“Why I Wrote Early Christian Martyr Stories”
by, Bryan Litfin
In a time when beheadings of Christians have been making international headlines, a book on martyrdom needs no elaborate justification. The fact of Christian persecution is just as real today as it was in the early church. That said, we can’t assume modern Christians who experience persecution for their faith are processing those events exactly like the ancient believers did. Though certain aspects of martyrdom surely must be universal to all who experience it, we will do well to try and understand what the first Christians thought about their fiery trials.
I wrote Early Christian Martyr Stories to give contemporary readers the chance to encounter the ancient church’s reflection on martyrdom firsthand. The texts I have chosen reflect a variety of genres. The first one isn’t even Christian: it is the story of some Jewish martyrs who stayed true to God’s Law in the era before Christ. This text, which recounts the deaths of a Jewish mother’s seven sons along with a revered scribe named Eleazar, set a martyrological pattern that many subsequent Christian narratives would follow. All the best and most reliable martyr stories are translated in ECMS. We encounter great heroes and heroines such as Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Perpetua and Felicity, and Justin Martyr as they face the ultimate choice: Will they deny Christ and escape? Or will they stand firm for the King who saved them? Sometimes the stories are rather terse. Other times they are full of emotion. But they are always inspiring as we encounter ancient Christians staying true to their beliefs in the face of hideous oppression.
In addition to actual martyr stories, I also tried to capture the early church’s warm devotion to its beloved confessors. Great theologians from the age of persecution such as Tertullian and Origen had many bold words for the martyrs as they urged them to strive for the victor’s crown. Later, after the time when the threat of persecution had passed, eloquent preachers like Augustine of Hippo memorialized the martyrs in praise-filled sermons. In this way the church’s pastors offered to a more complacent generation of Christians a lofty goal to which they could aspire. The martyrs exemplified the way that every believer must die to the world in order to gain Christ.
It’s not as though all these martyrological writings don’t already exist in English translation somewhere. They do—if you know where to look. But that’s just the thing: the average reader wouldn’t know where to find these documents. And even when they can be found, they’re not all collected under one cover. Many of the scattered volumes have intimidating Latin or Greek texts on the facing pages. Or they’re translated in the old-fashioned language of yesteryear’s academia. Or the reader’s knowledge about the historical background is assumed rather than explained. Clearly there was a need for a new book on martyrdom with up-to-date translations and plenty of background information.
In the end, though, ECMS is not simply an academic work of ancient history. If it does not inspire Christian readers to identify with the martyrs’ courage and “count the cost” of true discipleship, it will not have done its job. Of course, most of us won’t have to put our lives on the line for the name of Jesus. We aren’t likely to face the martyr’s ultimate choice, whether by the teeth of lions or a zealot’s blunt knife. Yet all followers of the Risen Lord are called to be “martyrs” in the most basic sense of the word. As I point out in the book, the Greek word martys originally meant someone who gave eyewitness testimony in court or another public setting. Then, in the mid-second century, Christians began using the word to describe those who bore witness to the Lord through their words and deeds before a watching audience in the context of persecution. At this time, martys came to designate a person who died for his or her faith as ultimate proof of firm conviction.
My most basic reason for writing ECMS, then, is not simply to educate readers about an ancient historical phenomenon, nor even to draw comparisons to modern instances of persecution. It is to remind all Christians to step forward as “witnesses” for the name of our Lord. Though bloodshed probably won’t be required of us, steadfast courage in the face of opposition and hostility certainly will (2 Tim. 3:12). In today’s world of ease and comfort, we all need more of the martyr’s willingness to pay a great price and make a big sacrifice. And as we learn to do so, we will come to realize that it is not death by leaping flames or gnashing fangs that binds the modern Christian to the ancient martyr; it is an unshakeable resolve to follow hard after Jesus Christ at any cost.
Bryan M. Litfin (PhD, University of Virginia) is professor of theology at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of several books, including Getting to Know the Church Fathers, and has written numerous scholarly articles and essays