Justin Martyr before the prefect of Rome

Posted: November 17, 2009 by Scott Kistler in Church Fathers

Through reading Litfin’s Getting to Know the Church Fathers, I found out that the short narrative of Justin’s martyrdom is online at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library, maintained by Calvin College.  Justin and others were arrested in Rome about AD 165.  The prefect (chief magistrate) of Rome first ordered Justin to sacrifice to the gods and then examined him about his beliefs and the meetings of Christians that followed him (see Chapter I and Chapter II).  The prefect, Rusticus, then asked the others if they were Christians and asked Liberianus if he would worship the gods.  Their responses, recorded in Chapter III give a brief glimpse into what seems to have been a diverse group of Christians in Rome.  Two had been taught the faith by their parents, while another claimed that “Christ is our true father, and faith in Him is our mother; and my earthly parents died.”  This latter man, Hierax, had originally come from “Iconium in Phrygia” and came to Rome after he was driven out, while Euelpistus’ parents were in Cappadocia.  Euelpistus, “a servant of Caesar,” gave my favorite response to the prefect: “I too am a Christian, having been freed by Christ; and by the grace of Christ I partake of the same hope.”  In the face of their commitment, the prefect informed the Christians of the fate that they faced.  I have quoted in full the last two chapters (IV and V) of the story:

The prefect says to Justin, “Hearken, you who are called learned, and think that you know true doctrines; if you are scourged and beheaded, do you believe you will ascend into heaven?” Justin said, “I hope that, if I endure these things, I shall have His gifts.2646 [alternate reading: “I shall have what He teaches [us to expect].”] // For I know that, to all who have thus lived, there abides the divine favour until the completion of the whole world.” Rusticus the prefect said, “Do you suppose, then, that you will ascend into heaven to receive some recompense?” Justin said, “I do not suppose it, but I know and am fully persuaded of it.” Rusticus the prefect said, “Let us, then, now come to the matter in hand, and which presses. Having come together, offer sacrifice with one accord to the gods.” Justin said, “No right-thinking person falls away from piety to impiety.” Rusticus the prefect said, “Unless ye obey, ye shall be mercilessly punished.” Justin said, “Through prayer we can be saved on account of our Lord Jesus Christ, even when we have been punished,2647 [alternate reading: “It was our chief wish to endure tortures for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ, and so to be saved.”] // because this shall become to us salvation and confidence at the more fearful and universal judgment-seat of our Lord and Saviour.” Thus also said the other martyrs: “Do what you will, for we are Christians, and do not sacrifice to idols.”

Rusticus the prefect pronounced sentence, saying, “Let those who have refused to sacrifice to the gods and to yield to the command of the emperor be scourged,2648 and led away to suffer the punishment of decapitation, according to the laws.” The holy martyrs having glorified God, and having gone forth to the accustomed place, were beheaded, and perfected their testimony in the confession of the Saviour. And some of the faithful having secretly removed their bodies, laid them in a suitable place, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ having wrought along with them, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

According to G.W. Bowersock’s Martyrdom and Rome, narratives of martyrdom were a major form of early Christian literature “that was exciting to read as it was edifying” (24).  This narrative clearly points to the respect accorded to martyrs, portraying Justin and his companions as having “perfected their testimony in the confession of the Saviour.”

Note: When quoting from the source, I left the footnote links in.  Go to the CCEL source to read them in full, if you’d like to.  For two of them, I tried to summarize the note in brackets.


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