Christian History Project. This site contains the text of 12 volumes on the history of mankind over the last 2,000 years written from a 'collectively-denominational' Christian perspective.

3. St Justin |
The man who taught them how to fight back

St Justin is drawn from Chapter Three, beginning on page 65, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

The Christians suffered false charges in silence until the deft convert Justin gave them skill with words, then paid for it with his life

St Justin - The man who taught them how to fight back

St Justin - The man who taught them how to fight back
A group of early Christians disperses at dawn after a night spent in worship and study. Although they lived in the midst of others, they were a community apart, misunderstood and often viewed by their neighbors as secretive and subversive.

Marcus Cornelius Fronto was not a man whose views could be taken lightly. Lawyer, senator, friend of Caesar, tutor of the future emperor Marcus Aurelius–when he described the Christian sect, what he said was regarded as authoritative by those who mattered. And to Fronto, the Christians were repulsive.

He sketched their customary ritual. On an appointed day, he said, they gather at a banquet with people of either sex and every age, most of them relatives. “There, after full feasting, when the blood is heated and drink has inflamed the passions of incestuous lust, a dog, which had been tied to a lamp, is tempted by a morsel thrown beyond the range of its tether. It bounds forward with a rush, the light is upset and extinguished, and in the shameless dark, lustful embraces are exchanged. All alike, if not in act, yet by complicity, are involved in incest, as anything that occurs by the act of individuals results from the common intention.”

What lent credence to Fronto’s description were the things other Romans could see and hear of these Christians. Though they lived in the midst of other people, they were indeed a community unto themselves. Their central rite, which they called a “thanksgiving”–the Greek word for it was Eucharist–was veiled in secrecy. It was a meal of some kind which only full members could attend. The most appalling stories were told about it. They actually consumed, it was said, the body and blood of their founder.

This would be the man Jesus, whom they call “Christ.” He was crucified at Jerusalem back in the days of Tiberius on some sort of sedition charge. There was talk of their “reenacting” his crucifixion at each session. So, like the disgusting Druids, for all anyone knew, these Christians might well be practicing human sacrifice. They apparently also practiced cannibalism, and to this must be added incest, for they spoke of “loving” their brothers and sisters, with everything that implied.

Yet they could not be called crafty or deceptive. In fact, they were gullible fools. The worshipers of “that crucified sophist” Jesus, wrote the pagan writer Lucian, could easily be bilked by a few confidence men. They set so little store by their possessions that “if any charlatan and trickster, able to profit by it, came among them, he quickly acquired sudden wealth by imposing upon these simple folk.”

Finally and beyond all that, their community even within itself appeared to lack all proper respect for things like title, social status, education, gender. They did not seem to realize that any society must be structured. They treated one another as equals, sometimes even their slaves. It was shocking. Small wonder Christianity held such appeal to the lower classes and, of course, to silly women. Small wonder, too, that responsible people of rank, senators and statesmen, saw their ideas as a threat. They were. How long could Rome last if fantasies like this took hold?

Apart from this implicit threat to the social order, however, it’s improbable that the Roman aristocracy, the great patrician families, much cared about the perceived excesses of Christian worship. Even Fronto’s celebrated depiction of them, says his biographer Edward Champlin, was probably no more than a passing reference used to illustrate the “superstitions” imported by the bizarre mix of races flooding into Rome as the empire grew. Along with the grotesque sorceries of these Christians, there were the depraved sacrifices of the Druids brought from Gaul1 as well as the wine-crazed contortions of the worshipers of Bacchus from Greece (likewise prohibited and likewise practiced), the legalistic gymnastics of the Jews, and the stargazing lunacies of the Chaldean astrologers.

However, the really grave offense of the Christians, the one for which they would be expelled, enslaved, and executed, was their atheism–that is, their effrontery in denying Rome’s twelve gods, within the very walls of the city. Did the Roman leadership, drawn from the patrician class and later the army, actually believe in these gods, these stern personifications of sterner virtues, their auguries, and demanding rituals? Probably not, but they very much believed in what they represented. Patrician philosophers of the first century b.c. like Varro and the more famous Cicero would have thought such a question naive. After years of study, Varro deemed civic gods and goddesses worthy of compulsory devotion not because they existed, but rather because they reinforced civic values. As Cicero averred: “Without piety, good faith and justice cannot exist, and all society is subverted.”

This was not cynicism. The Romans believed that their city was ascendant by divine will, and that its rule was for the good of all. They were not conquering the world; they were liberating it. So perhaps it was not such a leap for the Senate, the upper legislative house of Roman patrician families, to make Julius Caesar a god in 42 b.c., the year after his death. He was already worshiped in the East, after all, and had not the very heavens saluted him with a blazing comet (later known as Halley’s) during his funeral rites? Temples were built and a priesthood enlisted. Even legal oaths, it was decreed, could be taken by the “genius,” or immortal guiding spirit, of Caesar.

Julius’s successor, Caesar Augustus, was declared a god, but only in the provinces. The Romans were grateful to him for his having ended a half century of civil war and inaugurating the Pax Romana, the Roman Peace, a new era of prosperity. Ironically, the first Caesar to assert unqualified divinity for himself was the degenerate Gaius, nicknamed Caligula.

Degenerate or not, this emperor-god, too, was supported by Rome’s upper classes. Though unconvinced by imperial “deification,” they saw the oath to divine emperors as a loyalty test to Rome itself, and it was therefore enforced on pain of death.2 Since Roman religion buttressed the state, foreign religions were regarded as undermining it, particularly those with secret rites whose deity was a jealous god that forbade oaths to Rome’s own deities.

Christians, therefore, could be charged with atheism at any time. However, a crackdown was most likely during plagues, famines, or a military defeat on the empire’s frontiers. At such times, most Romans would make offerings to propitiate their gods. Christians not only refused to participate, but some seemed to welcome any catastrophe as a sign of their Messiah’s imminent return. The response to their recalcitrance was often mob fury. “Let these nonbelievers themselves become a sacrifice to the gods in the public arena,” people raged. So informers would denounce their neighbors and bring them before the magistrates. The accused would be asked to burn a pinch of incense to the divine emperor, or sometimes to take an oath on his “genius.” Refusal brought instant conviction and sentence. Some were asked “Christianus es?” (“Are you a Christian?”). An affirmative answer amounted to a guilty plea.3

Not until 250, under Decius, did the empire as a whole attack the Christians systematically. The earlier sporadic persecutions were nonetheless terrifying. Christians could live in undisturbed peace for years, then suddenly be confronted with sheer horror. The threat of arrest was always there. After all, though they might meet in secret, they lived for the most part in full view of their neighbors in the empire’s most populous cities. It was there, of course, that the first evangelists could find the biggest audiences. By a.d. 80 or 90 there were already Gentile Christians living in Rome, and by the middle of the second century their numbers approached thirty thousand, enough to support an impressive professional staff of 150 presbyters or priests, plus deacons and full-time “visitors.” They could hardly be called an underground church.

As city folk, they were mostly artisans, tent-makers, cloth-dealers, laborers, slaves and servants, potters, plasterers, masons, and tavern keepers. They also included people of wealth and station; their early writings reveal a sophistication found only among the educated classes. Their preaching in the marketplaces, their mixed-gender services, their care for the sick, all in the tightly packed living conditions of Rome, inevitably drew attention, much of it scornful. Their children were taunted by other children. Christians were ridiculed in graffiti like the one still there on the Palatine Hill, showing a man standing before a crucified donkey, over the words, “Alexamenos worships his god.”

The rumors of their sexual excesses lay in sharp contrast to the facts. Many took Paul’s advice and became celibates, vowing they would never marry. Divorce was disapproved among the Christians. So was the remarriage of widows. Some observers, like the second-century pagan physician Galen, wrote admiringly of them: “They include not only men, but also women who refrain from cohabiting all their lives; and they also number individuals who, in self-discipline and self-control, have attained a pitch not inferior to that of genuine philosophers.” Fidelity and chastity in marriage were still ideals in imperial Rome, respected if not observed, but Christians practiced them so conspicuously and universally they became hallmarks of their faith.

They similarly distinguished themselves by their support for the needy, the sick, for widows and orphans. They consistently networked. The wealthier employed the needy, preferred their brethren in business, and opened their houses as meeting places, adorning the walls with frescoes and the floors with mosaics showing communion loaves, chalices, praying figures, and such symbols of Christ as lambs and fish.4 The Christians were their own mutual-aid society that transcended class.

They distanced themselves from their neighbors in other ways. Most refused to attend the gladiatorial games, or use imperial coins that proclaimed the emperor a god, or teach school, lest the syllabus require retelling the bawdy shenanigans of pagan deities. They shunned the theater for the same reason, along with sculpture or painting, and they denounced rampant homosexuality within the public baths. A Christian had to be careful in businesses where contracts were sealed with oaths to deified emperors.

Where they refused to do things everybody else was doing, they also took part in activities that excluded others. They attended worship services or study groups in the evenings that sometimes lasted till dawn. So they were a strange people, and since most of them were converts, they stood in marked contrast not only to their neighbors but also to their former selves. As one of them wrote:

We who formerly delighted in fornication now embrace chastity alone; we who formerly used magical arts, dedicated ourselves to the good and unbegotten God; we who valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possessions, now bring what we have into common stock and share with everyone who is in need; we who hated and destroyed one another and, on account of their different customs would not live with men of a different race, now, since the coming of Christ, live on excellent terms with them and pray for our enemies.

The author of those words was Justin, a newcomer to Rome, a Christian convert from the East, who arrived in the city about the year 150 and was destined to make a profound difference to the attitude of the Christian community there. For until Justin, the Christians generally suffered in silence the abuse that was so widely heaped upon them. Or they would merely complain like the bishop of Antioch: “Godless mouths falsely accuse us, the godly who are called Christians, saying that our wives are the common property of all and indulge in promiscuous intercourse; that further we have intercourse with our own sisters; and that–most godless and cruel of all–we taste human flesh.”

But Justin did not merely complain; Justin fought. He was a lethal debater, and with devastating artistry on public platforms everywhere, he preached the Christian message and declared the Christian case. In the end, he would pay for his eloquence with his life, but some listened, and the seed took root.

Born about the year 100 of pagan parents in the Roman colonial city of Flavia Neapolis in Palestine (ancient Shechem in Samaria), Justin was to live under three emperors–Trajan, Hadrian, and Antoninus Pius–and to die under a fourth, Marcus Aurelius. The son of well-to-do farmers originally from Italy or Greece, he demonstrated from his youth a love of philosophy, and a zest for debate: not in the tendentious style of the Roman schools, but rather debate as the means to know Truth, which to Justin meant to know God.

So by arguing he searched, and his search is recounted in one of his three surviving works, The Dialogue with Trypho. “I put myself first into the hands of a Stoic,” he writes, seeking through the austere, impersonal, morally principled philosophy of Stoicism an avenue to Truth. But after studying with him for some time, “I got no further with respect to God, for he did not know himself, and he was continually saying that this learning was not necessary.”

Next he sought out a Peripatetic, a disciple of Aristotelian philosophy (so named because of Aristotle’s habit of walking about as he taught), but his new teacher’s preoccupation with tuition fees persuaded him he was not a philosopher at all. Still, Justin was not discouraged. Philosophy continued to sound for him “a special note” of “supreme excellence.” He then approached a Pythagorean “of great reputation” who told him he must first learn music, astronomy, and mathematics. But just at this point a Platonist philosopher arrived in Flavia Neapolis and took him as a student. Plato enchanted him. “I was quite enraptured with the perception of immaterial things, and the contemplation of ideas added wings to my intelligence,” and at last he found himself on the brink of knowing “the Good.” Then it happened. He met an elderly man who was Christian.

Well-schooled in philosophy, the old Christian deftly laid bare a major weakness in the approach of Plato’s followers. The soul, they held, could achieve union with God only in dreams which the dreamer could not remember later. “What’s the use of that?” asked the old man. There could be none, and he cited the axiom that neither God nor Nature ever did anything without purpose. So the Platonic union with God must be false.

If man were to come to know God, the Christian argued, it must be through something God himself does, not man. But did God so intervene in the Nature he had created? The old man directed his student to the Jewish Scriptures. Justin plunged into them, devouring them so diligently he could recite them chapter and verse for the rest of his life. But these alone did not bring him to conversion. Could the righteous God he found there be somehow represented on Earth by these dreadful Christians about whom he had heard such repellent stories? Not very likely.

Then, about the year 130, he saw a horrible but amazing sight that changed his mind. In the arena, he watched Christians die. “I saw that they were afraid neither of death nor of anything else ordinarily looked upon as terrible,” he wrote. The sight gave birth to his faith. “I concluded that it was impossible that they could be living in wickedness and pleasure.” For if such were the goals of the Christians, why would they not perpetuate their pleasures and escape death by offering the required sacrifice to the gods? He believed, and became Christian.

But Flavia Neapolis held little challenge for this eager young convert. He moved to Ephesus, the capital and Christian center of the province of Asia, where John the Apostle was said to have written the Fourth Gospel. Far from abandoning philosophy, Justin saw in it an opportunity for Christian evangelism, and took full advantage of the spirit of free inquiry that prevailed wherever Greek influence had been felt. He opened a Christian philosophical school and strove to reconcile with Christianity the two philosophies he saw as closest to it. God, he concluded, had not confined to the Jews his intervention into the lives of his human creatures. He had influenced the Greeks as well. Thus, while the Hebrew prophets had begun to discern the Truth, so too did Stoicism and Platonism.5 Meanwhile, instead of fleeing from conflict with the pagan world, he sought out opportunities to confront it, contradicting the theories of his pagan peers so effectively that they became worried and jealous.

A record of one debate appears in The Dialogue with Trypho. Trypho was a Hellenized Jew with whom Justin conducted a polite public debate at Ephesus in 135. For Justin, it was the combative opening bell.

When Trypho introduces himself and requests a discussion of philosophy, Justin strikes immediately to the flaw the old man had shown him in philosophy. Why philosophy? he asks. Had not Plato himself observed that every philosophical proof must be stronger than the thing which is proved through it, because the latter is inevitably dependent on the former? How, therefore, could human reason lead to a true perception of God, if God, the Creator of the human mind, must be superior to it? “How could you get as much out of philosophy as you could from your own [Jewish] lawgivers and prophets?” he demands. For while through reason we could not find God, through the prophets and through Christ God had found us and redeemed us.

The fight was over in the first round, but Trypho no doubt knew that Justin’s real target in this discourse was not philosophy at all, but the currently dangerous teachings of one Marcion, a bishop’s son, expelled from his own congregation, it was said, for immorality, who taught that the God of the Jews was “fickle, capricious, ignorant, despotic, and cruel” and inferior to the “Supreme God” who was Jesus’ Father. Justin knew that the validity of Jesus much depended on the validity of the Jewish prophets who came before him. So he spoke as a friend and strong supporter of the Jewish tradition.

Confronted with pagan religions, however, Justin was not at all conciliatory. Plato must have been influenced by Christ in some fashion, he declared, even though Christ came later, and the Jewish prophets were Christ’s forerunners too, but the pagan gods were demons–particularly those enshrined in myths that resembled the story of Jesus. Put into the heads of ancient poets, they allowed opponents of Christianity to argue that Christ was the mere embellishment of a myth.

Justin’s reputation as a skilled defender of the faith soon spread to the Christians at Rome, who badly needed his help. Senior people in the imperial bureaucracy were once again becoming belligerent and menacing.

The emperor Hadrian’s twenty-one year-reign ended just three years after Justin’s debate with Trypho. Like his predecessor Trajan, Hadrian was wise, superstitious, statesmanlike, and no more ruthless than he needed to be. Unlike Trajan, he pronounced no oppressive measures against the Christians. In fact, he sent a directive to the governor of Asia, known as the “Rescript of Hadrian,” ordering instead a crackdown on false informers. All charges against Christians must be thoroughly investigated, he ruled, and false accusations must entail punishment.

However, it was during Hadrian’s reign that Telesphorus, listed by Catholic Christians as the seventh bishop of Rome after Peter, was arrested and executed. No record remains of either the charges or the manner of his execution, though one ancient account says his evangelical preaching was so successful that the numbers of his converts alarmed the authorities.6

In 135, Hadrian put down the Bar Kochba rebellion (see sidebar) and outlawed circumcision, an essential part of God’s covenant with the Jews given to Abraham (Gen. 17:12). Hadrian refrained from deifying himself, but instead declared his beloved and beautiful pageboy Antinous a god, an action appalling to both Christian and Jew. Hadrian died miserably in 138 of an unidentified but chronically debilitating disease, after three attempted suicides. His successor and adopted son, Antoninus Pius,7 proved actively tolerant of Christians. Upon his accession he revoked all Hadrian’s outstanding death sentences, repealed on behalf of the Jews the edict against circumcision, and directed local authorities in Asia to treat Christians with tolerance.

However, many of the new emperor’s senior administrators did not share his benign attitude towards Christianity, thanks especially to Fronto’s monstrous depictions of Christian rituals. By 150, the attitude to Christianity had hardened among Fronto and his colleagues because of rumors that the sect’s orgiastic activities were growing even worse.

This was easily explained. After the execution of Bishop Telesphorus by Hadrian, the Roman church was rapidly infiltrated by Gnostic teachers whose belief in the meaninglessness of the material world led them in either of two, opposite, directions: asceticism or debauchery. That is, either they rejected the lures of sex as unreal and therefore worthless, or surrendered to them because they were unreal and therefore harmless. It was the latter group that caused the scandal, perhaps occasioning Fronto’s much published fulmination against the Christians, known as Fronto’s Oration, probably during his consulship in 143. It runs deeply into the lurid:

They recognize one another by secret marks and signs, and they enjoy mutual love almost before they meet. Here and there among them is spread a certain cult of lust, and they promiscuously call one another brother and sister, so that their frequent fornication becomes, by the use of a sacred name, incest.

Thus, their vain and insane superstition glories in its crime. Unless there were a foundation of truth, wise rumor would not speak of these wicked matters, rightly suppressed. I hear that they worship the head of a most disgusting animal, consecrated by some stupid conviction or other: Their religion was born worthy of such customs! Others say they worship the genitals of their leader and priest, and, so to speak, adore their own source. This may be erroneous, but certainly the suspicion would arise in their secret nocturnal rites. And anyone who tells of a man paying the supreme penalty for his crime, and the deadly wood of the cross in their ceremonies, attributes suitable altars to those depraved criminals. They worship what they deserve.

The story of their initiating novices is as detestable as it is notorious. An infant, concealed in meal so as to deceive the unwary, is placed before the one who is in charge of the rites. This infant, hidden under the meal, is struck by the novice, who thinks he is striking harmless blows, but kills him with blind and hidden wounds. Horrible to relate, they drink his blood, eagerly distribute the members of his body, and are united by this sacrifice and pledged to common silence by this awareness of guilt.

This diatribe, coming as it did from a source so close to the empire’s highest authority, left the Christians horrified. Thus the urgent call from Rome for the help of the man they heard so much about at Ephesus.

Justin’s arrival in the capital can be reconstructed. He would have landed at the port of Ostia and, full of expectation and foreboding, walked the fourteen miles to the city. He would at last behold the great sights of a place whose magnificence he had heard described all his life. He knew, too, that Rome was the home of a moral turpitude into which one could gradually and unconsciously slide and never return. Either way, Rome was the nexus of the greatest empire mankind had ever known, a metropolis more dominant in its day than would be Louis XIV’s Paris, Queen Victoria’s London, or the Moscow of the czars and the commissars. It was home to the best and the brightest of all the world’s talents, and its citizenry gloried in their dominance.

There before him were the city’s celebrated seven hills, dotted with the brightly colored palaces of the imperial family and the mansions of the two or three thousand members of the patrician class. He would perhaps pause and confer a few coins on the beggars who frequented the twin-door Ostian Gate, which took him through the six-hundred-year-old Servian Wall. Now appeared before him the Tomb of Cestus, a massive, marble-faced pyramid more than a century old, and beyond it the crowded, narrow, but mathematically aligned streets of the city, redesigned by Nero after the Great Fire of a.d. 64, which he had blamed on the Christians.

Passing beneath row after row of six- or seven-story tenements, homes for most of the city’s million inhabitants, one quickly learned to avoid the garbage heaved out the upper-story windows. So many slaves and freedmen, drawn from all over Italy, Greece, and Gaul, had poured into Rome that a new wall would soon be built to let the city expand. In the meantime, even unlit cellars, garrets, and the tiny spaces under stairways were rented out. In defiance of building codes, apartments were expanded to dangerous heights, propped against each other with buttresses extending across streets that did not prevent the frequent thunderous collapse of brick, wood, and mortar into piles of rubble and screaming victims. Despite the lessons of the Great Fire, such buildings were still subject to frequent conflagrations. With charcoal braziers heating most apartments, sparks could alight on furniture or fabric, and fire easily spread along narrow streets crowded with tradesmen’s wares, pedestrians, and litters bearing the wealthy.

The firefighting corps by now consisted of seven thousand freedmen quartered in twenty-one stations throughout the city and trained in the use of pumps and vinegar-soaked blankets to douse flames. These crews doubled as the city’s night watch, aiming to catch thieves in the act as well as to douse fires before they spread. To patrol the daytime streets, a police department of three thousand men was organized on military lines.

Rome’s great buildings and monuments would have deeply stirred Justin. In the city center–a hollow between its seven hills–Augustus had begun erecting what became the most palatial metropolis the world would ever know. “I found Rome a city of brick and left it one of marble,” Augustus declared. He and his successors built or rebuilt the Forum, the Senate, the Hall of Records, temples to Venus and Peace, Pompey’s Theater, the Coliseum, the Circus Maximus, the bronze-roofed Forum of Trajan, and the huge public baths. These were all relatively new works, and more were going up every day.

This, then, was the mighty city whose senior authorities frowned fiercely upon its tiny Christian minority. Why, these officials continually asked themselves, do people join this sect? With all that Rome had to offer, what was the appeal of this crucified Jew? Why were so many abandoning the gods of a city that had accomplished more than any other in human history?

Did not Venus, the goddess of lust, for instance, offer them all the possible rewards of sexual satisfaction? But these rewards, many found, were momentary, enjoyable and then gone, and constantly requiring the ever more perverse to sustain such joys as she provided. What of Apollo, what of Mercury, what of Diana, goddess of the hunt? But the enchanting stories of these assorted beings, fascinating though they still were to children, had long ago paled, and anyway who could actually believe them? The gods, like humanity itself, seemed chained to a great wheel from which there was no escape.

The twentieth-century philosopher Mircea Eliade would call this futility “the Myth of the Eternal Return.” Ancient polytheism, he said, suffered two disastrous blows. The first came with Abraham and his monotheism, the second with Christ, who promised a personal relationship with God, forgiveness for sins, and a concept of history in which individual choices could change the world. It was a message that for more and more people would prove irresistible.

Not, though, in the early second century, says the historian W. H. C. Frend, when the Christian numbers grew chiefly from within. The reason was not mysterious. It was the campaign of vilification waged relentlessly against them. Though the charges were grossly untrue, the Christians themselves, by their reluctance to respond, seemed to confirm them. Had not Christ himself commanded them to “turn the other cheek” (Luke 6:29)? And anyway, what did these ravings matter, many Christians reasoned, because Jesus would soon return.

But Jesus did not return, and as that hope grew fainter, members of a younger Christian generation–sometimes raised in the faith from infancy, sometimes converted from the pagan world–sought to fight back, to engage their enemies in dialogue, in public debate, even in name-calling and counter-accusation. These became known as “apologists.” The term’s English meaning has come to be reversed over the years. It now refers to those who ask for pardon. But the Christians of the second-century Age of the Apologist were not seeking pardon; they were explaining, driving home a point. And first and most forceful among them was Justin.

When Justin arrived in Rome, his first assignment was to rebut the attack made by Fronto. He did this with a document that came to be known as The First Apology. It petitions Antoninus and his adopted sons, Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, to make a proper investigation rather than condemn the Christians on the basis of gossip. “We demand that the accusations against them [the Christians] be probed, and if these be shown to be true, they be punished,” wrote Justin, “as any guilty persons should be. If, however, no one has any way of proving these accusations, sane reason does not allow that you, because of a mischievous rumor, do an injustice to innocent men.”

Why, he asked, was officialdom’s crackdown focused only on Christians? Why not Gnostics like the followers of Simon Magus? Why not those who preach outright blasphemy like the Marcionites? “You neither molest nor execute them, at least not for their beliefs. . . . Those who follow those teachings are not checked by you; on the contrary, you bestow rewards and honors on them.”

As to the charge that Christians were not loyal subjects of the emperor, this was far from the truth. “When you hear that we look forward to a kingdom, you rashly assume that we speak of a human kingdom, whereas we mean a kingdom which is with God. We, more than all other men, are truly your helpers and allies in fostering peace. As we have been instructed by him, we, before all others, try everywhere to pay your appointed officials the ordinary and special taxes.” It was true, he said, “that we do not worship with many sacrifices and floral offerings the things men have made, lifeless things set in temples, and called gods.” But that was because Christians worshiped only the true God. “In other things we joyfully obey you, acknowledging you as the kings and rulers of men, and praying that you may be found to have, besides royal power, sound judgment.”

No matter what had been falsely said about them, those who followed Christ’s teaching turned away from evil actions, he said. For example, they cherished marital fidelity. “Not only he who actually does commit adultery, but also he who wishes to do so, is repudiated by God, since not only our actions, but even our inner thoughts, are manifest to Him.” Even divorce was frowned upon. “All who contract a second marriage according to the human law are sinners in the eyes of our Master.”

For the fact is, he said, that Christ came to call to repentance not the just or the pure, but the impious, the incontinent, and the unjust. Those who followed Christ found their lives inexplicably transformed, their former burning love of evil turned to good. “We who delighted in war, in the slaughter of one another, and in every other kind of iniquity have in every part of the world converted our weapons of war into implements of peace–our swords into plowshares, our spears into farmers’ tools–and we cultivate piety, justice, brotherly charity, faith, and hope.”

How officialdom reacted to Justin’s petition is not known. Antoninus Pius called off the persecution of Christians, however, and some historians suspect that Justin’s appeal to Rome’s deep respect for justice had produced the inquiry he sought, and the new Antoninus policy was the outcome. Far more significantly, however, Justin had demonstrated an aggressive new fearlessness in the Christian community, a willingness to beard the imperial lion in its den. Close behind him, other apologists would follow his example.

As he had at Ephesus, he set up a school at Rome. It was in his apartment, above the Timiotinean baths where he taught philosophy for his living and preached Christianity gratis. As John the Apostle had back in Ephesus, he doubtless took his message into the baths themselves. Why should such a superb opportunity for debate, discussion, and the proclamation of the faith be a field abandoned to the enemy? From his apartment, too, he poured forth his letters and papers in defense and furtherance of the Christian gospel.

Here again, Justin rapidly gained note as a sharp debater, and eagerly threw himself into confrontations with those who opposed Christianity. As well as friends, this made him enemies, one in particular. The man’s name was Crescens, a distinguished Cynic philosopher, humiliated by Justin in public encounters. Even under Antoninus Pius, mortifying such a highly placed representative of authority was dangerous. When Antoninus died in 161, it became lethal.

Crescens had tried before and failed to have Justin arrested as a Christian, bringing the same charge against him that had successfully produced the execution of Ptolemaeus (see sidebar, p. 89). According to one of Justin’s pupils, a man named Tatian, Justin had foiled the attempt by showing Crescens himself to be “immoral, greedy, gluttonous, and insincere in debate,” though Tatian’s view of the case may not be unbiased.8

Justin greeted the new emperor, Marcus Aurelius, with his Second Apology, this more urgent than the first and more specific on the lapses in Rome’s sense of justice. The Ptolemaeus case is cited and Crescens unflatteringly mentioned. Finally, the Second Apology is diplomatically imbued with the language of the Stoics, for the new emperor was known to be one of those. In it, Justin again asked that the Christians be tried for specific crimes, rather than for their beliefs. Whether Marcus ever saw this document is not known. What is known is that some time after it was published, Justin was arrested. The informer, said the Christians, was Crescens, and the occasion was a cataclysmic plague.

Having already devastated the eastern provinces, it reached Rome itself in 166, and the emperor delayed his departure for the Danube frontier because he considered the plague a greater danger than the barbarians. He ordered preparations begun for sacrifices to appease the gods, preparations in which all Romans were expected to participate. The Christians once again refused, some seeing the plague as a sure sign that the End Times had arrived. The response was public outrage. People whose families were dying around them viewed the Christians as the cause. How could these fanatics let little children die, they asked, through their insane loyalty to this crucified Jew? Starting in the eastern provinces, mob vengeance broke out, the martyrdoms began and then spread west.

The prime target in Rome this time was not the bishop. It was that glib-tongued smart-aleck Justin (as his enemies no doubt saw him), so fast with an answer, so quick to put people down. Let’s have him to the arena. Justin was arrested along with six of his pupils, one of them a woman. Tatian, who wasn’t among the arrested, named Crescens as the accuser, but many historians doubt this.

Justin scarcely needed an accuser; his Christian convictions had been everywhere published.9 In any event, informers were no longer hard to find. Marcus Aurelius had already reinstated them as legitimate servants of the empire. The judge would be Junius Rusticus, chief magistrate of Rome and a confidant of Marcus.

A brief transcript of the trial was preserved by the Christians. Short as it is, it may represent all there was to report of the proceeding, since Christians were usually willing to convict themselves. Thus Rusticus asked: “What are the doctrines that you practice?”

“I have tried to become acquainted with all doctrines,” replied Justin, “but I have committed myself to the true doctrines of the Christians, even though they may not please those who hold false beliefs.”

To the prefect, such a response bordered on outright defiance. “Are these the doctrines that you prefer?” he asked, providing Justin with an opportunity to equivocate.

Justin rejected it. “Yes,” he replied, he believed with all Christians in the God “whom alone we hold to be craftsman of the whole world,” and in Jesus Christ his Son, also God, who “came down to mankind as a herald of salvation,” as foretold by the Hebrew prophets. The language of what would become known as the Apostles’ Creed was already taking shape.

But Rusticus had heard enough–enough to convict, anyway–and he cut Justin short. Still, there was a chance he might implicate others. “Where do you meet?” he asked.

Justin saw the peril and answered evasively. “Wherever it is each one’s preference or opportunity,” he replied, adding derisively, “In any case, do you suppose we can all meet in the same place?”

Impatiently, Rusticus repeated the question. Justin explained that he held classes in his apartment above the baths, where he had lived his entire time in Rome.

Rusticus gave up. Justin would implicate himself, but not others. “You do admit, then, that you are a Christian,” Rusticus said.

“Yes I am,” replied Justin, assuring his doom.

Rusticus now turned to a man named Chariton, who quickly incriminated himself. His sister, Charito, was given a chance to blame her friends for deceiving her. Had she been duped into taking part in the rumored promiscuity of the Christians? She had not been deceived, and there was no promiscuity, she said. “Rather, I have become God’s servant and a Christian, and by his power I have kept myself pure and unstained by the taints of the flesh.” She, too, was convicted. After her, Hierax, Paeon, Evelpistus, and Valerian all readily confessed themselves Christians since childhood.

Rusticus did not immediately pass sentence. He sent all seven back to prison, giving them time to reconsider their confessions. There they were probably visited by other Christians, for the persecutions at this stage were still highly selective.

How long the reprieve lasted is not recorded, but Rusticus was not known as a patient man. He again called the prisoners before him, this time threatening them with scourging or beheading. “Do you suppose,” he asked Justin incredulously, “that you will really ascend into Heaven?”

“I do not merely suppose it,” he replied. “I know it certainly.”

He then gave all seven one last chance. “Since this then is your statement, impious ones, let us proceed to the issue that is before us: Agree together to sacrifice to the gods, lest you be miserably destroyed. For what person of intelligence would choose to relinquish this sweetest light and prefer death to it?”

Justin took up the challenge and brazenly defied him. “And what person of sound mind,” he responded, “would choose to turn from piety to impiety, from light to darkness, and from the living God to soul-destroying demons?”

“Unless you sacrifice, I shall begin the tortures,” Rusticus warned.

“This we long for,” came the reply, “and this will grant us great freedom at the terrible tribunal of Christ, when each of us shall receive according to his deeds. And so do what you will. We are Christians and do not sacrifice to idols.”

Rusticus ordered them lashed, no light penalty: One danger of a Roman flogging was that the prisoner might die under it, cheating the executioner, whose work often followed. (Whether Charito was flogged with the men is not recorded.) Would they now make the required sacrifice? One by one they answered that they would not. Thereupon Rusticus passed the sentence. “I decree,” he intoned, “that those who have defied the imperial edicts and have refused to sacrifice to the gods are to be beheaded with the sword.” In the account preserved by the Christians, Rusticus is described as “a terrible man, a plague, and filled with all impiety.” The Roman mob no doubt took a very different view, denouncing him for irresolute vacillation. Why did he give them opportunity to recant? And why just the sword? Why not the arena?

No description of the executions survives. The date is set as approximately 165.

In the annals of the Christians, Justin is remembered as “Justin Martyr.” Martyrs he and his students certainly were, and as martyrs they would want to be remembered. But Justin did something more. “How deeply he touched us,” writes the historian Henri Daniel-Rops in The Church of the Apostles and Martyrs, “this man who groped in the dark so long for the Way, the Truth and the Life.”

But in Christ, Justin found all three, and in so doing he made it possible to see the whole course of Christian thought as thoroughly within the tradition founded by Plato. He fused the heritage of Greece with that of the Jews, and thereby helped to lay the foundations for what would one day be known as Western culture.

Moreover, while Christians would argue for centuries over whether and when they should take up arms to defend the Truth, Justin unequivocally showed them they need have no qualms whatever about defending it with words. Words were weapons too, and Christians should learn to use them with all the skill God had conferred upon them.

This is the end of the St Justin category article drawn from Chapter Three, beginning on page 65, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense. To continue reading more about St Justin from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at