RELIGION: The Early Christian Martyrs

Justin Martyr and Antoninus Pius

The Second Century

By the second century the number of Christians throughout the Roman Empire was growing and their refusal to worship both the gods of Rome and successive Roman Emperors, posed a considerable challenge. Though many emperors chose actively to seek out and persecute those who practised Christian rituals, the Emperor Antoninus Pius (r. 138-161) instead extended the policy of his predecessor and adoptive father, the Emperor Hadrian (r. 117-138). Christians were to be left alone, unless they committed an actual crime. Antoninus goes further to argue that those who bring false accusations should themselves be punished. It must be noted, however, that the authenticity of this epistle has been questioned, as has its origin. Eusebius, one of our key sources of information on Christianity in this era, first identifies Antoninus as the author, but later attributes it to his son, Marcus Aurelius. We do know that this epistle was preserved in The Apology of Justin Martyr, a work that was addressed directly to the Emperor and which defended the Christian faith against the most common accusations of the time. Justin Martyr (c. 100 – 165 CE) had studied a number of philosophical traditions – including those of the Stoics and Platonists – prior to his conversion to Christianity in the 130s. The date of his  is disputed, with most accounts placing it somewhere between the years 139 and 150. This was a time of relative peace in the empire – indeed, the reign of Antoninus Pius, was one of the most peaceful recorded in the late Empire despite latent problems, readily identifiable in hindsight.

The Apology of Justin Martyr for the Christians to Antoninus Pius

1. To the Emperor Titus Ælius Adrianus Antoninus Pius Augustus Cæsar, and to his son Verissimus the Philosopher, and to Lucius the Philosopher, the son of (Ælius Verus) Cæsar by birth, and of Pius by adoption, the lover of learning; and to the sacred Senate, and to all the Roman people, in behalf of those of all nations who are unjustly hated and persecuted I Justin, the son of Priscus, and grandson of Bacchius, natives of Flavia Neapolis of Syria Palestine, being myself on of those (who are so unjustly used) off this address and supplication.

2. Reason herself dictates that those, who can with be Pious and Philosophers, should love and honour truth alone, and refuse to follow the opinions of the ancients, if plainly . For right reason not only forbids us to to those who are unjust, either in practice or in principle, but commands the lover of truth by all means, to choose that which is just in word and deed, even in preference to his own live, and under the threatened danger of immediate death ….

3. … [W]e that the charges against Christians may be examined; and if they be proved to be well founded, we are willing that they should be punished as they deserve, or even to punish them ourselves. But if no one has any proof to bring against them, right reason requires that ye should not, in consequence of an evil report, injure innocent men, or rather yourselves, since your decisions would be influenced not by judgment but by passion…. From a mere name [Christian] neither praise nor blame can justly arise, unless something either good or bad can be proved by actions.

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5. Ye judge not righteous judgment, but under the excitement of unreasonable passion, and lashed on by the scourges of evil demons, ye punish without judgment and without thought. For the truth must be spoken. Evil demons, in times of old, assuming various forms, went in unto the daughters of men, and committed other abominations; and so astonished the minds of men wit the wonders which they displayed, that they formed not a rational judgment on what was done, but were hurried away by their fears; so that, not knowing them to be evil demons, they styled them gods, and addressed them by the name which each demon imposed upon himself.

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16. With respect to the charge of [levelled against Christians]: what man of consideration will not confess that this accusation is falsely alleged against us? since we worship the Creator of this Universe, declaring, as we have been taught, that he requires not sacrifices of blood, and libations, and incense; and praise him to the utmost of our power, with words of prayer and thanksgiving, for all things which we enjoy. For we have learned, that the only honour which is worthy of him is, not to consume with fire what he hath given us for our nourishment, but to distribute them to ourselves and to those who have need: and that our thankfulness to him is best expressed, by the solemn offering of prayers and hymns. Moreover we pour forth our praises for our creation, and every provision for our well-being; for the various qualities of all creatures, and the changes of seasons; and (for the hope) of rising again in incorruption, through faith which is in him. Again we have learned, that he who taught us these things, and for this end was born, even Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, the procurator of Judea, in the time of Tiberius Cæsar, was the Son of him who is truly God, and we esteem him in the second place. And that we with reason honour the prophetic Spirit, in the third place, we shall hereafter show. For upon this point they accuse us of madness, saying that we give the second place after the unchangeable and eternal God, the Creator of all things, to a man who was crucified; (and this they do) being ignorant of the mystery which is in this matter; to which we you to take heed while we explain it.

17. For we have forewarned you to beware lest those demons, whom we have before accused, should deceive you, and prevent you from reading and understanding what we say. For they strive to retain you as their slaves and servants, and sometimes by revelations in dreams, and at other times again by magical tricks, enslave those who strive not at all for their own salvation. In like manner as we also, since we have been obedient to the Word, abstain from such things, and, through the Son, follow the only God. We, who once delighted in , now embrace chastity only: we, who once used magical arts, have ourselves to the good and unbegotten God: we, who loved above all things the gain of money and possessions, now bring all that we have into one common stock, and give a part to every one that needs: we, who hated and killed one another, and permitted not those of another nation, on account of their different customs, to live with us under the same roof, now, since the appearing of Christ, live at the same table, and part for our enemies, and endeavour to persuade those who unjustly hate us; that they also, living after the excellent institutions of Christ, may have good hope with us to obtain the same blessings, with God the Lord of all.

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90. If now what we have advanced appears to be reasonable and true, honour it accordingly; and if it appears folly, despise it as foolish, but pass not sentence of death against those who have done no evil, as if they were enemies. For we have already forewarned you, that ye shall not escape the future judgment of God, if ye continue in unrighteousness. And we shall exclaim, What God wills, let that come to pass. Although we might demand of you, from the of the most great and illustrious Cæsar Adrian[1], your father, that which we require, that ye should command right judgment to be made, we have yet preferred that this should not take place because it was so ordained by Adrian[2], but have made this address and explanation to you, knowing that we demand what is just….

The Epistle of the Emperor Antoninus Pius to the Common Assembly of Asia
Marble bust of the Emperor Antoninus Pius
Figure 3: Antoninus Pius

The Emperor Cæsar, Titus Ælius Adrianus Antoninus Augustus Pius, Pontifex Maximus, fifteenth time Tribune, thrice Consul, Father of his Country, to the Common Assembly of Asia, sends greeting. 

I am well assured, that the gods themselves will take heed that men of this kind shall not escape: for it is much more their interest to punish, if they can, those who refuse to worship them. Whereas ye trouble them, and accuse the opinions which they hold as if the were Atheists: and bring many other charges of which we are able to discover no proof. Nay, it would be in their a great advantage to die for that of which they are accused: and they conquer you, by throwing away their own lives, rather than comply with what you require them to do. 

With respect to earthquakes, which either have happened or do happen, it is not fitting that ye should regard them with , whatever they may be, comparing your own conduct with theirs, and observing how much more confident they have towards God, than ye. Ye, in fact, at such periods, appear to forget the gods, and neglect your sacred rites .And ye know not the worship which belongs to God; whence ye envy those who do worship him, and persecute them even unto death. Respecting such men, certain other of the rulers of provinces wrote to my Father of blessed memory [Antoninus Pius was the adopted son of the Emperor Hadrian]; to whom also he wrote in reply, that they should in no wise trouble men of that kind, unless they were shown to be making any attempt against the dominion of the Romans. Many too have given information respecting such men to me also, to whom I answered, in conformity with my father’s opinion. If then any one shall bring any charge against one of these men, simply as such, let him who is so accused be released, even if he should be proved to be one of this kind of men: and let the accuser himself be subject to punishment. 

Questions for Consideration

  1. To what extent does the Apology of Justin Martyr challenge the authority of the Roman State?
  2. Is the policy advocated by the Emperor Antoninus Pius an effective way to contain the growing challenge of Christianity within the Empire?
  3. What are the key characteristics of the Christianity detailed by Justin Martyr?

 


  1. Antoninus Pius' predecessor, the Emperor Hadrian
  2. Hadrian

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