Justin Martyr, First Apology IV.1-V.4

Christians condemned in Roman courts on account of their name

Name of the author: 
Justin Martyr
153 CE
Literary genre: 
Title of work: 
The First Apology of Justin

Justin (commonly referred to as Justin Martyr), one the most famous Christian apologists, lived in Rome in the mid-second century. He was born in Neapolis (founded by Vespasian), modern Nablus, in what was then Syria Palaestina. The original population of Neapolis is assumed to have been Samaritan (see Denis Minns and Paul Parvis, Justin, Philosopher and Martyr, p. 32), and Justin describes himself as being of the Samaritan race (Dialogue with Trypho 120.6). By the Flavian period the city had become a Roman colony. Thus, there was an influx of Western, probably Latin speaking Romans into the city. Justin became interested in Platonism before his conversion to Christianity, and his philosophical background inspires the manner in which he defends Christianity. For Justin, there was one true philosophy, which had been revealed by Jesus, and for which Greek philosophy had laid the important groundwork (see Leslie Barnard, Justin Martyr, p. 27-38 on the influence of Greek philosophy on Justin’s thought). Justin eventually converted to Christianity (apparently impressed by the steadfastness of Christians in the face of suffering; Second Apology XII.1), although the precise point at which this occurred is disputed (Leslie Barnard, St. Justin Martyr, p. 5, places his conversion in around 132 CE, shortly before the Bar Kokhba Revolt). The texts of Justin’s three most famous works, which are generally agreed to be authentic (the two Apologies and the Dialogue with Trypho) are based on a single manuscript (Parisinus 450), which is dated to the fourteenth century CE.

Justin’s two Apologies, thought by most scholars to be originally one work, separated later on in the manuscript tradition, were written with the purpose of obtaining relief for Christians from what he regarded as unjust treatment by the Roman authorities (on the debate over the relationship between the two texts, see Barnard, St. Justin Martyr, p. 10; Minns and Parvis, Justin, Philosopher and Martyr, p. 54). Justin wrote his First Apology in Rome during the reign of Antoninus Pius (138-161 CE), and addresses the work directly to the emperor, his adopted son Verissimus the philosopher (a nickname given to Marcus Aurelius), and his other adopted son Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus. Justin claims in the First Apology XLVI.1 that he believed Christ to have been born around 150 years before he wrote. Taking into account that this may be inaccurate by a few years either side, it is suggested that the text was written between 147 and 154 CE. The prominence given to Lucius in the opening address indicates a date shortly after his quaestorship in 153 CE (Minns and Parvis, Justin, Philosopher and Martyr, p. 44). Many attribute this work to creating a new genre of apologetic from typical Roman administrative procedure (see, for instance, Paul Parvis, “Justin Martyr”). It is not thought, however, that Justin’s writings ever actually found their way to the emperor (Barnard, St. Justin Martyr, p. 6).

Pliny, in his Letter to Trajan X.96.5, considers that failing any other evidence of criminal activity, simply one’s refusal to give up the name “Christian” could be enough to prosecute. Trajan seems to agree with him on this point – a lapsed Christian who is willing to abandon this name can be set free. This is the situation which Justin is unhappy with, and one which he attempts to remedy through his Apologies. He draws at the end of the First Apology on the rescript of Hadrian to Minucius Fundanus, the proconsul of Asia, which stated that Christians should only be punished after they had been given a legal Roman trial (see Minns and Parvis, Justin, Philosopher and Martyr, p. 45). This topic forms the basis for the present passage.

This extract argues against the condemning of Christians in Roman law courts simply on account of them claiming the name “Christian.” The argument put forward by Justin is that a name in and of itself is not sufficient grounds for either punishing or acquitting a person. There needs to be some sort of proof that wrongdoing has been committed, or in the case of an acquittal, that none has occurred. Justin is unhappy with the fact that Christians are, he claims, being punished by the courts before any proof of guilt has been examined (IV.4). He illustrates this illogical treatment of Christians by stating in IV.5 that those who recant the name are immediately released, without any further examination. What should happen, Justin suggests, is a thorough inquiry into the lives of both those who confess the name of Christian and those who deny it, in order to establish whether they are of good or bad character (IV.6). It is the results of such an examination that will provide the authorities with the appropriate information to decide whether the defendant ought to be punished. Justin claims that the very name of “Christian” indicates that the group are “kind-hearted.” As Denis Minns and Paul Parvis note, this is a pun which draws on the fact that “χριστός” (Christos) would not have been understood by pagans unfamiliar with Jewish and Christian usage of the term to mean “anointed” in the Messianic sense. In more general usage the term meant that something was “suitable for anointing,” and referred to oil for this purpose, as opposed to that which could be used for eating, which was known as “πιστός” (pistos). The name “Χρηστός” (which in Suetonius, Claudius XXV.4 is employed in what has been argued to be the earliest pagan reference to Jesus) was a common name for slaves, meaning “useful.” We also find the same pun in Theophilus, To Autolycus I.1, and Tertullian, Apology III.5 discusses the misunderstanding among pagans of the name “Christian,” erroneously believing it to be “Chrestian” (see Minns and Parvis, Justin, Philosopher and Martyr, p. 87).

Having discussed more generally the irrationality of punishment when there has been no proof of wrongdoing, in IV.4 Justin makes the more specific point that Roman courts do not punish everyone who is accused of a crime before they are convicted, just the Christians (i.e. they are punished before having formally admitted o identifying themselves with the name “Christian”). In his Second Apology II.11 Justin appears to give a specific example of such treatment, as we are told that Ptolemy (a Christian teacher accused by a woman’s husband after she petitions him for divorce) is punished in prison for a long time before his formal trial before the governor Quintus Lollius Urbicus (prefect between 146 and 160 CE). IV.6 refers both to accused Christians who confess that they are indeed such, and those who deny it. The act of confessing or denying could simply take the form of a “yes” or “no” answer to the question of whether a person identified as a Christian. In the New Testament the verbs ἀρνέομαι (arneomai, “deny”) and ὁμολογέω (homologeō, “confess”) are juxtaposed in various places (e.g. Jesus states that whoever denies him will also be denied by Jesus himself before God’s angels, whereas the one who confesses him will himself be confessed before the angels: Matthew 10:32-33; Luke 12:8-9; John 2:22-23), and in Christian understanding being a “denier” was a technical term for apostasy (see Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History V.1.33). Pliny’s Letter to Trajan X.96.6 also echoes this language. What is meant by “denier” here in Pliny is not a defendant who first admitted to the charge of being a Christian and then later denied it, but rather an individual who confessed that although they had once been Christian, they no longer identified as such. When Justin speaks in IV.6 of the deniers who “simply say” that they are not Christians, he is referring to individuals who give this statement without taking any additional action to prove it, such as cursing Christ, or worshipping the image of the emperor or statues of Roman gods (as is described in Pliny’s Letter to Trajan X.96.5-6) (see Minns and Parvis, Justin, Philosopher and Martyr, p. 87).

The use of the term παρακελεύομαι (parakeleuomai, “exhort/encourage”) in IV.7 has led some commentators to suggest that Justin implies the existence of two different groups of Christians: 1) a group who do not deny Christ, and indeed encourage and support one another during their trials; and 2) a group who owing to their evil character put the whole Christian community at risk of accusations of questionable behaviour. However, for Denis Minns and Paul Parvis the presence of τινες (tines, “certain ones/some people”) indicates that he in fact only speaks of one group, whose bad behaviour is encouraging accusations to be made against Christians in general. These scholars choose to amend the παρακελεύομαι which appears in the manuscript to παρακρούονται (parakrouontai, from the verb meaning “mislead/deceive,” and translated by Minns and Parvis as “knocked off course”), which would then suggest that Justin refers to individuals who have denied being Christians by stating when questioned that they are not so, and have further betrayed the community due to their evil conduct in other areas of life (Minns and Parvis, Justin, Philosopher and Martyr, p. 89). The Roman officials, by not investigating in any depth the lives of such individuals who deny Christ, are missing opportunities to weed out and punish genuine miscreants, who are giving the rest of the Christian community a bad reputation. Later in the First Apology (LVIII.3), Justin claims that he believes demons to be responsible for the leading astray of such people. We will see below that the role of demonic spirits in the entire process of Christian accusation and questioning is significant according to Justin, with such beings capable of affecting both the Christians themselves and their Roman prosecutors/accusers.

IV.8-9 appeal to examples from wider Greco-Roman culture in order to illustrate further Justin’s argument, firstly pointing to those who claim the name and outward appearance of the “philosopher,” yet are not worthy of calling themselves such, and secondly pointing out the hypocrisy of the fact that poets who denied the Gods, and spoke irreverently of Zeus and his offspring are not banned from being presented, and are frequently honoured with prizes for performance. On the contrary, Christians, Justin claims, cannot be accused of being godless (ἄθεος, atheos), and strive always to behave uprightly (V.1). Justin accuses the Roman authorities of judging Christians with “senseless passion” rather than the required “sober judgement.” Along with Johann Grabe, Minns and Parvis argue that in place of the manuscript’s κρίσεις (kriseis, from κρίσις, meaning a “judgement/decision”), which those favouring this reading take to mean “examine accusations” (so, for instance, Charles Munier, Apologie), or “examine disputes” (so Alfred Blunt, Apologies) (both, Minns and Parvis argue are rather rare meanings), one should instead read κρίσει (krisei), which they translate as “conduct the enquiry.” If this emendation is adopted, then Justin may be referring to two specific stages of the judicial process: 1) the enquiry; and 2) the execution of the judgement. The phrase οὐ κρίσεις ἐξετάζετε (ou kriseis exetazete, “not conduct the enquiry with sober judgement”) should be taken to mean that the process is not carried out with the purpose of actually getting to the truth, but rather out of unwarranted, irrationally fuelled hatred for the Christians (Justin, Philosopher and Martyr, p. 89; Johann Grabe, Sancti Justini). This failing in the Roman authorities’ ability to judge, however, is specifically blamed on the fact that they are under the influence of demons.

We can discern several things in terms of Justin’s attitude to a) the relationship between the demonic realm and human beings in general; and b) his view of the Roman justice system. While Justin is clearly not impressed by the way Christians’ trials are being carried out, the underlying implication is that he believes the Roman legal system to be capable of functioning justly – it is only when it comes to Christians that this is not happening. Moreover, he blames demonic interference both for the behaviour of the wicked Christians giving a bad reputation to the wider group, and for the “senseless passion” of the Roman judges who consequently make bad decisions in court. By this logic, it seems that Justin sees a greater force at work seeking to oppress Christianity than Rome – Rome itself is being used by demonic spirits. Justin expands upon the role of demons in V.2-V.5, speaking of apparitions (ἐπιφάνεια, epiphaneia) which since ancient times have seduced and terrified people unaware that they were experiencing demonic activity. These demons were subsequently called gods by human beings on account of their inability to discern their true nature (see also the Second Apology IV.5-6). Moreover, Justin goes on to argue, when Socrates attempted to enlighten people about such demons, he was killed on charges of introducing new divinities and rejecting the traditional gods (on Socrates’s death, see Plato, Apology 24b-c; Xenophon, Memorabilia I.1). The Second Apology (I.2) similarly explains the unjust undertakings by governors against Christians by affirming that they are under the influence of demonic spirits: “and the evil demons, who hate us, and who keep such men as these subject to themselves, and serving them in the capacity of judges, incite them, as rulers actuated by evil spirits, to put us to death.” As far as Justin is concerned, this deception of humanity by demons is directly responsible for both the failings in Christian steadfastness, and the unfairness and irrationality he sees being displayed in the Roman legal system.

Bibliographical references: 


Blunt, AlfredbookApologiesCambridgeCambridge University Press1911

“Justin Martyr”

Parvis, Paularticle-in-a-journal53-61120“Justin Martyr” Expository Times2008
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