About Ignatius Insight
  Who We Are
  Ignatius Press
  Ignatius Press catalogs
  Catholic World Report
  Homiletic & Pastoral Review
  IP Novels site
  IP Religious Ed blog
  IP Critical Editions

Justin Martyr Walks a Tightrope | Rod Bennett | From "Justin Martyr", in Four Witnesses: The Early Church in Her Own Words | Ignatius Insight

Print-friendly version

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, [17] 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 liberal traditions.

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 and historians!
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. [18]

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. [19]

Therefore, whatever things were rightly said among all people are the property of us Christians.
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!


[17] 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 160.

[18] 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.

[19] Ibid., chap. 10, ACW 56:80, emphasis added. [20] Ibid., chap. 13, ACW 56:84.

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".

If you'd like to receive the FREE IgnatiusInsight.com e-letter (about every 2 to 3 weeks), which includes regular updates about IgnatiusInsight.com articles, reviews, excerpts, and author appearances, please click here to sign-up today!


World Wide Web


Place your order toll-free at 1-800-651-1531

Ignatius Press | San Francisco
Web design under direction of Ignatius Press.
Send your comments or web problems to:

Copyright 2018 by Ignatius Press

IgnatiusInsight.com catholic blog books insight scoop weblog ignatius