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The saint who was one of the earliest Fathers of the Church

St Justin Martyr (June 1) began his career as a pagan philosopher

By on Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Justin Martyr (c 100-165) was one of the earliest Fathers of the Church. Yet he began his career as a pagan philosopher and did not convert to Christianity until he was about 30. Thenceforward he was much concerned with the relation between faith and reason, exploring the differences and similarities between his new religion and the speculative Hellenism in which he had been raised.

Justin was born to Greek parents at Shechem (modern Nablus) in Samaria, the hilly region to the north of Jerusalem. He studied philosophy at Alexandria and Ephesus, but found himself unsatisfied by pagan thinkers.

He discovered that the Stoics confused discipline with truth, that the Peripatetics (or Aristotelians) wanted to be paid, and therefore could hardly be classed as true philosophers, that the Pythagoreans relied overmuch on music and geometry, and that the Platonists talked of God but were unable to identify Him.

Then one day he met an old man by the sea who made him understand that the soul could never arrive at a proper idea of God through human knowledge, but needed to be instructed by teachers who had been inspired by the Holy Ghost. “Thou art a friend of discourse,” the old man told him, “but not of action, nor of truth.”

Justin was also greatly struck by the courage, even the joyfulness, with which Christians at Ephesus faced suffering and martyrdom. The disciples of the Greek philosophers, he noted, certainly would not die for their doctrines. By contrast, the Christians treated God as though He were a friend, not an abstract theory.

And so Justin abandoned the hopes of philosophy for Christian revelation. Once converted, he wrote copiously in defence of his new faith, although only three of his works remain. His two Apologies set forth the moral virtues of Christians, and defend them against ill-informed reproach. These treatises afford valuable information about early Christian practice.

In his other extant work, Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, Justin considers the proper relation between Christianity and Judaism. He allows that Jews may continue to observe the Law after conversion to Christianity, but insists that they should not compel other Christians to follow these traditions.

Justin finally fell foul of the state in Rome, under the Stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180). It did not help that he derided the Cynic Crescentius as “that friend of noise and ostentation”.

“If you do not obey,” the prefect Rusticus told Justin, “you will be tortured without mercy.”

“That is our desire,” came the reply, “to be tortured for Our Lord Jesus Christ, and so to be saved, for that will give salvation and firm confidence at the more terrible universal tribunal of Our Lord and Saviour.” He was beheaded, along with five companions.