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§ 26. Christian Martyrdom.

I. Sources.

Ignatius: Epistolae. Martyrum Polycarpi. Tertullian: Ad Martyres. Origenes: Exhortatio ad martyrium (προτρεπτικοʹς Λόγος εἷς μαρτύπιον.) Cyprian: Ep. 11 ad mart. Prudentius: Περιʹ στεφάωνʹhymni XIV. Comp. Lit. § 12.

II. Works.

Sagittarius: De mart. cruciatibus, 1696.

H. Dodwell: De paucitate martyrum, in his Dissertationes Cyprianiae. Lond. 1684.

Ruinart (R.C.): Praefatio generalis in Acta Martyrum.

P. W. Gass: Das christl. Märtyrerthum in den ersten Jahrhunderten, in Niedner’s "Zeitschrift f. Hist. Theol." 1859 and ’60.

E. de Pressensé: The Martyrs and Apologists. Translated from the French. London and N. Y. 1871. (Ch. II. p. 67 sqq.).

Chateaubriand: Les martyrs ou le triomphe de la rel. chrét. 2 vols. Paris 1809 and often (best Engl. trsl. by O W. Wight, N. York, 1859.) Has no critical or historical value, but merely poetical.

Comp. in part Mrs. Jameson: Sacred and Legendary Art. Lond. 1848. 2 vols.

To these protracted and cruel persecutions the church opposed no revolutionary violence, no carnal resistance, but the moral heroism of suffering and dying for the truth. But this very heroism was her fairest ornament and staunchest weapon. In this very heroism she proved herself worthy of her divine founder, who submitted to the death of the cross for the salvation of the world, and even prayed that his murderers might be forgiven. The patriotic virtues of Greek and Roman antiquity reproduced themselves here in exalted form, in self-denial for the sake of a heavenly country, and for a crown that fadeth not away. Even boys and girls became heroes, and rushed with a holy enthusiasm to death. In those hard times men had to make earnest of the words of the Lord: "Whosoever doth not bear his cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple." "He, that loveth father and mother more than me, is not worthy of me." But then also the promise daily proved itself true: "Blessed are they, who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." "He, that loseth his life for my sake, shall find it." And it applied not only to the martyrs themselves, who exchanged the troubled life of earth for the blessedness of heaven, but also to the church as a whole, which came forth purer and stronger from every persecution, and thus attested her indestructible vitality.

These suffering virtues are among the sweetest and noblest fruits of the Christian religion. It is not so much the amount of suffering which challenges our admiration, although it was terrible enough, as the spirit with which the early Christians bore it. Men and women of all classes, noble senators and learned bishops, illiterate artisans and poor slaves, loving mothers and delicate virgins, hoary-headed pastors and innocent children approached their tortures in no temper of unfeeling indifference and obstinate defiance, but, like their divine Master, with calm self-possession, humble resignation, gentle meekness, cheerful faith, triumphant hope, and forgiving charity. Such spectacles must have often overcome even the inhuman murderer. "Go on," says Tertullian tauntingly to the heathen governors, "rack, torture, grind us to powder: our numbers increase in proportion as ye mow us down. The blood of Christians is their harvest seed. Your very obstinacy is a teacher. For who is not incited by the contemplation of it to inquire what there is in the core of the matter? And who, after having joined us, does not long to suffer?"6060    Comp. a similar passage in the anonymous Ep. ad Diognetum, c. 6 and 7 at the close, and in Justin M., Dial .c. Tryph. Jud. c. 110.9

Unquestionably there were also during this period, especially after considerable seasons of quiet, many superficial or hypocritical Christians, who, the moment the storm of persecution broke forth, flew like chaff from the wheat, and either offered incense to the gods (thurificati, sacrificati), or procured false witness of their return to paganism (libellatici, from libellum), or gave up the sacred books (traditores). Tertullian relates with righteous indignation that whole congregations, with the clergy at the head, would at times resort to dishonorable bribes in order to avert the persecution of heathen magistrates.6161    De fuga in persec. c. 13: "Massaliter totae ecclesiae tributum sibi irrogaverunt."0 But these were certainly cases of rare exception. Generally speaking the three sorts of apostates (lapsi) were at once excommunicated, and in many churches, through excessive rigor, were even refused restoration.

Those who cheerfully confessed Christ before the heathen magistrate at the peril of life, but were not executed, were honored as confessors.6262    Ὁμολογήται, confessores, Matt. 10:32; 1 Tim. 6:12.1 Those who suffered abuse of all kind and death itself, for their faith, were called martyrs or bloodwitnesses.6363    Μάρτυρες, Acts 22:20; Heb. 12:1; 1 Pet. 5:1; Rev. 17:6.2

Among these confessors and martyrs were not wanting those in whom the pure, quiet flame of enthusiasm rose into the wild fire of fanaticism, and whose zeal was corrupted with impatient haste, heaven-tempting presumption, and pious ambition; to whom that word could be applied: "Though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing." They delivered themselves up to the heathen officers, and in every way sought the martyr’s crown, that they might merit heaven and be venerated on earth as saints. Thus Tertullian tells of a company of Christians in Ephesus, who begged martyrdom from the heathen governor, but after a few had been executed, the rest were sent away by him with the words: "Miserable creatures, if you really wish to die, you have precipices and halters enough." Though this error was far less discreditable than the opposite extreme of the cowardly fear of man, yet it was contrary to the instruction and the example of Christ and the apostles,6464    Comp. Matt. 10:23; 24:15-20; Phil. 1:20-25; 2 Tim. 4:6-8.3 and to the spirit of true martyrdom, which consists in the union of sincere humility and power, and possesses divine strength in the very consciousness of human weakness. And accordingly intelligent church teachers censured this stormy, morbid zeal. The church of Smyrna speaks thus: "We do not commend those who expose themselves; for the gospel teaches not so." Clement of Alexandria says: "The Lord himself has commanded us to flee to another city when we are persecuted; not as if the persecution were an evil; not as if we feared death; but that we may not lead or help any to evil doing." In Tertullian’s view martyrdom perfects itself in divine patience; and with Cyprian it is a gift of divine grace, which one cannot hastily grasp, but must patiently wait for.

But after all due allowance for such adulteration and degeneracy, the martyrdom of the first three centuries still remains one of the grandest phenomena of history, and an evidence of the indestructible divine nature of Christianity.

No other religion could have stood for so long a period the combined opposition of Jewish bigotry, Greek philosophy, and Roman policy and power; no other could have triumphed at last over so many foes by purely moral and spiritual force, without calling any carnal weapons to its aid. This comprehensive and long-continued martyrdom is the peculiar crown and glory of the early church; it pervaded its entire literature and gave it a predominantly apologetic character; it entered deeply into its organization and discipline and the development of Christian doctrine; it affected the public worship and private devotions; it produced a legendary poetry; but it gave rise also, innocently, to a great deal of superstition, and undue exaltation of human merit; and it lies at the foundation of the Catholic worship of saints and relics.

Sceptical writers have endeavored to diminish its moral effect by pointing to the fiendish and hellish scenes of the papal crusades against the Albigenses and Waldenses, the Parisian massacre of the Huguenots, the Spanish Inquisition, and other persecutions of more recent date. Dodwell expressed the opinion, which has been recently confirmed by the high authority of the learned and impartial Niebuhr, that the Diocletian persecution was a mere shadow as compared with the persecution of the Protestants in the Netherlands by the Duke of Alva in the service of Spanish bigotry and despotism. Gibbon goes even further, and boldly asserts that "the number of Protestants who were executed by the Spaniards in a single province and a single reign, far exceeded that of the primitive martyrs in the space of three centuries and of the Roman empire." The victims of the Spanish Inquisition also are said to outnumber those of the Roman emperors.6565    The number of Dutch martyrs under the Duke of Alva amounted, according to Grotius, to over 100,000; according to P. Sarpi, the R. Cath. historian, to 50,000. Motley, in his History of the Rim of the Dutch Republic, vol. II. 504, says of the terrible reign of Alva: "The barbarities committed amid the sack and ruin of those blazing and starving cities are almost beyond belief; unborn infants were torn from the living bodies of their mothers; women and children were violated by the thousands; and whole populations burned and hacked to pieces by soldiers in every mode which cruelty, in its wanton ingenuity, could devise." Buckle and Friedländer (III. 586) assert that during the eighteen years of office of Torquemada, the Spanish Inquisition punished, according to the lowest estimate, 105,000 persons, among whom 8,800 were burnt. In Andalusia 2000 Jews were executed, and 17,000 punished in a single year.4

Admitting these sad facts, they do not justify any sceptical conclusion. For Christianity is no more responsible for the crimes and cruelties perpetrated in its name by unworthy professors and under the sanction of an unholy alliance of politics and religion, than the Bible for all the nonsense men have put into it, or God for the abuse daily and hourly practised with his best gifts. But the number of martyrs must be judged by the total number of Christians who were a minority of the population. The want of particular statements by contemporary writers leaves it impossible to ascertain, even approximately, the number of martyrs. Dodwell and Gibbon have certainly underrated it, as far as Eusebius, the popular tradition since Constantine, and the legendary poesy of the middle age, have erred the other way. This is the result of recent discovery and investigation, and fully admitted by such writers as Renan. Origen, it is true, wrote in the middle of the third century, that the number of Christian martyrs was small and easy to be counted; God not permitting that all this class of men should be exterminated.6666    Ὀλίγοι κατὰ καιροὺς καὶ σφόδρα εὐαρίθμητοι τεθνήκασι.. Adv. Cels. III. 8 The older testimony of Melito of Sardis, in the well-known fragment from his Apology, preserved by Eusebius IV. 26, refers merely to the small number of imperial persecutors before Marcus Aurelius.5 But this language must be understood as referring chiefly to the reigns of Caracalla, Heliogabalus, Alexander Severus and Philippus Arabs, who did not persecute the Christians. Soon afterwards the fearful persecution of Decius broke out, in which Origen himself was thrown into prison and cruelly treated. Concerning the preceding ages, his statement must be qualified by the equally valid testimonies of Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria (Origen’s teacher), and the still older Irenaeus, who says expressly, that the church, for her love to God, "sends in all places and at all times a multitude of martyrs to the Father."6767    Adv. Haer. IV. c. 33, § 9: Ecclesia omni in loco ob eam, quam habet erga Deum dilectionem, multitudinem martyrum in omni tempore praemittit ad Patrem.6 Even the heathen Tacitus speaks of an "immense multitude" (ingens multitudo) of Christians, who were murdered in the city of Rome alone during the Neronian persecution in 64. To this must be added the silent, yet most eloquent testimony of the Roman catacombs, which, according to the calculation of Marchi and Northcote, extended over nine hundred English miles, and are said to contain nearly seven millions of graves, a large proportion of these including the relics of martyrs, as the innumerable inscriptions and instruments of death testify. The sufferings, moreover, of the church during this period are of course not to be measured merely by the number of actual executions, but by the far more numerous insults, slanders, vexatious, and tortures, which the cruelty of heartless heathens and barbarians could devise, or any sort of instrument could inflict on the human body, and which were in a thousand cases worse than death.

Finally, while the Christian religion has at all times suffered more or less persecution, bloody or unbloody, from the ungodly world, and always had its witnesses ready for any sacrifice; yet at no period since the first three centuries was the whole church denied the right of a peaceful legal existence, and the profession of Christianity itself universally declared and punished as a political crime. Before Constantine the Christians were a helpless and proscribed minority in an essentially heathen world, and under a heathen government. Then they died not simply for particular doctrines, but for the facts of Christianity. Then it was a conflict, not for a denomination or sect, but for Christianity itself. The importance of ancient martyrdom does not rest so much on the number of victims and the cruelty of their sufferings as on the great antithesis and the ultimate result in saving the Christian religion for all time to come. Hence the first three centuries are the classical period of heathen persecution and of Christian martyrdom. The martyrs and confessors of the ante-Nicene age suffered for the common cause of all Christian denominations and sects, and hence are justly held in reverence and gratitude by all.


Dr. Thomas Arnold, who had no leaning to superstitious and idolatrous saint-worship, in speaking of a visit to the church of San Stefano at Rome, remarks: "No doubt many of the particular stories thus painted will bear no critical examination; it is likely enough, too, that Gibbon has truly accused the general statements of exaggeration. But this is a thankless labor. Divide the sum total of the reported martyrs by twenty—by fifty, if you will; after all you have a number of persons of all ages and sexes suffering cruel torment and death for conscience’ sake, and for Christ’s; and by their sufferings manifestly with God’s blessing ensuring the triumph of Christ’s gospel. Neither do I think that we consider the excellence of this martyr spirit half enough. I do not think that pleasure is a sin; but though pleasure is not a sin, yet surely the contemplation of suffering for Christ’s sake is a thing most needful for us in our days, from whom in our daily life suffering seems so far removed. And as God’s grace enabled rich and delicate persons, women and even children, to endure all extremities of pain and reproach, in times past; so there is the same grace no less mighty now; and if we do not close ourselves against it, it might be in us no less glorious in a time of trial."

Lecky, a very able and impartial historian, justly censures the unfeeling chapter of Gibbon on persecution. "The complete absence," he says (History of European Morals, I. 494 sqq.), "of all sympathy with the heroic courage manifested by the martyrs, and the frigid, and in truth most unphilosophical severity with which the historian has weighed the words and actions of men engaged in the agonies of a deadly, struggle, must repel every generous nature, while the persistence with which he estimates persecutions by the number of deaths rather than the amount of suffering, diverts the mind from the really distinctive atrocities of the Pagan persecutions .... It is true that in one Catholic country they introduced the atrocious custom of making the spectacle of men burnt alive for their religious opinions an element in the public festivities. It is true, too, that the immense majority of the acts of the martyrs are the transparent forgeries of lying monks; but it is also true that among the authentic records of Pagan persecutions there are histories, which display, perhaps more vividly than any other, both the depth of cruelty to which human nature may sink, and the heroism of resistance it may attain. There was a time when it was the just boast of the Romans, that no refinement of cruelty, no prolongations of torture, were admitted in their stern but simple penal code. But all this was changed. Those hateful games, which made the spectacle of human suffering and death the delight of all classes, had spread their brutalising influence wherever the Roman name was known, had rendered millions absolutely indifferent to the sight of human suffering, had produced in many, in the very centre of an advanced civilisation, a relish and a passion for torture, a rapture and an exultation in watching the spasms of extreme agony, such as an African or an American savage alone can equal. The most horrible recorded instances of torture were usually inflicted, either by the populace, or in their presence, in the arena. We read of Christians bound in chains of red-hot iron, while the stench of their half-consumed flesh rose in a suffocating cloud to heaven; of others who were torn to the very bone by, shells or hooks of iron; of holy virgins given over to the lust of the gladiator or to the mercies of the pander; of two hundred and twenty-seven converts sent on one occasion to the mines, each with the sinews of one leg severed by a red-hot iron, and with an eye scooped from its socket; of fires so slow that the victims writhed for hours in their agonies; of bodies torn limb from limb, or sprinkled with burning lead; of mingled salt and vinegar poured over the flesh that was bleeding from the rack; of tortures prolonged and varied through entire days. For the love of their Divine Master, for the cause they believed to be true, men, and even weak girls, endured these things without flinching, when one word would have freed them from their sufferings, No opinion we may form of the proceedings of priests in a later age should impair the reverence with which we bend before the martyr’s tomb.

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