An Interview on Early Christian Martyr Stories

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Bryan M. Litfin (PhD, University of Virginia) is professor of theology at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and the author of the new book, Early Christian Martyr Stories: An Evangelical Introduction with New Translations (Baker, 2014).

He recently answered some questions I had about his new book.

What kind of stories do you cover in this book and what is the time frame that is treated?

Well, the title says the book is made up of ‘stories’ but it’s really more than that. There are a variety of ancient church texts that speak about persecution, a number of different genres, not just the actual stories of martyrs themselves. But that’s the core of it: the martyrs before their accusers.

I begin with one like that, the account of the seven Maccabean brothers and the scribe Eleazar. They aren’t Christians, they’re Jews. But they’re dying for their faithfulness to the one true God in the BC period. This text was very influential on the early church, it shaped later narratives in a profound way.

Then we have the stories of several famous Christian martyrs. Peter and Paul are included here, and I like this a lot, I think it’s a great feature of this book. Usually the narrative of martyrdom in the ancient church doesn’t start with them, but it should, these texts are early second century in origin. I think Christians today want to know where the legends of the apostles came from, that Peter was crucified upside down, or that Paul was beheaded on the Ostian Way, etc.

There’s probably a kernel of truth here, but these stories are legendary for the most part.

Next we come to more reliable texts, such as Ignatius of Antioch on his way to martyrdom in Rome, and the classic martyr stories of Polycarp, Justin Martyr, the martyrs of Lyons and Vienne, Perpetua and Felicity. These are the earliest and most reliable texts, at least many scholars still think they are, though that has been called into question by some. But I think they’re basically reliable historical documents.

And then I include some of the church’s theological reflection on martyrdom:

  • Why is it happening?
  • How should Christians respond?
  • What should be respected about martyrdom?
  • What’s the wrong way to do martyrdom?
  • Why is it so important to see the thing all the way to the end?

I include Tertullian and Origen reflecting deeply on the phenomenon of giving your life to maintain your confession of Christ.

I also thought it would be important to have some historical texts about the Great Persecution, kicked off by Diocletian in 303 AD. What happened and why? In this context, I translate the conversion story of Constantine, where he sees the cross in the sky and his army fights in the power of the cross. And after this is the so-called Edict of Milan, which is really a symbol of a tipping point that occurred in the fourth century.

Finally, I conclude with Augustine of Hippo preaching a sermon on Perpetua and Felicity, talking so fondly about these godly women who found the path to “eternal happiness.” He’s making a pun off of their names. He clearly cherishes these heroines, it’s neat to see.

So really, this book spans the whole spectrum of the ancient church’s experience of martyrdom. It covers different genres and narratives. It’s designed to give the whole picture of what was really happening. Everybody knows that “the Romans threw the Christians to the lions”—but what’s the real story here? What happened and why? Now you can read it for yourself firsthand.

Why do we need a book like this? Aren’t all of these stories already readily accessible?

Very good question. I asked myself that question before I started writing this book. All of these texts already exist in English translation somewhere. But the key word is “somewhere.” Does the average Christian know where to find them? Probably not. They’re not all under one cover like they are here, gathered into one place to tell a consistent story from beginning to end. And when you do find them, they often have old fashioned translations, or they have Greek and Latin on the page, which is intimidating. Those kinds of books are expensive. Well this one isn’t. It’s a good way to own a book that gives the whole martyrdom story in one inexpensive volume. That’s what I was going for.

These translations are brand new, and as I worked through each one, I asked myself, “How would this writer express this thought if he or she were writing today?” I think of these martyr stories as being somewhat like the ESV Bible, which is a great balance between actually translating the text but doing it in a smooth and modern-sounding English style. I tried to find that happy medium. I truly believe there is a need for a volume on martyrdom that puts the best texts under one cover, in an accessible way, and with helpful notes and an introduction to explain what’s going on. I definitely hope to serve the church with a book like this.

A leading scholar of early Christianity, Candida Moss, recently wrote a book on The Myth of Persecution, arguing that a number of these early martyr stories were exaggerated, invented, or forged. Is there any truth to her argument?

The funny thing about that book is, much of the stuff she says is nothing new at all. So not only is there much truth to it (as you said), it’s actually a truth that scholars have known for a long time. She is rebutting a Sunday school picture of martyrdom that all historians know is false, and then it’s like a big revelation has been made. I’m talking about the idea that there was an age of constant persecution, that the Christians were in danger at every turn, relentlessly being pursued by Roman soldiers day and night. We know that isn’t correct. No one in academia thinks that, but Professor Moss still rebuts it. So I guess that’s helpful for what it is.

Candida Moss is an impressive scholar with a real mastery of these texts. I don’t question her erudition, I respect it a lot, and I’ve learned from it. What I take issue with is her method of radical skepticism. Usually with history, there is a kind of bell curve of probability, and when enough facts are brought in, you find the middle of the curve is the right place to be. But Moss interprets everything with such a skeptical eye that she skews everything toward the later end of the timeline. Over and over, she puts the facts out there and then interprets them with the most extreme position that it’s forgery, forgery, forgery. So she pushes all the texts like Polycarp or Lyons and Vienne toward a much later time. But it’s not probable that the extreme interpretation is the right one again and again, for every martyrdom text, like there was a colossal conspiracy to make up stories all across the Empire. Classical historians don’t handle texts like this, the way some early Christian scholars do, with this skeptical agenda of turning everything into later forgeries instead of what they claim to be.

And there’s lots of counter-evidence that Moss doesn’t include. Like, “The Christians want to collect Polycarp’s remains. Look! That’s third century relic veneration! This text must be from that later time period!” Wait a minute, why does it have to be third century? It doesn’t. Christians and Jews always wanted to bury their people in every century. We see it right at the beginning with the effort to bury the body of Jesus in a rich man’s tomb. Actually, honorable burial was a big deal to everybody in Roman times. There is first century legislation that says you should give a condemned criminal’s body to his relatives after he’s been killed in the coliseum. This was the normal practice, the Romans made laws about it. What the Martyrdom of Polycarp says about collecting the martyr’s body is perfectly consistent with the date that the text claims to be written, in the mid-second century. In fact, there’s definitive archaeological proof that Peter had a monument over his presumed grave at that exact time. So it’s no big deal if Polycarp would have a respectable tomb as well. That isn’t proof of later burial practices, it’s par for the course in the second century. Moss should put that evidence out there too. But that’s what I’m pointing out here, the way she spins the evidence to the extreme and doesn’t acknowledge and rebut counter-evidence. It’s not neutral history. There’s a political agenda in that book she wants to advance. I’m not making that up, she’s pretty clear about it, and that’s why the book takes the positions it does.

How do you envision the church today—which is witnessing continued persecution of its brothers and sisters around the world—using a book like what you have written?

Well this is where my book is not a completely neutral book of history either. I too have an agenda that I want to advance. I want to encourage the body of Christ with these stories.

What I was trying to write here was basically a textbook that could be used in Christian colleges and seminaries and online courses all over the English speaking world. I want everything in it to be true and unbiased. I want to do good history. I want to take a respectable scholarly look at a historical phenomenon, Christian martyrdom, which is a type of “noble death” in the ancient world. This is something that should be studied in academia.

But I don’t want this book to be just that, just a dry and dusty textbook from the days of yore. I want it to be spiritually encouraging, to give insight from the past, to provide wisdom from the ancients. This is the same thing I tried to do in my earlier book Getting to Know the Church Fathers, and I have had many people tell me they appreciated it. So I praise the Lord that it could be used that way, and I hope Early Christian Martyr Stories can do the same thing. There is a spiritually uplifting aspect to this book that isn’t always found in textbooks. That is why I think everyday Christian readers will enjoy this book as well, not just students in a course.

I definitely want to be very careful about drawing exact comparisons to persecution today, especially in America. This is one place where I think Moss has a good reminder for us. Let’s not develop a martyr complex when our Christian school group is denied access to a classroom, for example. By all means, fight for your rights. Freedom of religion is vital to this country. The mayor should not be able to censor your sermons. Censorship is the first step in oppression. But persecution is a spectrum. I think the ancient church is much more parallel to the ISIS situation, where you have one powerful religious group killing and torturing and shedding blood and stealing properties from a weaker religious minority. Those things happened to the ancient Christians too. It was a clash of two religions, just like what is happening today in many Islamic areas.

Just to be clear, my book isn’t a handbook on how to endure persecution, how to be a martyr. It certainly doesn’t presume to give advice to the persecuted church today. What it is, at its heart, is a book about being committed – I mean totally, completely sold out – to Jesus Christ. That is how we are like the martyrs: when we press on for Christ no matter the cost. Maybe bloodshed isn’t going to be demanded of us, but we can still have that 100% commitment to the Risen Lord. We can be inspired by the martyrs of the ancient church just as we can by the witness of faithful Christians in Iran or Syria or Nigeria or North Korea. Martyrs die for Jesus, meaning they physically die. If they can do that, often under terrible tortures, then maybe we can die to this world and all its attractions. It’s like Paul said, “To live is Christ, and to die is gain.” If we start thinking like that, we’ve taken the first step down the martyr’s path.

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