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Beyond Religious Dogmatics

Martyrdom in Early Christianity

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“To … 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.”[1]

The great martyrs of the early Christianity remain in the history of the church as someone who fully fulfilled the will of God having died for the “truth” and having taken the burden of their Savior who declared that “whosoever does not bear his cross and come after [him], cannot be [his] disciple.” Their actions or acts inspired thousands of believers in Jesus Christ to courageously stand in front of the danger that could be caused by their faith; they became a reason for the raise of the whole new tradition and teaching within the Christian movement that turned to be one of the most effective and powerful “tools” for attracting new followers of the religion whatever their reasons might have been. Such words of their Savior and teacher as “Blessed are they, who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” or “He, that loses his life for my sake, shall find it”, found their fulfillment in their sacrifices bringing unexplainable joy, comfort, satisfaction and confidence that this was a secure way to heaven causing the church as a whole to grow stronger and stronger. Their sufferings were named one of the greatest virtues attracting men, women and children from different layers of the society who often were eager to suffer like their Master.  We witness a strong conviction in the rightness and holiness of martyrdom when we come across Eusebius’ description of the sufferings of Sanctus, one of the Martyrs of Lyons: “And his body was a witness of his sufferings, being one complete wound and bruise, drawn out of shape, and altogether unlike a human form. Christ, suffering in him, manifested his glory, delivering from his adversary, and making him an example for others, showing that nothing is fearful where the love of the Father is, and nothing painful where there is glory of Christ.”[2] (The underlined is an emphasis on the meaning of the martyrdom to Christians of the time). Another story or event of martyrdom and the reflections on it express the same understanding and appreciation of the act – the martyrdom of Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna – as described in one of the letters to the church of Philomelium: “Blessed and noble, indeed, are all the martyrdoms that have taken place according to God's will; for we ought to be very reverent in ascribing to God power over all things. For who would not admire their nobility and patient endurance and love of their Master? Some of them, so torn by scourging that the anatomy of their flesh was visible as far as the inner veins and arteries, endured with such patience that even the bystanders took pity and wept; others achieved such heroism that not one of them uttered a cry or a groan, thus showing all of us that at the very hour of their tortures the most noble martyrs of Christ were no longer in the flesh, but rather that the Lord stood by them and conversed with them.”[3]

Thus, the long-continued martyrdom became the peculiar crown and glory of the early church, indeed; it pervaded its entire literature and gave it an 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 besides this greatness, heroism and apocalyptic glory it gave rise also to a great deal of superstition and exaltation of human merit that still lies at the foundation of the Catholic, as well as Russian Orthodox worship of saints and relics. It also, in my opinion, is a very powerful psychological tool that is linked to charismatic features of the religion and if used improperly may be fraught with very dramatic consequences as the religion, as once noted by Russian leader – Vladimir Lenin, “is the opium for people” that may stupefy you to the point when you feel ready to die for something that might be not worthy at all (the 9/11 tragedy is one of the examples of the modern martyrdom).

In the first four centuries, though, martyrdom also had its social aspects, as well, because of its egalitarian character when women suffered for their faith like men and the existing inequalities concerning gender were disappearing within the martyrdom. Some other nuances are recalled by Thomas Aquinas in one of his articles on martyrdom in his book Summa Theologica when he argues if martyrdom may be called a virtue: “Further, nothing unlawful is an act of virtue. Now it is unlawful to kill oneself, as stated above, and yet martyrdom is achieved by so doing: for Augustine says that "during persecution certain holy women, in order to escape from those who threatened their chastity, threw themselves into a river, and so ended their lives, and their martyrdom is honored in the Catholic Church with most solemn veneration." Therefore martyrdom is not an act of virtue.”[4]

Martyrdom is unquestionably one of the most powerful and greatest indications of the human will, conviction and courage, as it was for the Christians and civil people at the first four centuries after Jesus Christ’s life and, at the same time, it is one of the greatest psychological dangers that may suddenly shake the world.

 

 

Bibliography:

-          Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 100-325, 3rd Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1882), Digital Version: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff.html

-          Thomas Aquilas, Summa Theologica, (Benziger Bros. Edition, 1947), Digital Version: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/aquinas/summa.html

-          John W. Coakley, Andrea Sterk, Readings in World Christian History, Vl. 1 Earliest Christianity to 1453 (New York: Orbis Books, 2004)

-          Cyril C. Richardson, Early Christian Fathers (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953), Digital Version: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/richardson/fathers.html

-          Dale T. Irvin, Scott W. Sunquist, History of the World Christian Movement (New York: Orbis Books, 2001)

 

 



[1] Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 100-325, 3rd Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1882), Digital Version: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/hcc2.v.iv.xv.html

[2] John W. Coakley, Andrea Sterk, Readings in World Christian History, Vl. 1 Earliest Christianity to 1453 (New York: Orbis Books, 2004), p. 26

[3] Cyril C. Richardson, Early Christian Fathers (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953), p. 149. Digital Version: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/richardson/fathers.vii.i.iii.html

[4] Thomas Aquilas, Summa Theologica, (Benziger Bros. Edition, 1947), Digital Version: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/aquinas/summa.SS.iii.SS_Q124.SS_Q124_A1.html

Created December, 2007