Chiliasm (Part 5): Justin Martyr

Defense of Chiliasm

Justin Martyr (AD 100-165), window in Great Saint Mary’s Church, Cambridge, UK

Whereas Papias had assumed a chiliastic doctrine, with no concern to defend it,1 Justin formulated a biblical defense of chiliasm, which he based on four passages (Isa 65:17–25; Ps 90:4; 2 Pet 3:8; Luke 20:35–36).

Justin Martyr, a convert from pagan philosophy, came to view Christianity as the “true philosophy.” He was able to do more justice to the chiliastic notion, though it was really left to Irenaeus to systematize it thoroughly. Still, Justin’s reasoned support for the doctrine was surely influential in winning a place for chiliasm as orthodoxy. John Kaye gives us some indication of the influence of Justin:

He marks the commencement of what may be termed the ecclesiastical, contradistinction from the apostolic period. Hence the care with which his opinions have been examined, and the importance which has been attached to them. One party appeals to him as expressing the sentiments of the primitive Christians on some of the fundamental articles of faith; while another regards him as having exerted a most fatal influence over the interests of religion, by introducing into the Church a confused medley of Christianity and Platonism, to the exclusion of the pure and simple truths of the gospel. (Justin and Kaye 1912, 1; quoted in Gregory 1983, 18)

Dialogue with Opponents

In arguments with the Jews,2 Justin defended the Christian idea of a twofold coming. He noted that many scriptures predict the Messiah’s coming in humiliation; and others refer to his coming in majestic royal power.3 Justin said the former were enacted at his incarnation, especially on the cross; the latter lie in the future. He said Jesus’a royal majesty would be manifest in Jerusalem, where Christ would be recognized by the Jews (Dial. 40:5).

Some people argue from the dialogue form that this is a literary invention with no historical basis in Justin’s own apologetic life, other than perhaps some general life experience he may have woven into his work. Others say the basic story line is most likely reflecting an actual incident in his life. In the midst of this discussion, Gregory raises an interesting issue: “The composition of the Apocalypse at or near Ephesus, the alleged residency of the Apostle John, and the looming influence of Papias at nearby Hieropolis all come into play if Justin actually defended chiliasm at Ephesus” (Gregory 1983, 163).

His Ideas of the Millennium

Idyllic Period

At any rate, Justin looked forward to an idyllic millennium in a rebuilt Jerusalem, where the patriarchs, prophets, and Christians would live together with Christ (ad Graec., 6). He confessed that he knew pious, pure minded Christians who did not share his belief;4 however, Justin himself considered it to be plainly authorized by the predictions of such Old Testament prophets as Isaiah and Zechariah, not to mention the New Testament book of Revelation.

When pressed by “Trypho” as to whether he really believed it, he said,

I’ve already admitted to you that I and many others are of this opinion, and believe that this will take place, as you are surely aware; however, I told that many who belong to the pure and pious faith, are true Christians, think otherwise…. I and others who are right-minded Christians on all points, are assured that there will be a resurrection of the dead, and a thousand years in Jerusalem, which will then be rebuilt, adorned, and enlarged, as the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah and others declare. (Dial., 80)

Second Coming in Glory and Power

Referring to John’s Apocalypse, he looked forward to a millennium of Jesus’ presence in Jerusalem, after which the general (i.e., eternal) resurrection and judgment would happen (Dial., 81). He was the first to use the specific phrase δευτέρα παρουσία, which he linked with what he considered Daniel’s great christophany (Dan 7:9–28). For Justin, the first coming had been in humility, but it would be answered by the second coming in glory to be the “desire of the nations” (Gen 49:10).

When we read this material, we must be alert to the apologetic thrust of Justin’s words: he faced the stigma of the crucified Messiah: “He overcame the skandalon by the hermeneutical tour de force of applying the Jewish Old Testament Messianic passages to the Second Coming. The Jewish Messianic expectations were thus postponed by Christians, not discarded” (Gregory 1983, 182).

Tension in His Eschatology

Nonetheless, some tension remains in his eschatology. In some places he pictures a general resurrection exclusively, positing no distinction between a temporal millennium and an eternal consummation (1 Apol., 8, 18–19; and here and there even in the Dialogue). But his overall tone in the Dialogue is clearly chiliastic. C. F. D. Moule argues that rather than see this as a hopelessly contradictory aspect of Justin’s thought, or as a sign of developing theological sophistication that gradually moved away from primitive chiliasm, we should recognize that even the New Testament uses various forms of eschatology: realized eschatology when speaking of individual identity, futurist when speaking of group destiny, and apocalyptic when speaking of cosmological salvation (Moule 1964). Without accepting all of Moule’s arguments, we can say Justin’s ambiguous mixture of terminololgy is no different from that of the New Testament itself.

Christologial Approach to the Old Testament

Justin likens the millennium to a proper length of human life: “For as Adam was told that in the day he ate from the tree he would die, we realize that he did not complete a thousand years. We have also noticed that the expression “the day of the Lord is as a thousand years,” is connected with this subject” (Dial., 80). Willis Shotwell says Justin was basing his argument on a forced exegesis of Isaiah, which he interpreted by a specifically chiliastic hermeneutic (Isa 64:17–25, esp. v. 20).5

Not Grammatical-Historical

Largely ignoring any historical-grammatical sense that the scripture may have had for its original audience, his interpretation was entirely christocentric; the Old Testament pointed forward to Christ—and did it through predictive prophecy (Shotwell 1965, 8–9; and Dial., 65.2). He had no difficulty, therefore, with a cryptic approach to mystery, wherein Christ is foretold in signs, symbols, and types In fact, he used terms like “mystery” and “parable” as a reference to the predictive nature of Scripture (Shotwell 1965, 13–15). In this, he was following the lead of the New Testament itself (Shotwell 1965, 64).

Influences on Justin

Shotwell analyzes in detail the possible influences on Justin, finding that he was in essential agreement with the seven rules of Hillel from the tractate Sanhedrin, though some of these rules he could have picked directly from the New Testament itself. So Shotwell rejects Erwin Goodenough’s assertion of Philonic exegetical influence on Justin.

Earliest known portrait of Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-450), in a 6th century fresco, Lateran, Rome

One finds a diverse pattern in other patristic citation of Isaiah 65:17–25. Only Irenaeus follows Justin’s interpretation, citing it in the same context as he cites Revelation 20 (Haer., 5.35.2). Tertullian, however, cites it with no reference to the millennium but rather as proof that the law is abrogated (Against Marcion, 5.2). Nowhere in his defense of chiliasm does Tertullian cite this verse. By the time Jerome comes on the scene, he can cite it reflecting on the possibility of “a new heaven for reconstituted devils rather than a millennium for saints.” (Gregory 1983, 201) This is a reflection on Origen’s universalist speculation that demons might be reconstituted to form another human race. When Augustine comes along, he uses Isaiah 65:17 in a direct and explicit refutation of chiliasm, possibly having Justin and Irenaeus in mind when he criticizes the misuses of Isaiah 67:17 and other promises, which some endeavor to refer to carnal enjoyment during the thousand years. For, in the manner of prophecy, figurative and literal expressions are mingled, so that a serious mind may, by useful and salutary effort, reach the spiritual sense; but carnal sluggishness, or the slowness of an uneducated and undisciplined mind, rests in the superficial letter and things there is nothing beneath to be looked for. (City of God, 20.21)

Accusations of Being a Simpleton

In Augustine’s criticism, we hear the common complaint: chiliasm is for the simple, untrained mind—for those who cannot look past the natural meaning of a passage to a deeper sense. Eusebius cast doubt on the mental capacities of Papias, now Augustine even levels the charges of incompetence at the likes of Justin and Irenaeus.6 Of course, the same pattern is a part of present debates with dispensationalism. Perhaps dispensationalists can take some comfort in the knowledge that they are members of a noble company who have been attacked as simpletons for their adoption of chiliasm.

Isaiah 65:22

A focus of Justin’s attention is the phrase “like the days of a tree shall be the days of my people” (Isa 65:22). He follows a catchword method of exegesis, linking this with the millennium by connection with the paradisiacal tree of life (Haer., 5.15.1). Although no patristic writer had yet used this verse in a chiliastic sense, one can see how appropriate it might be when taken up into eschatological reflection.

Even Justin says the passage predicts the millennium only ἐν μυστηρίῳ. Isaiah’s context speaks of a radical transformation of human existence that eliminates earth’s sorrows; and what better imagery to apply to millennia expectations? Justin’s exegesis of this passage is fanciful, but the passage itself can provide a useful rationale for chiliasm; it argues for the victory of God’s reign in history, the very point upon which chiliasm insists.

Psalm 90:4 and 2 Peter 3:8

Justin also turns to Psalm 90:4 and 2 Peter 3:8 to buttress his arguments for chiliasm, making a connection between these two texts and his treatment of Isaiah 65:22:

He connects the statement “according to the days of the tree [of life]” to the lifetime of Adam who died “the day” he ate from the forbidden tree. Justin then makes the curious hermeneutic connection: “For as Adam was told in the day he ate of the tree he would die, we know that he did not complete a thousand years. We have perceived, moreover, that the expression, ‘The day of the Lord is as a thousand years,’ is connected with this subject.” (Gregory 1983, 219–20; citing Justin, Dial., 81)

Like Rabbinic Interpretation

Apparently, Justin was adopting a rabbinic speculation that made this same move in discussions of the messianic age. One such example of this comes up in rabbinic discussions of Adam’s sin and punishment: “Just as happened to Adam, who sinned and incurred the penalty of death…. the Holy One, blessed be He, prolonged his day, for though it says: For in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die (Gen. II, 17), he lived nine hundred and thirty years, not completing the “day” of the Holy One, blessed be He” (Midrash Num 5:4).

Thus, the divine day is interpreted as one thousand years, and Adam died seventy years short of that full day, as God had promised. This connection was also common in Christian writings. “Barnabas” worked it into his cosmic week of salvation (Epist. Barn., 15); in fact, this may have influenced Justin’s own use of Psalm 90:4.

Interpretation Later Followed by Others

Later, Hippolytus of Rome interpreted the verse in this same way in his commentary on the visions of Daniel 7 (On Daniel, 2). And Lactantius later employed this exact same argument (Div. inst., 7.14). Victorinus of Petau too used it in On the Creation of the World. “Here is a virtual roll call of the ante-Nicene chiliastic fathers—Justin, Hippolytus, Lactantius, and Victoriun—all of whom demonstrate virtually the same hermeneutic of Ps. 90:4. This research demonstrates that Ps. 90:4 is the most consistently cited verse in patristic millennia arguments, far more so than the locus classicus Rev. 20:4–9” (Gregory 1983, 226).

Luke 20:35–36

Justin concluded his defense of chiliasm with the text, “They shall neither marry nor be given in marriage, but shall be equal to the angels, the children of God of the resurrection” (Dial., 81; citing Lk 20:35f.). Very possibly Justin incorporated this passage as a part of a defensive posture over against the opponents who accused chiliasm of seeking carnal rather than spiritual blessings. Indeed, Cerinthus and others after him had sought sensual delights. It probably seemed wise to head off the most immediate objections to chiliasm; so Justin urged a sexually chaste millennium. But in this, he stood alone. No other citation of Luke 20:35–36 has anything to do with the millennium.

Influence from Plato?
The Suggestion

Gregory includes Plato’s Phædo in the list of his influences to which Justin may have looked. He compares similar imagery of gold and jewels, long life, and other blessings that Plato considered the reward of the righteous soul. Origen had his “chiliasts” express their hopes in words quite like Phædo (De Princ., 2.11.2).

Critique of the Suggestion

Two responses to this suggestion come to mind: First, this is Origen’s “chiliasm,” one constructed by the Platonizer himself; second, the utopian imagery seems universal enough not to have required a specific literary source. How else does one speak of an end to poverty but in terms of gold and jewels? A long life is a universal hope in the mythology of all civilizations. To conclude, from evidence like this, that Justin was attempting to “harmonize his chiliasm with his Platonism” overruns the evidence (Gregory 1983, 250). Gregory even mentions the correspondence between Phædo’s world made of “twelve pieces of leather” and the repetitive use of the number twelve in the Apocalypse.

I had always supposed that the Israelite tribal twelve and the Christian apostolic twelve might provide an adequate explanation for the importance of the number in John’s Apocalypse.

Works Cited

  1. Goodenough, Erwin Ramsdell. The Theology of Justin Martyr. Jena: Frommann, 1923.
  2. Goodspeed, Edgar Johnson. A History of Early Christian Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1942.
  3. Gregory, Joel C. “The Chiliastic Hermeneutic of Papias of Hieropolis and Justin Martyr Compared with Later Patristic Chilasts.” Ph.D. diss. Waco, Tex.: Baylor University, 1983.
  4. Justin, and John Kaye. The First Apology of Justin Martyr, Addressed to the Emperor Antoninus Pius. Edinburgh: John Grant, 1912.
  5. Moule, C. F. D. “Influence of Circumstances on the Use of Eschatological Terms.” Journal of Theological Studies ns 15 (April 1964): 1–15.
  6. Nilson, Jon. “To Whom is Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho Addressed?” Theological Studies 38 (September 1977): 538–46.
  7. Shotwell, Willis Allen. The Biblical Exegesis of Justin Martyr. London: SPCK, 1965.


  1. This could very well indicate that during his time it was so generally accepted that it would never have occurred to him to defend such a universal doctrine. Even the Jews had similar expectations. All that was necessary would have been necessary was to make clear that these millennial hopes were the hopes of the church.
  2. Justin couched these debates in a form similar to the Platonic dialogue used to such good effect for teaching philosophy. Scholars debate just who the intended audience of his Dialogue with Trypho was: (1) Marcionites (Goodspeed 1942, 143–44); (2) non-Christian gentiles of Rome who cannot tell Christianity from Judaism (Nilson 1977, 539); or (3) Jews themselves as the dialogue is couched.
  3. 1 Apol., 50–52; Dial. 14, 31, 32, 34; citing Isa 53:8–12; Ezek 7–8; Dan 7:9–28; Zech 12:10–12; Pss 72:1–20; 110:1–7.
  4. It may be an anachronistic overextension of Justin’s language to say that this is evidence of early amillennialism. It is unlikely that the elements of standard amillennialism were present in the thinking of these people the Justin mentioned. More likely, they had a rather vaguely defined eschatology and were only reacting against the materialism that played a role in chilasm from Cerinthus on.
  5. For a description of Justin’s hermeneutical method, see (Shotwell 1965).
  6. Goodenough 1923, 175. In addition, Gregory says, “Goodenough habitually demeans the intelligence of Justin. He is disinclined to grant Justin any keen original insight” (1983, 179).

Author: Dale A. Brueggemann

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