THE AGE OF THE MARTYRS
In Greek, the word 'martyr' means simply 'witness', but in Christian usage, the term soon came to denote specifically someone who - like Christ - had borne witness to his or her faith by suffering or dying for it. Just as Christ had 'drawn all men' to himself by being crucified, so the martyrs of the early Church proclaimed the reality of God in their lives, and summoned others into fellowship with Christ, by enduring faithfully to the end whatever violence their beliefs provoked from others.
The earliest Christian martyrs, such as Stephen and the Apostle James, died at the hands of their fellow Jews, who condemned them as corrupters of the faith of Abraham. Both were stoned to death, in 34 and 62 respectively.The great majority of martyrs, however, were victims of pagan persecution. At first, of course, the Roman authorities could scarcely be expected to distinguish Christians from other Jews, and Judaism was tolerated by Rome (for the most part) on the grounds that its beliefs and practices could boast so great an antiquity. Many Romans may not have cared for the God of the Jews or for the exclusive devotion he demanded of his worshippers, but they recognized at the same time that his ordinances and the traditions attached to them were ancient and venerable.
Accordingly, Jews were exempted from the requirement — which was incumbent upon all other subject peoples — of honouring the gods of the empire, venerating the genius (the divine spirit) of the emperor or offering up prayers to the gods for the empire's welfare.
The First Pagan Persecutions
However, as the Christians developed into a separate community, deracinated from the synagogue and made up of Jews and Gentiles alike, they gradually lost the protection of Judaism's legal immunity. Moreover, pagan culture became conscious of Christianity as a distinct religion, one whose creed was new and therefore, in all likelihood, invalid. In Roman eyes, given the secretiveness of this new faith and the eccentricities of the religious language that its adherents sometimes employed, there was every reason to suspect Christians of depraved practices.
("SECRETIVENESS" - NOT SO; ONE ROMAN AUTHORITY ONCE SAID, "THEY THAT TURN THE WORLD UP-SIDE-DOWN" - THERE WAS NO "SECRET" ANYTHING WITH THE TRUE FOLLOWERS OF CHRIST - Keith Hunt)
The first systematic persecution of Christians occurred in Rome in 64, after a great fire had consumed a large part of the city. The emperor Nero found it convenient to lay the blame for the blaze on this small, peculiar cult, which had already aroused popular suspicion; according to the historical records, a large number of Christians (though it is hard to say how large) was arrested and put to death, often in quite spectacular and sadistic fashion. Nero's purge, however, was little more than an impromptu massacre; as far as we can tell, it did not herald a new imperial policy of systematic persecution. Nonetheless, it did establish in principle that the Christians could claim no
['My dear Pliny, you have done as you ought in examming the cases of these people who were charged with being Christian. It is impossible to lay down a general rule will which to dictate a specific course of action. They must be hunted down; if they are brought before you aznd the case is proven they must be punished; if, however somone should deny that he is a Christian, and make it clear that he is not by making sacrifice to our gods, although that pertson may have been suspected in the past, he should be pardoned for repentance. Pamphlets posted without a name of an author must play no past in any accusation. They create the worst sort of precedent and are out of keeping with the spirit of our age.' Trajan, Writing to Pliny the Younger]
legal protection for their practices, and thus that the refusal of Christians to make proper offerings in honour of the emperor or of the empire's gods could be treated as a criminal and seditious dereliction of civic duty. It was not long, therefore, before professing Christianity officially became a capital offence.
Persecutions, however, were only sporadic. Local magistrates usually had to be stirred to action, by some discontent among the non-Christian population, or by some misfortune or sign of divine disfavour that could plausibly be attributed to the impiety of the Christians. A particularly revealing picture of the Christians' position in the early second century — usually uneventful, occasionally terrible but always precarious — emerges from a letter written to the emperor Trajan by the Roman writer and administrator Pliny the Younger during his tenure as governor of Bithynia (111—13). Pliny reports that recently, in response to complaints against Christians in his jurisdiction (at Amastris on the Black Sea coast), he has conducted trials of those denounced and exacted punishments; but he still craves advice on how to proceed. He confesses his uncertainty regarding which offences ought to be investigated or punished, whether any distinctions should be made among the accused on account of their age, whether one who has repented of his Christianity should be spared, and whether it is enough that one bear the name of Christian — without any other offence — for him to merit the full penalty of death under the law.
This is not to say, however, that Pliny felt any need to wait upon the emperor's instructions. He goes on report that he has interrogated many of those who have been denounced to him as Christians. Those who have confessed he has had interrogated twice more, attempting to dissuade them from their convictions with threats. Those who have proved intransigent, however, he has had put to death, on the grounds that their sheer obstinacy was sufficient warrant for the sentence. Christians who are also Roman citizens, whom he is prevented by law from trying and sentencing himself, he has sent on to Rome. Unfortunately, he says, as word of these proceedings spread, accusations multiplied, in many cases anonymously. Those who denied the accusations, or denied still being Christians, proved their sincerity by offering prayers, incense and wine to the emperor's image and, in some cases, by cursing Christ. In the course of his investigations, Pliny reports, he has discovered that Christian 'depravity' consists in no more than gathering for a weekly dawn meeting, singing hymns to Christ 'as to a god', vowing never to commit fraud, adultery, or breach of trust, and sharing an ordinary meal. To verify this, Pliny has had two female slaves — deaconesses — tortured, and has indeed found nothing more deplorable than an excess of superstition.
[An artist's impression of the martyrdom of a group of Christians in the Roman Colosseum. This vast arena, built by the emperor Vespasian in 79, was the scene not only of gladiatorial combats but also the execution for public entertainment of criminals and other 'undesirables'. A favourite method of killing was 'exposure to the beasts']
In his reply to Pliny, Trajan applauds his governor's methods. He only enjoins that Christians should not be sought out, that those who are accused and found guilty should be punished as prescribed — unless they repent and prove their contrition with offerings to the gods — and that anonymous accusations should be ignored. The patent harmlessness of Christian practices apparently did not impress him.
Not all persecutions, however, were local in nature. During the third century a.d. a number of imperial campaigns to exterminate the Church arose and subsided, sometimes doing considerable damage to the faith, but ultimately leaving it stronger than it had been before. In 235, for instance, the emperor Maximinus Thrax made an abortive attempt to uproot the Church; in 250, the emperor Decius issued an edict requiring every citizen to make a token sacrifice at a pagan altar before an official witness, which led to the execution of certain prominent Christians who defied the law; in 257, the emperor Valerian renewed the persecution, more ferociously, and among its victims were the great bishop of Carthage, Cyprian (200-58), and bishop Sixtus II of Rome (d.258). The actual number of martyrs was not enormous, but their example impressed itself deeply upon the consciousness of the Church.
More importantly, while many Christians may have been terrified into recanting their beliefs, the faith of other Christians was actually strengthened by their tribulations. At almost the same time that Pliny was trying the Christians of Bithynia, Ignatius of Antioch was on his way to Rome, where he would face torture and execution. In the letters he wrote in transit to various church communities, Ignatius treats his impending sufferings and death as a participation in Christ's Passion, and as a way to deeper union with his Lord; he even implores his friends not to make any effort to save him from his fate, but rather to pray that he will be able to face his death with serene resolve. In the end, the willingness of Christians to die for Christ won them a reputation not only for stubbornness, but also for their courage and purity of spirit.
As the influential North African Christian theologian and apologist Tertullian of Carthage (c.l55-c.230) succinctly expressed it:
'The more you mow us down, the more we grow. The bood of the
martyrs is the seed of the Church.'
THE DEATH OF POLYCARP
Polycarp, the revered bishop of Smyrna in Asia Minor (modern Turkey), was a contemporary and friend of Ignatius of Antioch. Born in 69, he became a vehement critic of aberrant strains of Christianity that denied the reality of Christ's physical body (the Docetists). Polycarp was also an influential champion of the theology and writings of St Paul. And he was a man of irreproachable character.
When he was well advanced in years (86, according to tradition), he was arrested along with a great many other Christians in Smyrna. The imperial proconsul demanded that Polycarp renounce his faith and make his sacrifice to the genius of Caesar. When he refused to do so, he was burned to death.
A somewhat embellished account of his death survives under the title The Martyrdom of Polycarp. The version we possess is not the earliest, but even so it is an excellent example of a genre that flourished in the early Church: edifying narratives of the deaths of heroes and heroines of the faith.
According to The Martyrdom, Polycarp was brought into the city's stadium, where many other Christians had already perished. The proconsul threatened the old man both with wild beasts and fire, but was unable to persuade Polycarp to renounce Christ, to swear by the emperor's genius, or to exhort others to turn from the faith. Polycarp was sentenced to the stake. When the old man mounted the pyre he prayed to God, thanking him for his many mercies and blessings, and especially for the honour of being allowed to die for Christ.
The Martyrdom also claims that the flames seemed to rise about Polycarp like a billowing sail, and that he stood in the midst of them like gold or silver being refined in a crucible, and that a fragrance like that of frankincense wafted from the pyre. When it became apparent that the fire would not kill him, the executioner was obliged to thrust a dagger into him, whereupon so great a quantity of blood flowed from his body that the flames were extinguished.
Colourful tales aside, it is profoundly ironic that repeated attempts to eradicate the Church - even by the cruellest of methods - only succeeded in generating a Christian literature completely suffused by a spirit of triumph.
WHAT THE AUTHOR DOES NOT TELL YOU IS THAT POLYCARP WAS A DISCIPLE OF JOHN. THE AUTHOR DOES NOT TELL YOU THAT POLYCARP WAS FROM ASIA MINOR [PAUL DID MUST OF HIS WORK THERE] AND THAT HE TRAVELLED TO ROME, TO DEBATE WHAT IS RECORDED IN HISTORY AS THE "QUARTODECIMIN CONTROVERSY" - HE DEBATED IT WITH THE BISHOP OF ROME. ROME HAD BY THIS TIME ADOPTED THE "EASTER" TRADITION FROM THE PAGANS. POLYCARP SAID HE WAS TAUGHT BY JOHN THAT THE REMEMBRANCE OF THE DEATH OF CHRIST SHOULD BE THE PASSOVER, AND USING THE HEBREW CALENDAR. CHURCH HISTORY RECORDS THAT BY THE TIME OF POLYCARP THE ROMAN CHURCH HAD ACCEPTED AND ADOPTED SUNDAY AND EASTER FROM THE PAGANS, PARTLY TO DIFFERENTIATE THEMSELVES FROM THE JEWS, AND PARTLY TO MAKE IT EASIER FOR PAGANS TO ENTER THE CHURCH.
THE DISCIPLE OF POLYCARP WAS POLYCRATES WHO LATER ALSO DEBATED WITH THE BISHOP OF ROME OVER WHEN TO OBSERVE THE DEATH OF CHRIST.
THIS IS ALL RECORDED IN THE ROMAN CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA.
UP TO THE END OF THE SECOND CENTURY THE CHURCHES OF ASIA MINOR STILL ACKNOWLEDGED THE CHURCH AT ROME AS BROTHER IN CHRIST, BUT BROTHERS WHO HAD GONE ASTRAY FROM THE FAITH ONCE DELIVERED TO THE SAINTS.