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Who Invented Christian Martyrdom Religion Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

The questions of ‘who ‘invented’ Christian martyrdom and why, and who was the first Christian martyr, are ambivalent in themselves as there cannot be a definite correct answer. When considering the history, many key related figures become apparent. There are three possible areas in which martyrdom may have been ‘invented’, these are the Christians, the Jews and the Romans. There is evidence of martyrdom stemming from each of these groups, which will be addressed in this essay. As well as the three groups mentioned above, there are individual examples of those who may have had been responsible for the initial inspiration that formed the invention of martyrdom.

The Romans undoubtedly played a large part in the development of martyrdom. The formation of the Roman Empire following the Republican period, created an autocratic empire that ruled the majority of Europe and surroundings areas of the Mediterranean. This gave the first Emperor Augustus and his predecessor’s power to control the religious institutions. The development of Christianity was seen by the Roman Empire as both superstition and atheism. The first accusations of the Christians came after the Great Fire on Nero in 64. The Christians were a convenient religious group to blame this upon (even though after the fire Nero himself used the landmass to build, making the fire seem extremely convenient for his own uses, which brings about questions of the sincerity of the accusations of the fire) and from this came persecution and execution. Christians were subsequently dealt with in this way, and from this it can be claimed, that martyrdom stemmed from the Roman Empire. Christians were being forced into execution, and through support of their religion they came to ‘prefer death rather than deny their religion and live.’ [1] The Roman Emperors views differed on the prosecution of the Christians. The attitudes were sporadic. Nero, Decian and Diocletion were responsible for serious attacks on Christianity however Trajan was rather lenient to Christians compared to other Emperors. Pliny is somewhat ambivalent, not knowing whether the crime is being a Christian or the ‘secret crimes connected with the name’ [2] 

It can be argued that Christian martyrdom was invented by the Jews, as it was Jesus himself who died for his faith, and obviously being a Jew this would lead the invention back to Judaism. However as this was pre-Christianity it cannot be said to be the invention of Christian martyrdom, just a moral example. As well as the latter point, Jews had been taught from the ‘early prophets to scorn the religions of his neighbours, even if these for the time being appeared to be more successful in earthly rewards than himself’. [3] 

It was of course the Christians themselves who were martyred, but it can be suggested that if it were not for the prosecution of the Christians by the Roman Empire then Christian martyrdom would not have come about at all. There would have been no need to prove their faith. The martyrs became something of an example for other Christians, and inspiration to stick by their faith. The author of source 20 in ‘A New Eubusis’ states how ‘blessed and noble are all the martyrdoms which have taken place’ and respects ‘their nobility and endurance and love for their Master.’ [4] As in the words of Polycarp, when told to curse Christ, Polycarp continued to confess himself as a Christian, and when faced with being burnt alive commented that ‘I must needs be burnt alive,’ so that he ‘might take a portion among the martyrs in the cup of Christ,’ because he wanted to be ‘a rich and acceptable sacrifice’ [5] This gives evidence to show that despite the imminence of death, their faith would remain.

As well as looking at the groups mentioned above, there are certain individuals who can be said to have had a significant effect on the development of martyrdom. Martyrdom can be thought to have originated from the figure of Jesus, and his crucifixion at the hands of the Romans due to his ‘blasphemous’ claims. Jesus’ apostles were thought to have emulated him in this way, as nearly all his apostles in turn died at the hands of their beliefs and faith in Jesus. It is this act of Jesus that is claimed by some to be where martyrdom began, making Jesus the ‘inventor’ of martyrdom. Despite this claim, I would argue that Jesus is an exemplar rather than a creator. Evidence for this statement is clear in the account of Polycarp’s martyrdom where there are references to crucifixion, ‘the Lord might once again give an example of the martyrdom which resembles the gospel story.’ [6] It is also stated in the martyrdom that Polycarp refused to blaspheme saying ‘For eighty-six years I have

been his servant and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme against my king and saviour?’ [7] It also becomes clear in the Martyrs of Lyons and Vienne, 177, where Christ if often mentioned, with references such as ‘then in turn a mighty dispensation of God came to pass, and the measureless compassion of Jesus was displayed , in a manner rarely vouchsafed among the brethren, but not beyond the art of Christ.’ [8] Both letters make clear and relevant that Jesus’ actions were the incentive, and that his actions gave them the strength and power to die for their beliefs.

Although it can be argued that Jesus was the martyr exemplar, he cannot be called a martyr himself. There is very little evidence suggesting he was ever called a martyr. In fact the only time the word is ever mentioned is in Revelation 2:13 and Acts 22:20 with reference to his disciples as martyrs, meaning ‘witness’ as this is the Greek root of the word. So the word martyr is associated with Jesus death, but with a different meaning and this is further highlighted by a very relevant Christian martyr, Ignatius of Antioch, who didn’t even use the Greek word “martyr” for himself. Another example of what same may call a martyr is Socrates, however in this case, as well as with Jesus, Christianity was not yet born, and so this pre-Christian ‘martyr’ can only be seen, as Jesus was, as a model for the Christians. This is referred to in Justin Martyrs second apology; ‘Socrates – was charged with the same things that we are.’ [9] Both of these examples perhaps give Christians the idea to carry out this heroic action.

This then calls for an explanation of how the ‘new’ meaning of the word martyrdom came about. How did it move away from its original meaning and why? As previously said there is ambiguity as to who the first Martyr was, and hence who invented Martyrdom. We have established the neither Jesus nor Socrates were martyrs, so then we come to the Jewish Maccabees, their relevance is highlighted through the way in which Blandina is likened in Lyons and Vienne to the mother of the seven sons. At this point martyrdom had come to mean what it does today as Professor Baron stated ‘there were born that great exaltation of Christian martyrdom which was to dominate the minds of the jews and chritians for countless generations.’ [10] However, the two terms are clearly linked and may be seen to merge together. As the Apostles were ‘witness” to the death of Jesus, they then became venerable due to their everlasting faith, and could at anytime be called upon to deny what was ‘witnessed’ under penalty of death. As the apostles would never deny their beliefs, they moved from being a witness, to being open to the idea of death, which will lead us on to the controversial topic of voluntary martyrdom. St. John, at the end of the first century, describes martyr as a “faithful witness (martus) who was slain among you, where Satan dwelleth” (Revelation 2:13).

In Bowersock’s ‘Martyrdom and Rome’ he highlights the point from the latter paragraph, that despite the use of the word itself in the New Testament, the meaning is by no means the same. Bowersock believes that it was not until the 2nd Century that the word martyr came to mean what is means today. Even though links can be drawn to earlier events, such as Nero at Rome which followed the great fire in 64, the change and the more relevant events come later. It is suggested by De Ste. Croix that from approximately 112 onwards Christians started to be prosecuted by pagans simply for being Christians ‘the nomen Christianum’, and Pliny states in a letter to Trajan that he executed ‘those charged before me with being Christians.’ [11] The definition of the word martyr was emphasised when the title was turned down by the confessions of Lyons, as they did not actually die, and stated ‘They are already martyrs whom Christ has deemed worthy to be taken up in their confession, having sealed their testimony by their departure; but we are confessors mean and lowly.’ [12] 

The interesting movement that occurred, that is dissimilar to Jesus, Socrates and the Maccabees was the voluntary martyrdom. Not only were devote Christians willing to give their lives, they actually wanted to. This was something that very much puzzled the Roman Empire, and became interpreted as almost a provocation. But the sincerity was entirely there as proved by Perpetua and Germanicus. Voluntary martyrdom was in fact forbidden by the church, and those being executed voluntarily were said to be considered far less heroic. The bishops of the churches were supposed to refuse to the voluntary martyrs the honour of the name martyr, and this is backed up by a number of sources including Clement of Alexandria, Origen and Lactantius, the canons of the council of Elvira and the passion of Polycarp. Yet despite this, the martyrs were usually seen in high regarded, seen also as heroic figures.it has been said, notably by De Ste. Croix that it was ‘a montanist’ practice in origin, however he then goes on to suggest that it began far earlier, but there is not sufficient evidence to back this up.

Christian Martyrdom was essentially ‘invented’ to prove the seriousness of the Christian faith. Initially those who were sentenced to death, did so graciously, without hesitation, yet not with the will of that being the case. These were described as ‘glorious examples of resistance to tyrannical authority and painful suffering before unjust judges.’ Despite the development of martyrdom, and from that the stemming of voluntary martyrdom, it is made clear from Perpetua how difficult, and how much of a dilemma the Christians faced when deciding between sacrificing their beliefs, or their lives.

It must be noted that the ambiguity of this ‘invention’ can be partly resolved when considering that Christian martyrdom stems from Christian theology. Even though the discussion of the invention of martyrdom is centred around the denominations and figures mentioned above, none of the martyrs would have died if they were not following closely their religious beliefs, and obeying what the church required of them.

It is impossible to say who ‘invented’ Christian martyrdom, and I question whether ‘invent’ is even the correct term to use in this context. The action came about due to devotion and faithfulness to the Christian religion, and thus became almost a tradition, in which followers showed their dedication to Christ and their one God. It was not invented for a particular purpose, but became something of a statement. Its roots are deeply embedded in the Jewish history concerning Jesus and then Socrates, as well as in the lives of St. Stephen ‘the first Martyr’ and the many other Christian figures who gave their lives to support their faiths.

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