Justin Martyr, First Apology XVII.1-XVIII.3

The limits of Roman rule

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



For a general introduction to Justin and the Apologies, please see the commentary on IV.1-V.4.

In this extract, Justin joins other early-Christian authors of biblical texts and other literature in assuring that Christians are taught to obey the Roman authorities and do their civic duties, such as paying taxes (see, for example, Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:12-17; 1 Clement 60.4-61.3). Justin draws on the famous pericope found in the Synoptic Gospels and in various redacted forms in other early-Christian documents which teaches that one should pay to the emperor what he is rightly owed, but ensure that focus remains primarily on God, whose realm surpasses the earthly domain of Caesar (see Mark 12:13-17; Matthew 22:15-22; Luke 20:20-26; Gospel of Thomas 100; Papyrus Egerton 2; Excerpts of Theodotus 86; Sentences of Sextus 20). It is therefore asserted that while Christians will only worship God (Justin implies later on in the First Apology that the Roman practice of deifying dead emperors is misguided; see the discussion of LV.4-8), this does not mean that they do not recognise Roman rulers as legitimate, and so will respect them in the appropriate manner as “kings and rulers.” However, it is made clear that the emperor’s rule is only within the human sphere. Roman power is earthly, and as a result ultimately inferior to that of God. Justin states that the Christians pray that Roman rulers will have “prudent discernment” accompanying their authority (Justin uses the term σώφρων, sōphrōn, meaning “of sound mind”), and the notion that Roman authorities should exercise sound judgment is a recurrent theme in his petition. For instance, in V.1 he laments the fact that Roman judges presiding over court cases involving Christians frequently do not show “sober judgement,” (Justin uses the word ἐξετάζω, exetazō, meaning “to examine well/scrutinise”) but rather are driven by “senseless (ἄλογος, alogos) passion (πάθος, pathos)” instilled in them by demonic spirits. Indeed, the fact that Justin affirms the interference of demonic spirits with human beings, including Roman authorities, further emphasises the point that he makes in the present passage, i.e. that their power is limited, as unlike God they are subject to human error and liable to be led astray by evil forces.

Justin goes on to warn his imperial audience that they will be subject to punishment in the afterlife relative to their conduct while they were alive. This is further complicated by the fact that as per Luke 12:48 (“From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” NRSV), those individuals given greater capabilities (the term is δύναμις, dunamis, which has a range of meanings, such as “power,” “authority,” “might,” “strength,” and “ability”) will be expected to have utilised these to a greater degree than those with lesser abilities. The implication is that because God gave the Romans their political power, he will judge those who have held positions of power and authority more harshly than others if they have abused it. Minns and Parvis note that the words in XVII.4 have been understood by some interpreters to be a generalised statement about the fate of all wrongdoers. However, the next section makes clear that Justin is specifically applying his warning to his imperial addressees and those that they have placed in positions of authority. XVIII.1 asks them to “reflect upon the end of each of the preceding kings,” and reminds that “they died the death common to all.” Justin is making a targeted point about Roman rulers being incapable of escaping what will happen in the afterlife, and so should bear this in mind when they make decisions. In the words of Minns and Parvis, Justin’s “boldness rests upon the contrast he draws between what is owed by subjects on the one hand, and what will be owed by their rulers on the other.” (Justin, Philosopher and Martyr, p. 121). As he has already stated, the Christians will pay their taxes which are legitimately due to the emperor, but the emperor and his subordinates must also realise in turn that their actions are ultimately to be judged by God, who gave their power to them in the first place, and as such is owed “an account” of their behaviour.

This said, the Roman authorities are certainly not doomed to torment in the afterlife – they have the chance to avoid this if they listen to the Christian truths that Justin offers them and cease from persecuting Christians unfairly in their law courts (this is the overall agenda of the Apologies). If they will “pay no regard,” (XVII.4) then this stubborn refusal will condemn them. Justin next attempts to support his assertions by proving that consciousness exists after death, and hence his audience should be concerned about their fates in the afterlife. Minns and Parvis argue that the text of this section is likely corrupt, but they maintain that Justin’s basic point is that there are various methods of communicating with the dead, which show that souls are believed even outside of Christian thought to be conscious post mortem (Justin, Philosopher and Martyr, p. 121). The text refers to necromancy through visions or “immaculate children” or via “dream-senders” (ὀνειροπομπός, oneiropompos) or “assistant (familiar) spirits” (πάρεδρος, paredros) (these two terms are also found in Irenaeus, Against Heresies I.23.4; 25.3 in relation to magical practices for contact with the dead associated with Simon Magus, and also in the Greek Magical Papyri IV.1848-1854). Traditionally, the mention of “immaculate children” has led commentators to speculate that this refers to human sacrifice for the purposes of divinatory practices (for instance, Domitian is said by Philostratus to have accused Apollonius of Tyana of killing a boy to divine from his entrails; Life of Apollonius VII.11.20). However, haruspicy of this nature does not indicate that souls remain conscious after death. Precisely what Justin alludes to is uncertain, as the text is possibly corrupt in any case. However, the basic argument that he is wanting to put forward is that some sort of consciousness being present after death is attested by various religious practices within the Greco-Roman world, and for this reason, it is not worth the Roman authorities risking their eternal torment.

Essentially, this passage shows that while Justin is willing to be subject to the rulership of the Roman emperor and his appointed assisting authorities, and indeed knows that this respect is grounded in the teachings of Christ, he wants to make clear to them that their political position is relative to the authority of God, and that once they leave the earthly realm upon death, they are totally at his mercy.

Bibliographical references: 

“Justin Martyr”

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