up the weirdest parts of their beliefs.

Justin Martyr’s Dialogue With the Totes for Realsies Rabbi Trypho.

In the Dialogue, we see a very similar set of recurring ideas. In particular, I want to draw your attention to Chapter X. Chapters VIII and IX consisted of Trypho’s accusation that Christians had bought into a series of untrue claims:

“But Christ—if He has indeed been born, and exists anywhere—is unknown, and does not even know Himself, and has no power until Elias come to anoint Him, and make Him manifest to all. And you, having accepted a groundless report, invent a Christ for yourselves, and for his sake are inconsiderately perishing.” [Ch. XIII]

In Chapter X, Justin Martyr tries to figure out exactly what Jewish leaders’ accusations are:

“Is there any other matter, my friends, in which we are blamed, than this, that we live not after the law, and are not circumcised in the flesh as your forefathers were, and do not observe sabbaths as you do? Are our lives and customs also slandered among you? And I ask this: have you also believed concerning us, that we eat men; and that after the feast, having extinguished the lights, we engage in promiscuous concubinage? Or do you condemn us in this alone, that we adhere to such tenets, and believe in an opinion, untrue, as you think?”

In response, the totally for real Rabbi Trypho assures him that he’s only concerned with the accusations concerning Jewish law. After all, the other rumors describe behavior that seems impossibly “repugnant” to him. Nobody could be that bad!

Gosh, that kind of hypocrisy is just impossible to imagine in Christians! Impossible! Why, obviously Jews had to be spreading these lies (Ch. XVII)! Jews just hate Christians for this one weird trick (Ch. XXXIX)!

(But wait, what happened to Jewish leaders refusing to accept such vile rumors?)

(Also: Chapter XV contains the unforgettable phrase “circumcise, therefore, the foreskin of your heart.” Oh, my goodness. That’s downright poetic.)

The Interesting Focus of Early Apologists.

A lecture from Bart Ehrman (which I unfortunately can’t lay hands on now, but which may include material similar to his book on the general topic) reminds me that the earliest Christian apologists seemed very concerned with widespread accusations of hypocrisy against them. It matches up very well with the kind of hypocrisy that we see in Christians even today.

What makes Justin Martyr’s work so interesting is that he goes into detail about what those accusations involved. Christianity was not yet powerful enough that people feared speaking against it or its adherents. Their followers existed at the mercy of the authorities because they were not yet authorities themselves. This truth reveals itself in how seriously its first apologists had to take the accusations and rumors about their group.

And his rebuttals to those accusations sound a lot like the ones we hear even today:

  • Y’all can’t judge us by bad apples!
  • Nobody could possibly be that bad!
  • Our rules specifically forbid such behavior!

He couldn’t point, in any of his rebuttals, to the actual lived behavior of actual Christians in the main — and it’s not hard to imagine why he couldn’t. Instead, he had to hand-wave away his tribe’s numerous hypocrites and deploy various logical fallacies to deal with the accusations.

And Christians today do the same, now that their cultural power has finally waned enough to render them unable to silence criticism anymore.

Grading Justin Martyr.

Reading between the lines of Justin Martyr’s work, we also get a glimpse of our actual focus in this entire series. We get a look at the beliefs of the earliest Christians. It’s very clear from his work that Christians’ general beliefs were greatly in flux still and hadn’t yet settled into the familiar lines we know today.

His Jesus wasn’t particularly a real live man who’d had a real live life on Earth. The way he talks about Jesus sounds very ephemeral and allegorical, and he makes no references that I could find regarding Jesus’ supposed real life on Earth. In other words, his Jesus sounds like Paul’s Jesus: existing in a spiritual world that looked like ours, but was not actually our actual world.

And his Christians already had trouble at least pretending that they lived according to any rules, not just their own extra religious rules.

I give Justin Martyr a B+ and set him on the Recommended Reading list for anybody interested in the history of Christianity.

The more one learns about these early Christian writers, the less one can credit Christians’ heavily revised, self-interested accounting of their own history. It all just looks more and more made up on the fly, probably because that’s exactly how it evolved.

NEXT UP: The Jesus-focused obsession in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. See you Sunday! <3


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.

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