Justin Martyr Walks a Tightrope | Rod Bennett | From "Justin Martyr", in "Four Witnesses: The Early Church in Her Own Words" | Ignatius Insight
Justin Martyr Walks a Tightrope | Rod Bennett | From "Justin Martyr", in Four Witnesses: The Early Church in Her
Own Words | Ignatius Insight
Justin's conversion to Christianity is thought to have happened at the city of
Ephesus, around A.D. 130, when our inquisitive young Samaritan was roughly
thirty years of age. And though he was undoubtedly given a warm reception into
the Christian congregation there in Asia—that venerable church founded by
John, written to by Ignatius from the house of Polycarp—Justin, to tell
the truth, may have raised a few eyebrows by his conduct as a new believer. For
the fact is that he continued to frequent his old haunts. He kept all his old
friendships and ran with the same unregenerate crowd he had associated with as
a heathen. In short, Justin of Neapolis became known, much like his Lord before
him, as "the friend of publicans and sinners"—only in Justin's case, the
publicans and sinners were not prostitutes or winebibbers, but mystic
Pythagorean mathematicians and long-faced logicians studiously following
Xenophon and Parmenides. In other words, Justin became an apologist—a defender of the faith, a philosophical
evangelist—and from the day of his redemption he seems to have been
possessed by one burning desire: to see his own people, his brother
philosophers, come to the knowledge of the truth.
The Dialogue with Trypho, which
took place at Ephesus during this period,  gives us a window into Justin's
methods. As it opens, we find him, wearing his pallium, walking among the
colonnades of a great temple (possibly the same great temple of Diana where
earlier Paul had raised the ire of the silversmiths [Acts 19]). Such places
were where the philosophers of the day plied their trade, and little groups of
them could always be found arguing, from sun up to sun down, on the steps of
every pagan shrine in the Empire. On this particular day, Justin drew the
attention of Trypho, the Hellenized rabbi, famous as one of the most learned
Jews in the East. Yet it might just as well have been the representative of any
of a hundred different world views who chose to debate him that day, for they
all met here on equal terms, all contending (though they little knew it at the
time) for the intellectual fate of Europe and the world.
In the case of Trypho, the conversation turns quickly to Old Testament prophecy
and its alleged fulfillment in Jesus of Nazareth. But even with pagan opponents
Justin was known to declare his Christianity boldly—and this in spite of
the popular mania against the Faith that swirled around him like a tempest.
While this is certainly brave, it is not quite reckless. Justin knows, and is consciously depending
upon, an unwritten code of honor current among Greek philosophers. Socrates'
great motto had been to "follow the argument wherever it
leads"—and, as a result, his successors held the keeping of an open
mind to be among the highest of virtues. They prided themselves upon the fact
that just about any viewpoint could gain a respectful hearing among
them—at least until they felt that it had been conclusively disproved.
Therefore, to surrender their old comrade to the authorities solely because he
had altered his opinions would have been seen as a serious violation of their
And so Justin walks a tightrope. His beliefs are outlawed and he knows that
there is not another public platform in the Empire open to his message. Yet he
also knows that One false step will send him to the lions. His chosen strategy,
then, is precarious in the extreme, and strangely poignant. Justin will count,
prayerfully and trustingly, on the intellectual integrity of his old friends.
He will speak, as only a man in his unique position could, to the one group of
Roman citizens on earth who are committed not to turn him in for treason.
What is his approach? In the true spirit of discipleship, Justin resolves to
walk in the footsteps of his own spiritual father—a certain nameless Old
Man, the gentle but tough-minded Christian Socrates who once beat him at his
own game. Justin will practice logic with the logicians; he will use philosophy
on the philosophers. To the Platonists, he will remain a Platonist; to the
Stoics, he will talk Stoicism—and talk it better than they can, and more ruthlessly. He will become
all things to all men, that he might by all means save some.
The best example of Justin's apologetic, perhaps, comes in his answer to their
most serious and common objection. The single greatest stumbling block for
pagan academics, it seems, was Christianity's exclusivity—its claim to be the one true religion, the one
sure way to God, established by
God. Were the Christians really saying that the whole world had been stumbling
hopelessly in the dark until a mere one hundred years ago? Was Justin now
asking his friends to deny all the priceless insights they had learned together
by their study of philosophy? Would a man not have to commit something like intellectual
suicide to do that? And had Justin himself
managed such a feat? Did their respected colleague now consider himself a mere
Christian sectary—just another mystery cultist, making, as the skies
blackened over Rome, just one more religious leap in the dark?
Justin answered—and in his answer Jerusalem and Athens speak together for
the first time; the new City of God, set on a hill forever: "[Yes,] I
confess that I both pray and with all my strength strive to be found a
Christian; not because the teachings of Plato are different from those of
Christ, but because they are not in every respect equal." Certainly
Plato spoke the truth, responds Justin. So did all the poets and philosophers
For each person spoke well, according to the part present in him of the
divine logos, the Sower.... We [Christians, on the other hand,] worship and
love the Logos, who is from the unbegotten and ineffable God, since He became
man for our sakes; so that, by becoming a partaker of our sufferings, He might
also bring us healing. All the writers were able to see realities darkly [cf. I
Cor 13: 12], through the presence in them of an implanted seed of logos. For
the seed and imitation of something, imparted according to capacity, is one
thing, and another is the thing itself. 
What an astonishing set of words! The whole glorious history of Christian
thought is prefigured here, from Augustine to Aquinas to C. S. Lewis!
And—more to our own point—what a magnificent obstacle God has
raised up in the path of Marcus Aurelius: iron to sharpen iron, mind to answer
mind, fashioned by the Spirit to save the soul of an emperor!
What we have, then, appears to be greater than all human teaching, because the
whole rational principle became Christ who appeared for our sake, body, and reason, and soul. 
Therefore, whatever things were rightly said among all people are the property
of us Christians. 
 Though the debate itself is
believed to have taken place just after the Bar Cocheba uprising in A.D. 132,
the final written form of the Dialogue dates from later—probably about
 Justin Martyr, First Apology, chap. 13, trans. Leslie
William Barnard, in St. Justin Martyr, The First and Second Apologies, ACW,
vol. 56 (New York: Paulist Press, 1997), pp. 83-84.
 Ibid., chap. 10, ACW 56:80, emphasis added.  Ibid., chap. 13, ACW
Four Witnesses: The Early Church in Her Own Words
By Rod Bennett
Also available in E-Book format and
as a Downloadable Audio file.
What was the early Church like? Contrary to popular belief, Rod Bennett shows there is a reliable way to know. Four ancient Christian writers--four witnesses to early Christianity--left us an
extensive body of documentation on this vital subject, and this book brings their fascinating testimony to life for modern believers. With all the power and drama of a gripping novel, this book
is a journey of discovery of ancient and beautiful truths through the lives of four great saints of the early Church: Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus of Lyons.
"A treasure! The early Church and its teachings come to life in this story. Did the first Christians believe what you believe? Buy this book, read the words of the early Church Herself, and fall in
love with the historic Church that Christ Himself founded."
- David Currie, Author, Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic
"Rod Bennett has immersed himself in the fascinating writings of four early Fathers of the Church and has made the discovery from reading them that sincere and attentive readers of them ought to make.
The author's imaginative account of these four great Church Fathers is not only an excellent introduction to their work; it is a convincing rendering of what the early Church must really have been like.
This is an important new contribution to Christian apologetics."
- Kenneth Whitehead, Author, One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Excerpts and Articles
Studying The Early Christians: The Introduction to We Look For
the Kingdom | Carl J. Sommer
Church and State in Early Christianity | Hugo Rahner, S.J.
His Story and the History of the Church | An Interview with Dr. Glenn W. Olsen
Are We at The End or The Beginning? | Dr. Glenn Olson
A Short Guide to Ancient Heresies | Kenneth D. Whitehead
Rod Bennett the former editor of Wonder magazine, has written for various publications, including Cornerstone, Gadfly, and Catholic Exchange. He joined the
Catholic Church in 1996. Visit him at his blog, "Tremendous Trifles".
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