Wednesday, June 01, 2011

How One Man Changed History

June 1, today, is the feast of St. Justin, commonly called Justin Martyr. It’s a day that always impresses me, for reasons that will become clear at the end of this blogpost.

Justin was born in Samaria in the first decade of the second century. His parents were pagans. As a young man he eagerly sought to learn the meaning of life, and received instruction from a number of philosophers without being satisfied by any of them. Sometime in his twenties he was walking along the beach in Ephesus on the western shore of what is now Turkey, and met an old man who told him about Christianity. The conclusion of their long discussion was that Justin came to believe that no one could arrive at the idea of God solely through his own efforts, but that one needed to be instructed by the Jewish Prophets who, inspired by the Holy Spirit, had known God and could make him known. Justin decided to become a Christian, probably at Ephesus, at the latest by A.D. 130.

Before his conversion, Justin already knew something of Christianity, since it was by now a common religion in the Roman Empire, even if not yet licit. After his conversion, Justin wrote that he had been influenced by the fearless conduct of Christians facing execution. He wrote, “When I was a disciple of Plato, hearing the accusations made against the Christians and seeing them intrepid in the face of death and of all that men fear, I said to myself that it was impossible that they should be living in evil and in the love of pleasure.” Justin explained that he was moved by Christianity’s “moral beauty” and by its “truth”.

Once he had become a Christian, Justin began to write and to teach. Within about ten years, he arrived in Rome where he started his own school. Three of his essays still exist. Following up on what he had learned from the old man, he wrote that true knowledge of God can only come by revelation, though it is built upon one’s own seeking. His writings are the first time in Christian theology that we find so concise an explanation of the difference that separates Christian revelation from human speculation. Just as the accusation on Jesus’ cross was written in the language of the Empire (Latin), the common people (Greek), and the People of God (Hebrew), so do the three extant essays of Justin address the Romans (explaining that Christianity does not imply disloyalty to the Empire), popular philosophy (defending Christianity against the Greek charge that it is irrational), and the Jews (asserting that Christianity does not distort the Hebrew Scriptures but rather fulfills them).

Roughly twenty years after his arrival in Rome, after disputing with the cynic philosopher Crescens, he was denounced by the latter to the authorities. Justin was tried, together with six companions (Chariton, Charito, Evelpostos, P├Žon, Hierax, and Liberianos); all were condemned for their refusal to renounce Christ, and were beheaded in the mid 160s. In a prescient statement written in A.D. 155, Justin had said, “It is incumbent on every lover of truth, at whatever personal cost, even if his own life is at stake, to choose to do and to speak only what is right.”

The court record of the trial and condemnation is extant. The examination ends as follows: “The Prefect Rusticus says: Approach and sacrifice, all of you, to the gods. Justin says: No one in his right mind gives up piety for impiety. The Prefect Rusticus says: If you do not obey, you will be tortured without mercy. Justin replies: That is our desire, to be tortured for Our Lord, Jesus Christ, and so to be saved, for that will give us salvation and firm confidence at the more terrible universal tribunal of Our Lord and Saviour. And all the martyrs said: Do as you wish; for we are Christians, and we do not sacrifice to idols. The Prefect Rusticus read the sentence: Those who do not wish to sacrifice to the gods and to obey the emperor will be scourged and beheaded according to the laws. The holy martyrs glorifying God betook themselves to the customary place, where they were beheaded and consummated their martyrdom confessing their Saviour.”

The church of St. John the Baptist in Sacrofano, a few miles north of Rome, claims to have Justin’s relics.

The title of this blogpost is How One Man Changed History. Of course that can refer to Justin himself, whose influence was great in his own day and extends to our own time more than 1,850 years later. But the man I am thinking of in this title is the stranger on the shore of Ephesus, whose name was not recorded by Justin, and in this world, then, will never be known. This old man was probably a member of the church in Ephesus, which had been a major Christian center from the days of St. Paul more than a century earlier. He was evidently a man able and willing to talk about his faith with a stranger in an effective and persuasive fashion.

Also obvious is the fact that it was God who did the “converting” of Justin. The young Justin was eager to know the meaning of life and was ripe for coming to know God. We may ask, what would have happened if the young man and the old man had not met, nor conversed, or if the old man, having met with Justin, shrank back from talking to him about Jesus. Of course, we cannot answer those questions; we can only know what actually happened. The old man did talk to the young man, and he was the instrument by whom God brought Justin to Christ, and through Justin, many others.

Year by year I have pondered the account of Justin’s conversion and given thanks to God for the old man, whoever he was—a brother in Christ, at least, and an effective “street evangelist”. There are times I have been in the place of the old man, and shared Jesus with people whom I had met casually. (See this blogpost, Girl on a Bus.) But it is always God who is the evangelist (See this blogpost, No Wrong Numbers With God.) God’s first plan for bringing people to Christ is to have believers serve as his instruments. People are usually converted by people—much less frequently by visions or personal study. I salute the stranger on the shore and hope to be as effective as he was.