Justin Martyr (commemorated as Saint Justin the Philosopher on June 1st in the Orthodox Church) is one of the most famous martyrs and early fathers of the Church. Saint Justin was born near the ancient well of Jacob, “where Jesus had promised the Samaritan woman the living water that slakes thirst forever and leaps up for eternal life” (Diess, Springtime of the Liturgy, p. 89). Ironically enough, despite being born near this metaphorical spring of eternal life, Justin spent much of his life “thirsting for God,” but unable to find him.
Justin’s search for an encounter with God led him through many different forms of Greek philosophy. On this point, it should be understood that, in the ancient world, philosophy was not a merely intellectual enterprise or the from-the-hip, idle speculations of the underachievers (as it tends to be today, but not entirely so); rather, it was a wholly devoted discipline and “way of life.” In fact, it can be demonstrated that many aspects of Greek philosophy served as the underpinnings of Christian theology in the early centuries, not to mention the fact that the philosopher’s way of life served as a precursor to the Christian monastic’s.
Justin’s first philosophical venture (Stoicism) was short-lived, as his teacher “knew nothing of God and did not even think knowledge of him to be necessary.” While there are many truths within Stoicism that are compatible with aspects of Christian belief (especially as seen in the writings of the apostle Paul), a place to “meet God” it was not. After Stoicism, Saint Justin was disappointed by an Aristotelian Peripatetic, who seemed more interested in Justin’s money than anything else. From here, his journey took him to the school of Pythagorus, but the required “study of music, astronomy, and geometry” (Ibid., p. 89) led him right back out the door, as he had neither the inclination nor the patience for such an endeavor. Finally, Saint Justin encountered the philosophy (and followers) of Plato. He was rather intrigued for a time, but he ultimately found it lacking.
When his study of Platonism came to an end and a discovery of the Christian Church was made, Justin said to the rabbi Trypho (in his Christian apologetic against post-temple Judaism):
A fire was suddenly kindled in my soul. I fell in love with the prophets and these men who had loved Christ; I reflected on all their words and found that this philosophy alone was true and profitable. That is how and why I became a philosopher. And I wish that everyone felt the same way that I do.
Dialogue with Trypho, 8
What a beautiful admission and moment of clarity.
In the end, Justin discovered what Saint Augustine of Hippo would put so eloquently a few short centuries later: “Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee” (Confessions, 1). It was not that the desire to be a philosopher was found wanting in-and-of-itself — it was that every form of philosophy apart from Christ was found wanting. The true philosophy, according to Saint Justin, was that of the Orthodox, Christian tradition. There are bits and pieces of the truth everywhere in the world (what he would refer to as the spermatikos logos, borrowing from existing philosophical constructs), but the only place where they are all found (and without mixture of error) is in the Person of Jesus Christ — the Logos of God himself — who is the chief cornerstone of the apostolic, prophetic Church (Eph. 2:20).
Saint Justin converted around the year 130, living at that time in the city of Ephesus. Now a part of the Church, Justin soon came to realize that the followers of Christ were so radically devoted to him, they were willing to lose their own lives for the sake of his gospel. Along with this, he discovered that the accusations against the Christians (during the persecution, and especially in Rome where he soon traveled) were unfounded, considering their fearlessness in the face of certain death:
In the days when the teachings of Plato were my delight, I myself used to hear the accusations leveled against Christians … I realized they could not possibly be living vicious, pleasure-seeking lives. For if a man loves pleasure and debauchery, if his delight is to eat human flesh, will he seek out death, which deprives you of all these pleasures?
No one believes in Socrates to the point of dying for what he taught … But for the sake of Christ, not only philosophers and scholars, but even workmen and uneducated people have scorned fame, fear, and death!
2nd Apology, 12 & 10
As mentioned briefly, Saint Justin moved to Rome after his conversion, and there he opened a school for teaching others about the Christian faith (sometime between AD 138 and 156). At various points in history, adherence to Christianity in the city of Rome — not to mention devoting a whole school and several written works to the subject — were almost certain death sentences. Despite the imminent threat against his life, Justin continued to both teach and defend the gospel of Jesus Christ, along with his followers. It was in Rome during this time that he wrote his two Apologies for the Christian faith (~ AD 150), addressing them to the emperor Antonius Pius, along with his son Marcus Aurelius (a Stoic philosopher). He wrote “on behalf of the men … who are unjustly hated and persecuted.” In perhaps his most bold move, he proudly “outed” himself as the author of this forbidden work, fearless before those who would certainly have him killed: “I … am one of them, Justin, son of Priscus, son of Baccheius, a native of Flavia Neapolis in Palestinian Syria.” It was as if he was signing the dotted line on his own certificate of death, and doing so with gusto.
Saint Justin was publicly executed as a martyr for the Christian faith soon after this writing, dying around the year 156. He has been venerated as a Saint and father of the Church ever since, and his writings are invaluable when it comes to understanding the worship and practices of the Church in the early second century, along with the intersection between Christian theology and the contemporary Greek philosophers of that era.
His bold witness (“witness” is the same Greek word as “martyr”) should serve as a reminder to all Christians that a decision to follow Christ is not a decision that should be taken lightly; we never know when (and where) persecution will arise. One can only pray for the courage of a man whose very name became synonymous with “Martyr.” He embodied not only what it means to take up one’s Cross and follow Christ, but also what it truly means to “be a witness” for him.