Justin Martyr and the Two Books, Part 1

| By Mark H. Mann

In both my previous series of essays here on the BioLogos Forum and in this new set of posts on how the great theologians in the history of the Christian Church (ranging from the 2nd to the 18th centuries) thought about Creation, I am making three main arguments:

  1. Christians should think of Scripture and Creation as two “books” that should be read together for understanding the fullness of God’s self-revelation;
  2. Science is a God-given tool for discerning the handiwork of God in Creation, and is fully compatible with God’s Word revealed in Scripture, and therefore,
  3. Christians have nothing to fear from science.

In last week's introduction to this series I explained more fully my thesis, concerns, and methods, and today we’ll begin our look at the Church Fathers themselves, turning to the life and writings of Justin Martyr.

The First Apologist

Almost nothing is actually known about Justin’s life, except for a few biographical references scattered among later Christian writings and a brief intellectual autobiography he provides in one of his three treatises that have survived to the current day. Unfortunately, the nature of that document (a dialogue) leaves the question open as to whether he is being autobiographical in a literal sense, or whether he has taken some literary license in order to drive home some of his central theological points.

Our best guess from the scant evidence we have is that Justin was born to a pagan, Roman family in Samaria, in Palestine, sometime shortly before or after 100 CE. It appears that, as a young man, he set out on an intellectual journey in pursuit of truth, exploring the teachings of many of the main philosophical schools of the era: Stoicism, Pythagoreanism, the Peripatetics (Aristotelianism) and Platonism, the latter proving the most attractive to him. Still, his quest did not come to an end until his encounter with Christianity and his conversion to faith in Christ. As a result, he came to understand Christian faith to embody the “true” and “highest” philosophy, and according to tradition he continued to wear philosopher’s robes the rest of his life. Following his conversion, he eventually moved to Rome and opened up his own school to teach “Christian” philosophy; Irenaeus (whom we look at in the next blog) is believed to have been one of his students. Finally, we know that Justin was martyred by beheading sometime around 165 CE for his public defense of Christianity.

Justin wrote many treatises in defense of Christian faith, but only three have survived: his two “Apologies” and his “Dialogue with Trypho, A Jew.” An “apology” is a public account and defense of one’s beliefs that responds to both actual and potential critics. Justin could find models for his apologetic work both in the Greek philosophical tradition (Socrates) and Scripture (Peter’s Pentecost speech in Acts 2 and Paul’s Mars Hill sermon in Acts 17). Many of the most important early Church writings that survive are apologies, and Justin was the first great apologist of the Church.

Justin’s “First Apology” was addressed to the Roman Emperor (Antoninus Pius), his sons, the Roman Senate, and Roman people, while his “Second” was addressed to the Senate alone. The chief purpose of each was to defend Christians against the claim of atheism (for which they were being persecuted), clarify Christian teachings, and defend the truth of Christian faith. In his “Dialogue with Trypho,” Justin mounts an extensive argument that Jesus is the expected Messiah of the Israelite prophetic tradition and the Christian Church, therefore, is the true Israel and heir to the covenantal promises made by God to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, etc.

The Continuity of the Scriptures

Justin’s “Dialogue with Trypho” provides an appropriate starting point for assessing Justin’s contribution to the development of the Two Books Theory. For starters, at this point in history, what we now call the “New Testament” had not been formally adopted by the Christian Church. For Christians in Justin’s time, Scripture was primarily the collection of ancient Hebrew writings we now call the Old Testament. The rather loose collection of apostolic writings (the gospels, the writings of Paul, etc.)—though gaining increasing authority in the young church—had not yet achieved any universally accepted form. So, for instance, it is fairly clear that in Justin’s time the gospel of John was not yet widely or uniformly considered to be authoritative in the way that the other gospels were, and it appears unlikely that Justin was even aware of the Pastoral Epistles and the book of Hebrews. However, only a few decades later we find none other than Irenaeus affirming all of these books as part of the Christian canon.

What is important about this for our purposes is not so much that in the 2nd century Christians like Justin were still sorting out the New Testament, but that most Christians had clearly embraced the Jewish Scriptures as their own, and that Justin, himself, was one of the chief advocates for the authority of what we now call the Old Testament. This might come as some surprise to many Christians today who simply take for granted the canonicity of the 66 “books” that constitute the Old and New Testament. But for 2nd-century Christians, not only was there debate about which books should be included in the New Testament (the Gospel of John and Hebrews won out, while the letters of Ignatius and Clement did not), but there was also considerable debate circulating about whether Christians should accept or reject the Jewish Scriptures.

The chief source of arguments against including the Jewish Scriptures was a wealthy church leader (he may even have been a bishop) from Asia Minor (now Turkey) named Marcion. Marcion taught that Jesus revealed a completely different God from the one who had created the world and had covenanted with Israel. According to Marcion, the Israelite God was an angry, vengeful, jealous, warlike God concerned with petty matters such as animal sacrifices and ritual purity laws. Most problematically, he had created the material world. The God whom Jesus Christ revealed, on the other hand, was a peaceful, loving, and compassionate God, who was instead concerned with matters of faith and the spirit, and who had sent Jesus to rescue us from our imprisonment in the world created by the petty Jewish God. To substantiate his claims, Marcion pointed to the teachings of St. Paul that are critical of those seeking to impose Jewish laws and circumcision on Gentile converts. He eventually promoted an exclusively “Christian” Bible that included only the Pauline writings and a version of the Gospel of Luke (always associated with Paul in Church traditions) that was somewhat different than the version other Christians affirmed. Marcion’s teachings fomented considerable controversy in the Church, and after being excommunicated by the Bishop of Rome (already considered a leading voice in the Church), he went on to found a rival church movement that found followers throughout the Greco-Roman world and survived for several centuries.

What is of special importance when considering Justin’s work, then, is the considerable effort Justin expends in his “Dialogue” defending the continuity between Jewish faith and scripture and the faith of the Christian Church. That is, his concern was not just to demonstrate to Jews that their own traditions and hopes were fulfilled in Christ, but also that the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ was the very God who had created the heavens and the earth and had called them good. While Marcion and other 2nd-century Christians (the Gnostics, who shared some similarities with Marcion and whom we will discuss more at length in our blog on Irenaeus) were flatly rejecting any association between Jesus’ Father and the natural world, Justin was boldly embracing it.

But this is not all. Indeed, Justin would push this point even further through his embrace of a “logos” Christology. This idea requires considerable unpacking, which we’ll do in Part 2, tomorrow.


About the Author

Mark H. Mann

Mark H. Mann is the director of the Wesleyan Center, Point Loma Press, and Honors Program at Point Loma Nazarene University. Mark received his bachelor's degree from Eastern Nazarene College and went on to earn both an M.Div. and a Ph.D. in Religious and Theological Studies (2004) from Boston University. Mann previously served at Colgate University where he was both chaplain and professor. Mann has previous experience in editing, student development and staff ministry at the local church level.