Many Christians have heard the story of Polycarp. In the mid-second century, he was burned at the stake for refusing to recant his faith. The 86-year-old church leader’s final days reportedly mirrored those of Christ: betrayal, arrest, no real trial. Refusing to deny his Lord, he was sentenced to be burned.
Though Polycarp was certainly murdered for the gospel, the details are murky. When he was tied to the stake and the fire was lit, the flames allegedly formed an arc around him and didn’t burn him. The frustrated officials then ordered him to be stabbed to death, whereupon a dove was seen to fly from his body.
How much of this is fact, and how much fiction? And what about the dozens of similar martyr stories from the early church?
In his book Early Christian Martyr Stories: An Evangelical Introduction with New Translations (Baker, 2014), Bryan Litfin provides some answers. I spoke with the professor of theology at Moody Bible Institute about martyr stories that have proven false, whether Foxe’s Book of Martyrs is legit, whether Peter was crucified upside down, and more.
Early Christian Martyr Stories takes a closer look at the facts behind some of the best-known martyr accounts in the early church and shows some to be fabrications. How did some of these stories turn out to be false?
The same instinct among the early Christians that produced the apostolic stories also produced the martyr accounts. You have to remember that we are talking about a socially marginalized group. Yet they are like all people: they enjoy a good story, and they wanted stories that validated their own beliefs. Apostles and martyrs gave the Christians heroes to look up to—people who had power on earth, and now have power in heaven, to the point that they could even be your friend and advocate up above. Mediterranean societies weren’t (and still aren’t) highly egalitarian. People were stratified in fixed ranks. The lowly had to know someone higher on the social scale to make connections with the powerful.
So it was encouraging to the early Christians to have “friends of God” like apostles, martyrs, and saints who could bridge you to the Lord. Maybe this seems strange to us in America where “all men are created equal,” but it was very normal in those societies. This explains the massive body of literature about martyrs and saints (called hagiography). The appetite for these stories was huge. People wanted to learn about their heroes’ adventures, and they wanted to feel close to those heroes and even seek their aid.
The authors of these texts weren’t necessarily lying when they composed these documents. Sometimes they simply didn’t know better, or they were gullible and repeated what they’d heard, or they concocted stories of what “surely” must’ve happened to someone as great as St. Paul or St. Lawrence or St. Anthony of Egypt. Over time, more and more stories accrued around these figures, borrowing from other tall tales, until finally the corpus of hagiographical literature was massive. It didn’t start to get analyzed accurately until the 1600s by a group of scholars called the Bollandists. We now have relatively few martyr stories we believe to be highly accurate, and those are the ones I translated in Early Christian Martyr Stories.
In researching early martyr accounts, what surprised you most? Please tell me the story of Polycarp is true!
Yes, Polycarp’s story is one of the few accurate ones. But what do we mean by “true”? Even where we’re dealing with real historical events grounded in eyewitness accounts, these stories still have a large amount of “theologizing” that attempts to produce spiritual results in the reader (or listener). Polycarp was indeed killed in the amphitheater at Smyrna for his Christian faith, but did each step of his journey to martyrdom mirror Jesus’s own journey to the cross? To make this case requires analyzing the details of what was known about Polycarp’s arrest and execution, then comparing it to the Gospels to discover spiritual parallels. I’m not saying the martyrdom didn’t occur like people said, but you have to remember all these martyr texts are being viewed through a certain theological lens. In Polycarp’s case, the author wanted to interpret the martyr in the category of an imitator of Jesus—a “gospel martyrdom,” as the text calls it.
I suspect many readers might be surprised by some aspects of what they learn in Early Christian Martyr Stories, such as the early Christians’ strong desire to avoid denying Jesus’s name in word or deed. Not everybody could stand firm when faced with torture and death, yet we really do see how steadfast they longed to be. They loved Christ and were horrified at the thought of blaspheming his holy name.
There seems to be rising interest in the study of Christian martyrdom. What do you think accounts for this upswing, and what new insights are coming as a result?
This evangelical resurgence parallels a broader pattern among non-evangelical scholars. The concept of dying for your religious beliefs became quite relevant after the 9/11 attacks, and this is only continuing now with ISIS killing Christians and posting the videos online. The discourse of martyrdom has entered the public sphere in a new way. For evangelical believers in the Lord Jesus, the persecution of our brothers and sisters is a very relevant topic, one worth studying from a historical perspective.
A major insight that’s come from the increased study is that most of the surviving texts are pretty unreliable. Around 99 percent of the literature about martyrs is made up. (That’s a guesstimate, but it’s probably close to correct.) Yet there is a lively debate about the remaining one percent of texts that’ve typically been judged as historically accurate. Some would say these texts are as fraudulent as the rest, telling us nothing about the earliest martyrs. But I would put more stock in them than the skeptics do. Many scholars like me would say that quite a bit can be known about martyrdom in the ancient church, including the identities and stories of specific martyrs.
How does a popular work like Foxe’s Book of Martyrs come out after a closer review of its stories?
Unfortunately, that famous book is not the one you want to get if you want to understand ancient martyrdom, or even the martyrdoms of its primary period (the English Reformation). The work is widely recognized by scholars as offering a one-sided presentation of its subjects. It was written for the purpose of arguing against the Roman Catholic Church, and it spares no excesses in its attempt at driving home its point. Though enormously popular ever since its publication in the 1500s, it’s basically worthless as an accurate source for the martyrs of the ancient church. All scholars know this.
Your latest book, After Acts: Exploring the Lives and Legends of the Apostles (Moody, 2015), is a fascinating study that examines what finally happened to New Testament figures such as Matthew, Peter, and Paul. How much popular history surrounding these characters is true?
Most of the surviving material is probably fiction. Some of it clearly is made up, such as fantastic legends about Matthew evangelizing a cannibalistic tribe, or lots of other instances of apostolic adventures that reflect Greco-Roman fiction tropes. But there’s often a historical kernel that’s recoverable in these texts. This is more true for some figures than for others.
In After Acts I discuss seven apostles whose later lives we know virtually nothing about, except perhaps a hunch about where they may have gone after Christ ascended to heaven. A few of them—such as Peter and Paul—have more reliable and substantial material. When we put all the sources together, both literary and archaeological, we can say at least a little about all the apostles. Was Peter crucified in Rome upside down because he was unworthy to be crucified like Christ? You’ll have to read the book to find out. (Hint: I argue yes and no.)