Justin Martyr and Transubstantiation

by Luke Wayne

In Roman Catholicism, it is taught that the bread and wine of communion are literally transformed into the physical flesh and blood of Jesus' human body when they are consecrated by the priest. Though they appear to our senses to still be bread and wine, they are actually transformed in substance. They are, in fact, no longer bread or wine, but have instead turned into the actual body and blood of Jesus, according to official Roman Catholic dogma. Roman Catholics do attempt to argue this position from Scripture (see our articles HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE), but they also try to reinforce their interpretation through quoting early Christian writers who they believe agree with their position. Among the earliest and most compelling citations to which they will point is from the second-century Christian philosopher, Justin Martyr.

The Catholic Argument

Justin Martyr, in his "First Apology," devotes a section to describing the Christian practice of the communion meal. Quite reasonably, this is the section to which Roman Catholics turn to build their case. They key in the on the section which reads:

"For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, 'This do ye in remembrance of Me, this is My body;' and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, 'This is My blood;' and gave it to them alone," (First Apology, Chapter 66).

This is perhaps the best argument Roman Catholics have for their position. A surface-level reading of this grammatically complicated passage really can sound a lot like transubstantiation, especially to a modern reader who is likely to see the words through the lens of later Roman Catholic concepts and post-Reformation debates. Thus, it is very easy for even an honest and sincere modern reader to mistakenly read transubstantiation into this passage. What's more, the reference is not only very early, it also points back to the words of Jesus on the authority of the written gospels. Thus, the best versions of this argument do not pit tradition against Scripture per se, but rather claim that a very early reading of Scripture led early believers to accept transubstantiation.

If it were true, this would at least seem to lend some level of credence to the Roman Catholic interpretation of those biblical texts. In the end, the question would still need to be settled on careful exegesis of the Scriptures themselves, but very early readers coming to the conclusion of transubstantiation would at least give the modern interpreter pause before too quickly ruling the interpretation out, were it true that early Christian writers offered such an interpretation. As we will see, however, it is not actually true. A more careful examination of the wording, the context, the history, and Justin's other plain statements on the subject will all clarify that this passage is not talking about transubstantiation at all. While it is understandable why so many Catholics find this argument so appealing, the fact is that it still does not support their position.

The Moral and Intellectual Background

Before we walk through our main passage, a little background information will be helpful in our effort to read Justin's words the way he meant them rather than importing our own ideas and categories from nearly two millennia later.

On Eating Human Flesh

An important starting point is related to the idea of eating human flesh. Justin lists the eating of human flesh among the "fabulous and shameful deeds," of which Christians are falsely accused, (First Apology, Chapter 26). He also explains:

"For I myself, too, when I was delighting in the doctrines of Plato, and heard the Christians slandered, and saw them fearless of death, and of all other things which are counted fearful, perceived that it was impossible that they could be living in wickedness and pleasure. For what sensual or intemperate man, or who that counts it good to feast on human flesh, could welcome death that he might be deprived of his enjoyments, and would not rather continue always the present life, and attempt to escape the observation of the rulers; and much less would he denounce himself when the consequence would be death?" (Second Apology, Chapter 12).

Justin is quite adamant that Christians do not eat human flesh. He was not alone in such comments. His second-century Christian peers also made note of how particularly vile they saw the concept of eating human flesh. When listing accusations he had heard leveled against Christians, Theophilus of Antioch calls the charge of eating of human flesh "the most impious and barbarous of all."1 He fires back that their own pagan myths are the ones that include the actual eating of human flesh, giving several examples,2 and pointing out that, indeed, their own gods did so.3 By contrast, he insists "But far be it from Christians to conceive any such deeds!"4

A second-century Christian philosopher named Athenagoras also said:

"for men to partake of the flesh of men is a thing most hateful and abominable, and more detestable than any other unlawful and unnatural food or act," (The Resurrection of the Dead, Chapter 8).

Justin Martyr's own student, Tatian, writes:

"Why do you hate those who follow the word of God, as if they were the vilest of mankind? It is not we who eat human flesh—they among you who assert such a thing have been suborned as false witnesses; it is among you that Pelops is made a supper for the gods, although beloved by Poseidon, and Kronos devours his children, and Zeus swallows Metis," (Address to the Greeks, Chapter 25).

So Justin, and the broader Christian world of which he was a part, regularly and forcefully denounced the eating of actual human flesh and even used it as an argument against pagan religions whose myths included such things. It must also be noted that these condemnations are specifically about the barbarity of eating human flesh itself, not merely about the violence it would require to obtain such flesh. They also include condemnations of even divinely sanctioned consumption of human flesh, implying that a god who would permit or participate in such is evil. These statements are unqualified, clear, direct, and absolute without the slightest hint of nuance or wiggle room. Justin and other Christians of his day found the very idea of eating literal human flesh to be morally appalling and barbaric to the worst degree, and myths of other religions that speak of gods or men involved in the literal eating of human flesh were proof of both the falsehood and the evil nature of such faiths. What Justin says about the supper must be read within this intellectual and moral framework.

On the Nature of the Supper

Justin also wrote plainly on the nature of the supper in another of his works, the "Dialogue with Trypho." He speaks of:

"the bread of the Eucharist, the celebration of which our Lord Jesus Christ prescribed, in remembrance of the suffering which He endured on behalf of those who are purified in soul from all iniquity, in order that we may at the same time thank God for having created the world, with all things therein, for the sake of man, and for delivering us from the evil in which we were, and for utterly overthrowing principalities and powers by Him who suffered according to His will," (Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 41).

The word transliterated here as "the Eucharist" is literally the Greek word for "thanksgiving." Justin describes partaking of the bread as a means of remembering Christ's suffering and thanking God for creation, redemption, deliverance, etc. He further speaks of:

"the bread which our Christ gave us to eat, in remembrance of His being made flesh for the sake of His believers, for whom also He suffered; and to the cup which He gave us to drink, in remembrance of His own blood, with giving of thanks," (Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 70).

He says that we eat the bread in remembrance of Christ's flesh, which is very different than saying that we do not eat bread but rather eat Christ's actual flesh. He also says that we drink the cup in remembrance of Christ's blood, which is again very different from saying that we drink Christ's literal blood itself. He later elaborates further:

"Now, that prayers and giving of thanks, when offered by worthy men, are the only perfect and well-pleasing sacrifices to God, I also admit. For such alone Christians have undertaken to offer, and in the remembrance effected by their solid and liquid food, whereby the suffering of the Son of God which He endured is brought to mind," (Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 117).

To Justin, the elements are not the sacrificial flesh and blood of Jesus presented on the altar as a propitiatory sacrifice for the sins of those present, like Roman Catholics teach. Instead, the elements bring to mind Christ's suffering and compel us to praise and thank Him, which is the only acceptable "sacrifice" of true worship. The meal is an outward expression of an inner spiritual act of thanksgiving and prayer. Rather than medieval or modern Roman Catholic lenses, these are the lenses through which Justin saw the supper.

The Setting

With this intellectual and moral framework in mind, we can approach the context of the original quote. Toward the end of his First Apology, Justin Martyr begins describing Christian worship. He explains baptism and discusses the Christian gathering. He then introduces the supper:

"Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss. There is then brought to the one presiding among the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen. This word Amen answers in the Hebrew language to γένοιτο [so be it]. And when the one presiding has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion," (First Apology, Chapter 65).

The emphasis here is, again, on a meal of thanksgiving and praise. The food is said to be bread and wine mixed with water. Interestingly, even after the presiding brother has blessed it and distributed it, it is still said to be bread and wine mixed with water. The people are said to partake, not of flesh and blood, but of bread and wine mixed with water. That is a problem for the doctrine of transubstantiation.

For transubstantiation to be true, it must be the case that the bread and wine cease to be bread and wine, maintaining only the accidental qualities of bread and wine that make them appear as such while, in fact, transforming in their very substance and essence into the body and blood of Jesus' human body. The bread is no longer bread, and the wine is no longer wine. In fact, the Council of Trent condemns anyone who would say that the bread and wine remain bread and wine even if such a person says that they also become the literal flesh and blood of Christ.5 It is not enough to say that the elements are both bread and wine and the body and blood of Jesus. That is what Lutherans teach. It is not transubstantiation at all, and indeed Trent places that position under anathema! According to Roman Catholic dogma, you must go further and say that the elements are no longer bread and wine and are now only the body and blood of Jesus. According to the canons of Trent, this is not mere hairsplitting. It is what defines transubstantiation and is the difference between fellowship and anathema.

Thus, we immediately find a significant contradiction between Justin and modern Rome in this very context. No matter what else Justin says, the fact that he says that the bread and wine remain bread and wine even after they are blessed and as they are eaten proves that Justin does not believe in transubstantiation. But did he believe the literal flesh was present at all? Though the bread and wine remain bread and wine, did he believe that Jesus' flesh and blood are also present in the meal in a physical sense? Do the words that follow provide us any reason to conclude, against all his moral revulsion and his plain insistence elsewhere that the meal was a token of remembrance, that Justin believed that Christians were literally eating the actual human flesh and blood of Jesus' physical body?

A Walk Through the Text

So, after the details above, Justin concludes by added a few additional comments on the food of the communion meal.

"And this food is called among us Εὐχαριστία [thanksgiving], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these," (First Apology, Chapter 66).

Justin begins the section by pointing out that Christians do not gather and eat merely for the indulgence of the appetite. The food is not "common." The bread is not eaten for the pleasure of a common meal nor wine for the pleasure of alcohol. Justin frequently defends Christians against the charge of being "sensual and intemperate,"6 and throws the criticism back on the pagan's own "excessive banquetings."7 Justin is thus concerned to show that Christians are not gathering for the purpose of common feasting and revelry. The meal is a sacred affair, an act of worship, and therefore the food is not a mere carnal pleasure but is sanctified and set apart for this sacred use. Like the showbread in the Jewish temple that could only be eaten by the priests or the Passover meal that could only be eaten by the circumcised convert, the food of the Lord's Supper could only be eaten by baptized believers. Only those devoted to Christ could partake, and only in a worthy manner. The food itself was called the thanksgiving. Eating it in prayer and thanksgiving was an offering of praise to God. It was not to satisfy the appetites of men. This is what Justin is here concerned to demonstrate.

Returning to the text, we read:

"For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh," (First Apology, Chapter 66).

The Roman Catholic understanding of Justin's argument here is that, just as Jesus was made flesh and blood by the word of God, so too is the bread and wine made flesh and blood by the prayer of His word. Again, even this reading would actually argue for the Lutheran position and not for transubstantiation. Jesus was made flesh without ceasing to be what He already was. He did not change in substance or essence. A human nature was added to Him without any change to the divine nature. If the Roman Catholic reading were correct, Justin would likewise be arguing that the bread and wine take on the essence of Jesus' flesh and blood without ceasing to possess their previous essence of bread and wine, which would be consistent with Justin claiming earlier that what Christians partake at the meal is, indeed, bread and wine mixed with water. Thus, the best the Roman Catholic can do is to defend one Protestant position on the Supper over the other Protestant positions. There is no case here for transubstantiation.

Still, there are reasons to think that the Roman Catholic reading of this passage is flawed. Justin says that Jesus was made flesh by the Word of God and that He had both flesh and blood for our salvation. He then says that likewise they had been taught that the bread and wine which are "blessed by the prayer of His word" and "from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished," are the flesh and blood of Christ. What is Justin's comparison here? He does not say that the bread and wine are made flesh and blood just as Christ was made flesh and blood. That isn't the comparison. Jesus was "made flesh and blood" by the word of God. The bread and wine are "blessed" by the Word of His prayer. Jesus "had both flesh and blood for our salvation," but the bread and wine are not for our salvation, but rather "from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished," i.e., they nourish our earthly bodies when they are changed through the normal process of digestion.

Justin is explaining that, as Jesus became flesh and blood through God's word to save us, we have been taught to receive as Christ's flesh and blood the bread and wine that are blessed by prayer and which temporally nourish our bodies. This is not an explanation of an actual physical change of the bread into literal human tissue, but rather an explanation of what the meal represents and why it is sacred and exclusive to Christians. This fits with Justin's purpose, which is to explain to unbelieving critics that the meal is not a sensual or debased event of carnal pleasures but rather a sacred feast of worship to God. It fits Justin's reference to the elements as still being bread and wine when partaken. It also fits with Justin's repeated references elsewhere to the supper as a remembrance of Christ's flesh and blood that brings to mind His suffering. Additionally, it fits well with Justin and his peers' moral revulsion at the literal eating of human flesh. Justin concludes:

"For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, 'This do ye in remembrance of Me, this is My body;' and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, 'This is My blood;' and gave it to them alone," (First Apology, Chapter 66).

Justin first points out that Jesus said to do this in remembrance of Him. His emphasis here is not on the idea that Jesus' words "this is my body" or "this is my blood," have some transformative effect on the substance. Rather, the point Justin draws is that He "gave it to them alone." Justin is explaining the sacred and exclusive nature of the supper, not the mystical nature of the physical elements. He is explaining how these exclusive gatherings in homes to eat bread and drink wine are actually acts of ritual devotion to God in Christ rather than carnal revelries. In our hyper-secularized world where everything is "common" and there is no public consciousness of the sacred, it is harder to understand Justin's point and easier to over-literalize his words. But in an ancient world filled with sacred feasts and sanctified objects, both Jewish and Pagan, Justin's explanation would have made a great deal of sense and, to outsiders willing to listen, would have deflated suspicions that something evil, debased, and even cannibalistic was going on in Christian meetings. If, however, Justin were saying that Christians, through mystical rites, could conjure the literal human flesh of a man out of bread and that they subsequently ate that flesh, it would have only confirmed precisely what people feared, thus making it a fairly poor argument in the context of Justin's apology. For all of these reasons, it makes most sense to understand Justin's words to represent a figurative, sacred analogy between the bread and wine and Christ's literal flesh and blood rather an actual transformation of the substance.


Justin certainly has a very high view of the Lord's Supper, but it was in no way a Roman Catholic view. He saw it as part of a free-will sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, but not as a propitiatory re-offering of Christ's literal sacrificial flesh to turn away God's wrath or atone for the sins of those present. He believed that the elements nourished our bodies but that they only pointed in remembrance to the once-for-all sacrifice that saved our souls. And in no possible reading of Justin's words did he teach that the elements ceased to be bread and wine and changed entirely in substance and essence into only the flesh and blood of Jesus. Indeed, the most consistent reading of Justin's writings would suggest that he viewed the supper as a sacred analogy and a feast of remembrance before the Lord, but not as the literal eating of Jesus' actual human flesh.

  • 1. To Autolycus, Book 3, Chapter 4
  • 2. ibid, Chapter 5
  • 3. ibid, chapter 7
  • 4. ibid, chapter 15
  • 5. Council of Trent, Thirteenth Session, Canon 2, http://www.documentacatholicaomnia.eu/03d/1545-1545,_Concilium_Tridentinum,_Canons_And_Decrees,_EN.pdf (Accessed 2/15/2018).
  • 6. Second Apology, Chapter 12
  • 7. Discourse to the Greeks, Chapter 4