Christian martyrs

Christian martyrs

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The first known Christian martyr Saint Stephen, painting by Giacomo Cavedone

A Christian martyr is one who is killed for following Christianity, through stoning, crucifixion, burning at the stake or other forms of torture and capital punishment. The word "martyr" comes from the Greek word μάρτυς, mártys, which means "witness."

At first, the term applied to Apostles.[1] Once Christians started to undergo persecution, the term came to be applied to those who suffered hardships for their faith.[1] Finally, it was restricted to those who had been killed for their faith.[1] The early Christian period before Constantine I was the "classic" age of martyrdom.[1] A martyr's death was considered a "baptism in blood," cleansing one of sin as baptism in water did.[1] Early Christians venerated martyrs as powerful intercessors, and their utterances were treasured as inspired specially by the Holy Spirit.[1]

Although the general consensus of scholars is that relatively few Christians were actually executed, the experience of persecution and martyrdom would be memorialized by successive generations of Christians and thereby become a central feature of their self-understanding continuing even to modern times. Thus, many Christians would come to view persecution as an integral part of the Christian experience. The implications of this self-image have had far-reaching ramifications, especially in Western cultures.



[edit] Relevance of martyrdom to Christianity

Being persecuted for one's faith and the veneration of martyrs have been important components of the Christian faith for centuries, especially in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

"Martyrdom for the faith ...became a central feature in the Christian experience."[2]

“Notions of persecution by the "world," deep in the Christian tradition. For evangelicals who read the New Testament as an inerrant history of the primitive church, the understanding that to be a Christian is to be persecuted is obvious, if not inescapable”[3]

Not all Christians in the 4th century thought martyrdom was the right answer. An overwhelming majority of Christians did not choose to die for their faith during the persecutions.

[edit] Martyrdom as a component of Christian self-understanding

In recent years several notable studies--including those by Judith Perkins, Daniel Boyarin, and Elizabeth Castelli--have assessed the importance of martyrdom and suffering in constructions of ancient Christian identity.(n1) This essay takes as its starting point the observation by Perkins that in early Christian communities, the threat of suffering (whether real or perceived) worked to create a particular kind of self.(n2) In Perkins's view, many ancient Christians came to believe that "to be a Christian was to suffer."(n3) Christian martyr acts, when understood as textual vehicles for the construction of culture and the articulation of Christian identities, emerge as one mechanism by which such selves were constructed. [4]

...the memory work done by early Christians on the historical experience of persecution and martyrdom was a form of culture making, whereby Christian identity was indelibly marked by the collective memory of the religious suffering of others.[5]

The Christian experience of violence during the pagan persecutions shaped the ideologies and practices that drove further religious conflicts over the course of the fourth and fifth centuries... The formative experience of martyrdom and persecution determined the ways in which later Christians would both use and experience violence under the Christian empire. Discourses of martyrdom and persecution formed the symbolic language through which Christians represented, justified, or denounced the use of violence."[6]

[edit] Influence of persecution on European political thought

"Persecution was seen by early Christians, as by later historians, as one of the crucial influences on the growth and development of the early Church and Christian beliefs. (Fremd) shows how the persecutions formed an essential part in a providential philosophy of history that has profoundly influenced European political thought."[7]

[edit] Martyrdom in Christian theology

The lives of the martyrs became a source of inspiration for some Christians, and their lives and relics were revered. The 2nd-century Church Father Tertullian wrote that "the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church," implying that the martyrs' willing sacrifice of their lives leads to the conversion of others.[8] Relics of the saints are still revered in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. The age of martyrdom led to the presence of relics in altars, and in the foundation stones of the buildings built for worship.[citation needed]

The age of martyrs also forced the church to confront theological issues such as the proper response to those Christians who “lapsed” and renounced the Christian faith to save their lives: were they to be allowed back into the Church? Some felt they should not, while others said they could. In the end, it was agreed to allow them in after a period of penance. The re-admittance of the “lapsed” became a defining moment in the Church because it allowed the sacrament of repentance and readmission to the Church despite issues of sin. This issue caused the Donatist and Novatianist schisms.[9][10]

In 1933 the German church historian Ethelbert Stauffer put forth the proposition that the Christian tradition of martyrdom began with the earlier Jewish tradition, in which suffering was caused by Satan's power in this "aeon," or era, but that it ushered in a new aeon.

[edit] Martyrs in early Christianity

[edit] Martyrs in the New Testament

The doctrines of the apostles brought the Early Church into conflict with some Jewish religious authorities. This eventually led to their expulsion from the synagogues. Acts records the martyrdom of the Christian leaders, Stephen and James of Zebedee.

The first known Christian martyr was St. Stephen as recorded in the Acts 6:8–8:3, who was stoned to death for his faith. Stephen was killed for his support, belief and faith in Jesus Christ of Nazareth as the Messiah. There were probably other early Christian martyrs besides Stephen, since St. Paul acknowledged persecuting Christians before his conversion(Acts 9:1ff.).

[edit] Persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire

The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer, by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1883).

In its first three centuries, the Christian church endured periods of persecution at the hands of Roman authorities. Christians were persecuted by local authorities on an intermittent and ad-hoc basis. In addition, there were several periods of empire-wide persecution which was directed from the seat of government in Rome.

Some early Christians sought out and welcomed martyrdom. Some Roman authorities tried to avoid Christians because they "goaded, chided, belittled and insulted the crowds until they demanded their death." A group of people presented themselves to the Roman governor of Asia, C. Arrius Antoninus, declared themselves to be Christians, and encouraged the governor to do his duty and put them to death. He executed a few, but as the rest demanded it as well, he responded, exasperated, "You wretches, if you want to die, you have cliffs to leap from and ropes to hang by."[11] Such seeking after death is found in Tertullian's Scorpiace but was certainly not the only view of martyrdom in the Christian church. Both Polycarp and Cyprian, bishops in Smyrna and Carthage respectively, attempted to avoid martyrdom.[citation needed]

This experience, and the associated martyrs and apologists, would have significant historical and theological consequences for the developing faith.[12]

Among other things, persecution sparked the cult of the saints, facilitated the rapid growth and spread of Christianity, prompted defenses and explanations of Christianity (the "apologies") and, in its aftermath, raised fundamental questions about the nature of the church.

While Christianity became the state religion of the empire in 380, (see First seven Ecumenical Councils) persecution of Christians did not come to a complete halt, instead it switched to those deemed to be heretics.

Early Christians suffered sporadic persecution because they refused to worship the Roman gods or to pay homage to the emperor as divine. In the Roman empire, refusing to sacrifice to the Emperor or the empire's gods was tantamount to refusing to swear an oath of allegiance to one's country.

[edit] Origins of Christian martyrdom

Daniel Boyarin argues that there are "two major theses with regard to the origins of Christian martyrology, which [can be referred to] as the Frend thesis and the Bowersock thesis." Boyarin characterizes W.H.C. Frend's view of martyrdom as having originated in "Judaism" and Christian martyrdom as a continuation of that practice. In contrast, Boyarin describes G.W. Bowersock's view of Christian marytrology as being completely unrelated to the Jewish practice, being instead "a practice that grew up in an entirely Roman cultural environment and then was borrowed by Jews. Boyarin points out that, despite their apparent opposition to each other, both of these arguments are based on the assumption that Judaism and Christianity were already two separate and distinct religions. He challenges that assumption and argues that "making of martyrdom was at least in part, part and parcel of the process of the making of Judaism and Christianity as distinct entities."[13]

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^ a b c d e f "martyr." Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford dictionary of the Christian church. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005
  2. ^ *The Sect-Church Dynamic and Christian Expansion in the Roman Empire: Persecution, Penitential Discipline, and Schism in Sociological Perspective by Joseph M. Bryant The British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 44, No. 2 (Jun., 1993), pp. 303-339 Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of The London School of Economics and Political Science
  3. ^ The Christian Coalition: Dreams of Restoration, Demands for Recognition by Justin Watson 1999
  4. ^ Philosophy as Training for Death Reading the Ancient Christian Martyr Acts as Spiritual-Exercises (2006)]
  5. ^ *Martyrdom and memory: early Christian culture making by Elizabeth Anne Castelli 2004
  6. ^ *There is no crime for those who have Christ: Religious Violence in the Christian Roman Empire By Michael Gaddis 2005 University of California Press
  7. ^ * Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church By William H C Frend (2008)
  8. ^ Salisbury, Joyce EllenThe Blood of Martyrs: Unintended Consequences of Ancient Violence 2004 Routledge, ISBN 0-415-94129-6
  9. ^ "Donatism." Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford dictionary of the Christian church. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005
  10. ^ "Novatianism." Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford dictionary of the Christian church. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005
  11. ^ Quoted in Bowersock, G. W. Martyrdom and Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, 1. Bowersock cites Tertullian.
  12. ^ "The tradition of martyrdom has entered deep into the Christian consciousness." Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity, Volume I: Beginnings to 1500, rev. ed. (Prince Press, 2000), p. 81.
  13. ^ Boyarin, Daniel (1999), Dying for God, Stanford University Press, p. 93, 

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