By Collin Garbarino
For most Americans the idea of martyrdom seems a strange and foreign concept. In recent years some Christians have experienced intolerance because of their stances on certain social issues, but the government has not killed Christians or tried to stamp out the church. Oftentimes when faced with an injustice against the church, Christians in America fight back using the political tools at our disposal. We ought to seek to preserve religious liberty, but if we stage a counter-assault in the culture war, we should not think we follow the example of the early Christian martyrs.
In some places around the world, however, martyrdom is a current reality for the church. Christians in some parts of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East are under attack from either their governments or vigilante groups or both. Christians are beheaded, pastors are imprisoned, church property is confiscated—in many ways it sounds as if the church has returned to its early days in the Roman Empire. In some places the situation is actually much worse, because Rome’s persecution tended to be sporadic and localized while in some places today’s persecution is more systematic.
By the grace of God, the church’s history has not been one long bloody tale of martyrdom. Most Christians in most places have lived in relative peace with their governments over the last two thousand years. However, Christians should not be surprised when persecution does come. Did not Jesus himself promise us as much? Actually many Christians in the early church began to think of martyrdom as a manifestation of God’s grace. While peace was good, martyrdom could provide a testimony to Christ and his resurrection that safety could not.
Martydom as a Testimony to the Resurrection
The idea of martyrdom began as a uniquely Christian concept. The Greeks and Romans had an idea of “noble death” in which some virtuous man or woman died for their ideals, and many pagans looked to Socrates, Lucretia, or Cato for examples of how to die well. It was the Christians, however, who coined the term “martyr ” to refer to some one who died for their faith. What did they mean by this?
“ Martyr ” comes from the Greek word mártys, which simply means “one who gives testimony ” or “witness.” At some point during Christianity’s first hundred and fifty years Christians began using this word to describe those who had died violently for the faith, and the word began to carry connotations of sacrifice. It is understandable to think of those dying for their faith as having sacrificed something, but why call them “witnesses”? What did the early church think that the martyrs had witnessed to? The martyrs’ willingness to die testified that they believe d in the gospel and showed the fervency of their belief in the resurrection through their actions.
The writers of the New Testament used mártys and its cognates frequently, but in the New Testament the word’s semantic range stays close to the idea of bearing witness or testifying. Sometimes the mártys is an apostle, but of ten the mártys is God himself. Usually it does not have anything to do with death. In a couple of passages some one who died for the faith is called a mártys—Acts 22:20 and Revelation 2:13—but when compared with the word’s usage throughout the rest of the New Testament, it is probably best to continue thinking of the word as meaning simply “witness.”1
During the sporadic persecutions of the second century, however, the word “martyr ” came to have its present definition of one who dies for the faith.
The account of Polycarp’s martyrdom is the earliest unquestionable evidence of mártys being used to mean “martyr.” Around 150, Polycarp, the elderly bishop of Smyrna in Asia Minor, went into hiding because his church in Smyrna was suffering persecution. After his second hiding place was discovered , Polycarp decided that his execution must be God’s will. The Roman governor told Polycarp that he could go free if only he would curse Christ, but the elderly bishop replied, “For eighty-six years I have been his servant and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme against my king and saviour?”2 Polycarp’s martyrdom became the archetypal martyr tale for early Christians, and many later martyr accounts follow its style and structure. Throughout the text, Polycarp and the others who died in Smyrna are referred to as “martyrs,” and the context clearly shows that the word now refers to those who have died for the faith .
This dying, however, is a special kind of dying. The martyr’s death testifies to the truth of the gospel. This dying testifies that Christ has risen and witnesses to the Christian’s confidence in his own resurrection on the Last Day. The martyrs can embrace death because they know that life has conquered death. The death of the martyr proclaims that death has lost its sting. Polycarp witnesses to his confidence in this truth in his last speech .
O Lord, omnipotent God and Father of your beloved and blessed child Christ Jesus, through whom we have received our knowledge of you, the God of the angels the powers, and of all creation, and of all the family of the good who live in your sight: I bless you because you have thought me worthy of this day and this hour, to have a share among the number of the martyrs in the cup of your Christ, for the resurrection unto eternal life of both the soul and the body in the immortality of the Holy Spirit. May I be received this day among them before your face as a rich and acceptable sacrifice, as you, the God of truth who cannot deceive, have prepared, revealed, and fulfilled beforehand. Hence I praise you, I bless you, and I glorify you above all things, through that eternal and celestial high priest, Jesus Christ, your beloved child, through whom is glory to you with him and the Holy Spirit now and for all ages to come. Amen. 3
Some of these martyrs verbally testified—bore witness—to their faith in Christ before they were killed, but the martyrs did not have to witness with words. Their deaths testified to their faith. With their deaths they testified that they would gladly suffer the killing of the body because they had confidence that Christ would restore the body in the Resurrection.
The Martyr’s Grave as a Reminder of Resurrection
This faith in the bodily resurrection of the saints caused the early church to value and care for the bodies of the martyrs, as well as the bodies of other dead Christians. Christ came bodily, Christ was raised bodily, and Christ would give believers resurrection bodies on the Last Day. The early church understood the lesson. Bodies are important.
From the beginning we find the church caring for the remains of their precious martyrs. The chronicler of Polycarp’s martyrdom writes that the Romans refused to give Polycarp’s body to his followers, instead cremating it. However, they would not be deterred from doing their duty to care for it.
Thus at last, collecting the remains that were dearer to us than precious stones and finer than gold, we buried them in a fitting spot. Gathering here, so far as we can, in joy and gladness, we will be allowed by the Lord to celebrate the anniversary day of his martyrdom, both as a memorial for those who have already fought the contest and for the training and preparation of those who will do so one day.4
The grave of a martyr became a memorial place where the church could celebrate the gospel of Christ.
Pagan Romans avoided the ashes of their forebears, but Christians looked up on the graves of their dead as having spiritual importance. Christian cemeteries were not final resting places; the grave was only temporary. Christians looked forward to the bodily resurrection of their brothers and sisters, and visiting the grave of those who slept in Christ testified to this belief in the resurrection.
The resurrection of Christ had rent the veil that separated the living and the dead. The early Catholic Church did not merely boast a universality over space, but it also claimed a temporal universality. Could death really separate the saints, whether living or dead, now that Christ has risen? Christians gathered at the tombs to celebrate because in this way the members of the church who still lived could include in the celebration the members of the church who had died. Heaven and earth were joined, in a sense, when Christians both living and dead simultaneously worshiped the God who would one day reunite them in the Resurrection.
Even in death, many people wanted to be associated with the cult of the martyrs. Burial ad sanctos, being interred near a martyr, was quite popular with Christian communities in both the Latin and Greek halves of the empire.5People believed that spiritual benefits could be gained from lying so near the martyrs. Since the martyrs were close to God, being buried near them would perhaps bring the average Christian a little closer to God. Also, the idea existed that at the Resurrection, awakening near martyrs would be meritorious. Besides these spiritual benefits there may have been the very practical concern that a tomb near a powerful martyr might be less susceptible to desecration by grave robbers. Many notable bishops and their families were buried in the vicinity of martyrs; for example, both Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus buried their parents and siblings near martyrs.6 Paulinus of Nola approved of this practice, but it seems that he did not feel adequate in justifying it so he sent a letter to Augustine asking for his opinion on the matter. In his reply, Augustine allowed burial ad sanctos, but he indicated that this allowance is mostly a compassionate concession to grieving families.7After all, the resurrection of the body is not dependent on the martyrs ; it depends on the power of Christ.
Just as honoring the dead sacralized space in the Christian cemeteries, honoring the martyrs helped create a holy temporality for Christianity.8The Christian calendar contained a unique rhythm, and during the fourth century, festivals honoring the martyrs, along with other Christian observances like Easter, began to sacralize time. The Christian calendar became a continuous rehearsal of the theological doctrines of renewal and resurrection. On the yearly cycle, Easter reminded Christians of Christ’s resurrection from the dead, but Christians reminded themselves of the resurrection on a weekly basis as well. Every Sunday morning the church proclaimed the resurrection, and festivals honoring the martyrs supplemented this testimony to the belief in the resurrection. Originally, these celebrations were highly localized, with each city honoring its own martyrs, its own heroes of the faith. These observances were uneven throughout the empire because not all towns, for example Milan, had produced martyrs and some martyr shrines were located in rural areas not overseen by any ecclesiastical authority. Conversely, some important cities, like Rome, influenced the festivals in neighboring towns. By the time Constantine gained power in the early fourth century, the church in Rome, a city with an unrivaled martyr tradition, celebrated about thirty anniversaries of the martyrs.9 This number would explode over the course of the fourth century as bishops engaged in the task of Christianizing the calendar.
Honoring the martyrs in hope of the resurrection
The martyrs both past and present counted Christ and his resurrection more valuable than clinging to life in this tattered body. Both their lives and their deaths witnessed to their trust in Christ’s sufficiency. When honoring the martyrs, the early Church said that the martyrs received a crown for witnessing to the point of death. This crown was not a crown of ruling . It was the stephanos, the wreath of leaves awarded to some one who had triumphed at an athletic competition. God gave them this prize because of the extraordinary steadfastness exhibited in testifying through death.
The early church honored its martyrs, and we Americans should do the same for those suffering persecution around the world . In spite of our denominational divisions, the body of Christ remains undivided. All Christian martyrs are our martyrs. When the enemies of God persecute one part of the body, we all feel it. Ultimately, those who persecute the church attack Christ, who is our head. When Saul attacked the Church, Jesus asked, “Saul, why do you persecute m?” If our theology of martyrdom testifies to the belief in Christ’s resurrection and the belief in the future resurrection of the dead, what should our practice be? What should those of us who are not threatened with beheading do?
First, we must pray. We must remember that we are persecuted in the persecution of our brothers and sisters around the world. Jesus said to pray for those who persecute us. We must not hate the terrorists and governments that persecute the church. We must pray for them, and ask that the Holy Spirit might use the witness of martyrs to save the souls of God’s enemies. Souls are saved through the proclamation of the good news. Is there a bolder proclamation of the Christian’s steadfast hope in the Resurrection than martyrdom? Pray that the enemies of God will be converted. Were not we all enemies of God at one time?
Second, we must heed the martyrs’ example and be faithful witnesses to Christ and his Resurrection no matter what our circumstances. Their testimony is our testimony, and the martyr ’s stephanos is no different than the prize that Paul offers to all faithful Christians in 1 Corinthians 9.
In 397, Augustine of Hippo exhorted his congregation to live with a theology of martyrdom even though the Roman state no longer persecuted the church. He says that we should not hope to experience the same kind of persecution that the martyrs did, but he also says that this world provides ample opportunity for a steadfast witness to Christ because of its trials and temptations. We still war against sin and death, and a faithful witness to Christ in the midst of the struggle wins the martyr’s prize. He said, “ Your feast day is not indeed in the calendar, but your crown is ready waiting for you.”10
The manner of the martyrs’ testimony is extraordinary, but the content of their testimony should be common to all Christians. The martyrs’ extraordinary steadfastness encourages us to faithfulness in our own less extraordinary proclamation of Christ and his resurrection.
About the Author
COLLIN GARBARINO, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of History at Houston Baptist University whose area of specialty is the church in late Roman society. He has written for a number of popular publications including First Things and Touchstone.
1 G. W. Bowersock, Martyrdom and Rome (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1995), 12–16. For a different interpretation, see W. H. C. Frend, Martyrdom and Persectution in the Early Church: a Study of Conflict from the Maccabees to Donatus (New York : New York University Press, 1967), 58–76. Frend argues for a development of the term mártys within the canon. He believes that Johannine literature moves mártys closest to the later meaning of “martyr.”
2 Martyrdom of Polycarp 9.3. Translations of the Martyrdom of Polycarp from Herbert Musurillo, Acts of the Christian Mart yrs (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1972), 2–21.
3 Polycar p 14.1–3.
4 Polycar p 18.2–3.
5 Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints : its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity (Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1981), 30–35.
6 Johan Leemans et al., “ Let Us Die that We May Live”: Greek Homilies on Christian
Mart yrs from Asia Minor, Palestine and Syria (c. AD 350–AD 450) (London : Routledge, 2003), 13.
7 Augustine De cura pro mortuis gerenda.
8 R . A . Markus, The End of Ancient Christianity (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1990), 97–108.
9 Markus, 98.
10 Augustine Sermones 306E .8. Translation from Augustine, Sermons (trans. Edmund Hill ; vol. III/11 of The Works of Saint Augustine : a Translation for the 21st Century; New York, New Cit y Press, 1997).