St. Justin, Philosopher and Martyr

St. Justin, Elvira Ortmann St. Justin, Elvira Ortmann 

Coming to know God face to face. He’ll get there, but this man with a sharp intellect and an even sharper soul starts from afar, from paganism. In Samaria in the first century after Christ, Justin grows up nourished by philosophy. The masters of Greek philosophical thought are the light guiding his search for the infinite Being. He has a burning desire for this knowledge; if he could, he would like to grasp and explain that infinite Being with the power of reason.

Disappointed by the many philosophies

For Justin, the final goal of philosophy is the “vision of God.” But which philosophical school could even come close to this? The Samaritan from Flavia Neapolis – Justin’s native city – knocks at the doors of the Stoics, the Peripatetics, the Pythagorists. None of them manages to lead him to that ambitious goal. Justin’s heart warms a little when he meets a Platonic thinker. “The knowledge of incorporeal realities and the contemplation of the Ideas excited my mind,” he writes. He decides to continue his search far from the crowded cities.

You can speak of God if you know Him

In the isolated place he chooses – described in his “Dialogue with Trypho” – he meets an old man, with whom he converses about the idea of God. Justin’s effort to arrive at the perfect definition of the divinity falls apart, however, when he is challenged: If a philosopher has never seen or heard God, asks the old man, how can he formulate even one thought about Him? The dialogue then shifts to the Prophets: in centuries past they spoke of God and prophesied in His name about the Son who would come into the world. This is the turning point. Justin converts to Christianity and around the year 130, at Ephesus, he receives baptism.

The genius at the service of the Gospel

Some time after this Justin finds himself in Rome, where he opens a philosophical school and tirelessly proclaims Christ to pagan scholars. He writes and speaks of the God he has finally come to know, using the language and categories of the philosophers. Above all, he uses his intelligence and skill in defense of persecuted Christians, as we see in his Apologies. Justin attacks the professional slanderers, but his public controversy with the philosopher Crescentius – a rabidly anti-Christian thinker backed by the politically powerful – is fatal. Justin is thrown in jail, ironically, as an “atheist,” that is, as a subversive and an enemy of the State. He and six companions are beheaded around the year 165, under the Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

Unforgotten after 2,000 years

The fame of the missionary-philosopher, to whom we owe the oldest extant description of the Eucharistic liturgy, traverses the centuries. Even Vatican II recalls his teaching in two pillars of the Council: the documents Lumen gentium and Gaudium et Spes. For Justin, Christianity is the historical and personal manifestation of the Logos in his totality. For this reason, Justin says, “Everything beautiful, no matter who said it, belongs to us Christians.”