4.3 – The Sanctity of Life, Marcus Aurelius and Justin Martyr (25 min video)
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– We’re gonna continue our study of the transformation of culture by Christianity by talking about how Christians saw every single life as sacred. Every single life, including those of the unborn as being made in God’s image. It was Juvenal, who I mentioned to you earlier, the great Roman poet who highlighted and even praised the skill of the abortionist, saying that births amongst the rich were quite rare.
We have accounts of the sexual abuse of slaves and often the exposure of illegitimate children. That means that often children that were born between master and slave were abandoned on the exposure walls outside every ancient city to die. In fact, it had to be a decision of the paterfamilias, the father of the family, to both name the child, who sometimes went unnamed, they were not seen as persons unless they had a name, and also the father had to literally raise the child up to say yes, he would raise the child and take responsibility for that child.
If he didn’t, the child was exposed. We have it throughout Greek myths, a myth such as the story of Oedipus, for example. He’s a child that’s abandoned to die based upon a certain prophecy. In that story, you’re seeing a tragedy, but it’s a tragedy that actually reflects real life because often children were exposed, especially like I already mentioned, if they were the children of slave and master, or in many cases, they were exposed simply because they were girls.
In fact, one resident of the city of Alexandria wrote to his pregnant wife right before he was getting ready to leave town. He writes to her in the year 1 BC, “If it is a boy, keep it. “If it’s a girl, expose it.” Those abandoned children, like I told you, were either left to die or they were sometimes taken by slavers who would raise them up to be sent into slavery, often into various forms of sexual bondage or prostitution.
So we have this very disturbing practice that wasn’t just a custom, it was actually protected by law. And some Greek and Roman philosophers even went so far as to say, it was necessary for the good of society. When you look at the church, when you look at Christianity, you see a remarkable difference. In the didache or the teaching, which is what that word means, We are told there are two ways, the way of life and the way of death.
And the difference between these two ways is great. Therefore, do not murder a child by abortion or kill a newborn infant. The epistle of Barnabas says something similar. It says, “You shall love your neighbor more than your own life. You shall not slay a child by abortion. You should not kill that which has already been generated. It recognized human life from the moment of conception. Tertullian says, “Our faith declares life out of death. Therefore murder is forbidden once and for all. We may not even destroy the fetus in the womb.” The way he writes it makes it sound like this was actually common amongst Roman culture. It was seen as sort of a lesser form of life or not even seen as human life whatsoever. We also have specific characters that become champions of the unborn. And going back to that character I mentioned to you earlier, Adai of Edessa, when he gets to Edessa and that region of Asia, one of the things he primarily did was confront the exposure and the abortion practiced by the people there.
We also have Beninus of Dijon from the late third century. So he’s there in Gaul, modern day France, served as a missionary to what we now call Burgundy. It was Beninus who actually established an orphanage, a place to rescue those children whom were not wanted lest they either die or fall into the hands of the slavers.
A similar character also from the third century was Callistus of Rome. His story is fascinating. He himself actually was a slave. His master gave him charge of caring for all the alms, all the offerings that were offered by Christians to widows and orphans. He evidently lost this money, or by some accounts may have actually spent it or embezzled it in some way. When he couldn’t recover the money or pay it back, he fled. He was captured and then his master, like a good Christian, forgave him. At this point, he goes to a Jewish synagogue and begins a fight with the Jews there, evidently trying to collect debt so he can still pay back the money.
This disturbance leads to his arrest by the local authorities. And when he’s announced as a Christian, he’s sent off to the mines. However, because this was the reign of Emperor Commodus, who had a favorite mistress, who evidently was either a Christian or friendly to Christians. Callistus was released and the church took him back in, showing him forgiveness. And even eventually, after he proved himself faithful with funds once again, made him the deacon of the church, someone who cared for the funds in the service of others.
Eventually, he’s put in charge of a church shelter and a cemetery on the Appian Road. In fact, it still bears his name. It’s called the Catacombs of Callistus, or sometimes his name is spelled Callixtus with an X. Either way, one of the stories tells us that Callistus, while he’s basically tending the cemetery and tending the shelter for travelers, he was close enough to an exposure wall that he could actually hear sometimes the cries of children who had been abandoned.
Not able to ignore these cries, he went and he rescued them. He then arranged for the local church to take turns watching the exposure walls, being ready to rescue these children as soon as possible. He organized a place for them to be, so an orphanage, and then also organized adoption into the various Christian families of the church. And that work is probably why he was chosen to be the next leader or Bishop of Rome in the year 218. As that Bishop or leader of the Church of Rome, it was Callistus who argued that Christians who had committed deep sins, sins such as adultery, sins even sometimes such as murder, that if they showed due repentance, they should be admitted back to the table.
It didn’t mean they wouldn’t be punished by the law. What it meant was in terms of the eyes of God, when they actually show that repentance, they should be brought back into communion with the church.
This kind of stance that Christians had consistently against abortion, against infanticide, but also rescuing children from death, led to the Emperor Constantine to completely outlaw infanticide, the exposure or the killing of children in the year 315.
One of his successors later on, Valentinian I in the year 374, not only forbid infanticide, but also all forms of abortion. It became one of the hallmarks of Christianity to defend those who could not defend themselves. To understand this In this time period, we’ll talk about the reign of Marcus Aurelius, who served as emperor from 161 to 180 AD. He’s sometimes seen as a philosopher king, which if you remember, was the ideal of Plato. A man who was so gifted in his understanding of philosophy and ruled by sheer reason and wisdom. Edward Gibbon said that his rule was one in which happiness of a great people was the sole object of government. And that sounds like a great compliment. Basically when Marcus Aurelius ruled, his sole object was to make people happy. He actually came from a family that had the last name of Verus, which in Latin simply means the true ones. He praised his family, said he had great grandparents, excellent parents, good siblings, the best teachers, and even the best friends in youth. He said he lived a simplicity of life that was “far removed from the habits of the rich.” He also praised what he called “self-government,” not to be led aside by anything, or famously said, “Virtue is sufficient for happiness.” In other words, he was a Stoic. If you basically exercise virtue, If you limit the pursuit of pleasure or just don’t pursue pleasure at all, then you will find happiness just by being a good person. He memorized extensive liturgies to the gods and was a faithful worshiper of the pagan gods his entire life. He also had something like 17 individual tutors throughout his upbringing who pointed him to a love of philosophy. He said the ideal government was a state in which there was quote a polity that is an actual government of equal rights and freedom of speech.
Meaning our founding fathers could point to the writings of Marcus Aurelius and say here is something that we truly agree with. He spent much of his treasury on gifts to the people or gifts to his own soldiers. soldiers. He increased the court system to better serve the Roman people and himself often sat as a judge. In other words, he’s one of the good emperors. When it came to the gladiatorial shows, he often condemned their violence and tried to actually make them less violent, which led one critic of his to say, “He’s taking our amusement from us. He wants to force us to be philosophers.” And yet his actual reign was beset with wars. He had numerous conflicts. During his reign, Britannia rebelled. The German tribes invaded numerous times. The Parthians or Persians also invaded. He had to deal each of these in turn, often personally, or at least design the strategy that his generals would exercise. When he actually did succeed in campaign, He typically was merciless, often burning to the ground many of the cities that attacked him, especially those cities of the Persians.
Well, not only did he have numerous wars, but one of those wars against the Persians, when his soldiers returned, they returned with a plague, some kind of sickness that left black marks all upon their body.
It seems to be a little different than, say, the bubonic plague of years later, but it was something that was truly deadly. In fact, it spread to nearly every province of the Roman Empire by the year 167 AD. Some accounts tell us that it killed more people than the war against the Persians, and that on just one single day in the city of Rome, 2000 dead bodies were brought out of the city.
This led to a drop in food production, which was combined with earthquakes and floods that destroyed grain storages, which therefore all those things caused a famine, which meant people were looking for somebody to blame.
At the same time that this happened, German tribes invaded. In fact, four German tribes invaded, even crossing over the Alps like Hannibal had done years before and threatening Italy itself. It seemed as if it was an existential battle for the empire of Rome. Marcus Aurelius was able to fight these barbarians off, able to actually cross into their territory, what we now call Germany, and successfully negotiate peace.
While he was on that campaign, he wrote down his philosophy and what is gathered to us today, what’s called his meditations. So the meditations, that if you look at them, he assumed that the universe was ruled by some kind of providence, some kind of superior mind, but didn’t see it as personal. It didn’t think that God really entered into the affairs of man. In fact, the way he saw all things was it was almost like some kind of pimp theism, something like Buddhism or really something like Star Wars.
He said, for example, all things are implicated with one another and the bond is holy. “There is a common reason in all intelligent beings. One God pervades all things. One substance, one law, one truth.” Meaning that there’s essentially one God, one being, one substance that’s actually in and through all things. He describes it kind of like the force. When it came to figuring out why is there evil, therefore, he said this, “Wisdom lies in recognizing our limitations.” meaning don’t think about it too much, or in seeking to be harmonious parts of the universal order, just accept your place in this world, and trying to sense the mind, there’s like the distant God, behind the body of the world and cooperating with it willingly. He said of pleasure that it was neither good nor useful. And when it came to the individual human soul, He said, “You, O soul, have existed as a part. You shall disappear into that which produced you, the whole. And this, too, nature wills. So pass, he tells us, then through this little space of time, what he calls life, and in your journey, that would be death, by being content, just as an olive falls when it is ripe, blessing the nature that produced it and thanking the tree on which it grew.
In other words, there is no personal God. There is no real personal worth to the individual soul. We’re all just have our part in this universe and we fall like an olive from the tree. We serve for a time and then we are no more. That’s why he could say things like this. It is best to leave this world as early as possible and to bid it a friendly farewell. He himself died while he was on campaign, spent most of his war fighting, and died near the modern day city of Vienna from a fever.
Before he died, however, and this is where our attention turns to the church, he ordered the persecution of any groups that he saw as causing problems in the empire.
Any groups, he said, excited the already ill-balanced minds of men. To this, he meant the Christians, saying they had a sheer obstinacy is what he called it, and that they had a desire for theatrics, meaning when he heard about Christian martyrs being tortured and refusing to give up their faith, he thought they were like prima donnas, just wanting more attention in front of the crowds.
It’s also during his reign, you have all the wars, you have the famine, you have the floods, earthquakes, that Christians were a convenient scapegoat.
They were blamed for the disasters. In fact, Celsus, who lives during this time, praised Marcus Aurelius for finally executing the people who had clearly brought on the judgment of the gods.
One of the most noble persecutions happened in the city of Lyon in modern day France in the year 177. It was actually led not so much by the state, but by mobs. Paul Johnson says it was quote a state supervised riot. Meaning the government allowed and perhaps even encouraged these mobs to go and to arrest, to beat, to torture, and even kill Christians. The Christians that were brought into jail, if they were Roman citizens, they were beheaded. If not, they were brought to the arena where they were put to death in all kinds of manner. One of these characters, for example, was the Bishop of Lyon. His name was Pothinus. He was actually 90 years old. And yet, despite being such an age, he was tortured in prison and died from those wounds. Or we have the account of Attalus, who evidently was tied to a chair of red-hot iron held over a flame. We have a 14-year-old named Ponticus, who also bravely died, or a slave named Blandina who said, “I am a Christian, but there is no wickedness among us.” Meaning, why are you attacking us? Why are you killing us? We are some of your best citizens. One of the characters who also perished during the reign of Marcus Aurelius and serves as a church father was Justin Martyr. He’s probably born around the year 100 AD in died in the year 165. His Roman name probably would have been Flavius Justinus. He was most likely of a Greek family, but grew up in Samaria, just north of Judea. His family was wealthy. They gave him one of the finest philosophical and Greek educations that money could buy. As a result, he became a lawyer working in the city of Rome. It’s there, or perhaps on his journey throughout Asia Minor, that he encountered the writings of Polycarp and read the story of how Polycarp had died.
He was fascinated by this man who followed a guy named Jesus Christ. So he began to weigh and consider different philosophical systems. He looked at Stoicism, for example, basically just kind of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps and pursuing virtue of your own ability. He said that he admired it, but it had no answers about who God actually was. He took a look at it, for example, at peripateticism, which basically was a certain educational method where teacher and student walk side by side, where the teacher really mentored the student.
He said it was brilliant, except the teachers charged really high fees and seemed to be more interested in the money than actually passing on virtue to a student.
He looked at the Pythagoreans, those of ancient Greece. He said that they only wanted knowledge, but their knowledge didn’t really actually apply to reality or real life. He looked at Plato. He said, “Plato contemplated God or the divine, but he had no incarnation. There was no way in which God really entered into the world to change things.” something Plato is missing. Well, sometime around this event, when he’s going through this existential crisis, he’s trying to figure out what is truth. He meets, according to Justin, an elderly Christian man while he’s on the beach, probably on some kind of vacation. And the man told him that you’re not going to find the truth just in your own mind. He argued that man’s mind was fallen and that revelation was necessary. But thankfully that revelation had been given first to the Jew and now to the Gentile because it had been fulfilled by this man named Jesus Christ.
He then told Justin, he said, “Pray that above all things, the gates of light may be open to you. For these things, they cannot be perceived or understood by all, but only understood by the man to whom God and his Christ have imparted wisdom.
Meaning if you really want to believe, pray that God gives you that belief. So Justin went, he read through the entirety of the Old New Testament, or at least as much as he could get his hands on.
It’s through all of this that he was converted. He saw here in Christianity, a satisfying explanation for who we are, why we are, and what our chief end actually is. He then felt that given his abilities, given his love of teaching, that he had a debt to actually serve his fellow man by preaching and by teaching.
So for a while, he serves as a traveling teacher. Eventually, he settled in Rome where he established a school. It’s there that he teaches, Tatean the Assyrian. Somebody who helps organize the intellectual disciplines of the church in Asia. Justin also used all of his classical training to defend the faith. He had a remarkable love for philosophy, seeing it as a hint of the truth. In fact, he looked at John, where John talks about how Christ is the word or the logos. The logos was an old Greek idea, basically describing truth or reason. So here’s John saying that Christ actually is real truth. So Justin took this and he said, you know what? Whenever Socrates or Plato is close to the truth, it’s by common grace that they have a hint of it because Christ is the word, because he is the logos or the actual truth.
So he was able to debate premier philosophers of his time. He also gives us some of the best accounts of the worship of the second century church. He gives us some of the best accounts of these books in the Testament are indeed scripture ’cause we treat them that way. And as far as I know, the church has always treated them that way. He eventually decided I need to defend the faith itself. So he wrote his famous apologies, which means literally to defend the faith. They were first addressed to the emperor Antoninus Pius, but then they became addressed to his son, whom we’ve already talked about, Marcus Aurelius. It’s in the apology that Justin ask for just trials, both of Christianity and of Christians. He points out that Christians are being killed despite the fact that they have committed no crime. He says that the gods that they are being asked to worship are themselves unjust. And these gods of ancient Greece and ancient Rome, They don’t show the stoic virtues that Marcus Aurelius says he’s all about. He then goes on to say that Roman culture is corrupt, but that Christians live an incorruptible life. They live a holy life. And so we ask, why do you attack us? He actually concludes in one way by saying, you seem to fear that if all men became righteous, you will no longer have anyone to punish.
Well, because of this, he was arrested. He was ordered to offer a sacrifice to the gods, but said no one in his right mind gives up piety for impiety. Or some translations, no right-minded man ever takes falsehood over truth. He was threatened with death unless he recanted or sacrificed to the gods, but said that accepting death to be faithful to his savior was the typical role of a Christian.
He was then executed by beheading as he sang a hallelujah, giving an incredible example of how a Christian lives in the midst of persecution.