Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Saint Justin, the Philosopher, Martyr

[Saint Justin icon]Article

A.D. 167.

Saint Justin was born at Neapolis, now Naplosa, the ancient Sichem, and formerly the capital of the province of Samaria. Vespasian, having endowed its inhabitants with the privileges belonging to Roman citizens, gave it the name of Flavia. His son Titus sent thither a colony of Greeks, among whom were the father and grandfather of our saint. His father, a heathen, brought him up in the errors and superstitions of paganism, but at the same time did not neglect to cultivate his mind by several branches of human literature. Saint Justin accordingly informs us, 2 that he spent his youth in reading the poets, orators, and historians. Having gone through the usual course of these studies, he gave himself up to that of philosophy in quest of truth, an ardent love of which was his predominant passion. He addressed himself first to a master who was a Stoic; and after having staid some time with him, seeing he could learn nothing of him concerning God, he left him, and went to a Peripatetic, a very subtle man in his own conceit; but Justin, being desired the second day after admission, to fix his master’s salary, that he might know what he was to be allowed for his pains in teaching him, he left him also, concluding that he was no philosopher. He then tried a Pythagorean, who had a great reputation, and who boasted much of his wisdom; but he required of his scholar, as a necessary preliminary to his admission, that he should have learned music, astronomy, and geometry. Justin could not bear such delays in the search of God, and preferred the school of an Academic, under whom he made great progress in the Platonic philosophy, and vainly flattered himself with the hope of arriving in a short time at the sight of God, which the Platonic philosophy seemed to have had chiefly in view. Walking one day by the sea-side, for the advantage of a greater freedom from noise and tumult, he saw, as he turned about, an old man who followed him pretty close. His appearance was majestic, and had a great mixture in it of mildness and gravity. Justin looking on him very attentively, the man asked him if he knew him. Justin answered in the negative. “Why then,” said he, “do you look so steadfastly upon me?”

Justin replied: “It is the effect of my surprise to meet any human creature in this remote and solitary place.”

“What brought me hither,” said that old man, “was my concern for some of my friends. They are gone a journey, and I am come hither to look out for them.” They then fell into a long discourse concerning the excellency of philosophy in general, and of the Platonic in particular, which Justin asserted to be the only true way to happiness, and of knowing and seeing God. This the grave person refuted at large, and at length by the force of his arguments convinced him that those philosophers, whom he had the greatest esteem for, Plato and Pythagoras, had been mistaken in their principles, and had not a thorough knowledge of God and of the soul of man, nor could they in consequence communicate it to others. This drew from him the important query, Who were the likeliest persons to set him in the right way? The stranger answered, that long before the existence of these reputed philosophers, there were certain blessed men, lovers of God, and divinely inspired, called prophets, on account of their foretelling things which have since come to pass; whose books, yet extant, contain many solid instructions about the first cause and end of all things, and many other particulars becoming a philosopher to know. That their miracles and their predictions had procured them such credit, that they established truth by authority, and not by disputes and elaborate demonstrations of human reason, of which few men are capable. That they inculcated the belief of one only God, the Father and author of all things, and of his Son Jesus Christ, whom he had sent into the world. He concluded his discourse with this advice: “As for thyself, above all things, pray that the gates of life may be opened unto thee; for these are not things to be discerned, unless God and Christ grant to a man the knowledge of them.” After these words he departed, and Justin saw him no more; but his conversation left a deep impression on the young philosopher’s soul, and kindled there an ardent affection for these true philosophers, the prophets. And upon a further inquiry into the credibility of the Christian religion, he embraced it soon after. What had also no small weight in persuading him of the truth of the Christian faith, was the innocence and true virtue of its professors; seeing with what courage and constancy, rather than to betray their religion, or commit the least sin, they suffered the sharpest tortures, and encountered, nay even courted death itself, in its most horrible shapes. “When I heard the Christians traduced and reproached,” says he, “yet saw them fearless and rushing on death and all things that are accounted most dreadful to human nature, I concluded with myself that it was impossible those men should wallow in vice, and be carried away with the love of lust and pleasure.” Justin, by the course of his studies, must have been grown up when he was converted to the faith. Tillemont and Marand understand, by an obscure passage in Saint Epiphanius, that he was in the thirtieth year of his age.

Saint Justin, after he became a Christian, continued to wear the pallium or cloak, as Eusebius and Saint Jerom inform us, which was the singular badge of a philosopher. Aristides, the Athenian philosopher and a Christian, did the same; so did Heracles, even when he was bishop of Alexandria. Saint Epiphanius calls Saint Justin a great ascetic, or one who professed a most austere and holy life. He came to Rome soon after his conversion, probably from Egypt. Tillemont and Dom. Marand think that he was a priest, from his description of baptism, and the account he gave at his trial of people resorting to his house for instruction. This however is uncertain; and Ceillier concludes, from the silence of the ancients on this head, that he was always a layman; but he seems to have preached, and therefore to have been at least deacon. His discourse, or Oration to the Greeks, 7 he wrote soon after his conversion, in order to convince the heathens of the reasonableness of his having deserted paganism. He urges the absurdity of idolatry, and the inconsistency of ascribing lewdness and other crimes to their deities: on the other hand, he declares his admiration of, and reverence for, the purity and sanctity of the Christian doctrine, and the awful majesty of the divine writings, which still the passions, and fix in a happy tranquillity the mind of man, which finds itself everywhere else restless. His second work is called his Parænesis or Exhortation to the Greeks, which he drew up at Rome: in this he employs the flowers of eloquence, which even in his apologies he despises. In it he shows the errors of idolatry, and the vanity of the heathen philosophers: reproaches Plato with making an harangue to the Athenians, in which he pretended to establish a multitude of gods, only to escape the fate of Socrates; whilst it is clear from his writings that he believed one only God. He transcribes the words of Orpheus the Sibyl, Homer, Sophocles, Pythagoras, Plato, Mercury, and Acmon, or rather Ammon, in which they profess the unity of the Deity. He wrote his book on Monarchy, expressly to prove the unity of God, from the testimonies and reasons of the heathen philosophers themselves. The epistle to Diognetus is an incomparable work of primitive antiquity, attributed to Saint Justin by all the ancient copies, and doubtless genuine, as Dr. Cave, Ceillier, Marand, etc. show; though the style is more elegant and florid than the other works of this father. Indeed it is not mentioned by Eusebius and Saint Jerom; but neither do they mention the works of Athenagoras. And what wonder that, the art of printing not being as yet discovered, some writings should have escaped their notice? Tillemont fancies the author of this piece to be more ancient, because he calls himself a disciple of the apostles: but Saint Justin might assume that title, who lived contemporary with Saint Polycarp and others, who had seen some of them. This Diognetus was a learned philosopher, a person of great rank, and preceptor to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who always consulted and exceedingly honoured him. Dom. Nourry mistakes grossly, when he calls him a Jew: for in this very epistle is he styled an adorer of gods. This great man was desirous to know upon what assurances the Christians despised the world, and even torments and death, and showed to one another a mutual love, which appeared wonderful to the rest of mankind, for it rendered them seemingly insensible to the greatest injuries. Saint Justin, to satisfy him, demonstrates the folly of idolatry, and the imperfection of the Jewish worship: and sets forth the sanctity practised by the Christians, especially their humility, meekness, love of those who hate them without so much as knowing any reason of their hatred, etc. He adds, that their numbers and virtue are increased by tortures and massacres, and explains clearly the divinity of Christ, the maker of all things, and Son of God. He shows that by reason alone we could never attain to the true knowledge of God, who sent his Son to teach us his holy mysteries: and, when we deserved only chastisement, to pay the full price of our redemption—the Holy One to suffer for sinners — the person offended for the offenders: and when no other means could satisfy for our crimes, we were covered under the wings of justice itself, and rescued from slavery. He extols exceedingly the immense goodness and love of God for man, in creating him, and the world for his use; in subjecting to him other things, and in sending his only begotten Son with the promise of his kingdom, to those who shall have loved him. “But after you shall have known him,” says he, “with what inexpressible joy do you think you will be filled! How ardently will you love him who first loved you! And when you shall love him, you will be an imitator of his goodness. He who bears the burdens of others, assists all, humbles himself to all, even to his inferiors, and supplies the wants of the poor with what he has received from God, is truly the imitator of God. Then will you see on earth that God governs the world; you will know his mysteries, and will love and admire those who suffer for him: you will condemn the imposture of the world, and despise death, only fearing eternal death, in never-ending fire. When you know that fire, you will call those blessed who here suffer flames for justice. I speak not of things to which I am a stranger, but having been a disciple of the apostles, I am a teacher of nations,” etc.

Saint Justin made a long stay in Rome, dwelling near the Timothin baths, on the Viminal hill. The Christians met in his house to perform their devotions, and he applied himself with great zeal to the instruction of all those who resorted to him. Evelpistus, who suffered with him, owned at his examination that he had heard with pleasure Justin’s discourses. The judge was acquainted with his zeal, when he asked him, in what place he assembled his disciples? Not content with labouring in the conversion of Jews and Gentiles, he exerted his endeavours in defending the Catholic faith against all the heresies of that age. His excellent volumes against Marcion, as they are styled by Saint Jerom, are now lost, with several other works commended by the ancients. The martyr, after his first apology, left Rome, and probably performed the functions of an evangelist in many countries for several years. In the reign of Antoninus Pius, being at Ephesus, and casually meeting in the walks of Xistus Tryphon, whom Eusebius calls the most celebrated Jew of that age, and who was a famous philosopher, he fell into discourse with him, which brought on a disputation, which was held in the presence of several witnesses during two entire days. Saint Justin afterwards committed to writing this dialogue with Tryphon, which work is a simple narrative of a familiar unstudied conversation. Tryphon seeing Justin in the philosopher’s cloak, addressed him on the excellency of philosophy. The saint answered, that he admired he should not rather study Moses and the prophets, in comparison of whom all the writings of the philosophers are empty jargon and foolish dreams. Then, in the first part of his dialogue, he showed that, according to the prophets, the old law was temporary, and to be abolished by the new: and in the second, that Christ was God before all ages, distinct from the Father — the same that appeared to Abraham, Moses, etc. the same that created man, and was himself made man, and crucified. He insists much on that passage, Behold a virgin shall conceive. From the beginning of the conversation, Tryphon had allowed that from the prophets it was clear that Christ must be then come; but he said, that he had not yet manifested himself to the world. So evident was it that the time of his coming must be then elapsed, that no Jew durst deny it, as Fleury observes. From the Apocalypse and Isaiah, by a mistaken interpretation, Justin inferred the futurity of the Millennium, or of Christ’s reign upon earth for a thousand years, before the day of judgment, with his elect, in spiritual, chaste delights: but adds, that this was not admitted by many true orthodox believers. This point was afterwards cleared up, and that mistake of some few corrected and exploded by consulting the tradition of the whole church. In the third part, Saint Justin proves the vocation of the Gentiles, and the establishment of the church. Night putting an end to the conversation, Tryphon thanked Justin, and prayed for his happy voyage: for he was going to sea. By some mistakes made by Saint Justin in the etymologies or derivation of certain Hebrew names, it appears that he was a stranger to that language. The Socinians dread the authority of this work, on account of the clear proofs which it furnishes of the divinity of Christ. Saint Justin testifies 14 that the miraculous gifts of the Holy Ghost, of curing the sick, and casting out devils in the name of Christ, were then frequent in the church. He excludes from salvation wilful heretics no less than infidels.

But the Apologies of this martyr have chiefly rendered his name illustrious. The first or greater (which by the first editors was, through mistake, placed and called the second) he addressed to the Emperor Antoninus Pius, his two adopted sons, Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Commodus, and the senate, about the year 150. That mild emperor had published no edicts against the Christians: but, by virtue of former edicts, they were often persecuted by the governors, and were everywhere traduced as a wicked and barbarous set of people, enemies to their very species. They were deemed atheists; they were accused of practising secret lewdness, which slander seems to have been founded on the secrecy of their mysteries, and partly on the filthy abominations of the Gnostic and Carpocratian heretics: they were said in their sacred assemblies to feed on the flesh of a murdered child; to which calumny a false notion of the blessed eucharist might give birth. Celsus and other heathens add, that they adored the cross, and the head of an ass. The story of the ass’s head was a groundless calumny, forged by a Jew, who pretended to have seen their mysteries, which was readily believed and propagated by those whose interest it was to decry the Christian religion, as Eusebius, Saint Justin, Origen, and Tertullian relate. The respect shown to the sign of the cross, mentioned by Tertullian and all the ancient fathers, seem grounds enough for the other slander. These calumnies were advanced with such confidence, and, through passion and prejudice, received so eagerly, that they served for a pretence to justify the cruelty of the persecutors, and to render the very name of a Christian odious. These circumstances stirred up the zeal of Saint Justin to present his Apology for the Faith in writing, begging that the same might be made public. In it he boldly declares himself a Christian, and an advocate for his religion: he shows that Christians ought not to be condemned barely for the name of Christian, unless convicted of some crime; that they are not atheists, though they adore not idols: for they adore God the Father, his Son, and the Holy Ghost, and the host of good angels. He exhorts the emperor to hold the balance even in the execution of justice; and sets forth the sanctity of the doctrine and manners of Christians, who fly all oaths, abhor the least impurity, despise riches, are patient and meek, love even enemies, readily pay all taxes, and scrupulously and respectfully obey and honour princes, etc. Far from eating children, they even condemned those who exposed them. He proves their regard for purity from the numbers among them of both sexes who had observed strict chastity to an advanced age. He explains the immortality of the soul, and the resurrection of the flesh, and shows from the ancient prophets that God was to become man, and that they had foretold the destruction of Jerusalem, the vocation of the Gentiles, etc. He mentions a statue erected in Rome to Simon Magus, which is also testified by Tertullian, Saint Austin, Theodoret, etc. The necessity of vindicating our faith from slanders, obliged him, contrary to the custom of the primitive church, to describe the sacraments of baptism and the blessed eucharist, mentioning the latter also as a sacrifice. “No one,” says he, “is allowed to partake of this food but he that believes our doctrines to be true, and who has been baptized in the laver of regeneration for remission of sins, and lives up to what Christ has taught. For we take not these as common bread and common drink; but like as Jesus Christ our Saviour, being incarnate by the word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation; so are we taught that this food, by which our flesh and blood are nourished, over which thanks have been given by the prayers in his own words, is the flesh and blood of the incarnate Jesus.” He describes the manner of sanctifying the Sunday, by meeting to celebrate the divine mysteries, read the prophets, hear the exhortation of him that presides, and make a collection of alms to be distributed among the orphans, widows, sick, prisoners, and strangers. He adds the obscure edict of the Emperor Adrian in favour of the Christians. It appears that this Apology had its desired effect—the quiet of the church. Eusebius informs us, that the same emperor sent into Asia a rescript to the following purport: “When many governors of provinces had wrote to my father, he forbade them (the Christians) to be molested, unless they had offended against the state. The same answer I gave when consulted before on the same subject. If any one accuse a person of being a Christian, it is my pleasure that he be acquitted, and the accuser chastised according to the rigour of the law.” Orosius and Zonaras tell us, that Antoninus was prevailed upon by the Apology of Justin to send this order.

He composed his second Apology near twenty years after, in 167, on account of the martyrdom of one Ptolemy, and two other Christians, whom Urbicus, the governor of Rome, had put to death. The saint offered it to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (his colleague Lucius Verus being absent in the East) and to the senate. He undertakes in it to prove that the Christians were unjustly punished with death, and shows how much their lives and doctrines surpassed the philosophers, and that they could never embrace death with so much cheerfulness and joy, had they been guilty of the crimes laid to their charge. Even Socrates, notwithstanding the multitude of disciples that followed him, never found one that died in defence of his doctrine. The apologist added boldly, that he expected death would be the recompense of his Apology, and that he should fall a victim to the snares and rage of some or other of the implacable enemies of the religion for which he pleaded; among whom he named Crescens, a philosopher in name, but an ignorant man, and a slave to pride and ostentation. His martyrdom as he had conjectured, was the recompense of this Apology: it happened soon after he presented this discourse, and probably was procured by the malice of those of whom he spoke. The genuine acts seem to have been taken from the prætor’s public register. The relation is as follows:

Justin and others that were with him were apprehended, and brought before Rusticus, prefect of Rome, who said to Justin, “Obey the gods, and comply with the edicts of the emperors.”

Justin answered, “No one can be justly blamed or condemned for obeying the commands of our Saviour Jesus Christ.”

Rusticus. “What kind of literature and discipline do you profess?”

Justin. “I have tried every kind of discipline and learning; but I have finally embraced the Christian discipline, how little soever esteemed by those who were led away by error and false opinions.”

Rusticus. “Wretch, art thou then taken with that discipline?”

Justin. “Doubtless I am, because it affords me the comfort of being in the right path.”

Rusticus. “What are the tenets of the Christian religion?”

Justin. “We Christians believe one God, Creator of all things visible and invisible; and we confess our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, foretold by the prophets, the Author and Preacher of salvation, and the Judge of mankind.” The prefect inquired in what place the Christians assembled. Justin replied, “Where they please, and where they can: God is not confined to a place: as he is invisible, and fills both heaven and earth, he is everywhere adored and glorified by the faithful.”

Rusticus. “Tell me where you assemble your disciples?”

Justin. “I have lived till this time near the house of one called Martin, at the Timothin baths. I am come a second time to Rome, and am acquainted with no other place in the city. If any one came to me, I communicated to him the doctrine of truth.”

Rusticus. “You are then a Christian.”

Justin. “Yes, I am.”

The judge then put the same question to each of the rest, viz. Chariton, a man; Charitana, a woman; Evelpistus, a servant of Cæsar, by birth a Cappadocian; Hierax, a Phrygian; Peon, and Liberianus, who all answered, “that, by the divine mercy, they were Christians.” Evelpistus said, he had learned the faith from his parents, but had with great pleasure heard Justin’s discourses. Then the prefect addressed himself again to Justin in this manner: “Hear you, who are noted for your eloquence, and think you make profession of the right philosophy, if I cause you to be scourged from head to foot, do you think you shall go to heaven?”

Justin replied, “If I suffer what you mention, I hope to receive the reward which those have already received, who have observed the precepts of Jesus Christ.”

Rusticus said, “You imagine then that you shall go to heaven, and be there rewarded.”

The martyr answered, “I do not only imagine it, but I know it; and am so well assured of it, that I have no reason to make the least doubt of it.”

The prefect seeing it was to no purpose to argue, bade them go together and unanimously sacrifice to the gods, and told them that in case of refusal they should be tormented without mercy. Justin replied, “There is nothing which we more earnestly desire than to endure torments for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ; for this is what will promote our happiness, and give us confidence at his bar, where all men must appear and be judged.” To this the rest assented, adding, “Do quickly what you are about. We are Christians, and will never sacrifice to idols.” The prefect thereupon ordered them to be scourged and then beheaded, as the laws directed.

The martyrs were forthwith led to the place where criminals were executed, and there, amidst the praises and thanksgivings which they did not cease to pour forth to God, were first scourged, and afterwards beheaded. After their martyrdom, certain Christians carried off their bodies privately, and gave them an honourable burial. Saint Justin is one of the most ancient fathers of the church who has left us works of any considerable note. Tatian, his disciple, writes, that, of all men, he was the most worthy of admiration. Eusebius, Saint Jerom, Saint Epiphanius, Theodoret, etc. bestow on him the highest praises. He suffered about the year 167, in the reign of Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus. The Greeks honour him on the 1st of June; in Usuard and in the Roman Martyrology his name occurs on the 13th of April.

Saint Justin extols the power of divine grace in the virtue of Christians, among whom many who were then sixty years old, had served God from their infancy in a state of spotless virginity, having never offended against that virtue, not only in action, but not even in thought: for our very thoughts are known to God. They could not be defiled with any inordinate love of riches, who threw their own private revenues into the common stock, sharing it with the poor. So great was their abhorrence of the least willful untruth, that they were always ready rather to die than to save their lives by a lie. Their fidelity to God was inviolable, and their constancy in confessing his holy name, and in observing his law invincible. “No one,” says the saint, “can affright from their duty those who believe in Jesus. In all parts of the earth we cease not to confess him, though we lose our heads, be crucified, or exposed to wild beasts. We suffer dungeons, fire, and all manner of torments: the more we are persecuted, the more faithful and the more pious we become, through the name of Jesus. Some adore the sun: but no one yet saw any one lay down his life for that worship; whereas we see men of all nations suffer all things for Jesus Christ.” He often mentions the devotion and fervour of Christians in glorifying God by their continual homages, and says, that the light of the gospel being then spread every where, there was no nation, either of Greeks or barbarians, in which prayers and thanksgivings were not offered to the Creator in the name of the crucified Jesus.

MLA Citation

  • Father Alban Butler. “Saint Justin, the Philosopher, Martyr”. Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints, 1866. Saints.SQPN.com. 26 May 2013. Web. 20 September 2014. <>