How This Pagan Philosopher Became a Saint

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Wen it comes to saints Catholics often have their own “pop-Catholic culture” go-tos: Mother Teresa, The Little Flower, St. Bernadette, Pope St. John Paul II. You would be hard pressed to find a Catholic who doesn’t know at least a little bit about these Heavenly giants.

But Catholicism is chock-full of other saints who are either lesser known, almost unknown or known in name only. Justin Martyr is usually one of these. “Justin who?” is not an uncommon reaction. What many Catholics know about this Saint is contained in his name: his name was Justin, he was a martyr. Yet this early Church father had a colorful history and made some pretty epic contributions to the Church.

Two Philosophers in Conversation by Rembrandt

 

He was a Pagan Philosopher Who Liked to Embellish

Justin was born some time around A.D. 100 in a place called Flavia, Neapolis. He was a pagan for about 30 years until he converted. He devoted himself to Philosophy, first as a Stoic, next as a Pythagorean and then as a Platonic. He was a prolific author for his time, and his works give an account of his conversion, however he had a tendency to exaggerate and embellish to give his writing more poetic flare so historians have had to try to differentiate fact from Justin’s “fiction.”

 

He Converted to Christianity As An Adult

Justin converted to Christianity when he was around 30 years old. He admits in his works that he was attracted by the moral beauty of Christianity and by its grasp of the Truth. He was also apparently quite moved by the witness of the martyrs, remarking in one of his works,

When I was a disciple of Plato hearing the accusations made against the Christians and seeing them intrepid in the face of death and of all that men fear, I said to myself that it was impossible that they should be living in evil and in the love of pleasure.

 

He was a prolific writer . . . we think

According to Eusebius Pamphili, Bishop of Cæsarea in Palestine and the Father of Church History, Justin Martyr’s major works were: Discourse in favour of our Faith to Antoninus Pius, to his sons, and to the Roman Senate, an Apology addressed to Marcus Aurelius; Discourse to the Greeks; another discourse called A Refutation; Treatise on the Divine Monarchy; a book called The Psalmist; Treatise on the Soul; Dialogue against the Jews, sometimes referred to as Dialogue With Tryphon (who was a famous Jew at the time of Justin). This list cannot be verified, and as often happens, some exaggerations and misappropriations may have occurred throughout history. We do know, however, that Justin Martyr wrote at least Two Apologies and a Dialogue (assumed to be the Dialogue with Tryphon).  These works alone secured him a place among the early Church notables.

 

One of the earliest accounts of the Mass was recorded by Justin Martyr

Written around 155 A.D. (which is only about 50 years after the last book of the Bible was written!) The First Apology describes an early form of the Mass. Check out these excerpts:

No one may share the Eucharist with us unless he believes that what we teach is true, unless he is washed in the regenerating waters of baptism for the remission of his sins, and unless he lives in accordance with the principles given us by Christ.

We do not consume the Eucharistic bread and wine as if it were ordinary food and drink, for we have been taught that as Jesus Christ our Savior became a man of flesh and blood by the power of the Word of God, so also the food that our flesh and blood assimilates for its nourishment becomes the flesh and blood of the incarnate Jesus by the power of his own words contained in the prayer of thanksgiving.

The apostles, in their recollections, which are called gospels, handed down to us what Jesus commanded them to do. They tell us that he took bread, gave thanks and said: Do this in memory of me. This is my body. In the same way he took the cup, he gave thanks and said: This is my blood. The Lord gave this command to them alone. Ever since then we have constantly reminded one another of these things. The rich among us help the poor and we are always united. For all that we receive we praise the Creator of the universe through his Son Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit.

On Sunday we have a common assembly of all our members, whether they live in the city or the outlying districts. The recollections of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as there is time. When the reader has finished, the president of the assembly speaks to us; he urges everyone to imitate the examples of virtue we have heard in the readings. Then we all stand up together and pray.

On the conclusion of our prayer, bread and wine and water are brought forward. The president offers prayers and gives thanks to the best of his ability, and the people give assent by saying, “Amen”. The Eucharist is distributed, everyone present communicates, and the deacons take it to those who are absent.

He Really Was Martyred

Thanks again to the historian Bishop Eusebius, we have an account of Justin’s martyrdom and his last words. Justin was condemned to death by the Roman prefect Rusticus, along with 6 of his friends. Their crime was Christianity. When asked to worship false gods, Justin is recorded as answering the prefect, “No one in his right mind gives up piety for impiety.” When Rusticus threatened to kill them, Justin replied, “That is our desire, to be tortured for Our Lord, Jesus Christ, and so to be saved, for that will give us salvation and firm confidence at the more terrible universal tribunal of Our Lord and Saviour.” Apparently Justin and six companions then took it upon themselves to walk to the place where the beheadings were carried out and were subsequently tortured and then beheaded, allowing them to receive their Eternal Crown of Martyrdom. Justin became that which he admired: martyr.

Pray for us, Justin Martyr, that we may have the courage to always speak the Truth and Proclaim Christ!

 

Additional Reading and Sources: 

Catholic Encyclopedia 

This Blog 

The Testimony of Justin Martyr to Early Christianity (lectures delivered on the L.P. Stone Foundation at Princeton Theological Seminary) (London, 1888)

Lebreton, J. (1910). St. Justin Martyr. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved May 30, 2017 from New Advent: https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08580c.htm

“Acta SS.”, April, II, 104-19; Otto, “Corpus Apologetarum”, III, Jena, 1879, 266-78; P.G., VI, 1565-72

Church History of Eusebius, Book IV

 

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