According to Webster’s Seventh Latest College Dictionary, a martyr is one who gladly accepts death as the punishment of observing and declining to renounce his religion; one who loses his life or anything of considerable worth for the sake of principle; a strong or persistent sufferer; placing to death for devotion to ideology, faith, profession; causing agonizing suffering on him.
A Christian martyr, is anyone who risks death; that is, they are ready to die rather than reject Jesus Christ or his Gospel. The Church’s official teaching was approved by Pope Benedict XIV (r. 1740-58), who described martyrdom as “the voluntary suffering or tolerating of death through reason of Christ’s faith or any act of grace through relation to Heaven.”
Around 200 years later, in a letter to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in 2006, Pope Benedict XVI (r. 2005-13) reiterated Benedict XIV’s teaching, clarifying: “It is, of necessity, important to find irrefutable signs of preparation for martyrdom, such as the outpouring of blood and its recognition by the recipient. It is, therefore, important to determine the persecutor’s ‘odium fidei’ [hatred of faith], specifically or implicitly but often in a morally definite way.”
We surely understand a person giving up his or her life as a family member or even as a mate. Yet thousands were martyred by someone they never knew in the flesh, Jesus Christ. What is this man’s magnetism at Nazareth? What makes this itinerant preacher who was born in a stable so special? Many who became recognized as His disciples became persecuted and ultimately martyred for their love of Him. But they weren’t the only early Christians to endure ill health, including death.
Therefore the men, women, and children who not only wanted to live a life according to the divine commandments influenced by the Lord Jesus Christ but who failed to avoid living such a lifestyle became real Christian martyrs. The features that render them distinctive are numerous, but we will focus on some of the more distinct ones.
They are dedicated to Christian martyrs. By their every move and expression, they wish to worship Christ always and to walk in His footsteps at all times. They alone offer Him their utter affection, admiration, and appreciation. They placed their physical, spiritual, and mental energy in the quest for His will for their lives and in the discovery of the holiest and purest word.
Determination is another attribute that radiates from the heart of a Christian martyr. Stories that you read in books or watch in film or witness through a live demonstration of a suffering person with a sense of determined emphasis on God alone. Before being a martyr, the oppressed generally live with a strong and heady urge to fulfill the life that Christ commanded, and are not easily persuaded by this heavenly appeal.
In the middle of all the agony and misery that the savior endures, Jesus guarantees that all who are Christians will earn unique blessings. In Matthew chapter 5, Jesus tells His followers that all who are “persecuted for righteousness’ sake” will be satisfied and that “they will be abundantly glad, for their reward is great in heaven.”
The Christian savior is overflowing with the love of God and all those around him. While certain civil institutions would eventually be liable for their tortuous lives, martyrs are generally regarded as those who have led a life of sacrifice. The evil eyes of the persecutors are too vain to recognize even the love of God in the Christians they destroy, however really it is the love they recognize.
Ancient Christian Martyrdom
Christianity expanded exponentially during the first few decades. By AD100, it had been largely Gentile and started to move free from its Jewish roots. By 200, most regions of the Roman Empire had been permeated by the religion, while Christians remained mainly in the larger metropolitan areas (Gaul, Lyons, Carthage, Rome). By 325, an unprecedented 7 million Christians were slaughtered for the religion and as many as 2 million.
This development can be linked to meeting the needs of modern faith through cultural boundaries. It is bringing general significance to life for many, the ultimate change of those lives, Christians’ social interests during the plagues for the ill and the needy, and the influence of their theology. The news of Christ’s resurrection created great loyalty among believers. And, sadly, Christian martyrdom generated immense attention and admiration for the Christians and expanded their numbers.
Reasons for Persecutions
In the first century, local, socio-economic tension with Jewish communities also generated Persecution.
At A.D. 50, Christianity has been put on the imperial list of “illicit” religions, and after A.D. 64, It has been deemed unlawful, but this has not necessarily contributed to Persecution. Christians also saw several instances of abuse, both substantive and positive.
Christian prohibition of worshiping or serving any gods has become a cause of considerable controversy.
From A.D. 300, Christians mostly come from the urban poor and the lower classes; they were, therefore, simple targets towards those with influence or wealth. But there still existed a wide community of educated, middle-class Christians.
Christians were convicted of being sinners for their rejection of the other religions and their reluctance to obey the tyrant. So they were guilty of state treason.
They had been convicted of rituals of “false, unethical worship,” including cannibalism, incest, and beastalism.
They have even been accused as haters of humanity and misguided in their beliefs. Christians were labeled religious progressives to many regional governments, rather than being directly punished for their religion alone.
Periods of Persecution
Early Jewish Persecution (1st century)—-cf. I, Peter, James, and Hebrews.
Early Sporadic persecutions — Nero (64 A.D.); Domitian (81-96 A.D.); and Trajan (108 A.D.)
Marcus Aurelius (A.D.162)—Christian Persecution at Lyon is the most famous incident of its time.
Severus (A.D. 192)—Not everyone agrees that Severus was responsible for the Persecution of Christians himself. The most well-known incidents have taken place in North Africa, such as
Perpetual and Felicity executions.
Maximus (A.D. 235)—Once again, it is debated whether these were authorized by Maximus himself or whether they were the local governor’s decisions. During this time, several well known Christian senators and leaders were executed while others like Hippolytus were sent into exile.
Instead of creating martyrdom, Decius (A.D. 249-251) tried to force apostasy. He created the libelous, a stamp of approval given to Caesar after he had sworn fealty.
Valerian (A.D. 253-260) had the bishops singled out and forced them to recant or die. Christians had also been prevented from meeting in cemeteries. That period was known as the Great
Diocletian (A.D. 285-305)/ “Age of the Martyrs” known for the eviction of Christians from their homes, the army and jobs. Christian churches and homes are burned, scriptural copies burned, and Christian civil servants persecuted.
Reactions to the Chase
The Apostates: Many have abandoned their faith.
The Lapsed: Some denied being subjected to torture but came back in opposition.
The Confessors: These are the ones who suffered Persecution and lived to tell.
The Martyrs: The Death-Witnesses.
Black Market: In wealthier families, some bought the libelous on the black market.
The question of how to restore the lapsed to the Church was a major one with some demanding severe penance and others seeking to extend God’s forgiveness and love.
Early Christian Martyrs
Friendships in good times can really feel strong and easy to keep. But the test of friendship comes when we are tempted to betray our friends for some reason. If we can hold the temptation out, we know our friendship is real.
It’s good to remember that faith is friendship — a close friendship with God, trusting in it. All-day long, we are loved, supported, and aided by God. We inform him about our joys and our troubles. Together you and God go through each day, and he will be with you for the rest of your life. That is a kind of friendship. That is belief.
You may be tempted at times to betray that friendship just a little bit. You may be embarrassed to admit you are going to Church or you are praying. You might think that hurting someone else’s feelings wouldn’t be so bad — just this one time. You may stop reading the Bible or praying at night because there are other things you have to do. You’re not the first, you know, to feel this way. And you are not going to be the final.
In fact, Christians have been tempted from the very beginning to betray their friendships with God, in both great and small ways. And just like any friendship, our faith grows stronger each time we resist this temptation and remain faithful to that friendship.
The followers of Jesus had been under great pressure for the first three hundred years of Christianity to betray their friendships with him. They lived in the Roman Empire, which extended all the way from northern Africa up to England. From A.D., for almost the whole period. 100 to 313, being a Christian in most of the Roman Empire was illegal.
That’s right, unlawful against the law. You can go to court in our country for things like stealing and killing and go to jail. You’d go to jail for those things also in the Roman Empire. But if you were friends with Jesus, you could be punished by the law too.
How? No matter what their religion, every person in the Roman Empire was supposed to honor the Roman Emperor as a god. If they would do that — burn a little incense before a statue once a year, and say, “Caesar is God! “— they were all right, and for another year, they could go home and look after their business.
But, Christians refused. They already knew there was only one God, and saying nothing else as a god would make them betray their friendship with God. When they stood true and refused to honor false gods or the emperor as a god, the Christians got into big trouble.
They were put in prison — dark, terrible dungeons. They were sent into desolate islands where they were forced to work in mines. If they were truly stubborn and still would not deny their friendship with Jesus, they would be put to death.
Roman Empire leaders did this because they really wanted to discourage others from following Christianity. They also wanted to entertain the Empire’s people. They often did it in public when they executed Christians, amid huge crowds gathering in arenas.
There are many stories of Christians’ deaths coming down on us over the centuries. These Christians who died for their faith were — and are still — called “martyrs,” a word meaning “witnesses.” They’re called witnesses because that’s what they’ve done through their deaths: witnessing their love of God and their friendship with Him — their faith. Some of the well-known stories of martyrs from those early years include:
St. Agnes, St. Lucy, St. Agatha, and St. Cecilia were all young women—perhaps in their early teens—who at different times suffered terribly for their faith. St. Cecilia was strangled and then beheaded, St. Lucy lost her eyes during her torture, St. Agatha was put on hot coals, St. Agnes was beheaded,.
There are hundreds and thousands of other martyrs who have endured the most terrible pain of these years. Surprisingly, the stories that come down to us about their deaths, those few stories recorded by the Romans who killed them, make us know that most of those women, men, and children killed for their faith died with a peaceful hearts, sometimes singing hymns as they were burned or dragged by animals in front of cheering crowds. They have had a very, very deep friendship with God.
Many Christians have decided over the past two thousand years to die rather than betray their friendship with Jesus. Even today, in some countries, Christians still suffer martyrdom.
All these brave people may speak different languages and wear different clothes, but they all have something in common: they are Jesus’ best friends, and they can’t imagine turning their backs on him, even if that means suffering.
You probably know how they feel — you can’t imagine turning your back on friends of your own. If you’re tempted, you probably just have to imagine how rotten you’d feel if you did, and that is enough to set you straight.
Well, when you are tempted to betray your faith — your friendship with God — remember that feeling. And remember the early Christian martyrs. Just imagine if they’d all chosen to deny their friendship with God instead of remaining true.
If the Christians had betrayed him, would anyone else have taken the trouble to look into friendship with Jesus? Was it worth living for, if it wasn’t worth dying for?
Finally, though certainly not the least or the last, the Christian martyr is filled with the very thing for which they are put to death: dedication. Similar but not the same as determination, most of the believers who have been taken away from this life have done so out of complete frustration at their determination to live for Christ to the last breath.