Class, Week 2: The Martyrs

Polycarp was an old man, at least 86 years old, when the Roman authorities arrested him around 156 C.E..

At his trial, the proconsul tried to get him to deny Jesus:

“Swear by the fortune of Caesar; repent, and say, ‘Away with the atheists.'” the proconsul demanded.

Christians at the time were considered atheists because they refused to worship the popular gods of the day. Polycarp turned the word’s meaning on its head, waving to the observers in the room and saying drolly, “Yes, away with the atheists.”

The proconsul tried again: “Swear, and I will set you free; reproach Christ.”

Polycarp’s response sealed his fate:  “Eighty-six years I have served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?”

The dialogue above comes from the Martyrdom of Polycarp, a letter written by the church in Smyrna describing his arrest, trial and execution at the hands of the Romans. As the first known “passion” outside the Gospels, it’s an important window into the mindset of early Christians, who lived under threat of exposure, condemnation and death.

Along with providing a narrative of the events at the end of Polycarp’s life, the letter also sketches the earliest theology of martyrdom – one that probably seems a little strange today.

As he’s about to be led into the arena, Polycarp delivers an extended prayer, during which he says:

I give thanks that You have counted me worthy of this day and this hour, that I should have a part in the number of Your martyrs, in the cup of Christ, to the resurrection of eternal life, both of soul and body, through the incorruption [imparted] by the Holy Spirit. Among whom may I be accepted this day before You as a fat and acceptable sacrifice, according as You, the ever-truthful God, have fore-ordained, have revealed beforehand to me, and now have fulfilled.

It’s a very high view of God’s sovereignty – God considered him worthy to be numbered with the martyrs and “fore-ordained” and revealed his death to him. Further, Polycarp sees himself as a literal sacrifice to be accepted by God – there is perhaps some metaphorical treatment there, but given his scheduled death by live burning, it seems more literal than symbolic.

The letter ends with something of a eulogy for Polycarp, praising him as “not merely an illustrious teacher, but also a pre-eminent martyr, whose martyrdom all desire to imitate, as having been altogether consistent with the Gospel of Christ.”

That is not language we’re used to hearing. We don’t talk about our desire to emulate someone’s martyrdom. Although the letter describes Polycarp fleeing Smyrna when he received word of his impending arrest, the rest of the letter does its best to make martyrdom seem as desirable as possible.

The Martyrdom of Polycarp is not the only place where such glorification appears.

About 50 years later, the Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas was written in Carthage, telling the story of two catechumens (people who were in training for baptism but had not yet been initiated into the church) – a 22-year-old nursing mother and her pregnant slave – who were martyred during a wave of persecution in North Africa.

The story is mostly a first-person narration by Vivia Perpetua, “respectably born, liberally educated, a married matron, having a father and mother and two brothers, one of whom, like herself, was a catechumen, and a son, an infant at the breast,” according to the opening narrator.

The text is filled with visions – Perpetua at her brother’s request seeks out and receives a vision revealing their fate (death, not deliverance), she has a vision about another brother who has died and now seems to live in a purgatory-like state, she has a vision in which she understands “that I was not to fight against the beasts, but against the devil.” A fellow catechumen, Sarturus, has a vision that recalls the Apocalypse of John, in which they enter the throne room of God, complete with 24 elders. “And I said, ‘Perpetua, you have what you wish.’ And she said to me, ‘Thanks be to God, that joyous as I was in the flesh, I am now more joyous here.'”

Perpetua stands firm against her father’s entreaties to reject Christ and live, for the sake of her infant son. Meanwhile, Felicitus has a daughter in prison, and she rejoices “that she had safely brought forth, so that she might fight with the wild beasts; from the blood and from the midwife to the gladiator, to wash after childbirth with a second baptism.”

As the confessors were led to the arena, they were scourged – “and they indeed rejoiced that they should have incurred any one of their Lord’s passions.”

But He who had said, “Ask, and ye shall receive,” gave to them when they asked, that death which each one had wished for. For when at any time they had been discoursing among themselves about their wish in respect of their martyrdom, Saturninus indeed had professed that he wished that he might be thrown to all the beasts; doubtless that he might wear a more glorious crown. Therefore in the beginning of the exhibition he and Revocatus made trial of the leopard, and moreover upon the scaffold they were harassed by the bear.

Perpetua was gored by a bull (I assume that’s what is meant by “a very fierce cow”), but was brought out for a second confrontation.  “Then she was called for again, and bound up her disheveled hair; for it was not becoming for a martyr to suffer with dishevelled hair, lest she should appear to be mourning in her glory.”

The text describes her as feeling no pain and being unaware that she had been mortally wounded.

And when the populace called for them into the midst, that as the sword penetrated into their body they might make their eyes partners in the murder, they rose up of their own accord, and transferred themselves whither the people wished; but they first kissed one another, that they might consummate their martyrdom with the kiss of peace. The rest indeed, immoveable and in silence, received the sword-thrust; much more Saturus, who also had first ascended the ladder, and first gave up his spirit, for he also was waiting for Perpetua. But Perpetua, that she might taste some pain, being pierced between the ribs, cried out loudly, and she herself placed the wavering right hand of the youthful gladiator to her throat. Possibly such a woman could not have been slain unless she herself had willed it, because she was feared by the impure spirit.

The benediction concluding the text reads:

O most brave and blessed martyrs! O truly called and chosen unto the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ! 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.

Together, these two letters provide some meat on the skeleton of the argument advanced by Elaine Pagels and Karen King in Reading Judas – that the church’s glorification of martyrdom and high view of God’s sovereignty led to the natural conclusion that God willed martyrdom, and that Christians should welcome it, perhaps even seek it out.

Indeed, it makes us wince a little to read that God “fore-ordained” the death of his followers, as Polycarp states, or the close connection between the deaths in Perpetua and Felicitas and language like “God the Father Omnipotent.”

Did the writers of these documents believe that God wanted Christians to be martyred? That’s debatable. But it’s not an improbable notion based on what they wrote. Early in Perpetua and Felicitas, the narrator describes the writing of the text this way:

Since then the Holy Spirit permitted, and by permitting willed, that the proceedings of that exhibition should be committed to writing, although we are unworthy to complete the description of so great a glory.

Today we divorce the notion of God’s will from what he allows to happen. Violence is the result of sin, we say, not the will of God. God allows it to happen, but that doesn’t mean it’s his will. In the early church – around 200 C.E., or just 100 years after the writing of the New Testament texts – what God allowed to happen was what he willed.

That opens up all sorts of questions about theodicy, and perhaps those questions were answered in a different way by the writers of the so-called “lost gospels.” That’s Pagels and King’s argument in Reading Judas – that it enshrines a minority viewpoint questioning the martyr glory and assumptions that God approved of such violence.

Or perhaps that’s simply an effort to find a very modern/postmodern debate in ancient sources whose worldview not only required a supernatural explanation for every natural occurrence.


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