Jesus’ opponents felt sure that his execution would solve the problem that he had become. That was the way Roman authority typically dealt with troublesome religious movements — with exemplary public violence. Once the charismatic leaders were removed and the treasuries emptied, the followers usually lost their ardor for the cause.
Crucifixion was a particularly gruesome, humiliating, and torturous death. It was the cruelest method of executions the Romans had devised; and they reserved it for the worst crimes committed by men considered to be lowlife criminals. In most cases, it quashed movements instantly. Jesus himself made note of the principle at work: “strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered” (Mark 14:27).
But Jesus’ execution solved nothing for the Romans, for the Jerusalem priests, or for the Pharisees. Quite the contrary: it made matters worse. As reports of the Master’s empty tomb went abroad, his popularity took an upturn, and so the conflict continued and grew, now with ever more numerous disciples taking the place of Jesus in the struggle with the Jerusalem authorities.
Opposition, it seems, was an unavoidable part of the life of the disciples. Jesus himself said: “I will send . . . apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute” (Luke 11:49). In another account, he made it clear that such opposition would be universal, marked by Roman crucifixions and Jewish scourging (Matt. 23:34). He assured his disciples that, contrary to all appearances, persecution would be the occasion of great blessings:
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matt. 5:10–12)
In the same sermon, Jesus instructed his hearers: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44) — which is counter-intuitive advice, to say the least.
Persecution was a recurring theme in Jesus’ preaching. He made clear that it was inevitable (Luke 21:12) but that it should not be sought. Persecution should be avoided if possible (Matt. 10:23). It would be the occasion for some to lose their faith (Mark 4:17). Those who persevered, however, would be rewarded — so greatly that they would come to see persecution itself as a reward (Mark 10:30).
The Apostles, in turn, experienced persecution and came to expect it: “Indeed all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). Occasionally it would come in waves over the entire Church, as it did in Jerusalem (Acts 8:1), in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:50), in Iconium and Lystra (2 Tim. 3:11), and elsewhere.
The early Christians came to apply the word persecution to any obstacles to the fulfillment of their mission. If the obstacles were not willed directly by men, they were seen as persecutions of the devil (Rev. 2:10). Calamities, famines, peril, and hardships would try believers and test their faith, but they did not themselves have the power to “separate” a Christian “from the love of Christ” (Rom. 8:35). When Christians were weak, then, paradoxically, they were strong (2 Cor. 12:10).
The authorities in Jerusalem expected public flogging and executions to induce terror and shame. For the disciples of Jesus, however, persecution in every form became a blessing — and even a reason for boasting (see 2 Thess. 1:4). When Paul “boasts” of his accomplishments to the Corinthians, one thing he makes sure to mention is that he was flogged in public five times (2 Cor. 11:24). Persecution was, for the Church, a sign of success, a mark of resemblance to Jesus, who had said: “ ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (John 15:20).
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It should come as no surprise, then, that St. Luke dedicates so much narrative, in the Acts of the Apostles, to the story of the first disciple to be persecuted unto death.
His name was Stephen. He was “full of faith,” “full of grace and power,” “full of . . . the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5, 8). Steeped in the history of Israel, he was eloquent and persuasive. Admired even by the Apostles, he was chosen among the first deacons to assist them in the administration of the Church. The book of Acts has only twenty-eight chapters, and two of them are devoted almost entirely to the works and words of Stephen.
Because he was persecuted unto death, Stephen’s story loomed large — for centuries to come — in the imagination and conversation of Christians. The Church would have almost universal outlaw status, for more than 250 years, from the age of the Apostles until the reign of Constantine. Persecution was indeed, as Jesus and the Apostles had predicted, the normal condition of Christian life.
Stephen’s story provided Christians a framework for the understanding of all subsequent persecutions. Luke’s narrative, in fact, presents Stephen’s trial and death as strikingly similar to those of Jesus.
With “great wonders and signs among the people,” Stephen aroused the envy and fear of synagogue leaders and the Temple priests. They conspired against him. They fabricated charges against him — the same charges that had been leveled against Jesus: that he had spoken against the Temple and blasphemed “against Moses and God.” The authorities brought him to trial, interrogated him, and condemned him. His death was the occasion for a confession of Jesus as the Son of God. While dying, he asked God not to hold the sin of murder against his killers. And he asked Jesus to receive his spirit.
In every detail, Stephen’s life and death are presented as a faithful imitation of the Passion of Jesus. Much later in the book, one of the Apostles would apply a term to Stephen that has become the Church’s technical term for a Christian persecuted unto death. Stephen is called God’s martyros (Acts 22:20). To Greek speakers of the first century, the word meant simply “witness” — a witness in a court of law — someone who gave testimony, the word for which was martyrion.
The New Testament speaks often of witness. Jesus told the Apostles that they would be his witnesses to the ends of the earth, and they described themselves as witnesses of his Resurrection.
Witness can be active or passive. In English we use the same word to describe someone who sees something (an eyewitness) and someone who testifies to it. In Greek, such passive eyewitnesses are described by the word autoptai (as in Luke 1:2). Jesus, however, expected the Apostles not simply to see the events of salvation, but to testify to them — to give public testimony through their words and deeds.
Stephen is called a witness, and the term became so closely associated with him — and with the act of dying for Christ — that the original meanings of martus and martyrion were soon eclipsed. A third-century Scripture scholar from Egypt, Origen of Alexandria, explained how the word martyr acquired its Christian definition.
Now everyone who bears witness to the truth, whether he support it by words or deeds, or in whatever way, may properly be called a witness (martyr). But it has become the custom of the brotherhood, since they are struck with admiration of those who have contended to the death for truth and valor, to keep the name of martyr more properly for those who have borne witness to the mystery of godliness by shedding their blood for it.
Stephen’s name — in Greek, Stephanos — means “crown.” As Stephen was honored in the Church as the protomartyr, or first martyr, the early Christians often punned on his name, saying that those who died for the faith would receive a “martyr’s crown.” This may be the case even in the book of Revelation, where the Lord tells the Church of Ephesus: “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown [stephanon] of life” (Rev. 2:10). The murals in the Roman catacombs and other works of early Christian art typically depict the martyrs wearing or holding crowns, the universal sign of membership in the order of St. Stephen — the order of martyrs.
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As Jesus’ death was a once-for-all sacrifice, so the Church saw the death of the martyrs in similarly sacrificial terms. In the book of Revelation, John sees “under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness [martyrian] they had borne” (Rev. 6:9). The word he uses for altar means “place of sacrifice.” The martyrs are those who most perfectly carry out the exhortation of the Apostle Paul: “I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1, emphasis added).
The early Christians consistently presented martyrdom in liturgical terms. They looked at it as the most perfect imitation of the Eucharistic Christ. As Jesus laid down his life (John 15:13), he made an offering of his Body and Blood under the appearance of bread and wine (Luke 22:19–20). Jesus identified himself with those elements (John 6:51–56). So did the martyrs, in their turn. St. Paul foresaw that he would “be poured as a libation,” a “sacrificial offering” (Phil. 2:17; see also 2 Tim. 4:6).
Many in the generation immediately following the Apostles were pleased to associate their death with the action of Christ in the Sacrifice of the Altar. In A.D. 107, St. Ignatius of Antioch, as he made his journey to be executed in Rome, wrote: “I am God’s wheat. Let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may become the pure bread of Christ.” His greatest wish, he said, was to be “a libation to God while the altar is still ready.”34 He spoke of the Roman Church as a choir, “singing together” at his offering in the arena. He quoted the ancient Eucharistic prayers as he said he had come “from East to West” so that such an offering could be made.
Ignatius’s contemporary and correspondent, Polycarp of Smyrna, also died as a martyr. A disciple of the Apostle John, Polycarp was made a bishop while a young man and served effectively for many years before his trial and execution. The account of his death is the earliest description of a martyrdom we have, apart from Scripture. Set down by an eyewitness, Polycarp’s secretary, the text presents the bishop’s last words as a long prayer that follows the structure of the Eucharistic prayers — thanksgiving, petition, praise, and doxology— and echoes their language.
At the end he prays:
May I be accepted this day before you as a rich and acceptable sacrifice, as you, the ever-truthful God, have prepared and have revealed beforehand to me, and now have fulfilled. So, too, I praise you for all things, I bless you, I glorify you, along with the everlasting and heavenly Jesus Christ, your beloved Son. With him, to you and the Holy Spirit, be glory both now and to all coming ages. Amen.35
As flames closed in on the body of Polycarp (the eyewitness tells us), the onlookers smelled not the stench of burning flesh, but rather the aroma of baking bread and incense, two elements typically associated with the Christian liturgy.
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Martyrdom was indeed a vivid and compelling witness to the communion of life Christ shared with his disciples. “But if we have died with Christ,” Paul said, “we believe that we shall also live with him” (Rom. 6:8). Christians could be God’s children only if they were willing to share the suffering of the only-begotten Son — “we are . . . heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:16–17).
Martyrdom, then, was not some extreme form of masochism. Nor was it a method of suicide. It was laying down one’s life in imitation of Jesus. It was giving one’s entire life in loving sacrifice, as Jesus did. Christians believed it was well worth the reward. St. Paul had written: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18). Given those terms, martyrdom was, in the words of one modern sociologist, a “rational choice”: “while membership [in the Church] was expensive, it was, in fact, a bargain.”
Many, apparently, made that choice. Persecutions raged intermittently until A.D. 313, when Christianity was legalized by the emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milan. We do not know how many died as martyrs. Scholars differ in their estimates, but the numbers were surely in the thousands — and perhaps hundreds of thousands. The documentary evidence, from both pagan and Christian witnesses, is extensive.
According to ancient tradition, all the Apostles suffered publicly for the Faith, and most died as martyrs. Yet even the Christians who died in their beds had the opportunity to give witness. The biblical scholar Origen testified to the universality of the vocation to martyrion — to Christian witness.
The Savior gives the name of martyr to every one who bears witness to the truth he declares. At the Ascension he says to his disciples: “you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The leper who was cleansed (Matthew 8:4) had still to bring the gift that Moses commanded for a testimony to those who did not believe in the Christ. In the same way the martyrs bear witness for a testimony to the unbelieving, and so do all the saints whose deeds shine before men. They spend their life rejoicing in the cross of Christ and bearing witness to the true light.
Martyrdom made a powerful impression on the pagans who witnessed it. The first-century philosopher Epictetus expressed his grudging admiration, as did the second-century emperor Marcus Aurelius and his contemporary, the physician Galen.
Many, like the second-century philosopher Justin of Samaria, saw the Christians’ testimony of blood and believed. At the end of that century, an African lawyer named Tertullian, also a convert to the Faith, taunted his persecutors: “As often as we are mown down by you, the more we grow in numbers; the blood of the Christians is seed.”
The fact should never arrive as news. It is as old as the Gospel:
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (John 12:24).