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from jesus to christ - the first christians

The Martyrs

Treated as criminals in the second and third centuries, the early Christians were subject to empire-wide persecution.

Wayne A. Meeks:

Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies Yale University


After a long period in which the persecutions of Christianity were really spasmodic, local, [and] involved very few people, suddenly in the middle of the 3rd century, the year 250, the Emperor Decius decides that Christians are a real enemy of the Roman order, that they must be dealt with empire-wide, with all the police power that the emperor can bring to bear upon them. And he issues a decree that everyone has to sacrifice to the Roman gods and they must produce a certificate signed by a Roman official that they have done so. Why did this happen? Clearly, one of the things which this indicates is that Christianity, which begins with such tiny groups, scattered in various cities across the empire, have become numerous, they have become a significant segment of the population in many places. There is some evidence that in many towns in North Africa, the[y] may actually be a majority already. So they have come forcibly to the attention of the Emperor. At the same time, it clearly indicates that that counter-cultural tendency, which was one aspect of the self-understanding of Christians, from the very beginning..., they are the ones who worship, as Son of God, one who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, a Roman governor. This counter-cultural implication of their most fundamental beliefs still remains, and the Emperor has recognized this counter-cultural tendency and says, "This is dangerous - we can't have this large a group, which by the way, is also very highly organized, and, unlike other religious communities, is organized not just on a local basis, but is organized on an empire-wide basis. Something has to be done about it...."

So, the Romans bring to bear all the power they have at their disposal. They say, "All right, let's hit the leaders. Let's find these bishops and bring them into court and force them to recant, and if they won't, we'll eliminate them."And so you have bishops fleeing to the countryside and you have others being martyred. You have ordinary people, for the first time, being rounded up, forced to sacrifice, or if they can buy a forgedcertificate of of sacrifice. There's some of those which have actually survived. And the odd thing is it fails.... The net effect of this is that a new cult of the martyrs appears in Christianity, which strengthens the the church, which feeds on anti-government sentiment in many segments of the empire, - those remote geographical areas distant from Rome which have always been suspicious of Rome. This simply brings those into the Christian fold and in many ways, it backfires. So the Decian persecution is very short-lived....

What else was going on at the empire at the time of the persecutions?

At the time of the major empire-wide persecution, under the Emperor Decius, you have to realize, this is also a time when the Emperor's feeling under great pressure. The middle of the 3rd century is often time identified as a crisis in the Roman Empire. There is a lot of internal dissension, there is a lot of what Ramsey MacMullen has identified as sheer corruption in the aristocracy, from the Emperor down. There is a sense that we are being besieged on the borders, that the barbarians may be coming in at any moment, the Persians are dangerous, the Germans are dangerous and so on. There's a great sense that anything that upsets this ancient contract between the Romans and the gods has got to be dangerous to us.... This is one of the factors which must be feeding into the sense of the crisis, expressed in the persecution against the church....


Why were Christians persecuted?

Why were the Christians persecuted? This is one of the great questions which is passed down. One thing we have to remember is that the old Hollywood view of Christianity as kind of an underground persecuted society that skulks around in catacombs for three centuries before they finally emerge after Constantine's conversion, clearly cannot be true. ... Before [the year 250], we hear only rarely and locally of persecution of Christians, which is small scale and often times, has purely local kinds of causes, I think. But the question remains, since the things we see them doing seem fairly innocuous, at least to our eyes, why did people persecute them? Where did the suspicion arise that they did all kinds of dangerous anti-social things like cannibalism and incestuous sexual relations, orgies, this sort of thing? They're different. They are a people that, in a way, declare their boundaries over against the larger society by their very rituals that lead to conversion - turning away from the gods and turning to the one God, living and true, as Paul puts it in his First Letter of the Thessalonians. That means that they are not going to participate in a great many of not only the religious, but the civic functions, which emerged in the ordinary society of a Roman or Greek city. This is bound to arouse suspicion. Why do the Christians not participate in these rituals that are necessary to maintain the relationship between our society and the gods?

Paula Fredriksen:

William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture, Boston University


One of the most amazing documents historians of early Christianity are privileged to have is the prison diary of a young woman who was martyred in the year 202 or 203 in Carthage, as part of a civic celebration. Her name is Perpetua. And she insisted on being killed. It's an amazing, complicated story. The diary is in kind of a sandwich. The editor introduces the story, then there's the authentic diary of Perpetua, and then there are editorial conclusions, at the end.

Perpetua has brought herself to the attention of the governor. And she is really insisting on being put into the arena. There's an incredibly powerful trial scene where Perpetua's father is pleading with her and, finally, actually trying to beat her. And the Governor has him subdued by his soldiers. And the governor says, "Please, won't you cooperate?" And Perpetua, who's not even a baptized Christian, who's still catechumen, says, "No, I'm a Christian." Now, there's no dragnet out for Christians. Perpetua is visited by other Christians in prison. If the governor were trying to get all the Christians in Carthage, he just could have arrested whoever is going to visit Perpetua. But he doesn't. She's what one historian has called an overachiever in a sense. She's insisting on being martyred as part of her Christian witness. She gives her baby back over to her family, because she's still nursing. And she talks about this. And she's really insisting on being martyred because she says, and we have to believe her, this is the only word we have from her, because in so doing, she will get to God through Jesus....

The authentic diary ends before Perpetua is led into the arena. What we have concluding the diary is a description by somebody who is presenting a hero tale. The majority of Christians were not volunteering to be martyred. For one thing, there wouldn't have been an audience for these martyr stories. For another thing, we have doctrinally, the evolution of penance as a way to reincorporate Christians who lapse in the face of persecution. So Perpetua is really being preserved by her community as a role model. She marks off the heroic limit against which other Christians can measure themselves. She's led out to the arena. She, with heroic chastity, faces down the animals and gladiators, and finally, after being tormented by several animals, a young gladiator is sent into the arena to dispatch her. And it's just an incredibly moving scene; his hand is trembling so much he can't cut her. And she grabs his hand and guides his sword to her own throat. It's a kind of assisted suicide....

There are other people members who are members of her community and the person who draws me the most is a slave girl who's also part of this group. Her name is Felicitas. She is in an advanced stage of pregnancy when the group is in prison. And, they all pray around her so that she is delivered of her baby just before going into the arena. And she's also killed with this group....

There's an intense sense of community that binds together these people who are insisting on being martyred. They take care of each other. There is a very affecting scene of Perpetua and Felicitas helping... arrange each other's clothes so they're not exposed after they've been jostled by these animals. And finally they say good-bye to each other in this life with the kiss of peace.


What's the legal status of Christianity [around the time of Perpetua's death]?

It's difficult to track the legal status of Christianity in the second and third century. What's happened as a result of the spread of the movement is that we have, in Roman antiquity, an entire population of gentiles who are, in effect, claiming the legal prerogatives of Jews while insisting at the same time, rightly, that they're not Jews. Judaism had long ago come to a legal agreement with the Emperor that Jews would not be forced to participate in pagan rituals. And pagan rituals are part of the normal fabric of life in a Roman city. Jews were exempted from this because Romans knew that Jews were odd about this kind of thing. But a gentile who refused to participate in [the] civic cult had no legal standing. If they were a gentile, then the proper thing to do would be to honor the god of the Emperor and of the empire and of the city. And by insisting on not doing this, certain Christians made themselves conspicuous and invited upon themselves legal action on the part of governors....

Paganism is, in a sense, the religious articulation of citizenship. Civitas is city. A civis is a citizen, and... the analogy between family and city is made continuously, in philosophy, and in popular piety. To exempt yourself from that, then, would have real social consequences.And this is one of the reasons, I think, for the persecution of Christians. Christians, who exempt themselves from this are criticized for -- I'm going to sound like I'm speaking in California dialect, but it's really a similar idea -- confusing the vibrations, the sympathetic harmony between heaven and earth. They are exempting themselves from the peace of the gods, the Pax Deorum and therefore, one church father, Tertullian says, on the cusp of the third century, "if the Tiber overflows or the Nile doesn't, the cry goes up. Christians to the lion." Christians are ... and by this I mean, specifically, gentile Christians. There are Jewish Christians, too, but in the literature, it's ... it's gentile Christians who populate the martyr stories that we have. They are they have made themselves outlanders in their own town. And therefore, they are used as an explanatory device whenever there are the usual natural insults of human existence. Plague. Earthquake. Flood. It's because the Christians, as gentiles who are not doing their duty to heaven ... why should the gods do anything for the city then?And that's how you get Christians dragged before Governors and before these circuit courts and named as troublemakers.

Was it the official policy of the Roman Empire to persecute Christians?

Empires have better things to do than persecute nursing mothers, which is the example, of course with Perpetua. Emperors tend not to care much about what people are doing as long as the servants and horses are not disturbed, taxes are collected, and nobody starts a rebellion. So, empires in general, and I think the Roman Empire, in particular, are religiously tremendously ecumenical. If you have a huge expansive political territory with huge varieties of religions, within those boundaries, you don't care what people are doing religiously. You just want your tax money. And so the fact that we have incontrovertible evidence that Christians are being persecuted says several interesting things about the growth of movement and the social fortunes of the empire.

Before the year 250, the persecution of Christians is sporadic. It's local. It's improvised. It is at the discretion of a Governor to whom complaints are made and so on. It's not a dragnet and it's not an imperial policy. After 250, when the empire is being battered on every frontier by invading armies, when there's absolute rampant inflation, [there is] incredible governmental instability. There are an average of two or three Emperors in a year. They keep getting assassinated. It's just an incredibly fraught time. That's also the point at which you begin to get the imperial expression of persecution of Christians. Now then again, also, it's interesting. It's not a criminal offense to be a Christian. What you have to do is get a ticket, a lebevos, a chit saying that you have sacrificed for the well-being of the empire.... There [are] various response[s] on the part of different Christian communities. You can have your servant go and do it for you. He might also be a Christian, but, you know, that's his problem. Pay him. He'll get two chits and then you're covered.... Or you can pay for the ticket but not actually do the sacrifice if you can bribe a friend of yours who's a magistrate. Or you can just go ahead and sacrifice, knowing that these gods are nothing, after all. That's right in...Paul's letters, that these gods are nothing. There are all sorts of different ways that people deal with this. But some people absolutely refuse to oblige by this rule at all. And those are the people - again, it's the heroic minority - who end up being martyred by government force.

What was the impact of martyrdom? What was the impact of people like Perpetua?

The martyrs are a heroic minority. They don't represent a huge popular swelling. We don't have tens of thousands of people being martyred. What we do have, is tens of thousands of people admiring the few who are martyred. So in that sense, like any extreme, a martyr marks out a spiritual height to be admired but not necessarily emulated. In that sense, the martyr stories have an incredible effect on the imagination of Christians, because who's the first Christian martyr? Jesus, himself. Heroically witnessing to his own faith, in a sense, and against a hostile government tribunal. So there's this kind of imaginative continuity between Christ and the martyr.

What's most interesting is when the heroic age stopped and when the Church itself converted into being a form of Roman imperial culture, after the conversion of Constantine in 312. That's where you get the incredible efflorescence of the cult of the martyrs. Martyrs' shrines, bits of martyrs' bodies, liturgies being written to the martyrs. There's an incredible energy involved in worshipping at the tombs of the martyrs after the age of martyrs have ... has stopped. And I think that's, in a way, Christianity's effort to reclaim its own heroic history after it had already become an arm of government, itself, and was, of course, persecuting other Christians. More Christians were persecuted by the Roman Government after the conversion of Constantine, than before. The difference is that's it's a Christian government who's persecuting the other Christians.

Elizabeth Clark:

John Carlisle Kilgo Professor of Religion and Director of the Graduate Program in Religion Duke University


[The story of Polycarp is one of our first martyrdom stories]. Polycarp was a bishop of a place called Smyrna, which today is modern Izmir in Turkey, and at a very old age he was brought up for trial and persecution.... Probably his martyrdom occurred somewhere around 165 give or take some years. We're not too sure about that. What 's important about the story of his martyrdom that the church of Smyrna wrote... was that it tended to present Polycarp's martyrdom as copying in some respects the "martyrdom"of Jesus. That is, that there's a government official named Herod who's partly responsible for Polycarp's death. Polycarp is put upon a donkey and rides into the city.... Pagan officials are trying to make Polycarp recant. They ask him to curse Christ, which was always thought to be a sure sign that you weren't really a Christian if you had cursed Christ, and ... to offer the kind of pinch of incense to Caesar to indicate your reverence for the Roman gods and for the emporium. He refuses to do any of these things and is put to death by burning. An interesting feature of the story is that his father must go and collect his bones after he has been put to death. This becomes one of [the] first instances we have of what turns into the cult of the martyrs... [the practice] of preserving bits and pieces of the bodies of martyred people and holding these in great honor and esteem. Many of the martyrdoms written after the time of Polycarp tend to follow this basic model.


How did these [martyrdom stories] come off to shape Christianity at this time? What impact did they have?

I think the martyrdom stories that got circulated were very important for the development of early Christianity. Several of the martyrdoms talk about -- of course we don't know how to judge the historical veracity of those tales -- but they do say that there were pagans present at these martyrdoms who were so impressed by the... courage of the Christians that they came to see the truth of the Christian religion themselves and immediately converted to Christianity.... Probably, for the most part, though, these martyrdom accounts were written for other Christians to try to bolster the Christians' faith at a time of persecution. To keep up your courage in case this happened to you as well. But by and large the Christian leaders did not encourage people volunteering themselves as martyrs. We have a few notable accounts on the books where in a fit of enthusiasm somebody would run into the arena and say, "Martyr me!" and then when the wild beast came running after them they decided this wasn't such a good idea after all, and this brought some degree of shame and disgrace to Christianity. So it was thought it was quite all right not to volunteer yourself and to go to your martyrdom only if pressed and really pushed to the wall, but then you should not deny your faith.


[Did many Christians recant during the persecutions?]

After the two major persecutions of the third century and the early fourth century -- these are the persecutions under the Emperor Decius that occurred around 250 and then the persecution under Diocletian in the opening years of the fourth century -- there was a grave problem for the church because many Christians were not made of the kind of moral fiber of the people who went to their death as martyrs. They had been willing to recant the faith, to offer a pinch of incense to the emperor.... [or] to bribe the officials at the pagan temples to give them a certificate saying they had offered the sacrifice when in fact they had not. All this made a grave problem for the church when the persecutions were over because many of these people then wanted to come back into the church. It was also a problem because there were some bishops who had defected, you might say, during the persecutions, and they had baptized people. The question then was were you really baptized if you had been baptized by a bishop who fell away from the faith during the persecutions?

There were many controversies about this. Some churchmen took a very lax line on this, "Well, people are repentant. We've all committed sins. They should just be forgiven and brought back in." Others took a kind of moderate line: after a period of penance and public recantation and repentance for what they had done, then they would be allowed back into the church. There were some hard-liners who thought once you handed over scripture, recanted the faith, done these various acts, there was no way you could ever be a Christian again. [There was] a great deal of controversy among church people in this era, some of which went on for a long, long time. In North Africa, for example, the group of Christians called the Donatists held out all through the fourth century into the fifth century on some of these issues about not allowing such people back into the church.

symposium . jesus' many faces . a portrait of jesus' world . storytellers . first christians . why did christianity succeed?
maps, archaeology & sources . discussion . bible history quiz . behind the scenes
teachers' guide . viewers' guide . press reaction .  tapes, transcripts & events

published april 1998

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