Martyrdom in the Third Century; A Comparative Study

The acts of the martyrs, from Stephen to Bonhoffer, have been a source of inspiration to the Church throughout its history; cele-brated in liturgy and hymnody, honored in prayer and piety. Sadly, twentieth century American Lutheranism remembers the martyrs with our lips, but our hearts are far from them.

Let us consider the Acts of the Martyrs of Lyons and of Perpetua and her companions to begin to appreciate the third cen-tury meaningof martyrdom. This accom-plished, we can examine the question "How does martyrdom confer status on people who would otherwise have none?" to see how far we are from their self-understanding.

Common Threads

Comparison of the acta of Lyons and Perpetua reveals many fea-tures common to the portrait of third century martyrdom: the designated source of persecution, the testimony spoken of in images of birth and athletics, the symbol of the crown and its relationship to Stephen, and Christ's presence with them in their suffering.

The martyrs considered their persecution to be caused by Satan, through the general populace's hatred, to produce apostates.

The intensity of our afflictions here, the deep hatred of the pagans for the saints…we are incapable of describing in detail…The Adversary swooped down with full force.

And because they persevered…the crowd grew angry with them…They subjected them to every atrocity and led them through every torture in turn, constantly trying to force them to swear, but to no avail.

I realized that it was not with wild animals that I would fight but with the Devil.

Have pity on your father's gray head; have pity on your infant son. Offer the sacrifice for the welfare of the emperors.

Persecution was Satanic; Christians ascribed no objective good to the fact of persecution. Persecution is always an "affliction". They were generally not allowed to seek out persecution.

Despite this, the testimony (marturia) of enduring pain and death rather than abandoning one's faith showed to pagan and Christian alike the personal reality of the martyr's (marturoj) faith. The of-fering of this impressive testimony, then, is a good action. The Church of the time therefore spoke of it in images of athletics and birth,

Of these about ten in all were stillborn……

The dead were restored to life through the living; the martyrs brought favor to those who bore no witness, and the virgin Mother experienced much joy in recovering alive those whom she had cast forth stillborn.

He had been standing in front of the tribunal…it was clear that he was as one who was giving birth.

Instead, this blessed woman like a noble athlete got re-newed strength with her confession of faith.

The day of their victory dawned.

Next she asked for a pin to fasten her untidy hair; for it was not right that a martyr should die with her hair in disorder, lest she might seem to be mourning in the hour of her triumph.

The the martyrdom of Stephen, not the passion of Christ, is the model for the mar-tyrs in these documents. The fre-quent references to the "crown" in the acts of the martyrs have a sense of connection with the Stephen as well as repre-senting the prize won in athletic contests. (It does not rep-resent kingship, dominion, or rule; in the Hellenistic world the diadem was the mark of kingship.)

Indeed, they prayed for those who had used them so cru-elly, much as Stephen, the perfect martyr, did.

Saturninus indeed insisted that he wanted to be exposed to all the different beasts, that his crown might be all the more glorious.

For, plaiting one crown of many different flowers and colors, they offered it to the Father. Surely it behooved these noble athletes, after sustaining a brilliant con-test and glorious victory, to win the great crown of im-mortality.

The martyrs were convinced, through the example of others, that Christ was with them in their suffering, supporting them and giving meaning to their pain.

Blandina was hung on a post…She seemed to hang there in the form of a cross, and by her fervent prayer she aroused intense enthusiasm in those who were undergoing their ordeal, for in their torment with their physical eyes they saw in the person of their sister him who was crucified for them, that he might convince all who be-lieve in him that all who suffer for Christ's glory will have eternal fellowship in the living God.

Christ suffering in him achieved great glory, overwhelm-ing the Adversary, and showing as an example to all the others that nothing is to be feared where the Father's love is, nothing painful where we find Christ's glory.

But then another will be inside me who will suffer for me, just as I shall be suffering for him.

Different Dyes

The two acta differ regarding the use of torture, the emotions of the martyrs in prison, and in the spiritual gifts of the martyrs before their deaths.

Torture before execution is prominent in the acta of the Lyons martyrs and absent in the acta of Perpetua. This probably accords with historical reality; Roman law required torture for tes-timony from slaves to be admissible. As the authorities in Lyons seem to have been interested in obtaining names of other Christians and in building a legal case against the actions of Christians, torture would have been legally necessary. The martyrdom of Perpetua seems to have been based strictly on "non licet Christianos"; hence the confession of the freeborn was sufficient without torture. Regardless, the author of Perpetua is inter-ested more in the vi-sions of the martyrs than in their pain; the author of Lyons is in-terested in recording facts without embellishment.

The martyrs of Lyons feared that they would be prevented, either by outside forces or by their own weakness from remaining firm in their confession, especially since some of their number became apostate under pressure.

Blandina's earthly mistress…was in agony lest because of her bodily weakness she would not be able to make a bold confession of her faith.

The martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas contains no reference to any such anxiety; indeed, the sureness of their sacrifice and the consequent holiness of their persons is emphasized before their death.

The visions of Perpetua include a pair of visions about her dead brother in which it is appears that her prayers for him have im-proved his happiness in the afterlife. This represents an early stage of the tradition that the prayers of the martyrs are effica-cious in relieving the sufferings of the dead and may be part of the beginning of the cult of the saints as later practiced.

The Memory of the Martyrs

Now, let us consider the question "How does martyrdom confer status on people who would otherwise have none?", or more accu-rately the assertion, "Martyrdom confers status on people who would otherwise have none." If this is intended to assert that a martyr was remembered after death longer, and honored after death more, than other Christians, this is a true statement, but rather trivial. If it is a statement about the motivations of the martyrs, it is at variance with their own understanding as related in the acta.

Third century Christian would have said that baptism conferred status on the dispossessed, making them children of God and heirs to the kingdom. The preparation for baptism was often long and ar-duous; note that the process was short-circuited for Perpetua and her companions.

Martyrdom was a witness to the world and to the Church. Peo-ple did not seek it; they did not march up to the governor's of-fice and turn themselves in. Although the church honored its martyrs, it also honored any member whose teaching, manner of life, spiritual-ity, or other gifts marked them as special channels of grace. Such honors were available to any baptized Christian. It is a symptom of the modern obsession with power and status to project such a motivation back to the third century.

For modern American Lutherans it may be difficult to relate to a faith that is disinterestedly faithful onto death. We are the losers thereby. The aphorism, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church" held true in the third century; perhaps it holds a grain of truth for the twentieth century as well.

Bibliography

Works Used in Preparation of this Paper

Musurillo, Herbert, translator, The Acts of the Christian Martyrs, Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1972

Eusebius of Cesarea, Ecclesiastical history, introduction by Christian Cruse, reprint Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1993

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