Justin Martyr, First Apology: Part 1

Now that we’ve learned a little more about Justin himself, let’s dig into the first text that we’re reading for 2016: his First Apology.  A couple of notes on the name:

  • The fact that’s it called “First” means that there is indeed a “Second” apology; scholars debate which was actually written first (because of the manuscripts and because of the witness of Eusebius), but the text of the second apology itself actually suggests that it did come second.
  • “Apology” does not refer to the modern way we use the word — as saying “I’m sorry” for something.  It’s the English version of the Greek word apologia, which means “defense against an accusation.”  If that sounds like a legal term, then you are right — it could be used in a legal or rhetorical setting.

As the text itself indicates at the beginning, the purpose of the text is to address the Roman emperor and people, in an effort to give an accounting for the growing Christian movement in the Empire.  He suggests in chapter 2 that “philosophers” are honored in the Empire — this is important because some of the emperor’s household are considered philosophers — and that criminals are rightly rejected.  However, the opening of the book (chapters 1-20) contains Justin’s thesis: that Christians are far more like philosophers (people who live with integrity according to a coherent belief system and ethics) than like criminals.  As such, they should not be punished simply for being Christians — only if they actually do commit criminal acts.

OK: now that we have a little sense of the author, the text, and its purpose, let’s turn to some important themes in the text.  First, Justin provides an early Christian witness for some of the accusations that were made against Christians in the early centuries.  We read about these in books but may not have in primary sources.  These accusations include:

  • Atheism (for not worshiping the Roman gods) (ch. 6)
  • Being crazy (for worshiping a crucified person as second only to God) (ch. 13)
  • Cannibalism (for eating the “flesh” and drinking the “blood” of a person) (ch. 26)
  • Sexual immorality (presumably rumors begun by the language of the “love feast”) (ch. 26)

Second, and perhaps interestingly for those of you who think about intersection of Christianity and culture, Justin notes that Christian teaching actually agrees in a number of points with Plato and other honored Greek philosophers.  For example, he says in ch. 8 that Christians seek to live a moral life, but that we shouldn’t be excoriated for that belief, since Plato taught the same. Also, ch. 18 contains a number of respected teachers (some philosophers, some religious oracles) who agree with Christian doctrine that there is some kind of life after death.  Late in the text, Justin even contends that Plato plagiarized from Moses when he talked about a god creating the world from “shapeless matter,” and that he “borrowed” from Moses when he talked in Timaeus about the “soul of the universe” existing in a type of cross-shape (see also Peter Leithart’s recent blog post on this topic).  There are other places in the text like this; these are just a few.

Raphael-Plato-and-Aristotle

Finally — and with this I’ll close this post — Justin bears witness to an interesting “intermediate stage” of thinking about the members of the Trinity: more developed than the New Testament, but not yet the full doctrine of the fourth-century councils that we are familiar with.  He seems to take the NT words literally (in some way) — that Jesus is the “Son of the living God himself” (ch. 13), although he does not explain this. And he clearly thinks of Jesus as a Teacher and Lord, since he is constantly talking about the things Jesus spoke.  He even seems to admit in ch. 22 that Jesus might have been “just a man,” but that he would still be worthy to be called God’s son because of his wisdom.  In fact, ch. 23 contains the most condensed statement of Justin’s belief: that Jesus was foretold by the prophets (and thus has divine affirmation), that he is the Word, Son, and Power of God, and that he became incarnate and dwelt among us.  Nothing controversial here, but also not yet using language like “person” and “essence.”  (This link has some good supplemental material, if you’d like to read more on the topic.)

The material on the Holy Spirit is similarly interesting.  Justin most often talks about the Spirit as the “prophetic Spirit” — the one through whom God spoke about Jesus by means of the prophets.  One finds references like this throughout the text (e.g., chs. 13, 33, 35, 38-42, 44, 47, 51, 53, 59, 63, etc.).  He does talk about the Spirit as a “third” object of worship, after the “living God himself” and after Jesus as God’s son (ch. 13), but the primary function of the Spirit seems to be to point people to Jesus, and that’s certainly something we’d affirm — and that John’s Gospel would agree with.

Feel free to leave your comments below.  Next time I’ll talk about three main points that Justin himself seems to want to make in the text — not just things that we notice from a modern perspective.

Image credits: https://vhoagland.files.wordpress.com/ and http://wildernessfound.com

Suggested next click: First Apology, Part 2

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