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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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1. The name.-‘Martyr’ is given as the rendering of μάρτυς in the Revised Version only in Revelation 17:6. The word is used in practically the same sense in Revelation 2:13 (Antipas) and Acts 22:20 (Stephen), but is in both passages translated ‘witness.’ As Jesus is said to have ‘witnessed’ by accepting death (Revelation 1:5; cf. 1 Timothy 6:13), the expression was appropriately transferred to His followers who suffered for Him. The absolute use of μαρτυρία and μαρτυρεῖν to signify this did not become fixed until the middle of the 2nd cent. (see J. B. Lightfoot on Clem. ad Cor. v. in Apostolic Fathers, I. ii. [1890] 26).

2. The position of Christians.-Our Lord warned His disciples that active hostility would be the normal attitude of the world toward the Church (Matthew 5:11). The Apostolic Age provided a continuous commentary on this saying. It is customary to distinguish one or two epochs in that period as moments of great persecution. But this must not obscure the truth that persecution seldom ceased altogether. In the first days of the Church this was exclusively the work of Jews. Besides the attacks mentioned in the Acts there were others to which we have only passing allusions (e.g. 1 Thessalonians 2:14, James 2:6; James 5:10, Hebrews 10:34). These prove that the Jews, not only of Palestine, but also of the Dispersion, were active in compelling Christians to pay for their faith by enduring legal and social oppression. The Romans did not at first discriminate between Jews and Christians, and extended to the latter the privileged toleration accorded to the former. This confusion of thought appears in the statement of Suetonius (Claud. 25) that Jewish disorders were provoked by ‘Chrestus,’ and in the notion of Lysias that St. Paul was one of the Zealots (Acts 21:38). But under Nero the Imperial policy changed. The mere profession of Christianity now became matter for a capital charge (see this maintained in Hardy, Studies in Roman History, ch. iv., as against Ramsay, in Church in the Roman Empire5, ch. xi. sect. 7). By both people and rulers it was held to involve ‘odium humani generis.’ It incurred popular hatred because of the divisions which it introduced into family and social life. It became a political crime through its incompatibility with Caesar-worship, its refusal to ‘worship the image of the beast’ (Revelation 13:15), which led the Roman authorities to regard it as anarchy. No special laws were passed against it, but there were standing police orders that it should be suppressed. This policy was steadily maintained, and such a reference as that made by Pliny in his letter to Trajan (Epp. x. 97) concerning an unknown persecution in Bithynia twenty years before shows that there must have been much official activity against Christians of which no record survives. The NT reflects the consciousness of the change in the attitude of the government. In Acts Rome is the power which protects Christians against Jewish assault (Acts 25:10); in the Apocalypse Rome is drunk with the blood of the saints (Revelation 17:6).

3. The number of the martyrs.-Later ages naturally tended to exaggerate this in order to add glory to the Church. It was held that the truest following of Christ was found among those who had been put to death for His name. Legends grew up which in time invested every member of the apostolic college with the martyr’s halo (a collection of these stories may be seen in the Ante-Nicene Christian Library, vol. xvi. [1873]). It is instructive to note that Clem. Alex. (Strom. iv. 9) quotes an early protest against supposing that salvation belonged to martyrs only, which is justified by citing the instances of some of the apostles who had died a natural death. But it remains true that the Biblical and other records leave the impression that great numbers of believers were slain in the 1st century. In the Jewish persecution Saul is said to have entered into every house (Acts 8:3), and to have searched every synagogue for Christians. The number of converts was already considerable in Jerusalem (cf. Acts 2:41; Acts 2:47; Acts 6:7), so that, unless we hold (with R. B. Rackham, Acts of the Apostles, 1901) that he pursued Hellenists only, the list of sufferers must have been very large. Imprisonment, beating, and even death, the Romans presumably conniving, were the penalties incurred (Acts 22:4-5; Acts 22:19). On this occasion the leaders of the Church seem to have escaped, but the next onslaught affected them specially (Acts 12). James the son of Zebedee fell, and Peter was cast into prison. These attacks left a lasting impression on the Church (cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:14).

Still heavier was the toll of martyrs exacted by the Roman persecutions of the 1st century. Tacitus (Ann. xv. 44) speaks of a multitudo ingens of victims in the Neronian outbreak, and to this answers the πολὺ πλῆθος of Clem. Rom. (ad Cor. vi.). In Revelation 13:7 testimony is borne to the thoroughness with which the whole of the Empire was made to feel the effects of this policy. The same impression is conveyed by 1 Peter 5:8-9. The adversary’s rage is like the fury of a lion; all over the Roman world Christians are united in a community of suffering. It is noteworthy that both Jewish and Gentile persecutors seem to have found a special object of attack in the Christian prophets, who were no doubt brought into prominence by their preaching of the gospel (cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:15, Revelation 16:6; Revelation 18:24). The horrors inflicted by the Roman torturers may be gathered from the two passages of Tacitus and Clement mentioned above. The victims were crucified, or, by a diabolical refinement of cruelty, clad in the skins of beasts to serve as the quarry of dogs. At nightfall they were smeared with pitch to stand as living torches in the gardens of Nero. For women there were brutalities more shameful than death.

4. The historic martyrs.-Among those who were done to death in the Jewish persecutions mentioned in the Acts the names of two only are preserved-Stephen, and James the son of Zebedee. Stephen was nominally charged with blasphemy, but the proceedings were no trial in any legal sense, and, if the Sanhedrin were ever called to account for them, they doubtless pleaded that a sudden and uncontrollable tumult had occurred. Of the martyrdom of James the account is in Acts 12:2 and in Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica (Eusebius, etc.) ii. 9, quoting Clement of Alexandria. James was beheaded, and his bearing so impressed his accuser that it converted him, and he suffered with the apostle. This must have been before a.d. 44, as in that year Herod Agrippa died. Attempts have recently been made (e.g. by W. Bousset, Die Offenbarung Johannis5, 1896, pp. 47-8) to establish the allegation of Philip of Side that Papias had said that John the Apostle was slain with his brother. But if this were so, the silence of Acts 12:2 is incomprehensible. We have no reason to suppose that John died anything but a natural death. The stories of his escape from the boiling cauldron before the Latin Gate, and of his drinking poison without harm, come from Gnostic Acta Johannis of the 2nd century. Some years after the passion of the first James, another James, ‘the Lord’s brother,’ was murdered (? a.d. 61). Ananus, the high priest, in the interval between the death of Festus and the arrival of Albinus, caused him to be stoned. The dramatic account of his end given by Hegesippus is preserved in Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica (Eusebius, etc.) ii. 23. A shorter and more authentic record may be found in Josephus, Ant. XX. ix. 1 (see J. B. Mayor, Ep. of St. James3, 1910, p. xxxix).

In Rome the first shadow of the Neronian persecution fell upon Pomponia Graecina. The evidence of the Catacombs has made it almost certain that the ‘foreign superstition’ with which she was charged (Tac. Ann. xiii. 32) was Christianity (cf. Lightfoot, Apostolic Fathers, I. i. 30). Her trial resulted in her acquittal (a.d. 57). Seven years later Rome was burnt, and Nero turned the popular rage against the Christians. His success cost the Church on earth the lives not only of a great host of unknown saints but also of St. Peter and St. Paul. Lightfoot points out (on Clem. Rom. ad Cor. v.) that the NT raises the expectation that these two would be martyrs. In John 21:18 there is what is virtually a description of St. Peter’s death, and in 2 Timothy 4:6 ff. St. Paul writes as one who knew that his end was near. That they both suffered in Rome is a constant tradition. Clement (loc. cit.) couples them together as ‘athletes’ who ‘struggled to the death,’ and were familiar to Roman believers. Ignatius (ad Rom. iv.) implies that both had been teachers of authority in Rome. Eusebius (Historia Ecclesiastica (Eusebius, etc.) ii. 25) collects testimonies to the same effect. He cites Dionysius of Corinth as asserting that both apostles suffered about the same time in Rome, and adds, from the Roman Gaius, a minute description of their tombs. Tertullian (Scorp. 15, de Praescr. 36) affirms that St. Peter was crucified, and Origen (ap. Euseb. Historia Ecclesiastica (Eusebius, etc.) iii. 1) says that he was, at his own request, placed on the cross head downwards. The ‘Domine, quo vadis?’ story is preserved in pseudo-Ambrose, Sermo contra Auxentium. St. Peter’s death may be dated in the early days of the Neronian persecution (a.d. 64). His Epistle implies an imminent onslaught, and the tradition which puts his grave in the Vatican suggests that he was among the victims butchered there after the great fire. Eusebius (Historia Ecclesiastica (Eusebius, etc.) iii. 30) repeats the story of Clem. Alex. that the Apostle before his own death saw his wife led away to execution, and comforted her in a manner typical of Christian martyrs. He ‘rejoiced because she had been called and was going home.’ Tertullian and Origen, in the passages to which allusion is made above, name Rome as the scene of St. Paul’s martyrdom, and Tertullian’s expression is to the effect that he was beheaded. Jerome (de Vir. Illustr. v.) alleges that the two apostles died on the same day. This, though supported by the commemoration of both on 29th June, is in itself improbable and the tradition varies (cf. L. Duchesne, Lib. Pont., 1886-92, i. 119).

The date of the death of Antipas of Pergamum (Revelation 2:13) was, according to legend, in the reign of Domitian, when he was burnt to death in a brazen bull. But the phrase ‘in the days of Antipas’ suggests a date some years before the words were written, and Antipas was probably killed in some unknown persecution under the earlier Flavians.

Under Domitian suffered three persons whose Christianity, if not absolutely certain, is highly probable. The Emperor’s own cousin, the consul Flavius Clemens, was condemned, according to Suetonius (Domitian, 15), ‘ex tenuissima suspicione.’ If Clemens was a Christian, he would be unable to take part in public functions which involved Emperor-worship. This fits in with the assertion of Dio Cassius (lxvii. 14) that he was charged with ἀθεότης, i.e. ‘sacrilege,’ and with practising ‘Jewish’ ways. It also explains the scornful verdict of Suetonius that he displayed ‘contemptible indolence.’ At the same time his wife, Domitilla, was banished to Pontia (Jerome, Ep. 108 [or 86], ‘ad Eustochium’). With these two Dio couples M’. Acilius Glabrio as a victim of Domitian’s fury. The evidence as to his religion is inconclusive. Lightfoot’s denial of his Christianity (Apostolic Fathers, I. i. 81 n. [Note: . note.] ) is questioned by Ramsay (op. cit. p. 261).

With Trajan we reach the last martyr of this period. It is related in Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica (Eusebius, etc.) iii. 32, that Symeon the son of Clopas, ‘the second bishop of Jerusalem,’ was arrested on the ground that he was descended from David, and was a Christian. After many days of torture he was crucified. With him, in the opinion of Eusebius, passed away the last survivor of the Apostolic Age.

Literature.-H. B. Workman, Persecution in the Early Church3, London, 1911 (with full bibliography); A. J. Mason, Historic Martyrs of the Primitive Church, do., 1905; B. F. Westcott, The Two Empires, do., 1909, ch. ii.; H. M. Gwatkin, Early Church History, do., 1909, vol. i. chs. v.-vii.; W. M. Ramsay, The Church in the Roman Empire5, do., 1897, chs. x.-xvi.; E. G. Hardy, Studies in Roman History (formerly, Christianity and the Roman Government), do., 1906; H. B. Swete, Apocalypse of St. John 2, do., 1907, Introd., sect. vii.

C. T. Dimont.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Martyr'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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