Justin Martyr and the Landscape of 2nd Century Apologetics


In the second century Christians were still a minority among the general population. In spite of accusations and persecution the faith was growing at a rapid rate. One of the responses to the persecution taking place was the production of works of apologetics. These works were not apologizing for the faith, but apologetics gets its name from the Greek word apologia, meaning defense[1]. Justin Martyr was seeking to educate the population about the faith, prove they were no threat to people, and evangelize for the kingdom. Second century apologists, including Justin Martyr, used several strategies to defend and spread Christianity, many of which are effective today. Many were converts who came to the faith after much searching. They used terms that the general population would understand and used reason and philosophy as way of getting the Christian message out.

The Roman Government saw Christianity as a challenge to their way of life. As a result there were many charges levied against the Christians, but the following four took precedence: Incest, Cannibalism, Atheism, and conspiracy to overthrow the government. To the modern reader these accusations appear to be spurious and ridiculous, but to ancient Rome they were akin to a United States citizen joining the Taliban. All charges need some explaining, because in some cases the meaning is different in ancient times then it is today. For a complete understanding of the apologetics of Justin a background of the Roman charges is needed.

In Roman times, as in ours, Incest is defined as “Sexual intercourse between persons too closely related for normal marriage[2].” This charge from Roman officials stems from Christians calling each other brother and sister. Society today understands what Christians mean by this term, but in Ancient Rome, Christianity was in its infancy and words that Christians used were very often misunderstood. In regard to the charge of incest Everett Ferguson comments:

“Incest may have been suggested by Christians’ referring to each other ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ with men and women sharing the common table at the ‘love feast’[3].”

The charge of cannibalism is a more serious charge than that of incest. As we know cannibalism is the act of eating something of the same species. In the case of human beings it is the act of eating the flesh of another human being. The Roman belief is that the Christians ate the flesh of their God, and since Christ was also fully a man the charge of cannibalism came about. This charge is in relation to the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper, in which the memorial of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection are remembered with the breaking of bread. As we will see Justin Martyr will masterfully answer this charge[4].

The charges of incest and cannibalism, though misunderstood by the Romans in regard to the Christians, have a similar meaning today. However the charge of Atheism is one that needs some explanation. An atheist is one who does not believe in God. Apologist James Beilby takes it one step further and states

“An atheist has come to believe that God does not exist and that therefore all religious traditions are, at their core, false[5].”

The Roman government had state sanctioned gods that were to be worshipped. Among those gods were the emperor himself, which provides a whole other obstacle for Christians. It goes without saying that the Christians most definitely believed in God, but since they did not sacrifice to the pagan gods of the Roman Empire they were looked at as atheists[6]. In his First Apology, Justin Martyr puts it best when he says

“Hence we are called atheists. And we confess that we are atheists. So far as the gods of this sort are concerned, but not with respect to the most true God, the Father of righteousness, temperance, and the other virtues, who is free from all impurity[7].”

The Christians were also charged with what amounts to treason today. Basically they were accused of wanting to overthrow the Roman government. Since they did not want to pay homage to the emperor, or sacrifice to the Roman gods they were considered dissenters. The Romans looked upon them as not wanting to participate in the basic functions of society. AS Everett Ferguson states,

“These and other charges were readily believed about Christians because they kept themselves removed from the normal functions of society[8].”

There were other charges levied against the Christians. The image shown at the top of this article is known as the Alexamenos graffito[9].

The image depicts a man with the head of a donkey hanging on a cross. There is another man raising his hand in worship. This image, found in Rome, depicted Christians as dumb because they are worshipping a man that was crucified. In addition, the image of the donkey was considered a pagan symbol at the time, and depicted that the Christian religion was closed unlike the pagan temples which were open to the public.

The Christian rebuttal to these charges came in a variety of ways. Many apologists rose to the challenge in the second century, but none as popular as Justin Martyr. To understand the apologetics of Justin an introduction to his life may prove beneficial. Justin was born in 100 A.D. to pagan Greek parents. He enjoyed a great education which included philosophy, rhetoric, poetry, and history[10]. He studied various philosophical systems including Stoicism, then Pythagoreanism, then Platonism, but he still was not satisfied and continued on his search for the truth.

He had heard of the Christian martyrs and he was intrigued by their willingness to die for their faith. The testimony of the martyrs planted a seed in the heart of Justin and his heart would be open to the Gospel. He came across a fellow philosopher who started talking to him about Jesus, and how Jesus fulfilled the prophecies set forth in the Jewish scriptures. He continued to wear the philosopher’s cloak because it allowed him to discuss Jesus with the towering intellectuals of his day. He engaged in debates with other philosophers, Jews, and non-Christians. He also opened a school in Ephesus and eventually Rome. His writings live on today and are great material for the church historian, theologian, and apologist. His writings include the First Apology, Second Apology, and Dialogue with Trypho[11]. He was tried, and executed along with six of his students for not denying the truth of the Christian faith[12].

The charge of atheism by the Roman Government was briefly described earlier. According to theologian and philosopher Peter Kreeft Atheism is defined as “The denial that God exists[13].” With this being said it seems ludicrous that the Christians should be accused of such a charge. However, according to the Roman Government the charge of atheism is valid if one does not worship the state pagan gods[14]. In short the definition of atheism had a different connotation then it does today.

In response to this charge Justin Martyr admits that Christians are atheists. In his First Apology he tells the emperor that Christians believe in one God who is the creator of all things, and Lord of all things[15]. Justin echoes this same sentiment is his Dialogue with Trypho which he states,

“There is no other God Trypho, nor was there from eternity any other but he who made the universe. Nor do we think there is one God for us and another for you, but that he alone is God who led your fathers out of Egypt. Nor have we trusted in any other, for there is no other, but him[16].”

For that reason they are called atheists and Justin says it is an unjust charge. However Justin echoes to the emperor what he told Trypho. If the Romans do not accept the Christian God then the Christians will proudly be called atheists.

Christians were also charges with incest. As previously states this sounds like an outlandish charge, but the landscape of the second century must be understood. Christianity was in its infancy and Christians, just as today, refer to each other as “brother” and “sister”. The Romans did not understand and saw married couples participating in this practice. The Romans often confused Christians with a Gnostic sect that was sexually immoral[17]. Justin Martyr took a different approach with this charge than he did with the charge of atheism. In his Second Apology Justin writes,

“For myself, when I learned of this wicked disguise which through false report was cast over the divine teaching of Christians by evil demons in order to turn away others, I laughed at this disguise and at the opinions of the multitude[18].”

His tone is much more serious and is obviously very dismissive. Christians refer to themselves in this way, not because they are related by ancestry, but by their spiritual ancestry. Christians are related by faith and not by the flesh. It is the blood of Christ that brings Christians into one family, and they are related to each other only in the manner in what Christ has done for them. Justin goes on to say that the Roman accusers should look at the morally upright lives that the Christians are living. If they do they will see that this charge has no merit. About the charge of incest R.C. Sproul explains,

“They were also accused of incest for calling one another “brother” and “sister” and for meeting in secret, though it was persecution that made private gatherings necessary. To answer these critics, Justin exhorted Emperor Antoninus Pius to look at how Christians lived. Since they feared God, Justin said, Christians could be trusted to obey Roman law lest they incur divine wrath. Justin also asked Pius to study Christian sexual behavior carefully, for the believers’ upright ethic proved their goodness[19].”

The charge of cannibalism was meant to be demeaning, and was a capital offense in second century Rome. The charge would go on to be used as proof of the historicity of Christianity in modern day apologetics. The charge of cannibalism stems from Eucharistic language about Christians eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Christ[20]. In a loving way Justin defends this charge in his First Apology. Without mentioning the last supper narratives or John chapter six he explains the Christian position. He not only makes a defense, but weaves in a Gospel presentation. It is almost as if his tone becomes more serious, though loving, when it comes to communion. He understands that he is speaking of the Lord’s Supper and the sacrifice for sin that it represents.

“For not by common bread nor common drink do we receive these: but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food that has been made into Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nurtured, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus[21].”

Justin masterfully describes why Christians are being charged, the deity of Christ, and his sacrifice in just a few short sentences. He does it in a way that non-believers would also understand. He explains why the charge of cannibalism occurred and that is that in the Lord’s Supper Christians partake in the memorial of the body and blood of Christ. He elaborates on his deity so the emperor understands that they are not eating a person during their assemblies. Justin also explains that the reason they do it is because it came from Christ himself as a command to do.

Another charge that was levied against the Christians is that of conspiracy to overthrow the government. These and other charges were exacerbated because Christians did not participate in everyday society. The popular events of the day such as politics and entertainment were intertwined with idolatrous acts, such as burning incense in homage of the emperor. Christians were trying to preserve their piety, lessen temptation, and stay safe during persecution. There assemblies were closed because only believers could partake in the Lord’s Supper. The exclusive nature of this event led to fears of conspiracy.

Justin Martyr, and other apologists of the second century, gave a clear account for the beliefs of the faith. Justin did not sit and let the beliefs of Christians be abused in the public square. He took accusations and gave a clear and reasonable explanation in an attempt to prove them false. He explained that there is only one God and Christians will refuse to worship the Roman gods. He explained the nature of the Lord’s Supper to combat the charge of cannibalism. Justin pointed to the morality of the Christian life as a way to falsify the charge of incest. Justin tells the emperor and Trypho that we are to emulate the life of the savior in everything we do because “Christ is King, Priest, God, Lord, Angel, and Man[22].”

So how can the apologetic style of Justin Martyr be of use to the church today? Justin Martyr was direct in that he did not try to go in circle to find time to formulate an answer. He answered directly even at the risk of offending. Often times people will respect us more if we are direct than if we are not. Justin explained the faith using the language of the people. He lived among philosophers and spoke about Christianity in a philosophical way. We must gauge our audience and not speak down at them, or speak above them. Justin explained the faith in a way that was easy to understand. This ensured that his audience knew exactly what he was saying and they could make the conscious decision to believe it or not. Lastly he lived what he believed. We can speak all day about Christ, but if we are not letting him affect out life others will see and may not believe. Justin and many Christians of the second century paid the ultimate price for their faith. They lost their lives, and that meant that they lived it.

In conclusion the methods that Justin Martyr employed to defend and evangelize are still useful today. Obviously the pagan Roman gods are not an issue, but the ever increasing popularity of the New Age Movement is. It is a system of Pantheism and is being touted as a way to get what you want if you just believe hard enough. Like Justin we can point to the immorality of those who claim to be divine and point to morality of Christians. Spreading the faith and using simple terms is more important than ever before. Justin used the language and style of the people and we must do the same. We must recognize that we are not dealing with fellow seminary students and many have not heard of the terms in which we have become familiar. Like Justin we must study our faith, live our faith, speak about our faith, and be willing to die for our faith. That is authentic and that is what this hurting world needs. They need more authentic Christians like Justin who are willing to live it and teach it.


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“Justin Martyr: Philosopher, Apologist, Martyr,” anglican.org, accessed February 21, 2015, justin.anglican.org.

Akin, Jimmy. The Fathers Know Best: Your Essential Guide to the Teachings of the Early Church. San Diego, CA: Catholic Answers Press, 2010.

Aquilina, Mike. The Fathers of the Church. 3rd ed. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2013.

Barry, John D., ed. The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012.

Beilby, James K. Thinking About Christian Apologetics: What it is and why we do it. Downers Grove, IL: Ivp Academic, 2011.

Bettenson, Henry, and Chris Maunder, eds. Documents of the Christian Church. 4th ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Coxe, Arthur Cleveland, ed. The Anti-Nicene Fathers Volume I. New York, NY: Cosimo Classics, 2007.

Dunn-Wilson, David. A Mirror for the Church: Preaching in the First Five Centuries. Grand Rapids, MI: W.b. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005.

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Foley, Leonard, and O.F.M. Believing in Jesus. Cincinnati, OH: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2000.

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Hall, Christopher A. Learning Theology with the Church Fathers. Downers Grove, IL: Ivp Academic, 2002.

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Martyr, Justin. Dialogue with Trypho. Washington, D.C: Catholic University Press, 2003.

McGrath, Alister E. Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth. New York, NY: Harperone, 2009.

Papandrea, James Leonard. Reading the Early Church Fathers: From the Didache to Nicea. New York, NY: Paulist Press, 2012.

Shaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Erdmans Publishing Company, 1994.

Sproul, R.c. “Justin Martyr.” Ligioner Ministries. Accessed February 18, 2015. http://www.ligioner.org/devotionals/justin_martyr.

Wall, Christopher A. Learning Theology with the Church Fathers. Downers Grove, IL: Ivp Academic, 2002.

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[1] Everett Ferguson, Church History: From Christ to the Pre-Reformation, 2nd ed (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013), 70.

[2] Holman Concise Bible Dictionary, 3rd ed., s.v. “Incest.”

[3] Everett Ferguson, Church History: From Christ to the Pre-Reformation, 2nd ed (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013), 66.

[4] W.h.mare, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 647.

[5] James K. Beilby, Thinking About Christian Apologetics: What it is and why we do it (Downers Grove, IL: Ivp Academic, 2011), 169.

[6] Everett Ferguson, Church History: From Christ to the Pre-Reformation, 2nd ed (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013), 66.

[7] Mike Aquilina, The Fathers of the Church, 3rd ed (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2013), 89.

[8] Everett Ferguson, Church History: From Christ to the Pre-Reformation, 2nd ed (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013), 66.

[9] “Alexamenos Graffito,” religionfacts, accessed February 12, 2015, http://www.religionfacts.com/​jesus/​image_gallery/​alexamenos Graffito.

[10] “Justin Martyr: Philosopher, Apologist, Martyr,” anglican.org, accessed February 21, 2015, justin.anglican.org.

[11] James Leonard Papandrea, Reading the Early Church Fathers: From the Didache to Nicea (New York, NY: Paulist Press, 2012), 127.

[12] “Justin Martyr: Philosopher, Apologist, Martyr,” anglican.org, accessed February 21, 2015, justin.anglican.org.

[13] Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli, The Handbook of Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL: Ivp Academic, 1994), 129.

[14] Douglas Groothius, Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL: Ivp Academic, 2011), 246.

[15] Arthur Cleveland Coxe, ed., The Anti-Nicene Fathers Volume I (New York, NY: Cosimo Classics, 2007), 323.

[16] Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho (Washington, D.C: Catholic University Press, 2003), 71.

[17] Alister E. McGrath, Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth (New York, NY: Harperone, 2009), 176.

[18] Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder, eds., Documents of the Christian Church, 4th ed (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011), 5.

[19] R.c. Sproul, “Justin Martyr,” Ligioner Ministries, accessed February 18, 2015, http://www.ligioner.org/​devotionals/​justin_martyr.

[20] Leonard Foley, Believing in Jesus (Cincinnati, OH: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2000), 78.

[21] Jimmy Akin, The Fathers Know Best: Your Essential Guide to the Teachings of the Early Church (San Diego, CA: Catholic Answers Press, 2010), 691.

[22] Christopher A. Hall, Learning Theology with the Church Fathers (Downers Grove, IL: Ivp Academic, 2002), 35.

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