A Pagan Philosopher Discovers the Christ: The Story of Justin the Martyr

by Dr. Michael Whiting, DBU Staff

Day 10 of Advent

Journeying from one philosophy to the next, Justin stumbled upon the wisdom of Jesus Christ, but once this restless knowledge seeker encountered the Lord, he was transformed into a profound believer who taught and defended the wisdom of the Christian faith even at the cost of his own life.

Justin was born around the year 100 AD in Samaria to a pagan family during the Roman era. Very early on his mind was attracted to the search for philosophical and intellectual truth. At the age of 30, he found himself in the city of Ephesus, eager to learn from the best teachers he could find. However, every encounter left him more disappointed, and much like the woman at Jacob’s well (the site of which was located not too far from Justin’s hometown!), his soul remained dry and thirsty apart from Christ.

Justin sat under the teaching of Stoics, Aristotelians, Pythagoreans, and Platonists. It was the latter that captured his most sustained attention, but one day while sitting by the sea lost in deep contemplation, he met a mysterious old man who pointed him to the treasures of wisdom and knowledge in Jesus Christ as revealed in the Scriptures.    

That was the last and only conversation the two ever had. Who that old man was remains nameless and unknown to history, but Justin, once converted, would go on to become one of the most important Christian theological voices and defenders of the Christian faith in the early centuries following the time of Jesus.

In Christianity, Justin found the truest philosophy and wisdom both to know God and live in union with Him. Justin went to Rome and became a teacher of the Christian faith and authored several important works – one that explained the fulfillment of the Old Testament in Jesus to Trypho, a Jew, and two others (First and Second Apology) that defended Christianity against pagan criticisms. (In fact, Justin’s account provides one of the earliest descriptions of a Sunday worship service after the New Testament.)

In the year 165 AD, Justin was taken along with six of his friends before the Roman authorities and questioned if he was a Christian. “Yes, I am a Christian,” Justin confidently replied, and his testimony was sealed with whippings and death by beheading, thus identifying him forever as Justin “the Martyr.”

Today, Justin is remembered as an early Christian apologist in the century after the apostles, “apologetics” referring to the theological discipline of offering explanations and defenses of the faith. He actively engaged the leaders and thinkers of his time in the Greco-Roman era to show Christianity as both morally and intellectually defensible. Much like the Gospel of John (John 1:1), Justin also made use of a common Greek word for divine knowledge, declaring the mystery of the "word" (Logos, gr.) through whom God made the world as incarnate in the flesh and revealed in the person of Jesus Christ.

Justin’s method of engaging his surrounding culture with the Gospel in a meaningful way would be echoed by future Christian apologists in generations to come as they sought to defend the Christian faith in their own cultural contexts. Rather than viewing all philosophy as bad, Justin believed that all philosophy - all knowledge - is measured by its true fountain and center in Jesus Christ.

No other philosophy could satisfy Justin’s intellectual thirst. In that tiny baby born in Bethlehem whom we ponder with the shepherds this Christmas lay the wisdom of the ages, going all the way back to the very foundation of creation, which would transform an ambitious philosopher into a bold ambassador for the Gospel.