Justin Martyr’s First Apology – A Plea for a Fair Hearing

PLEA FOR A FAIR HEARING - Written between 151 and 155 A.D.

1. To the Emperor Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus Pius Augustus Caesar, and to Verissimus his son, the Philosopher, and to Lucius the Philosopher, son of Caesar by nature and of Augustus by adoption, a lover of culture, and to the Sacred Senate and the whole Roman people—on behalf of men of every nation who are unjustly hated and reviled, I, Justin, son of Priscus and grandson of Bacchius, of Flavia Neapolis in Syria Palestina, being myself one of them, have drawn up this plea and petition.
2. Reason requires that those who are truly pious and philosophers should honor and cherish the truth alone, scorning merely to follow the opinions of the ancients, if they are worthless. Nor does sound reason only require that one should not follow those who do or teach what is unjust; the lover of truth ought to choose in every way, even at the cost of his own life, to speak and do what is right, though death should take him away. So do you, since you are called pious and philosophers and guardians of justice and lovers of culture, at least give us a hearing—and it will appear if you are really such. For in these pages we do not come before you with flattery, or as if making a speech to win your favor, but asking you to give judgment according to strict and exact inquiry—not, moved by prejudice or respect for superstitious men, or by irrational impulse and long-established evil rumor, giving a vote which would really be against yourselves. For we are firmly convinced that we can suffer no evil unless we are proved to be evildoers or shown to be criminals. You can kill us, but cannot do us any real harm.
3. But so that no one may think that this is an unreasonable and presumptuous utterance, we ask that the charges against us be investigated. If they are shown to be true, [let us] be punished as is proper. But if nobody has proofs against us, true reason does not allow [you] to wrong innocent men because of an evil rumor—or rather [to wrong] yourselves when you decide to pass sentence on the basis of passion rather than judgment. Every honorable man will recognize this as a fair challenge, and only just, that subjects should give a straightforward account of their life and thought, and that rulers similarly should give their decision as followers of piety and philosophy, not with tyrannical violence. From this both rulers and subjects would gain. As one of the ancients said somewhere, “Unless both rulers and those they rule become lovers of wisdom cities cannot prosper. “It is for us, therefore, to offer to all the opportunity of inspecting our life and teachings, lest we ourselves should bear the blame for what those who do not really know about us do in their ignorance. But it is for you, as reason demands, to give [us] a hearing and show yourselves good judges. For if those who learn [the truth] do not do what is right, they have no defense before God.
4. The mere ascription of a name means nothing, good or bad, except for the actions connected with the name. Indeed as far as the name charged against us goes, we are very gracious people. But we do not think it right to ask for a pardon because of the name if we are proved to be criminals—and on the other hand, if neither the appellation of the name nor our conduct shows us to be wrongdoers, you must face the problem whether in punishing unjustly men against whom nothing is proved you will yourselves owe a penalty to justice. Neither reward nor punishment should follow from a name unless something admirable or evil can actually be shown about it. Among yourselves you do not penalize the accused before conviction; but with us you take the name as proof, although, as far as the name goes, you ought rather to punish our accusers. For we are accused of being Christians; and it is not right to hate graciousness. Again, if one of the accused denies the charge, saying he is not [a Christian], you dismiss him, as having no proof of misconduct against him; but if he confesses that he is one, you punish him because of his confession. You ought rather to investigate the life of the confessor and the renegade, so that it would appear from their actions what sort of person each is. There are those who, learning from Christ their teacher, when they are put to the test encourage others not to deny him—and similarly others whose bad conduct gives some excuse to those who like to accuse all Christians of godlessness and crime. This is entirely improper. There are those who assume the name and costume of philosophers, but do nothing worthy of their profession—as you know, men among the ancients who held and taught opposite views are included under the one name of philosophers. Some of them even taught godlessness, and those who became poets proclaim the impurity of Zeus, with his own children. And you do not restrain those among you who follow such teachings, but even offer prizes and honors to those who thus in beautiful words insult them [the gods].
5. What can all this mean? You do not make judicial inquiries in our case, though we are bound neither to commit crimes nor to hold such godless ideas. Instead, you punish us injudicially without deliberation, driven by unreasoning passion and the whips of evil demons. The truth must be told. In old times evil demons manifested themselves, seducing women, corrupting boys, and showing terrifying sights to men—so that those who did not judge these occurrences rationally were filled with awe. Taken capture by fear and not understanding that these were evil demons, they called them gods and gave each of them the name which each of the demons had chosen for himself. When Socrates tried by true reason and with due inquiry to make these things clear and to draw men away from the demons, they, working through men who delighted in wickedness, managed to have him put to death as godless and impious, saying that he was bringing in new divinities. And now they do the same kind of thing to us. For these errors were not only condemned among the Greeks by reason, through Socrates, but among the barbarians, by Reason himself, who took form and became man and was called Jesus Christ. In obedience to him we say that the demons who do such things are not only not rightly called gods, but are in fact evil and unholy demons, whose actions are in no way like those of men who long after virtue.
6. So, then, we are called godless. We certainly confess that we are godless with reference to beings like these who are commonly thought of as gods, but not with reference to the most true God, the Father of righteousness and temperance and the other virtues, who is untouched by evil. Him, and the Son who came from him, and taught us these things, and the army of the other good angels who follow him and are made like him, and the prophetic Spirit we worship and adore, giving honor in reason and truth, and to everyone who wishes to learn transmitting [the truth] ungrudgingly as we have been taught.
7. But someone will say, “Some [Christians], have been arrested and convicted as criminals.” Many at various times, perhaps, if you examine in each case the conduct of those who are accused; but do not condemn [all] because of those previously convicted. We admit in general that just as among the Greeks those who teach what seems best to them are all listed under the name of philosophy, even though their teachings are contradictory, so the name which is now being attacked is common to those among the barbarians who are and those who appear to be wise. They are all listed as Christians. So we ask that the actions of those who are denounced to you be investigated, in order that whoever is convicted may be punished as a criminal, but not as a Christian, and that whoever is shown to be innocent may be freed, committing no crime by being a Christian. We shall not ask you, however, to punish our accusers, for they suffer enough from their own wickedness and their ignorance of the good.
8. Consider that we have said these things for your sake, since when put to trial we can deny [that we are Christians]—but we do not wish to live by telling a lie. For, longing for the life which is eternal and pure, we strive to dwell with God, the Father and Fashioner of all things. We are eager to confess, being convinced and believing that those who have shown to God by their actions that they follow him and long to dwell with him, where no evil can disturb, are able to obtain these things. It is this, in brief, that we look for, and have learned from Christ, and teach. Plato similarly said that Rhadamanthus and Minos would punish the wicked who came before them. We say that this is what will happen, but at the hands of Christ—and to the same bodies, reunited with their souls, and destined for eternal punishment, not for a five-hundred-year period only, as he said. If anyone says that this is unbelievable or impossible—at least the mistake affects us and no one else, as long as we are not convicted of any actual crime.