The Gallery: Martyrs and Confessors
Ignatius of Antioch
(d. c. 107–117)
Escorted to his death by ten Roman soldiers
“I am the wheat of God and am ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of God.” So wrote Bishop Ignatius of Antioch (in Syria) as he was being taken to Rome under close military guard.
It is unsure why Ignatius had been arrested, but his journey was more like a triumphal procession than a journey to death. At nearly every stop, he met leaders of the local church, and he wrote letters to a series of churches and one to Bishop Polycarp in Smyrna. Yet there is no indication that anyone else was ever in danger of arrest.
We know almost nothing about Ignatius’s life except his journey to Rome and his death. In his letters we see a man with a passion for Christ, for martyrdom, and for the right faith. He warns against a heresy with Docetic elements (the belief that God’s Son only appeared to be human). Ignatius was so concerned for sound doctrine that he wrote that anyone who said Christ only seemed to suffer could not really be a martyr. Further, Ignatius taught that the bishop is the proper safeguard for sound teaching and, in fact, there can be no church without the bishop.
Ignatius’s letters give us rare insight into the mind of a martyr. He wanted to die and considered his death an imitation of the passion of Christ and an atoning sacrifice. One reason for his letter to Rome was to be sure they did nothing to secure his release.
Ignatius was martyred in Rome during the reign of Emperor Trajan, and tradition holds that he died in the Colosseum.
(and six friends, d. c. 165)
“You can kill us,” he wrote the emperor, “but not hurt us.”
Justin was born in Samaria around A.D. 130. As an adult, he searched for truth in pagan philosophy but was not satisfied, and around A.D. 130 he converted to Christianity. Justin taught for a while at Ephesus and later moved to Rome, where he gathered disciples into a philosophic “school.”
Justin’s First Apology, addressed to Emperor Antoninus Pius, was published in 155. Apologies were explanations of the faith, designed to show that Christianity was not a threat to the state and should be treated as a legal religion. Today, the First Apology also is important for what it tells us about second-century baptismal and eucharistic practices.
Soon after 155, Justin published his Dialogue with Trypho, an argument with a Jew about the true interpretation of Scripture. The Dialogue with Trypho teaches three main points: The Old Covenant is passing away to make place for the New; the Logos is the God of the Old Testament; the Gentiles are the new Israel.
Justin’s Second Apology was written soon after Marcus Aurelius became emperor in 161. In these writings Justin tried to show that the Christian faith alone was truly rational. He taught that the Logos (Word) became incarnate to teach humanity truth and to redeem people from the power of the demons.
Justin and some of his disciples were denounced as Christians sometime in 165 and taken before the prefect of Rome. The prefect asked them if they were Christians, and if they would sacrifice to the gods. Justin replied, “No one who is rightly minded turns from true belief to false.”
When the prefect threatened them with death, Justin said, “If we are punished for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ, we hope to be saved. . . . ”
They were taken out and beheaded.
Martyrs of Lyons and Vienne
Victims of a bloody pogrom
Lyons was the Roman capital of Gaul and one of the most important cities in the Empire. The persecution there (and in nearby Vienne) in 177 was local, inspired perhaps by a celebration in honor of the goddess Roma, the genius of Rome.
To gain evidence against the Christians, citizens of Lyons (modern Lyon, France) tortured several of the Christians’ slaves. The slaves quickly said their owners were guilty of incest and cannibalism, two common charges against the Christians. These accusations inflamed the prejudices of the mob, who demanded action. In all, 48 Christians died either in prison or in the arena.
Blandina, a Christian slave girl, is typical of the incredible suffering endured by this church. As a letter from the church says, “Blandina was filled with such power that those who by turns kept torturing her in every way from dawn until evening were worn out and exhausted, and themselves confessed defeat from lack of aught else to do to her; they marveled that the breath still remained in a body all mangled and covered with gaping wounds, and they testified that a single form of torture was sufficient to render life extinct, let alone such and so many.”
Blandina stood firm in her faith, however, and when she was returned to the prison, she encouraged the other prisoners to stand firm in their faith.
Blandina’s ordeal was far from over, however. Later she was tied to a cross in the arena and wild beasts were let loose on her. The letter says that others who were being tortured in the arena gained strength by looking at Blandina and hearing her prayers, for they saw in her the image of the Christ who had suffered for them all. Since none of the beasts would touch her, Blandina was cut down and put back in prison.
Later, Blandina was brought back into the arena, scourged, put on a redhot iron grill, and finally gored and tossed by a bull before she died.
Like their counterparts in Asia and North Africa, the martyrs at Lyons saw their suffering as part of the battle against the Antichrist and a sign of the end of the age and the final victory of Christ. They believed their faithfulness was a key part of Christ’s victory.
Irenaeus says that soon after this persecution the church began a mission to the rural population of the area. So the faith of the martyrs not only saw the church through a time of terrible suffering, it also helped lay the foundation for mission in the next decade.
The Martyrs of Scilli
“I do not recognize the empire of this world,” their leader declared.
Seven men and five women were brought before the Roman proconsul Saturninus in Carthage, North Africa, on July 17, 180. The charge: They were Christians.
J. E. Stevenson includes the “Acts” of their martyrdom in his New Eusebius:
“The proconsul Saturninus read out the sentence from his notebook: ‘Whereas Speratus, Nartzalus, Cittinus, Donata, Vestia, Secunda, and the rest have confessed that they live in accordance with the religious rites of the Christians, and, when an opportunity was given them of returning to the usage of the Romans, persevered in their obstinacy, it is our pleasure that they should suffer by the sword.’
“Speratus said: ‘Thanks be to God.’
“Nartzalus said: ‘Today we are martyrs in heaven: thanks be to God!’ ”
They were beheaded.
The account of these martyrs from Scilli, a village near Carthage, is the earliest document demonstrating the existence of Christianity in North Africa. It shows what was at stake between Rome and the church: two opposing ways of life. When these African Christians refused to return to “the usage of the Romans,” the Roman authorities recognized there was a profound danger to the Empire.
The story of these seven men and five women is also important for the development of the canon of Scripture. When the Christians were arrested, they were carrying “the sacred books, and the letters of Paul, a just man.” “The sacred books” may mean the Hebrew Scriptures, thus making this an early indication that Paul’s letters were treated as Scripture. Or “the books” may refer to the Gospels, which would likewise give insight into the history of the New Testament’s formation.
Crispina of Numidia
St. Augustine praised her
When Emperor Diocletian decreed that all Christians should sacrifice to the Roman gods, many hastened to do exactly that. Crispina did not.
Crispina was a wealthy woman, married, with several children, so she had many “good” reasons to sacrifice. The proconsul begged her to conform to the imperial edict. She replied, according to The Penguin Dictionary of Saints, “I do observe the edict: that of my Lord Jesus Christ. ”
The proconsul reasoned with her, even threatened her with death. Finally, he said, “We cannot put up with this impious Crispina any longer.” She was tortured and finally killed by the sword.
Once again we find a North African martyr. Crispina became such a prominent martyr that Augustine called attention to both her birthday and her feast day in his sermons. In a sermon delivered (over one hundred years later) on her birthday, he said, “Is there anyone in Africa, my brethren, who knoweth her not? For she was most illustrious, noble in birth, abounding in wealth.” In another sermon in his Expositions on the Book of Psalms, Augustine says of Crispina, “She rejoiced when she was being seized; when she was being carried before the judge; when she was being put into the prison; when she was being brought forth bound; when she was being condemned.”
The Forty Martyrs of Sebaste
Soldiers left naked on a frozen lake
Never was Rome in more danger from the church than when Christians refused military service. When the Empire was threatened on three borders at once, the pacifism of the church threatened the Roman way of life. Roman officials saw clearly that a vast organization with many conscientious objectors, and opposed to Roman ideals, could not be tolerated in a time of war. Thus, Christians were purged from the army in the early fourth century.
In 320, near the end of the Great Persecution, the emperor Licinius ordered all Christians to renounce their faith on pain of death. Forty soldiers of the Twelfth Legion, stationed at Sebaste in Armenia, refused. They were stripped naked, forced out onto a frozen lake, and left to die from exposure. Fires were built on the bank, however, and warm baths were prepared for anyone who would recant.
Only one gave in. Yet when he did, another soldier, moved by the example of the suffering Christians, declared himself a Christian and took the apostate’s place.
Within 24 hours, most of the 40 were dead. The others were then put to death.
(tortured c. 306–313)
Maimed in the Great Persecution
Emperor Constantine entered the Council of Nicaea in 325 in all the splendor of the imperial state. Eusebius, in his Life of Constantine, says the emperor was as “resplendent as one of God’s angels in heaven.” In spite of the show of power and wealth, Constantine was also conscious of the pain suffered by the church during the Great Persecution.
The monk/bishop Paphnutius had been tortured in the persecutions of Maximinus Daia. His left knee had been shattered and his right eye ripped out. In that crippled condition he had been sent to work in the mines, probably in Palestine. It may be one of the minor miracles of the persecutions that Paphnutius survived at all.
When Paphnutius and Constantine met at the Council of Nicaea, Constantine, as a sign of respect for the suffering of the old man, kissed his empty eye socket.
Paphnutius was a disciple of St. Antony and a solitary monk when he was called to be a bishop in Upper Egypt. At the Council of Nicaea he argued against the proposal that married clergy should separate from their wives. Because of his fame as an ascetic and confessor (one who suffered in the persecution but was not killed) his words carried the day. A historian, Socrates, says in amazement that one who had never known a woman but could argue with such compassion for married clergy, moved the council in a way no one else could. Paphnutius also supported Athanasius and the understanding of Christ as true God that would emerge as orthodox. His was a powerful voice in a period when the orthodox position was actually the minority one. The long persecutions were over. Constantine’s kissing the empty eye socket of Paphnutius signaled that a new day had begun for the church. CH
By John O. Gooch
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #27 in 1990]John 0. Gooch is editor of youth/adult curriculum for The United Methodist Publishing House in Nashville, Tennessee.
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