I don’t think I have ever met anyone who was not somewhat curious about their family history. We know that we are now living something of an extension of their lives; their stories are part of our stories.
If this is true in the natural realm it is most certainly true in the spiritual. In the church, the body of Christ, believers are united together even as they are united to Christ. Those who have come before us have a unique and special relationship to us as believers. Their stories serve to encourage, instruct and bless us when we consider them.
In his recent book, Early Christian Martyr Stories, (Baker, 2014), Bryan Litfin takes his readers on a historical tour through the first five centuries of the church. His emphasis, as the title implies, is upon the stories of those martyred for their faith.
I came to this book seeking more information but came away with inspiration. My heart was melted by reading these stories in succession.
The source material for the work are the “hagiographical texts” or extra biblical writings about saints. Litfin is a helpful guide along the tour. He reminds readers that the texts are not on level with Scripture and even that some of the writing contains variant literary styles that give way to some questionable details. Litfin interacts with the material in such a way that you find yourself trusting him both historically and theologically (he is an evangelical). Further, he is not simply conducting the tour, but he is on it with you. You can get a sense of how he is personally moved by the stories as he lays them before us.
From the introduction…
…if you read this book from cover to cover, you will have encountered the very best sources that illustrate early Christan persecution. At times you may be horrified, outraged, humbled, or inspired. Try to let your emotions flow; don’t read this volume simply as a historical sourcebook. Not one of these texts was originally written without spiritual encouragement in mind. To suppress any personal reflection on them would be to ignore the authors’ wishes. But if, on the other hand, you are in a receptive state of mind, I invite you to say a brief prayer, then turn the page and meet the martyrs of the ancient church. (p. 16)
The chapters include: The Maccabean Martyrs, Peter and Paul, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, Justin Martyr, The Martyrs of Lyons and Vienne, The Scillitan Martyrs, Perpetual and Felicity, Tertullian, Origen. Additionally, there are chapters that consider the events surrounding Constantine and another on how Augustine remembered the martyrs.
I was most impacted by the stories of Perpetua and Felicity. These two young women who were also new mothers both died for their faith in Christ. The stories, beautifully and tenderly written, served to melt my heart. In reflecting on how Augustine was likewise moved by these stories, Litfin writes, “…later Christians honored their courageous forerunners and passed their legacy onto future generations.” (p. 168)
In the introduction Litfin provides some historical details about the Roman society that aids our understanding of the early church. The parallels established by Litfin (whether intentionally or not) are instructive to the contemporary church. This is a good, quick read.
I liked the book a lot. It is not a long book (168 pages), and while historical it is written at a level that most laymen would find accessible. It gives you what he aims to give you: a window into the martyrs in the early church.
Pick up a discounted copy at Amazon.