Church History, Lesson 9: Letters to Non-Christians about Christ and His Church

Early Manuscript of Justin Martyr 2Intro

Today, we focus on two sets of letters written to non-Christians.  The first is by Pliny the Younger, a provincial Roman governor; the second by Justin Martyr, a Christian.  Both lived in the 2nd century.


Pliny the Younger (61- 113 AD)

9, BithniaAs the Governor of Bithnia, in 112-13 AD, Pliny wrote to Emperor Trajan asking for instructions.  Though a precedent did exist for executing Christians, an explicit imperial policy was lacking.  Pliny wanted to learn the Emperor’s preferred policies, for many locals were bringing him lists of those they accused of being Christian.  He believed many were using the state’s censure of Christianity as an excuse to get back at social and business enemies.

Pliny tells Trajan he had conducted investigations, even torturing two lower-class Christian women, whom he says were called “deaconesses.”  For the lower classes, torture was required, for Roman law didn’t consider the confession of the lower classes as valid unless given under duress.

Examining many accused of being Christian, Pliny learned:

[Christians] were accustomed to meet on a set day before daybreak and sing a hymn antiphonally to Christ, as to a god.  They involve themselves in a sacrament (dicere secum invicem seque sacramento), not to do anything ill, or to commit theft, robbery, or adultery.  They pledge not break their promises or deny what was deposited to them when called upon.  After going through these ceremonies, as their custom, they depart and to meet again for the purpose of receiving food—food, of an ordinary and harmless kind.…

  • What is the set day when Christians gathered?


  • In what way did Christians refer to Christ?


  • What else did they do?


  • What was the deposit Christians were not supposed to deny? (2 Timothy 1:14)


  • According to Pliny, Christians met “for the purpose of receiving food.” What did this refer to?


Though Pliny found nothing worthy of death, this didn’t mean he wanted Christian persecution to end.  For he also wrote, “… this superstition has spread like a contagion, not only into cities and towns but in the country villages, as well.  Yet, it may be possible to stop and cure this.”

He explains why:

To be sure, the temples, which were almost entirely deserted, are now beginning to be frequented.  The customary religious rites, long interrupted, are now being revived.  The sale of food from the sacrifices, for which few buyers could be found are now again beginning to sell well everywhere.  From all this, it is easy to extrapolate the many multitudes who can be reclaimed, if we only grant place for repentance.

  • According to Pliny, what effect did persecution have on the Christian community?


  • How does he know?


Did Pliny exaggerate the growth of Christianity?  Or was he dealing with a real problem?  We find the answer in found his letter.  Pagans who converted to Christianity abandoned pagan worship, which left the pagan temples “almost entirely deserted.”  The sale of food from the sacrificed animals dropped, upsetting the local economy.  The persecution of Christians was good for pagan commerce.


Justin Martyr (100 – 165 AD)

Justin grew up as a pagan.  Caught up in Greek philosophy, he toured the various philosophical schools.  In about the year 132, he discovered Christianity when he encountered an old sage.  This teacher became a mentor of his and represented to him the Christian doctrines as the fulfillment of all the aspirations of the ancient world’s many seekers after truth.

He records how his old sage showed him the meaning of the Old Testament texts and their fulfillment in the life and teachings of Jesus.

Around 135, during the time of the Bar Kokhba revolt, Justin moved to Ephesus.  There, he debated a Jewish rabbi, Trypho, who wished to impress on Justin the errors of his interpretation of the Old Testament.  The dialogue, a public disputation lasting over two days, was later written down by Justin in a literary form.


Dialogue with Trypho (155 – 160 AD)

Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob, or any man did not see both the Father and inexpressible Lord of absolutely all things and Christ himself.  No, he only saw Him who, according to His [the Father’s] will, is both God, His Son, and Angel (because He serves to His purposes).  The Father sent Him to be born of a virgin, and who earlier became fire when He talked with Moses in the bush.  [Trypho 127.4].

  • Whom did Justin understand was present with His people in times past?


Here, Justin explained to Trypho how God saved humanity by working a reversal of our fall into sin.

We understand that [Jesus] is born of the Virgin so the serpent-caused disobedience might be destroyed in the same way it originated.  For Eve, the undefiled virgin, conceived in her the word of the serpent, and she brought forth disobedience.  The Virgin Mary was filled with faith and joy, when the Angel Gabriel announced to her the word to her so… [through her child] God destroys both the serpent and those angels and men who are like him; but works deliverance from death to those who repent of their wickedness and believe in Him. [Trypho 50.45]

  • How did Justin show how God defeated the damage by our fall into sin?


In the Passover, God commanded a lamb to be roasted over a fire.  The ancient method for roasting a Passover lamb affixed its body lengthwise to a wooden spit.  To prevent the body from slipping on the spit, the Jews connected a cross piece at the shoulders of the lamb.  Thus, the Passover lamb was affixed to a cross!  Justin didn’t see this as mere coincidence.

… the [Passover] lamb which was commanded to be fully roasted was a symbol of the suffering of the cross which Christ would undergo.  For the lamb, which is roasted, is roasted and dressed upon the form of the cross. [Trypho 40. 3]

  • How did the Passover lambs point to the Passover Lamb?


“Sometimes the Holy Spirit caused the visible appearance of something as a foreshadow (typos) of the future” (Trypho 104.1).  In Genesis, Justin saw the Tree of life as a figure of Christ (86.1).  Adam’s temptation by the serpent in paradise prefigured Christ’s temptation in the wilderness (103.6).  Eve was a foreshadow of Mary.  Christ was the new Noah (139.1-3), who would bring us through the final destruction.


First Apology (150 – 155 AD)

In time, Justin made his way to Rome, where he established a school of Christian philosophy.  There, he wore the familiar fashion of the day for philosophers: a cloak called a pallium.  This was his signal to the world that Christianity was a religion with a philosophical system.  At Rome, Justin composed his most famous work, his First Apology, written to Emperor Antoninus Pius.

So we worship God only, but in other things we gladly serve you, acknowledging you as kings and rulers of men, and praying that with your imperial power you may also be found to possess sound judgment. [First Apology 17]

  • How did Justin try to show the Emperor why Christianity was no threat to the civil order?


For if we looked for a human kingdom, we would also deny our Christ not to be slain.  We would try to escape detection to obtain what we expect.  But since we do not place our hopes on the present, we are not concerned about our executioners; since also death is a debt which must be paid. [First Apology 11]

  • Why else should Christians not be considered a threat to the Roman Empire?


…we ask that the charges against us be investigated, and that, if they are substantiated, let us be punished as we deserve.  But if no one can prove anything against us, true reason forbids you, because of nasty rumors, to wrong innocent people. [First Apology 3]

  • While recognizing the authority of God and Emperor, as a Christian, how did Justin see the role of the state?


Those who are persuaded and believe what we teach and say are true, and undertake to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and ask God with fasting for the remission of their past sins, while we pray and fast along with them.  Then they are brought by us where there is water and are reborn in the same way of rebirth by which we were reborn.  For they receive washing in the water in the name of God the Father and Master of all, and our Savior Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit….  This washing is called illumination, since those who learn these things are illumined in their understandings.  [First Apology 61]

  • What does Justin call baptism?


  • What Scripture passages does he bring to mind?


On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or the country gather together in one place, and the memoirs of the Apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits.  Then, when the reader has finished, the Ruler verbally instructs and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. [First Apology 67]

  • What does Justin describe here?


  • What portions of the Scripture were read from?


Then we all stand up together and offer prayers … [First Apology 67]

After finishing the prayers, we greet one another with a kiss.

Then bread and a cup of wine mixed with water are brought to the Ruler of the congregation.  He takes them and gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son in the Holy Spirit, and offers thanksgiving at considerable length for being counted worthy to receive these things from Him.

When the prayers and thanksgivings [Eucharist] are completed, all the people present express their assent by saying “Amen,” which comes from the Hebrew, meaning “so be it.”

When the Ruler has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those whom we call deacons distribute to everyone present a portion of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the words of thanks was pronounced.  They also take a portion to those who are absent. [First Apology 65]

  • What happened after the sermon?


  • After greeting one another with a holy kiss, what took place?


  • What were the two main parts of the worship service?


  • What was used for the Lord’s Supper?


  • Who distributed to the Supper (the consecrated elements), even to those who could not attend?


We call this food “the Eucharist,” of which no one may partake except the one who believes the truth of our teachings, who has been washed by the washing for the forgiveness of his sins and his regeneration, and who lives as Christ “traditioned” to us. [First Apology 66]

  • What admits one to the Lord’s Table?


  • According to Justin, what does God do through baptism?


For we do not receive these things as common bread or common drink.  Jesus Christ, our Savior, became incarnate as the Word [Logos] of God, with both flesh and blood for our salvation.  So we are also taught that the food “eucharistized” by the Word of prayer which comes from Him, from which our flesh and blood are nourished by transformation, is the flesh and blood of the same incarnate Jesus. [First Apology 66]

  • What is in the bread and drink of the Supper?


“transformation”: From Justin, we get the first inklings of what Rome will eventually develop into their doctrine of “transubstantiation” in the Lord’s Supper.


Second Apology (150 – 157 AD)

Justin addressed his Second Apology to the Roman Senate, which was much shorter than his first.

For next to God, we worship and love the Word [Logos] who is from the unbegotten and ineffable God, since he also became man for our benefit, so that, becoming a partaker of our sufferings, he might even bring us healing. [Second Apology 13]

  • How does Justin understand the meaning of “the Word of God,” as Scripture or Jesus?


  • What does Justin mean by healing?


On one trip to Rome, Justin alienated a man called “Crescens the Cynic.”  When Justin returned to Rome in 165 AD, Crescens denounced him to the authorities.  Justin was arrested, tortured, and beheaded, along with six other believers.


Scripture and Justin Martyr

The readings during worship came from the “memoirs of the apostles” and the “writings of the prophets.”  With these two expressions, he meant what we call the Gospels and the Septuagint.  This helped prepare the way for the formation of a Christian set of books we would one day call “the Bible.”


Concluding Thoughts On Justin

Justin Martyr occupies a central position in the history of Christian thought of the second century.  He exemplified the full range of argumentation.  His Dialogue with the Trypho is an excellent example of the detailed debate based on the Old Testament that can occur between Christians and Jews.  His two Apologies addressed to the pagan world are good examples of intelligent discourse between believer and non-believer.

Justin refuted the usual charges made against the Christians: immorality, treasonous intent, removing ourselves from the world, and harboring hatred of others.  He also set out to show the essential character of Christianity, which he described as the community of those devoted to the Word [Logos, Jesus].  In the person of Jesus, the same divine Logos became incarnate within history to bring together all lovers of the truth in a single school and communion of divine Wisdom.  For Justin, Christianity is the summation and fulfillment of all human searching for truth.


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