I was introduced to St. Justin Martyr in my first semester of graduate school. I was taking a Church History class in which we read the book, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, by Robert Louis Wilken. I really enjoyed the book because it focused on the philosophical and theological writings of the first few centuries of the Church. The author devotes quite a few pages to the writings of St. Justin Martyr.
St. Justin lived 100-165 A.D. He was born in Palestine, but referred to himself as a Samaritan. This was probably due to his birth in Neapolis which was in then Roman Palestine. His family was actually Greek, which would be of great influence throughout his life. He was not exposed to the Jewish or Christian teachings of his day until he was an adult. St. Justin began as a philosopher and donned the philosopher’s garb, which was a sign to the world of his dedication to the philosopher’s way of life. Upon his conversion, he continued to wear the garb and to debate with the philosophers of his day. He was one of the early Christian apologists
He went in search of truth early on. He wandered from philosopher to philosopher in order to dig deep into the questions of life. He would leave each different philosopher with a sense of longing that had not been filled. He finally met a Platonist who did not keep to the typical Platonic belief that the soul was immortal and had life within itself. Instead, this sage spoke of the soul as a gift from God. From this teacher, Justin discovered the prophets of old who shared the Word of God. The conversation left him forever changed and he said: “A flame was kindled in my soul and I was seized by love of the prophets and of the friends of Christ. While I was pondering his words in my mind, I came to see that this way of life alone is sure and fulfilling.”
St. Justin settled in Rome among a thriving Christian community and he began to teach. Much of his teaching and writing was in defense of Christianity against the Romans who were largely influenced by Hellenistic culture. His life as a philosopher made him uniquely suited to respond to Roman culture. He also devoted some work to the Christian response to Judaism. His most famous work in that regard is Dialogue with Trypho, which offered an explanation of how the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) must be interpreted in light of Christian revelation.
Upon studying the life of St. Justin Martyr and his writings, I was immediately taken in. He wrote with a philosophical and theological understanding that speaks to the student theologian in me. Part of his mission as an apologist was to let his readers and listeners know that the life of Christ is not to abandon reason and intellectual pursuits. The Christian life is the unification of the whole human person and most realized in how we answer Christ’s call in our actions. Robert Louis Wilken writes:
Justin let his readers know that the truth of Christ penetrates the soul by means of our moral as well as our intellectual being. The knowledge of God has to do with how one lives, with acting on convictions that are not mere premises but realities learned from other persons and tested by experience.
St. Justin was also one of the very early writers who gave detailed descriptions of how the early Church worshipped. In his first Apology, St Justin writes:
On the day called Sunday all who live in the cities or in the country gather at one place and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read as long as time permits. When the reader has finished, the one who is presiding instructs us in a brief discourse and exhorts us to imitate these noble things. Then we all stand up together and offer prayers…When we have finished the prayer, bread is brought forth, and wine and water, and the presiding minister offers up prayers and thanksgiving to the best of his ability, and the people assent, saying the Amen; after this the consecrated elements are distributed and received by each one. Then a deacon brings a portion to those who are absent. Those who prosper, and who so wish, contribute what each thinks fit. What is collected is deposited with the presiding minister who takes care of the orphans and widows, and those who are in need because of sickness or some other reason, and those who are imprisoned, and the strangers and sojourners among us.
Does this sound familiar? It should. It is the Eucharistic celebration as it was offered in the 2nd Century. It is the model for the Mass we celebrate today. In fact, St. Justin is one of the earliest non-Scriptural references, remember we are talking within about 120 years after Christ’s death and resurrection, to the Holy Eucharist as the Catholic Church celebrates it daily. Here are some of his words on the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist:
This food we call Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake except one who believes that the things we teach are true, and has received the washing for forgiveness of sins for rebirth, and who lives as Christ taught us. For we do not receive these things as common bread or common drink, but as Jesus Christ our Savior who became incarnate by God’s word and took flesh and blood for our salvation. So also we have been taught that the food consecrated by the word of prayer which comes from him, from which our flesh and blood are nourished by being renewed, is the flesh and blood of the incarnate Jesus.
St. Justin is telling us that John 6 is in fact the literal Presence of Christ. We take Christ at His word. When we receive the Holy Eucharist, we are receiving the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Our Lord. This was not a new teaching the Catholic Church came up with recently. The early Church did not view the Liturgy as symbolic. It was to enter into Christ and eat of His Body, just like it is today.
What are some things that we can learn from St. Justin Martyr that apply to our lives today?
Reason and Faith
There is a definite battle going on in our culture about the nature of faith and reason. The New Atheism is trying to convince the world that religion is superstitious and that it is the abandonment of reason. The Catholic Church has a long intellectual tradition and teaches that the fullness of faith and reason are realized in Christ and the Church. In fact, St. John Paul II wrote a beautiful encyclical, Fides et Ratio, that addresses the attacks against faith in light of reason. Pope Francis, along with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, penned the encyclical Lumen Fidei, as well. St. Justin Martyr is a member of a very long tradition in the Church to invite people into an intellectual fullness that resides in following Christ. Faith and reason are not in opposition to one another. Reason is taken to new heights through the virtue of faith. The writings of St. Justin Martyr marry philosophical thought with theology.
Disturbing statistics have come out saying that the majority, yes majority, of Catholics deny the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Many have adopted similar beliefs to our Protestant brothers and sisters. This is distressing, precisely because Christ left the Church His body as the true sacrifice offered to the Father and as food for us. Jesus told us in John 6:53-58 that we must take and eat his flesh and blood as real food. This was solidified and instituted at The Last Supper.
Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever.”
In A.D. 165, St. Justin Martyr was beheaded along with his companions for refusing to offer sacrifice to the Roman gods. St. Justin gave his life over for Christ and died a death life the Savior whom he loved above all else. It is here that we can be reminded of perseverance in following Christ. All of the saints by virtue of the fact that they are saints show us how to live lives devoted entirely to Christ. St. Justin reminds us never to sacrifice to the false gods of our age. That includes the materialism, hedonism, and nihilism that are ever present. We must keep our eyes fixed on Heaven that we may at our own end hear: “Well done thy good and faithful servant”. St. Justin Martyr, ora pro nobis.