(Book: First Apology, by Justin Martyr, courtesy of The Christian Classics Ethereal Library.)
Justin Martyr is giving us a fascinating glimpse into the Christian church as it existed in the early second century, before there was any official dogma of the Trinity, or any official canon of Scripture. In this week’s installment, he shares with us (or rather, with Caesar) some of the sayings of Jesus. The text on the CCEL website includes a footnote warning us that “Justin quotes from memory, so that there are some slight discrepancies between the words of Jesus as here cited, and the same sayings as recorded in our Gospels.” What the editor overlooks, though, is the fact that Justin isn’t quoting the Gospels, he’s quoting Jesus. There is no canon of Scripture yet.
That said, there’s not a whole lot here that’s surprising, really. The wording is different here and there, but then again, there are discrepancies between the different gospel records of Jesus’ sayings too. The fact that Justin is quoting from memory is really no more significant than the fact that Matthewet al. were quoting from memory as well. What’s more interesting is the noticeable difference between Justin’s assumptions and attitudes, and those we find among modern-day Christians, particularly those of the Bible-believing variety.
Justin takes some time in Chapter 15 to try and earn himself the title of Justin Marketer. And folks, there is some serious salesmanship going on here.
Concerning chastity, He uttered such sentiments as these:“Whosoever looketh upon a woman to lust after her, hath committed adultery with her already in his heart before God…” For not only he who in act commits adultery is rejected by Him, but also he who desires to commit adultery: since not only our works, but also our thoughts, are open before God. And many, both men and women, who have been Christ’s disciples from childhood, remain pure at the age of sixty or seventy years; and I boast that I could produce such from every race of men.
Yep, just believe in Jesus and you can go your whole life without ever lusting after a woman. And what’s more, Jesus’ power over carnal lust doesn’t just work for Justin’s race. Justin can produce examples from every race of men—including those races that are, um, lustier than Justin’s. Wow, now how much would you pay?
There may be some truth in what Justin says. After all, I’ve also known some men, from every race, who have lived their whole lives without lusting after a woman. They’re currently fighting for the right to get married in most of the United States, and they’re laboring under stereotypes that depict them as wicked and evil and immoral, but they exist.
As for actual heterosexuals who’ve been delivered from lust through the power of Jesus, eh, well, not so much. The desire to appear pure to others might have played some role in encouraging people to refrain from the more obvious forms of licentiousness, but hormones are hormones. If Jesus could just magically turn those off (except in the case of one’s spouse), then our tabloids would be the poorer for it. But really, how would Justin or anyone else know for sure whether someone who says he’s never lusted after a woman has really and truly never felt any normal, biochemical response to someone who was sexually attractive to them? This is pure marketing on Justin’s part.
By the way, I shortened Justin’s quote for brevity, but his definition of sexual impurity goes beyond mere adultery. He also includes divorce and remarriage in his list of sins, and commends “those who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” Or rather, Jesus does—Justin is just quoting. So yeah, Jesus had some serious sexual hangups, to the point of suggesting that there’ll be no dicks in heaven, or something. And Justin even quotes the saying about how it’s better to go to heaven with one eye (*ahem*) than to be thrown into the everlasting fire with two. But not everyone can accept this saying, wink wink, nudge nudge.
Justin moves on to the sayings about loving your enemies, and praying for them that persecute you. And, by the way, give to the poor, and don’t accumulate treasures on earth. Christians (at least in Justin’s day) are supposed to trust that God will feed them the same way He cares for the birds of the field. This is another saying that modern Christians have a hard time accepting, except as a nice-sounding platitude that no one actually takes seriously. Justin is quoting Jesus saying that believers shouldn’t have a retirement plan, or even a long-term savings account. Just live from moment to moment, trusting God to supply your needs, and be generous to whoever asks of you, loaning out money without any expectation of getting it back again.
And that we should communicate to the needy, and do nothing for glory, He said, “Give to him that asketh, and from him that would borrow turn not away; for if ye lend to them of whom ye hope to receive, what new thing do ye? even the publicans do this… And, “Be ye kind and merciful, as your Father also is kind and merciful, and maketh His sun to rise on sinners, and the righteous, and the wicked.
You might think that this take on fiscal responsibility would make Justin unsuited to run for office in any county with a large Republican contingent, but let me just skip ahead to Chapter 17 for a quick quote.
And everywhere we, more readily than all men, endeavour to pay to those appointed by you the taxes both ordinary and extraordinary, as we have been taught by Him; for at that time some came to Him and asked Him, if one ought to pay tribute to Cæsar; and He answered, “Tell Me, whose image does the coin bear?” And they said, “Cæsar’s.” And again He answered them, “Render therefore to Cæsar the things that are Cæsar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Not only does he recommend that Christians freely give their money to the poor, he also describes Christians as being even more eager to pay taxes than non-believers are. Think what Bill Clinton could have done with a nation full of Christians like Justin! Karl Rove would have given up politics and become a cabbage farmer.
But I’m running ahead here, so let’s step back and pick up Chapter 16. Here again we find Justin painting a rosy picture of what kind of noble saints these Christians are.
And concerning our being patient of injuries, and ready to serve all, and free from anger, this is what He said: “To him that smiteth thee on the one cheek, offer also the other; and him that taketh away thy cloak or coat, forbid not. And whosoever shall be angry, is in danger of the fire. And every one that compelleth thee to go with him a mile, follow him two. And let your good works shine before men, that they, seeing them, may glorify your Father which is in heaven.”For we ought not to strive; neither has He desired us to be imitators of wicked men, but He has exhorted us to lead all men, by patience and gentleness, from shame and the love of evil.
Patient, submissive, free from anger—sounds just like Fox News, doesn’t it? “And if any man say unto thee, ‘Happy Holidays,’ wish thou unto him a ‘Happy Holiday’ as well,” just like Bill O’Reilly would. Or maybe not.
Is this a change in Christian attitudes? Maybe. It might be that modern American Christians, with their glistening mega-churches and political clout and major media outlets, have grown fat and self-centered, and have fallen away from the simple humility espoused by Jesus and Justin. Or it might be that Justin was, shall we say, polishing the product up a bit, to make it more attractive to the potential consumer. Unfortunately, Justin follows up that bit of marketing savvy with this:
And this indeed is proved in the case of many who once were of your way of thinking, but have changed their violent and tyrannical disposition, being overcome either by the constancy which they have witnessed in their neighbours’ lives,or by the extraordinary forbearance they have observed in their fellow-travellers when defrauded, or by the honesty of those with whom they have transacted business.
“Yeah, Caesar, I know some people who used to be as violent and tyrannical as you, but they were so impressed by how good we Christians are that they’re nicer people now.” What a way to sell your religion to an emperor, eh? No wonder he’s remembered as Justin Martyr.
Then, in a typical Justinian shift, he jumps to talking about worshipping God alone. It’s like he’s throwing out anything he thinks might impress Caesar, without any real plan or priority. Maybe he’s just letting the Spirit lead him, and blurting out whatever pops into his head, in hopes that he’s being divinely inspired to write exactly the right sequence of words that will sway the emperor’s heart. And he says an interesting thing.
And that we ought to worship God alone, He thus persuaded us: “The greatest commandment is, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and Him only shall thou serve, with all thy heart, and with all thy strength, the Lord God that made thee.”And when a certain man came to Him and said, “Good Master,” He answered and said, “There is none good but God only, who made all things.”
Once again we see a glimpse of the pre-divine Jesus refusing to allow himself to be worshipped. A Trinitarian will likely quote this passage and then tell you that Jesus is actually asserting his own deity here, because Jesus is good, and is therefore God, because only God is good. But that’s not how Justin is using that quote here. Justin is making the point that you should not worship anyone or anything but God alone, and he uses Jesus’ rebuke to emphasize that point. God alone is good; He does not share that goodness with anyone else, not even Jesus, as Jesus himself declared. And therefore God alone is to be worshipped, just as Jesus himself said and did.
And yet, Justin is contradicting himself here, because in Chapter 13 he declared that Christians do “worship and adore” Jesus, and in Chapter 6 he says that Christians worship God, then Jesus “and the other good angels,” and “the prophetic Spirit” last of all. A Trinitarian might be ok with Christians worshipping both God and Jesus, but angel worship ought to be way out of bounds. It’s quite a mess, and it’s easy to see why the internal contradictions would eventually create a doctrinal crisis that would require several Church Councils to resolve.
From there, Justin flips back to his earlier point about Christians being judged by their works. Either you do all the good works Jesus commanded (including being eager to pay taxes and give to the poor), or you are “Christian only in name,” and will be cast into Hell by God Himself. And heck, why wait for God? Justin closes Chapter 16 by urging Caesar to punish everyone who claims to be a Christian and does not do all the good works that Jesus commanded. So much for Justin as a champion of religious liberty!
Chapter 17, as I’ve already quoted, presents Christians as being the World’s Best Taxpayers, and then goes on to explain that, while God alone is worthy of worship, Christians hold that rulers and emperors have legitimate authority from God. Not only are Christians good taxpayers, then, but they’re also models of civic submission and obedience, who pray daily for the emperor to be granted sound judgment. But, never one to let well enough alone, Justin sours the presentation by sneaking in one more reminder that, oh by the way Caesar, MY God is going to judge you someday for how you exercised the power that HE gave you. And if He don’t like what you’ve done, He’s got a lake of burning sulfur to throw you into, forever.
Great way to impress the most powerful man in the ancient Mediterranean region, isn’t it? It’s like Justin is giving later generations a book of examples of how not to sell the Christian faith. But just wait. Next week Justin is going to bring in the necromancers. I kid you not, necromancers. Betcha it’s been a while since you’ve heard a Christian use necromancy as a tool of evangelism, eh?