How the Early Church Viewed Martyrs
The early church’s theology of martyrdom was born not in synods or councils, but in sunlit, blood—drenched coliseums and catacombs, dark and still as death. The word martyr means “witness” and is used as such throughout the New Testament. However, as the Roman Empire became increasingly hostile toward Christianity, the distinctions between witnessing and suffering became blurred and finally nonexistent.
In the second century, then, martyr became a technical term for a person who had died for Christ, while confessor was defined as one who proclaimed Christ’s lordship at trial but did not suffer the death penalty. A passage from Eusebius describes the survivors of the persecution in Lyons (in 177 in what is today France): “They were also so zealous in their imitation of Christ . . . that, though they had attained honor, and had borne witness, not once or twice, but many times—having been brought back to prison from the wild beasts, covered with burns and scars and wounds—yet they did not proclaim themselves martyrs, nor did they suffer us to address them by this name. If any one of us, in letter or conversation, spoke of them as martyrs, they rebuked him sharply. . . . And they reminded us of the martyrs who had already departed, and said, ‘They are already martyrs whom Christ has deemed worthy to be taken up in their confession, having sealed their testimony by their departure; but we are lowly and humble confessors.’ ”
Roots of the Martyr Ideal
The ideal of martyrdom did not originate with the Christian church; it was inspired by the passive resistance of pious Jews during the Maccabean revolt (173—164 B.C.). Antiochus IV, the tyrannical Seleucid king, ignited the revolution by a variety of barbarous acts, including banning Palestinian Jews from religious practices such as circumcision. Stories abounded of steadfast Jews, such as Eleazar the scribe (2 Macc. 6), who chose torture and death rather than violate the Law by eating pork. Two hundred years later, the Jewish War of A.D. 70 saw thousands become martyrs for their faith rather than capitulate to Roman paganism. This noble tradition helped shape the church’s emerging theology of martyrdom.
Why Not Armed Resistance?
The Maccabean period also, however, gave stories of avenging rebels such as Judas Maccabeus. What prompted Christians to emulate the passive resisters such as Eleazar, rather than armed revolutionaries like Judas Maccabeus?
To answer this question one need look no further than to Jesus himself. The church understood martyrdom as an imitation of Christ. The Lord was the exemplar of nonviolence at his own trial and execution, declaring that his servants would not fight because his kingdom was not of this world.
Jesus’ words burned themselves deeply into the collective psyche of the Ante-Nicene church: “If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also (Luke 6:29); do not resist an evil person (Matt. 5:39); blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness (Matt. 5:10); if they persecuted me, they will persecute you also (John 15:20).”
Paul and the other New Testament authors sustained and developed the theme that followers of Christ were to suffer, not fight, for their Lord. A believer’s weapons were not composed of iron or bronze but were made of sterner stuff (Eph. 6:13ff.).
Stephen, the first Christian martyr, died a Christlike death, praying earnestly for his tormentors. Eusebius, the church historian, called Stephen “the perfect martyr"; thus he became a prototype for all martyrs to follow.
The Ultimate Contest
The martyr’s nonviolent response to trial and torture was never equated with passivity or resignation. For the early church, the act of martyrdom was a spiritual battle of epic proportion against the powers of hell itself. Justin, for example, wrote an apologetic to Emperor Antoninus Pius charging that his punishment of Christians without examination was “by the instigation of demons. ”
Despite their moral opposition to gladiatorial and athletic contests, Christians freely appropriated the language of the games to describe their spiritual bouts with evil. Eusebius wrote effusively of “the discipline and much—tried fortitude of the athletes of religion, the trophies won from demons, the victories placed upon all their heads.”
This imagery was used, with some irony, to depict women and children doing battle against spiritual wickedness. Prior to her death, Perpetua recorded in her prison diary that she had a vision in which she defeated an Egyptian wrestler (a common participant in the games) before Christ, the heavenly umpire. Conquering this symbol of the Evil One, she was awarded apples, the prize in Apollo’s games at Carthage. Another martyr, Blandina, was described as “she the small, the weak, the despised, who had put on Christ the great and invincible Champion, and who in many rounds vanquished the adversary and through conflict was crowned with the crown of incorruptibility. ”
These vivid athletic metaphors echo the thoughts of another martyr who died years before Blandina and Perpetua, during the Neronian persecution: “Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever” (1 Cor. 9:24—25).
The Ultimate Companion
For early Christians, such a battle was not waged alone. The church, as G. W. Lampe notes, understood the believer’s suffering and death as a concrete and literal realization of death and burial with Christ, enacted figuratively in every convert’s baptism (Rom. 6:3). Ignatius of Antioch, on his way to martyrdom at Rome, wrote the church there to take no action to prevent his death, for he wished to “attain to Christ” and to be an “imitator of the passion of Christ, my God.”
The New Testament afforded to the early church numerous explications of this theme: To persecute Christians is to persecute Jesus himself (Acts 9:5); Christ’s disciples would suffer as he did (John 15:20); believers are to be crucified with Christ (Gal. 2:20); Christians are to “rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings that you may rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Pet. 4:13).
Martyrs not only represented Christ, but also found Christ actually present with them, in a mystical way, during their torment. At the death of Blandina (in Lyons in 177), it was said “they saw … him who was crucified on their behalf in the person of their sister.” And this was written about Sanctus, who suffered at nearby Vienne: “But his poor body was a witness to what he had undergone—one whole wound and bruise contracted, having lost the outward form of a man—in which body Christ suffered and accomplished mighty wonders, bringing the adversary to nought.”
The church understood the source of the martyr’s strength and testimony to be the Holy Spirit. Only by his inspiration could such powerful proclamation be given before hostile authorities. The martyrs relied on Jesus’ promise: “Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit” (Mk. 13:11).
Those who confessed their faith in the face of persecution were seen as receiving a word of revelation and proclamation much like the Old Testament prophets. Vettius, spokesman for the martyrs of Lyons, was described as having “in himself the Paraclete, that is, the Spirit of Zechariah,” (who was identified in Luke 1:67 as a Spirit—possessed prophet).
The Spirit fell on slave and free, baptized and unbaptized, granting dreams and visions as he saw fit. For example, Polycarp (the bishop of Smyrna martyred c. 155) saw his pillow on fire, understanding the vision as a prophecy regarding the kind of death he would die. Basileides, an Alexandrian soldier, was granted a vision of the martyred Potamiaena, who informed him that he would soon have the privilege of dying for Christ. In both instances the prophetic visions were fulfilled.
The Ultimate Crown
The negative side to the assurance of inspiration during trial and torture was the danger of apostasy under the same conditions. The Shepard of Hermas declared that a servant who denies the Lord is evil. Cyprian went further, reminding the lapsed that apostasy is equivalent to blasphemy of the Holy Spirit: “For that it is a very great crime, they themselves know who have committed it; since our Lord and Judge has said, ‘Whoever shall confess me before men, him will I also confess before my Father which is in heaven, but whosoever shall deny me, him will I deny.’ And again he has said, ‘All sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men and blasphemies, but he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Spirit shall not have forgiveness, but is guilty of eternal sin.’ ”
Because they stood against apostasy, and because they possessed gifts of prophecy and visions, martyrs and confessors were held in high regard in the church. Their spiritual authority, in fact, rivaled that of bishops. The Spirit, R. L. Fox notes, enabled them to “bind and loose,” pronounce on heresy and orthodoxy, and forgive sins. In one instance, Saturus of Carthage saw a vision in which he and Perpetua, both martyrs—to—be, were called upon to mediate a dispute between a bishop and his elders.
The early church also believed in martyrs as master intercessors. The First Epistle of John alludes to the power of intercession: “If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him life” (1 John 5:16). Numerous stories were circulated of almost legendary feats of prayer performed by martyrs during their lifetimes. Thus it was not difficult for Christians at that time to imagine these same prayer warriors interceding at the heavenly court after death. This belief is illustrated by an inscription, one of many similar, in the Roman catacombs: Paul ed(t) Petre pro victore—“Paul and Peter pray for Victor.”
It was said the rewards of a virgin were 60 times greater than an ordinary Christian’s, but a martyr’s were 100 times greater. While Christ’s death remained central to the early church’s understanding of salvation, it was believed that a martyr’s death effaced all sins committed after baptism. Melito of Sardis claimed, “There are two things which give remission of sins: baptism and suffering for the sake of Christ.” Tertullian echoed this, writing to martyrs: “Your blood is the key to Paradise.”
The belief in the virtue of martyrdom generated the phenomenon of “volunteering,” whereby numbers of Christians actively sought persecution and death. In one account, a Roman governor was interrupted in his courtroom by a Christian named Euplus who shouted, “I am a Christian. I want to die.” His request was granted. The early church did not advocate voluntary martyrdoms and, in fact, Origen and Clement specifically warned against them. Jesus himself in Matthew’s gospel advised fleeing when persecution was imminent. Thus, those who volunteered to die were a small minority.
From Love to Veneration
The sentiment of the early church toward its martyrs moved from love to reverence to veneration. The author of the account of the martyrdom of Polycarp wrote: “For him as Son of God we adore; the martyrs, as disciples and imitators of the Lord, we reverence as they deserve on account of their unsurpassable loyalty to their King and Teacher.”
Martyrs were honored by having their “heavenly birthdays” (i.e., the anniversaries of their deaths) celebrated annually. The celebration service was held at the grave of the deceased with prayer, oblations, Communion, and a reading of the martyr’s history of suffering and death. This practice was quite contrary to Christianity’s Jewish roots, for Judaism, following the Mosaic law, held that a grave was unclean. Thus a third-century Syrian Christian advised fellow believers to meet in their cemeteries without fear of impurity.
It is not certain exactly when the honor paid to the martyred dead was transferred to their physical remains, but the account of the martyrdom of Polycarp, written in the second century, includes a statement that the church of Smyrna counted the bones of the saint “more valuable than precious stones and finer than gold.” Believers in Antioch held the remains of Ignatius in high esteem, while Cyprian’s blood and clothing became objects of veneration.
The emphasis on procuring martyrs’ relics produced many abuses but did not dampen the church’s desire to honor its faithful dead. The importance of relics grew to such proportion that the Seventh Ecumenical Council (in Nicea in 787) decreed that relics must be placed in the altar of a new church before it could be consecrated.
Any abuses surrounding the honoring of the martyrs should not blind us to the spiritual debt the whole church owes to these brave souls. By their faithfulness to Christ in spite of torture and death, these men, women, and children proclaimed to the world that Jesus, and not Caesar, is Lord. In the words of the Book of Revelation, “They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death (12:11).” CH
By William G. Bixler
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #27 in 1990]
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