Christian Martyrdom: Historical Perspectives and Modern Signifigance

Some day, I hope to extend the arguments in this brief response into an account of how Christianity can be viewed as a human practice that is beneficial to the overall group fitness of human societies. In a post-Darwinian world it is important to for the church to explain to the secular world how martyrdom may increase the well being of an entire group, thereby promoting life and happiness. However, I have no doubt that it will be a difficult argument to make.

“The Martyrs of Lyons” and “The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity” share a common goal, as the authors of both texts want to inspire hope in the face of state oppression among the various churches in the Roman Empire.  The intended audiences of the texts are the churches spread throughout the greater Roman Empire.  The texts are examples of martyrology, shared accounts of martyrdom with other members of the church written to build the Christian faith.  For a church facing state persecution, God as presented within scripture promises “truer” life through faithful obedience to the message of the church, rather than to the state.

Eusebius (263-339 A.D.)[1] provided “The Martyrs of Lyons” in Church History, his account of the development of Christianity.  The narrative recounts the persecution endured by the church at Lyons in 177 A.D.[2],[3]  The approximately 150-year gap between the events leading to the martyrdom of members of the church at Lyons and Eusebius’s Church History opens the possibility that the text may or may not provide a first-hand account of the events as the text is recorded in Church History.[4]  Eusebius is not an observer of the events in the narrative but claims to be faithfully reproducing them in a larger account of the evolution of the early church.  The context of Eusebius’s Church History is one of a Christian historian preserving an older document and revealing its place in the larger development of the church.  It is subject to the caveat that the author may edit the content of the greater compilation of narratives in a rhetorical manner.  The identity of the original authors is not provided explicitly by Eusebius in the text but rather is indicated to be members of these communities.

“The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity” mixes primary and secondary person accounts of events occurring at Carthage (c.a. 203 A.D.).[5]  Coakley and Sterk suggest that Tertullian (160-220 A.D.) of Carthage may have been the text editor.[6]  If true, the text contains a close primary account of the reported events.  The text opens and concludes with a secondary account of the primary narratives of Perpetua and Saturus.  The first primary narrative attributed to Perpetua begins with an account of her discussing with her father the decision to recant her Christian faith at the hands of persecutors.  This event suggests that Pertetua is writing in a historical context in which her Christian faith is directly in mortal conflict with the prevailing authorities of Carthage.  Furthermore, her Christian faith is also in direct conflict with the social norms of the times as she asserts her will above her father’s.  The second primary narrative of Saturus is contemporaneous with Pertetua’s.  His Christian faith clashes with the will of the state, but he does not act over and against familial social norms.

“The Martyrs of Lyons” seeks to spread hope in a geographic sense, “The most celebrated churches in that country [Gaul] sent an account of the witness to the churches in Asia and Phrygia….”[7]  This is an account from a single church facing persecution in a remote part of the Roman Empire intended to be transmitted to other churches around the empire.  In contrast, “The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity” seeks to accomplish this same goal in a historical sense as can be clearly illustrated by the statement, “If ancient illustrations of faith [e.g. martyrdom] which both testify to God’s grace and tend to man’s edification are collected in writing … why should not new instances be also collected … if only that these modern examples will one day become ancient and available for posterity….”[8]  An account from a single church facing persecution in one time is transmitted to other churches in future times.  The two texts share the common goal of preserving individuals’ Christian faith during state persecution.  When faced with a choice between God or country, the texts suggest that a faithful Christian should choose God.

The author of “The Martyrs of Lyons” directly references the scriptural narrative of the New Testament to establish the mechanism by which a church member, “a true disciple of Christ,” may receive a truer life by expressing absolute and exclusive faith in the power of God over the authority of the state.[9]  First, by “following the Lamb wherever he goes” (Rev. 14:4), the believer may establish his or her identity as a Christian in the eyes of the church and of God, and in so doing may receive a life in the infinite spirit of God over and above the life of the finite body.[10]  Second, the martyrs of Lyons are presented by the text as paragons of Christian faith.  They do not “fall away” from the church.[11]  God is obeyed over and above country, as the martyrs do not renounce their faith in the face of adversity.  For example, Sanctus’s confession “I am a Christian” leads to his torture by the Roman government.[12]  He follows the Lamb (Christ) to bodily persecution, but as “He continued unbending and unyielding, firm in confession, and refreshed and strengthened by the heavenly fountain of the water of life, flowing from the bowels of Christ,” he receives God’s grace.[13]  A symbolic eating of Christ leads to transcendence of his human life towards a fuller life in communion with the spirit of God.  Third, the text draws a parallel between the sacrifices of the martyrs of Lyons and the sacrifice of Christ and his subsequent resurrection.  That “Blandina was suspended on a stake,” appearing “as if hanging on a cross,” suggests that a direct life-giving relationship exists between the martyrs and God as Christ to the Father through “him [Christ] who was crucified for them.”[14]  The text references scripture, “He that is lawless, let him be lawless still, and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still” (Rev. 22:11), suggesting that God will reward the faithful and just martyrs who are suffering at the hands of an unjust Roman governor and people with eternal life.[15]

The author of “The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity” appeals to the Old Testament to affirm the reality of continuous revelation from God promising salvation: “In the last of days, says the Lord, I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh; and their sons and their daughters shall prophecy.  And upon my servants and my handmaidens will I pour out my Spirit; and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams” (Joel 2:28-29).[16]  The text affirms a divine-human relationship, as martyrs express an absolute faith in the message of the church over the state when mortally threatened by the state and are rewarded with a truer life in union of God.  First, the author seemingly believing in the imminence of the end times affirms the veracity of Perpetua’s and Saturus’s visions as prophetic indications of God’s “grace manifested to the final periods determined for the world.”[17]  Parallel to “The Martyrs of Lyons,” an alimentary metaphor, “cheese” from Christ as a reward for climbing a torturous ladder to heaven, is employed to indicate that the Spirit transforms faithful human life into a fuller life in communion with God.[18]  Second, the text affirms that being a Christian is a sole and total identity to the potential exclusion of any mortal allegiance to any part of creation.  Perpetua renounces her ties to the will of the state and her family placing her life at the will of God and following her vision of a ladder to Christ: “On that scaffold whatever God wills shall happen.  For know that we are not placed in our own power, but in that of God.”[19]  Third, in Saturus’s prophetic account of martyrdom the significance of bodily death of the faithful is negated into a fuller life in God: “We were gone forth from the flesh, and we were beginning to be borne by four angels into the east” towards “a hoary man sitting, having snow white hair and with a youthful countenance.”[20]  In so doing, Saturus’s vision appeals to the symmetry between a divine being in his vision and the appearance of Christ in the Revelation of John.  Similar to “The Martyrs of Lyons,” the text suggests the martyrs will be granted justice and infinite life through analogy to the apocalyptic narrative of the Revelation of John.

The central argument in both texts is that God promises “truer” life through faithful obedience to the message of the church rather than to the state.  The argument is made at a time when the church is subject to the authority of a state government with an investment in the teachings of a competing religious system.  By renouncing the rituals and professions of a state religious system, faithful Christians are renouncing the civic authority of the state over their lives.  For example, the martyrs of Lyons “had been pressed to swear by the idols” and refused resulting in their persecution.[21]  This greater issue was an ever-present reality in the Roman Empire until the toleration of Christianity that resulted from the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D. by Constantine.[22]  Today, as a United States citizen living in a society with a government that protects religious freedom, the martyrs’ true spiritual potency to inspire hope in the face of oppression is to an extent not well understood, as I cannot directly empathize with the fate of the martyrs.  However, for a Christian living in present day oppressive societies, the stories of martyrs still remain potent symbols of hope.  Their lives are forever memorialized as examples of human courage to live in the face of imminent death.  To peoples in both religiously oppressive and tolerant societies, these two texts help readers to better understand how the saints of old resolved the paradox of the Christian faith, how do the faithful obey the Law of God (e.g. “You shall not murder” (Ex. 20:13)) while following Christ’s teachings that, if followed perfectly, may lead to bodily death.

[1] Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (New York: Penguin Books, 2009), 1136.

[2] John W. Coakley and Andrea Sterk, eds., Readings in World Christian History Volume I: Earliest Christianity to 1453 (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2004), 24.

[3] MacCulloch, 143.

[4] Coakley and Sterk, 24.

[5] Ibid., 30.

[6] MacCulloch, 1178.

[7] Coakley and Sterk, 24-25.

[8] Ibid., 30.

[9] Ibid., 25.

[10] Ibid., 25.

[11] Ibid., 26.

[12] Ibid., 26.

[13] Ibid., 26.

[14] Ibid., 28.

[15] Ibid., 29.

[16] Ibid., 30-31.

[17] Ibid., 30.

[18] Ibid., 32.

[19] Ibid., 32.

[20] Ibid., 34.

[21] Coakley and Sterk, 29.

[22] MacCulloch, 220.

Notes:  Improve the last paragraph by extending on what I mean by the statement, “To peoples in both religiously oppressive and tolerant societies, these two texts help readers to better understand how the saints of old resolved the paradox of the Christian faith, how do the faithful obey the Law of God (e.g. “You shall not murder” (Ex. 20:13)) while following Christ’s teachings that, if followed perfectly, may lead to bodily death.”  Address the following questions more completely in future blog posts:

Why is it important for the church to maintain paradox within official doctrine?

How are the saints of the church relevant to all members of human society in the 21st century?

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About kayaerbil

I am a Berkeley educated chemistry Ph.D. who is moving into the area of working on developing appropriate technology for communities that are subjected to socio-economic oppression. The goal is to use simple and effective designs to empower people to live better lives. Currently, I am working with Native Americans on Pine Ridge, the Lakota reservation in South Dakota. I am working with a Native owned and run solar energy company. We are currently working on building a compressed earth block (CEB) house that showcases many of the technologies that the company has developed. The CEB house is made of locally derived resources, earth from the reservation. The blocks are naturally thermally insulating, keeping the house cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Eventually, a solar air heater and photovoltaic panels will be installed into the house to power the home and keep it warm, while preserving the house off the grid. A side project while in Pine Ridge is a solar computer. I hope to learn about blockchain encryption software for building microgrids. In addition, it is an immediate interest of mine to involve local youth in technology education.
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