In Justin’s time, philosophy was the main source of moral guidance in Roman society, not religion. Philosophers were the mentors of the Roman world and its teachers were welcomed in the forum and in private homes.
Born in Nablus in Palestine of Greek parents, Justin studied with the philosophers of his day in Alexandria, Athens and Ephesus. It may have been in Ephesus around the year 130 AD that he encountered Christianity when, walking along the seashore, he met an old man who convinced him that Plato would not satisfy the human heart and called his attention to “the prophets who alone announced the truth.”
“After telling me these and other things…he went away, advising me to consider what he said. I never saw him again, but a flame kindled in my soul, filling me with love for the prophets and the friends of Christ. I did think about his words and benefited from his philosophy. And so I became a philosopher. May everyone have the same mind as I and not turn from the teaching of the Savior.” (Dialogue 8)
Not only did Christian teaching influence Justin; the example of Christians themselves was a powerful influence on him too:
“I liked Plato’s teaching then and also enjoyed hearing the evil spoken about Christians. But then I saw they had no fear of death or other things that inspire horror, and I realized they were not at all vicious or pleasure-loving.” (Apology 2,12)
Justin championed Christianity as a philosopher at a time when Christians were increasingly attacked by pagans, Jews and heretics. Donning the philosopher’s cloak he taught and wrote in Rome about the year 150 AD. He was a new kind of Christian, a Christian philosopher who engaged learned Greco-Romans and Jews on their own terms. He gave Christianity a Roman face and voice.
Justin defended Christians against Roman accusations of atheism, which then made them enemies of the Roman state. Christians were good citizens, he wrote. They pray for Rome, though they don’t worship in temples, had no statues of gods or participated in the religious rites of the state. Justin’s account of 2nd century Christian worship written to defend Christians against the charge of atheism offers an unique picture of early Christian worship.
In his “Dialogue with Trypho, the Jew” Justin offered the traditional Christian defense of Christianity to a Jew antagonistic to the new religion. The Jewish prophets predicted the coming, the death and resurrection of Jesus, Justin argues.
Justin is an early example of Christian ecumenism. He spoke of the Word of God through whom everything came to be. The Word became flesh in Jesus Christ, John’s gospel said, but Justin linked the biblical Word to the Logos of the philosophers. “Seeds of the Word” were scattered among the peoples of the world before his coming. Every human being possesses in his mind a seed of the Word, and so not only the prophets of the Old Testament but pagan philosophers like Heraclitus, Socrates and Musonius lead us to Jesus Christ, Justin claimed. (Apology 1,46)
An early Christian intellectual who used his talents to defend his faith against unjust attack, Justin was a prolific writer and teacher; unfortunately only three of his writings come down to us. Using Greek rhetoric and philosophy, he dialogued with the philosophers of the Greco-Roman world. Other Christian intellectuals soon followed him.
In Rome, rivals pressed charges that Justin was an enemy of the state as a Christian and finally brought him to a Roman judge along with six companions. Sentenced to death, they were beheaded probably in the year 165 AD. The official court record of their trial still survives.