(died c. A.D. 165)
One of the great conversion stories of early Christianity is that of St. Justin Martyr. It is the story of a searcher for truth who, once he found truth in Christianity, was ready to die for it.
Justin tells us something about himself in his writings. He was born in Samaria, between Judea and Galilee. His pagan parents, apparently of Greek origin, were wealthy enough to give their intellectual son a chance to follow higher studies.
The young Samaritan was especially attracted to philosophy, for he had a thirst for the truth about God. There were many non-Christian schools of philosophy in his day. Justin started to pick them over, but found only in the School of Plato some encouragement to God-study.
One day as he walked along near the seashore pondering the remarks of Plato, he encountered a venerable old man with whom he began to talk about his search. The stranger told him that if he was interested in philosophy – the quest for wisdom – he should look into the truths revealed by God through the Hebrew prophets and through Jesus Christ.
Justin was interested. He had heard many evil accusations brought against the Christians, but was already disposed to judge them slanders. These Christians were ready to die for their faith, he saw; therefore, they could not be all that wicked. So he undertook a thorough study of Christianity, and in its teachings he found peace of mind.
Most of the early Christians were not trained thinkers. Their faith was more of the heart than of the mind. Justin, however, was a professional scholar. In his zeal for the Christian faith, he went right on with his scholarly profession, boldly defending the nobility of the Christian faith in lectures, public debates, and writings. He was ready to take on any non-Christian scholar in debate, and through his zeal he won many converts.
The philosopher’s journeys as a lecturer brought him eventually to Rome. It was there that he was arrested and put on trial for his beliefs. Arrested with him were six other Christians, one of them a woman. Fortunately, the actual court record of their trial has been preserved. Justin’s behavior before the tribunal tells us much about the man himself.
The Roman Prefect Rusticus, as judge, began the inquiry. “What branch of learning do you study?” he asked the scholar. Justin answered, “I have studied all in turn… I follow the Christians because they have the truth.”
“What is that teaching?”, Rusticus asked. Justin gave a brief summary of Christian belief in God the Creator and Christ the Redeemer. But the Prefect was more interested (no doubt with punitive intent) in discovering where the Christians gathered together to worship. Justin gave his own Roman address and said he would be happy to discuss Christian beliefs with any callers.
“You are, then, a Christian?” Rusticus asked. (It was Roman judicial practice to elicit a confession of faith.) Justin said he was. The Prefect then said slyly, “If I have you beaten and beheaded, do you believe you will then go up to heaven?” Justin replied, “If I suffer as you say, I hope to receive the reward of those who keep Christ’s commandments.”
Rusticus rejoined, “So you think that you will go up to heaven?” Justin said, “I don’t think it, I know it. I have no doubt about it whatever.”
“Very well,” said the judge. “Come here and sacrifice to the gods.”
Justin replied, “Nobody in his senses gives up truth for falsehood. We ask nothing better than to suffer for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ and so to be saved. “
The six other Christians with him expressed agreement with their spokesman. They were therefore all condemned to be scourged and beheaded.
A Christian hand wrote a postscript to this precious account of inspired courage: “Some of the faithful took up their bodies secretly and buried them in a fitting place, upheld by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom belongs glory for ever and ever. Amen.”
–Father Robert F. McNamara