Friday, May 3, 2013

The Early Church II-1: The Martyrs

(This is the extended, written version of a presentation I gave on 4/30/2013. 

This is II-1. If you haven't read "The Early Church I" yet, I would recommend it. All links are at the bottom of this article.)


Last time we examined the message of Christianity and how it was presented to both Jew and Gentile. The message of Christ was a message of dignity, divine sonship and daughterhood, and a noble mission, namely the salvation of all in the name of Christ Jesus.

This, however, came with many difficulties. There were many who refused to hear the message. Others simply saw God as one among many appropriating what was profitable to them in the Christian message. Others reacted violently. Of these three, it may seem strange to hear that the second problem, corrupted teaching, was actually the most destructive to the Church. While there were those who were outside the Church who simply selected a few points and incorporated them into their pagan theology there were plenty of Christians who, because of culture, (both abundance and lack of) learning, and zeal, caused a great deal of trouble by their words.

In order to counteract these false teachings and bad influences the Church, beginning with the Apostles, established very quickly a structure of bishop, priest, and deacon in order to preserve and protect the content of the Apostolic faith. The bishop was a direct descendent of the Apostles, a relationship we'll explore later on. It was through the office of the bishop that we became known as “Catholic” and it was only around such a man that the Church was said to be. “Tradition,” likewise, properly understood was not only the words and actions of Christ but also the words and actions of the Apostles and their successors who were given a unique office (cf. Acts 1:20) by Christ (cf. Jn 20:19-23). Peter among the Twelve was given an important ministry and office. The title bishop means “overseer” and Peter was appointed overseer of his brothers. He exercised this authority clearly in Scripture yet, as Christ proclaimed, he did not lord over them (cf. Lk 22:25) but rather acted as a supreme example to his brothers and his flock (cf. 1 Pet 5:5).

Christians were likewise persecuted in waves of varying intensity from the Church's inception at Pentecost until 313 AD, after the persecutions of Diocletian. Christ, however, said it plainly: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me … whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Lk 9:23-24). Peter said his disciples, “Since Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same attitude” (1 Pet 4:1) and “Do not be surprised that a trial by fire is occurring among you, as if something strange were happening. Rather, rejoice to the extent that you share in the sufferings of Christ, so that when his glory is revealed you may also rejoice exultantly” (1 Pet 4:13). Paul says it even more simply, “All who want to live religiously in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12).

This brings us to the opening of our discussion: the martyrs. In what manner did their witness to Christ shape the early Christians and the Church? Likewise, what problems did they cause for the Church moving forward?

II-1: The Martyrs

The word martyr literally means “witness” yet that witness is more than proclaiming Christ with our words or good deeds. This is the witness that testifies to Christ crucified in the most concrete way: by giving up one's life in the same manner Christ did. Christ died for love of us, the martyrs died for love of Christ and neighbor—even persecutor.

Death is something that was trivialized in the Roman Empire just as it is today. The delight in the fall of one's enemies, the desire to oppress those who fought but no longer can, to see those whom we hate suffer cruelly for their injustice are all forms of bloodlust. The Romans were desensitized to blood, perhaps more than we are, because their violence was very real and designed, at its worst, to humiliate and break their captives. 

Not to mention entertainment.

Imagine, now, a group of men and women who stood in the face of death proudly. Rather than cowering in fear and succumbing to cruelty they openly proclaimed Christ. They prayed for their enemies and would not let death itself keep them from the One they loved. They acted as if life itself was an obstacle to their ultimate goal and that the threat of death held no sway. To a people soaked in blood and self-centeredness this was a shock to their system. With such a sharp contrast to their way of life two responses resulted: (1) even greater and inflamed hatred or (2) a complete conversion of heart. Very few could stand by indifferent to the example of the martyrs.

Before we examine the martyrs we should keep in mind a few aspects: not every Roman leader hated Christians, nor did every governor or provincial enact laws of persecution—Christians were in many places model citizens, and in many cases Romans sought to dispel a sect or a cult by killing their leaders. There was little effect to killing scores of common men and women. Priests, bishops, deacons, and those admired by the community were sought above the laity (Courtesy of Sommer, We Look for a Kingdom, 222).

Let us examine in sort, then, how the Church viewed martyrdom. While we ourselves can say many nice things about the martyrs it is worthwhile to examine how our Church Fathers and Scripture regarded the power and significance of them. It will help us, in turn, understand how Christians of that period responded to and sought the martyrs.

Justin Martyr, an apologist and martyr of the Church was a well educated man with an extensive knowledge of philosophy. Justin cited one of the reasons for his conversion in his 2nd Apology: “I was delighted in the teachings of Plato, and heard the Christians slandered, and saw them fearless of death, and of all other things which are counted fearful, [I] saw that it was impossible that they could be living in wickedness and pleasure. For what sensual or intemperate person, or whoever counts it good to feast on human flesh, could welcome death that he might be deprived of his enjoyments[?]” (2nd Apology, sec. 12).

The common conception of Christians at this time (2nd century) was that they were atheists and cannibals. All manner of slander and myths were circulated about Christians so that they seemed to be enemies to humanity and to the state. For example: Tacitus, the famous Roman historian, said that Christians were “a sect that hates the human race” (Annals 15:44). Yet in the face of hatred many men and women showed love. In the face of cruelty is was the Christians who showed themselves to be civilized. It remains an important lesson for us today; the world will see us as enemies and fools and in these instances our words and actions should be as blameless as they can. When our adversaries comment on our faults, sinfulness, and errors accept them as a blessing. When we can present His message without fault—as best we can—the the words of others against His message are destined to fall. Time will reveal their lack of wisdom.
Modern examples exist in abundance.

Scripture likewise conveys this to us. The first martyr, Stephen the deacon, stands before a hostile crowd speaking in the Spirit. It says “his face was like the face of an angel” (Acts 6:15) and yet his words of condemnation to the wicked were like a sword. “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always oppose the holy Spirit; you are just like your ancestors. … You received the law as transmitted by angels, but you did not observe it” (Acts 7:51, 53). As the crowd raged toward him he looked up to heaven, giving thanks that he should suffer for Jesus' name. He forgave those who killed him and, after his death, “devout men buried Stephen and made a loud lament over him” (Acts 8:3).

Interestingly in this story is that Scripture says “I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” and “Lord Jesus, receive my Spirit” (7:56, 59). Would there be any doubt his spirit was received? Christ on the cross proclaimed to the repentant thief “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk 23:43, cf. Mt 37:45-56). If Christ said this at the request of the penitent sinner do you think he would deny the request of the one who, filled with His Spirit and dying for His name, would be refused any request?

To this effect, and to answer this question, I present a story relayed to us by Eusebius, the earliest 'historian' of the Church. Writing in the 4th century he was considered the “Father of Church History.” All histories written around this period and after him by other Christians begin at the end of his work as if to acknowledge his writing (cf. Penguin Classics version, xviii, 1989).

He writes many accounts of persecutions and martyrs, one which I think will be useful to consider in brief:

Potamiaena was a virgin and martyr who was condemned along with her mother for being Christian. She “and her mother Marcella found fulfillment in fire.” Her mother was killed and she was subject to a number of humiliations and tortures. A soldier in her midst, Basilides, seized her and led to her to place of execution. The crowd pressed around her seeking to strike her while insulting her but Basilides drove them back and showed this woman “the utmost pity and kindness.” Potamiaena, accepting his sympathy told him that “when she had gone away she would ask her Lord for him, and it would not be long before she repaid him for all he had done for her. … She face her end with noble courage—slowly, drop by drop, boiling pitch was poured [over her]. Such was the battle won by this splendid girl.”

Some days later Basilides was asked by his fellow soldiers to take again the military oath by which they all swore. He refused saying he was a Christian. They thought he was joking, but he asserted all the more of this fact. His comrades threw him in prison and those from the Church visited him there asking him the reason. He told them that “three days after her martyrdom Potamiaena stood before him in the night, put a wreath about his head, and said she had prayed for him to the Lord, had obtained her request, and before long would place him by her side.” At once those present baptised him and on the next day he was beheaded. It was said that in Alexandria, where all this took place, many other came to believe having seen this same girl in their dreams calling them to Jesus Christ. (see Eusebius, EH 6.5).

In this brief story that I've paraphrased we see a number of things: the courage of a martyr, her influence while living, and her power when she had life eternal. The martyrs were said to work miracles after their deaths and be catalysts to many conversions. Such interactions, that is saints speaking to others after their death, are not explicitly in Scripture, however, so how shall we consider this story?

We recall that in Revelations that there were those who “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they stand before God's throne and worship him day and night” (Rev 7:14-15). But it says later on that “I saw thrones and those who sat on them were entrusted with judgment. I also saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God … They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years [that is, for this Age] … blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first Resurrection. … they will reign with him for [the] thousand years” (Rev 20:4-6).
Prayer to the saints is effective not because the saints have power on their own, but because in their total loss-of-self in martyrdom they were given a share of the throne of Christ in this Age. All of it is for our benefit.

The first thousand years is not a literal time but an expression of forever (or, for the duration of this Age). We remain in this period of the first “thousand years” whereas the new heavens and new earth is the Age-yet-to-come, the Resurrection of the Body. Indeed, while we remain as pilgrims here on earth there were those, as Scripture attests, who sit on thrones with Christ. The ones on thrones are the ones martyred in the name of Christ. That they sit on a throne means they have power, and their power is precisely their intercession with Christ on behalf of all souls on heaven and earth. For it was not Christ himself who converted Basilides, but rather Christ through a young girl who converted him. This story relates that the ever-living martyr did not desire power nor did she seek revenge on her persecutors. Like Christ who proclaims “Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mk 1:15) she called others to do the same. All of us too are called to be witnesses to Christ—some will witness by our lives, others by our deaths.

Martyrs across the whole empire produced this effect. Perhaps one of the most famous martyrologies that has come down to us is the Martyrdom of Polycarp, bishop to the Church in Smyrna (which was a Greek city in Ionia at the time). He was an old man when he was martyred, perhaps 80 or 85 at his death.

This account, however, was written in the 4th century (perhaps 310 AD) while he is believed to have been martyred in the 2nd century around 155 AD). This account has been shown, over time, to not give us any real historical knowledge of Polycarp, but the story itself allows us to see a number of things: (1) the great character of the man written about, (2) the practices concerning such men and women by the faithful, (3) the pride communities took in such examples of their faith. Much of what we get about Polycarp can be gathered from the letter to the Philippians attributed to him, what Ignatius of Antioch says of him in his letter, of various fragments, most notably by his great admirer and fellow bishop Irenaeus of Lyons.

With this being said as an aside, I will select a few quotes that, while not strict history insofar as the exact events described are not historical, they are history insofar as they convey the attitudes of a Christian people. I think you'll see how it correlates with the story above.

Concerning Polycarp's martyrdom it says that the act was “certainly a mark of true and steadfast love, not only to desire one's salvation, but that of all the brethren as well” (Martyrdom, sec. 1).

Those who martyred Polycarp kept his body from those who sought it because “many … were eager to [lay hold of him] and have a share in his holy remains” (Martyrdom, sec. 17). This one indication of relics we have early on, but such an indication also comes from Scripture—that the articles of holy men and women, and that which touched them, had power associated with them. It says “So extraordinary were the might deeds God accomplished at the hands of Paul that when face clothes or aprons that touched his skin were applied to the sick, their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them” (Acts 19:11-12).

The reverence given to and practices concerning the martyrs is encapsulated nicely here: “[We] took up his bones, more precious than costly stones and more excellent than gold, and interred them in a decent place. There the Lord will permit us, as far as possible, to assemble in rapturous joy and celebrate his martyrdom—his birthday—both to commemorate the heroes that have gone before, and to train and prepare the heroes yet to come” (Martyrdom, sec. 18).

Of Polycarp himself it was said “Of the elect the most wonderful Polycarp was certainly one—an apostolic and prophetic teacher in our times, and a bishop of the Catholic Church at Smyrna” (sec. 16).
"Your life among the Gentiles must be beyond reproach; thus by your good example you will win praise for yourselves, and the Lord will not be blasphemed on your account" (Letters to the Philippians, sec. 16).

Next, we shall see how even with such courageous witnesses the Church faced problems as a result of their impact. We'll examine how such difficulties arose and the response, in brief, of the Church.


Links to "The Early Church I: "History, Morality, Being Called Catholic, and the Papacy"

I-1: Prologue and History
I-2: Organization of the Early Church 
I-3: Why are we called "Catholic"?