In my first entry on this series on relics I looked at several examples of how the early church treated its dead. Three of the four examples of burial I looked at were the aftermath of martyrdom. To be martyred was to be more than a confessor of the faith, it was a position of incredible prestige in the church and to understand the development of relics there is a natural association with the act of being willing to die for one’s faith and fate of their remains afterwards. One article on the topic states describes the root of the terms as…
The early church’s theology of martyrdom was born not in synods or councils, but in sunlit, blood-drenched coliseums and catacombs, dark and still as death. The word martyr means “witness” and is used as such throughout the New Testament. However, as the Roman Empire became increasingly hostile toward Christianity, the distinctions between witnessing and suffering became blurred and finally nonexistent.How the Early Church Viewed Martyrs, Christian History Institute, Accessed 2nd February 2019
The earliest martyrs
Those who died for professing Christ were seen as exemplars to those who came after them and also came to be seen as having particular authority precisely because of their suffering. They were soldiers in the war against the devil who for their triumphs won heavenly rewards. Yet the term martyr was something that could not be claimed but bestowed, the earliest martyrs rejecting the term altogether as Eusebius recalls when describing the accounts of martyrs from the 2nd century…
They were also so zealous in their imitation of Christ —’who, being in the form of God, counted it not a prize to be on an equality with God,’ Philippians 2:6 — that, though they had attained such honor, and had borne witness, not once or twice, but many times — having been brought back to prison from the wild beasts, covered with burns and scars and wounds — yet they did not proclaim themselves witnesses, nor did they suffer us to address them by this name. If any one of us, in letter or conversation, spoke of them as witnesses, they rebuked him sharply.Eusebius, Church History, Book 5, Chapter 2. The Martyrs, beloved of God, kindly ministered unto those who fell in the Persecution
They showed in their deeds the power of ‘testimony,’ manifesting great boldness toward all the brethren, and they made plain their nobility through patience and fearlessness and courage, but they refused the title of Witnesses as distinguishing them from their brethren, being filled with the fear of God.
A little further on they say: They humbled themselves under the mighty hand, by which they are now greatly exalted. They defended all, but accused none. They absolved all, but bound none. And they prayed for those who had inflicted cruelties upon them, even as Stephen, the perfect witness, ‘Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.’ Acts 7:60 But if he prayed for those who stoned him, how much more for the brethren!
The remains of martyrs
The collection of the remains of the Martyrs also had a theological and emotive dimension from the outset that was rooted in the persecution of the church. Pagan Romans who saw that the belief in the resurrection of the dead gave confidence to martyrs and the church took to destroying the remains of martyrs. It was natural therefore for the church, as an expression of love, to their departed peers to secure and care for the bodies of its dead. Eusebius describes an account of the Romans destroying the remains of martyrs as follows…
And this they did, as if able to conquer God, and prevent their new birth; ‘that,’ as they said, ‘they may have no hope of a resurrection, through trust in which they bring to us this foreign and new religion, and despise terrible things, and are ready even to go to death with joy. Now let us see if they will rise again, and if their God is able to help them, and to deliver them out of our hands.’Eusebius, Church History, Book 5, Chapter 1. The Number of those who fought for Religion in Gaul Under Verus and the Nature of their Conflicts.
So the collection of the remains of martyrs from the outset can be seen as a response to the Pagan attempt to ‘conquer God’ by the destruction of the remains of martyrs. It took a theological dimension in addition to an emotive one.
Martyrdom as spiritual warfare
When it came to the suffering of martyrs itself the historian Eusebius repeatedly framed it as a form of spiritual battle. In the beginning of book 5 of his histories he writes…
Other writers of history record the victories of war and trophies won from enemies, the skill of generals, and the manly bravery of soldiers, defiled with blood and with innumerable slaughters for the sake of children and country and other possessions.Eusebius, Church History, Book 5, Chapter 1. The Number of those who fought for Religion in Gaul Under Verus and the Nature of their Conflicts.
But our narrative of the government of God will record in ineffaceable letters the most peaceful wars waged in behalf of the peace of the soul, and will tell of men doing brave deeds for truth rather than country, and for piety rather than dearest friends. It will hand down to imperishable remembrance the discipline and the much-tried fortitude of the athletes of religion, the trophies won from demons, the victories over invisible enemies, and the crowns placed upon all their heads.
The language of warfare and athleticism was appropriated by the early church and their struggles were repeatedly framed in militaristic terms. The inversion of this is that it was something all the church was called to, including women, and children. The battle was not against their fellow Roman-citizens but the demons mentioned. Persecutions against Christians were seen as the ‘the instigation of demons’ (Justin Martyr) and to suffer for witnessing to faith in Christ was to be drawn closer to him and the Church saw Christ amidst them in the sufferings of the martyrs.
Let us reflect on a couple of key examples of martyrs and writings on martyrdom in detail.
Perpetua and Felicity, 3rd Century
One of the best examples of the martyr, with the distinctions that came with such an office, is reflected in the account of Perpetua and Felicity. These two women, both young mothers and catechumens, were imprisoned and eventually killed in an arena in Carthage for their faith around the year 203AD but the account itself is quite remarkable. In the first person account we have available Perpetua, in prison, is granted several visions. The second being of her brother who had died years before her conversion presumably as an unbaptised pagan…
I saw Dinocrates going out from a gloomy place, where also there were several others, and he was parched and very thirsty, with a filthy countenance and pallid color, and the wound on his face which he had when he died. This Dinocrates had been my brother after the flesh, seven years of age, who died miserably with disease — his face being so eaten out with cancer, that his death caused repugnance to all men. For him I had made my prayer, and between him and me there was a large interval, so that neither of us could approach to the other. And moreover, in the same place where Dinocrates was, there was a pool full of water, having its brink higher than was the stature of the boy; and Dinocrates raised himself up as if to drink. And I was grieved that, although that pool held water, still, on account of the height to its brink, he could not drink. And I was upset, and knew that my brother was in suffering. But I trusted that my prayer would bring help to his suffering; and I prayed for him every day until we passed over into the prison of the camp, for we were to fight in the camp-show. Then was the birthday of Geta Cæsar, and I made my prayer for my brother day and night, groaning and weeping that he might be granted to me.The Passion of the Holy Martyrs Perpetua and Felicity, Chapter 2. Argument. Perpetua, When Besieged by Her Father, Comforts Him. When Led with Others to the Tribunal, She Avows Herself a Christian, and is Condemned with the Rest to the Wild Beasts. She Prays for Her Brother Dinocrates, Who Was Dead
Then, on the day on which we remained in fetters, this was shown to me. I saw that that place which I had formerly observed to be in gloom was now bright; and Dinocrates, with a clean body well clad, was finding refreshment. And where there had been a wound, I saw a scar; and that pool which I had before seen, I saw now with its margin lowered even to the boy’s navel. And one drew water from the pool incessantly, and upon its brink was a goblet filled with water; and Dinocrates drew near and began to drink from it, and the goblet did not fail. And when he was satisfied, he went away from the water to play joyously, after the manner of children, and I awoke. Then I understood that he was translated from the place of punishment.
Here we get something of the idea that the martyrs had the ability to speak on behalf of others, to minister to them event after death. It raises some interesting question too for Dinocrates presumably had died an unbaptised Pagan given Perpetua herself had only recently been baptised before this vision. The peacemaking nature of the martyr is likewise extended in another vision by a peer of Perpetua, Saturus, who sees in a vision the two of them resolving a dispute between a bishop and a presbyter they knew.
The third vision Perpetua experiences also speaks directly to this idea of the Martyr as a soldier…
The day before that on which we were to fight, I saw in a vision that Pomponius the deacon came hither to the gate of the prison, and knocked vehemently. I went out to him, and opened the gate for him; and he was clothed in a richly ornamented white robe, and he had on manifold calliculae. And he said to me, ‘Perpetua, we are waiting for you; come!’ And he held his hand to me, and we began to go through rough and winding places. Scarcely at length had we arrived breathless at the amphitheatre, when he led me into the middle of the arena, and said to me, ‘Do not fear, I am here with you, and I am labouring with you;’ and he departed. And I gazed upon an immense assembly in astonishment. And because I knew that I was given to the wild beasts, I marvelled that the wild beasts were not let loose upon me. Then there came forth against me a certain Egyptian, horrible in appearance, with his backers, to fight with me. And there came to me, as my helpers and encouragers, handsome youths; and I was stripped, and became a man. Then my helpers began to rub me with oil, as is the custom for contest; and I beheld that Egyptian on the other hand rolling in the dust. And a certain man came forth, of wondrous height, so that he even over-topped the top of the amphitheatre; and he wore a loose tunic and a purple robe between two bands over the middle of the breast; and he had on calliculæ of varied form, made of gold and silver; and he carried a rod, as if he were a trainer of gladiators, and a green branch upon which were apples of gold. And he called for silence, and said, ‘This Egyptian, if he should overcome this woman, shall kill her with the sword; and if she shall conquer him, she shall receive this branch.’ Then he departed. And we drew near to one another, and began to deal out blows. He sought to lay hold of my feet, while I struck at his face with my heels; and I was lifted up in the air, and began thus to thrust at him as if spurning the earth. But when I saw that there was some delay I joined my hands so as to twine my fingers with one another; and I took hold upon his head, and he fell on his face, and I trod upon his head. And the people began to shout, and my backers to exult. And I drew near to the trainer and took the branch; and he kissed me, and said to me, ‘Daughter, peace be with you:’ and I began to go gloriously to the Sanavivarian gate. Then I awoke, and perceived that I was not to fight with beasts, but against the devil. Still I knew that the victory was awaiting me. This, so far, I have completed several days before the exhibition; but what passed at the exhibition itself let who will write.The Passion of the Holy Martyrs Perpetua and Felicity, Chapter 3. Argument. Perpetua is Again Tempted by Her Father. Her Third Vision, Wherein She is Led Away to Struggle Against an Egyptian. She Fights, Conquers, and Receives the Reward
Perpetua does go on to contend in the arena with the other martyrs who are all killed and yet the death is seen as a means of achieving heavenly glory. The narrative ends, no longer in the 1st person, with the death of Perpetua “O truly called and chosen unto the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” and with the closing prayer…
Whom whoever magnifies, and honours, and adores, assuredly ought to read these examples for the edification of the Church, not less than the ancient ones, so that new virtues also may testify that one and the same Holy Spirit is always operating even until now, and God the Father Omnipotent, and His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, whose is the glory and infinite power for ever and ever. Amen.Chapter 6. Argument. From the Prison They are Led Forth with Joy into the Amphitheatre, Especially Perpetua and Felicitas. All Refuse to Put on Profane Garments. They are Scourged, They are Thrown to the Wild Beasts. Saturus Twice is Unhurt. Perpetua and Felicitas are Thrown Down; They are Called Back to the Sanavivarian Gate. Saturus Wounded by a Leopard, Exhorts the Soldier. They Kiss One Another, and are Slain with the Sword
This prayer again focuses on the acts themselves for the purposes of leading to ‘new virtues’ in the Church bearing witness to the work of God in the lives of the Martyrs. The account ends here with no mention of the fate of their remains, given this occured in the same region as the Epistle of Dionysius mentioned earlier we can assume the treatment of their remains was the same as those mentioned there and they were buried.
Yet this example is indicative of the spiritual potency martyrs were seen to wield. Something we see subsequently developed in the life and writing of Cyprian of Carthage.
Cyprian of Carthage, 3rd Century
Cyprian was a Bishop of Carthage, the city of Perpetua and Felicity’s martyrdom, who wrote extensively on the role of the martyr in the early church and articulated the belief that that those who were martyred possessed a spiritual potency whilst alive and after death. The martyrs, often spoken of collectively had become to be understood as a form of office that extended those described as such a special form of authority.
The authority of martyrs
One expression of the respect in which they were held is shown in the value of a letter from a martyr (presumably written before their martyrdom) as a means of reentry into the church for those who had lapsed under persecution. In his epistle ‘On the Lapsed’ Cyprian makes clear that he treats such as a request from the Lord himself. In another letter regarding how clergy should engage with Christians in prison (confessors) Cyprian likewise describes such individuals as potential martyrs in waiting who should they die be commemorated by the Church “celebrated here by us oblations and sacrifices for their commemorations”. This echoes the commemorative gatherings mentioned in reference to the death of Polycarp.
The commemoration of martyrs
The Saints were also remembered and commemorated on the anniversary of their martyrdom. We see this outlined in Cyprian’s reference to two martyrs who happened to be soldiers…
Laurentius and Egnatius, who themselves also were once warring in the camps of the world, but were true and spiritual soldiers of God, casting down the devil by the confession of Christ, merited palms and crowns from the Lord by their illustrious passion. We always offer sacrifices for them, as you remember, as often as we celebrate the passions and days of the martyrs in the annual commemoration.Cyprian, Epistle 33.3
Here we see more reference to the commemoration of martyrs but rather than any petitionary requests being extended to them or boons received from them we instead hear of sacrifices being offered for them. What is the sacrifice? It is the sharing of communion, the baptism of the thanksgiving meals pagans likewise shared at the graves of their dead as referenced in the initial post in this series. The language of sacrifice reflects Justin Martyr’s description of communion as a thanksgiving offering that in the context of the commemoration of the martyr thanks god for their life and witness…
And the offering of fine flour, sirs, which was prescribed to be presented on behalf of those purified from leprosy, was a type of the bread of the Eucharist, the celebration of which our Lord Jesus Christ prescribed, in remembrance of the suffering which He endured on behalf of those who are purified in soul from all iniquity, in order that we may at the same time thank God for having created the world, with all things therein, for the sake of man, and for delivering us from the evil in which we were, and for utterly overthrowing principalities and powers by Him who suffered according to His will.Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho. Chapter 41. The oblation of fine flour was a figure of the Eucharist
Given the martyrdom itself could be seen as a form of baptism, in a way it seems appropriate to then commemorate the martyr in the context of communion. Both reflecting and pointing the way to participation in Christ patterned by the martyrs conduct in life.
Martyrs and the Final Judgement
When considering the fate of the martyrs themselves, In Cyprian’s longer treatise on the lapsed, he details that the martyrs will be in good standing because of their suffering at the final judgement…
We believe, indeed, that the merits of martyrs and the works of the righteous are of great avail with the Judge; but that will be when the day of judgment shall come; when, after the conclusion of this life and the world, His people shall stand before the tribunal of Christ.Cyprian, Treatise 3, On the Lapsed: Paragraph 17
A careful reading of this will remind us that this is in reference to the future, the final judgement, not the present and later on we see this in the close of his treatise…
He can show mercy; He can turn back His judgment. He can mercifully pardon the repenting, the labouring, the beseeching sinner. He can regard as effectual whatever, in behalf of such as these, either martyrs have besought or priests have done.Cyprian, Treatise 3, On the Lapsed: Paragraph 36
Where martyrs are spoken of in the past tense alongside priests and when we consider the example of Perpetua and her brother Dinocrates, or the letters written on behalf of the lapsed, this seems to be done before their actual death. In the space between their condemnation and execution. This pattern, it can be argued is present in the account of the first martyrdom, that of Stephen.
When they heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth. But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”Acts 7:54-60
Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord; and they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
Stephen here is given a vision, as was Perpetua, and also prays for those who murdered him. This is presumably an example of what Cyprian is referring to, as does Eusebius in his description of the martyrs referenced at the start of this entry. That the martyrs can and had sought for the turning away of God’s judgement against specific individuals is shown here. Yet there is nothing in his writing, however, to suggest that this is something that can be sought after their death.
The martyrs of the earliest centuries had come to been known as potent witnesses for the faith. They were seen as spiritual athletes and warriors who waged war against demons and possessed a special intimacy with God as a result of their sufferings. Their words, prayers, and writings were highly esteemed by the church and their bodies even after death were valued like those of a family member, perhaps more so, to Christians. To have a martyr speak in your favour was a blessing, both in regard to your relationship with the church during this life and with God himself at the final judgement. Yet we are hard pressed to find examples of the martyrs themselves speaking after their death.
At the same time, whilst every martyr was a witness yet not every witness was a martyr. Anthony of Egypt, who we looked at in the first entry, was an example of one such person. Yet that didn’t stop these individuals from possessing the potency and close relationship with God he exhibited and traditionally associated with the martyrs. This manifested itself in the life of Anthony in his battles against demons during his years in the desert. So much so that those who visited him reported…
Antony, as from a shrine, came forth initiated in the mysteries and filled with the Spirit of God. Then for the first time he was seen outside the fort by those who came to see him. And they, when they saw him, wondered at the sight, for he had the same habit of body as before, and was neither fat, like a man without exercise, nor lean from fasting and striving with the demons, but he was just the same as they had known him before his retirement. And again his soul was free from blemish, for it was neither contracted as if by grief, nor relaxed by pleasure, nor possessed by laughter or dejection, for he was not troubled when he beheld the crowd, nor overjoyed at being saluted by so many. But he was altogether even as being guided by reason, and abiding in a natural state. Through him the Lord healed the bodily ailments of many present, and cleansed others from evil spirits. And He gave grace to Antony in speaking, so that he consoled many that were sorrowful, and set those at variance at one, exhorting all to prefer the love of Christ before all that is in the world.Athanasius the Great, Life of St. Anthony, How he left the fort, and how monasticism began to flourish in Egypt. Antony its leader.
The description of Anthony here shows that he was filled with the spirit of God and in many ways like the martyrs so much so that when it came for him to die it seems that he was likely to be treated in much a similar way. We can see by the desire to have his body hidden after his death that it was assumed that his remains would have been treated in a similar fashion to that of the martyred by the mid-to-late 4th century. Something it seems like he objected to.
In the next entry, we’ll look at the changes in the spiritual landscape that were occurring during the lifetime of Anthony of Egypt. Specifically at the role of martyr, the saint, as an ongoing private intercessor, guide and source of blessing for individuals in the late 3rd and 4th century.