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At what date the Roman authorities had their attention directed to the difference between the Jewish and the Christian religion cannot be determined, but it appears to be fairly well established that laws proscribing Christianity were enacted before the end of the first century.Tertullian is authority for the statement that persecution of the Christians was institutum Neronianum — an institution of Nero — (Ad nat., i, 7). Peter also Clearly alludes to the proscription of Christians, as Christians, at the time it was written (I, St. Domitian (81-96) also, is known to have punished with death Christian members of his own family on the charge of atheism (Suetonius, "Domitianus", xv).These latter ran no risk in bearing testimony to facts that came under their observation, whereas the witnesses of Christ were brought face to face daily, from the beginning of their apostolate, with the possibility of incurring severe punishment and even death itself. Stephen was a witness who early in the history of Christianity sealed his testimony with his blood.
Their only crime was that they were Christians, adherents of an illegal religion.
Under this regime of proscription the Church existed from the year 112 to the reign of Septimius Severus (193-211).
Further on the same Apostle speaks of the " souls of them that were slain for the Word of God and for the testimony ( martyrian ) which they held" ( Revelation 6:9 ). Cyprian lays down clearly the general principle that "he cannot be a martyr who is not in the Church ; he cannot attain unto the kingdom who forsakes that which shall reign there." St.
Yet, it was only by degrees, in the course of the first age of the Church, that the term martyr came to be exclusively applied to those who had died for the faith. Jude, for example, on their escape from the peril they underwent when cited before Domitian were afterwards regarded as martyrs ( Eusebius, "list. The famous confessors of Lyons, who endured so bravely awful tortures for their belief, were looked upon by their fellow-Christians as martyrs, but they themselves declined this title as of right belonging only to those who had actually died: "They are already martyrs whom Christ has deemed worthy to be taken up in their confession, having sealed their testimony by their departure; but we are confessors mean and lowly" ( Eusebius, op. This distinction between martyrs and confessors is thus traceable to the latter part of the second century: those only were martyrs who had suffered the extreme penalty, whereas the title of confessors was given to Christians who had shown their willingness to die for their belief, by bravely enduring imprisonment or torture, but were not put to death. Clement of Alexandria strongly disapproves (Strom., IV, iv) of some heretics who gave themselves up to the law ; they "banish themselves without being martyrs". Tertullian, however, approves the conduct of the Christians of a province of Asia who gave themselves up to the governor, Arrius Antoninus (Ad. Eusebius also relates with approval the incident of three Christians of Cæsarea in Palestine who, in the persecution of Valerian, presented themselves to the judge and were condemned to death (Hist. But while circumstances might sometimes excuse such a course, it was generally held to be imprudent. Gregory of Nazianzus sums up in a sentence the rule to be followed in such cases: it is mere rashness to seek death, but it is cowardly to refuse it (Orat. The example of a Christian of Smyrna named Quintus, who, in the time of St.
The Greek word martus signifies a witness who testifies to a fact of which he has knowledge from personal observation.
It is in this sense that the term first appears in Christian literature; the Apostles were "witnesses" of all that they had observed in the public life of Christ, as well as of all they had learned from His teaching, "in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and Samaria, and even to the uttermost part of the earth" ( Acts 1:8 ). Peter, in his address to the Apostles and disciples relative to the election of a successor to Judas, employs the term with this meaning: "Wherefore, of these men who have companied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus came in and went out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day he was taken up from us, one of these must be made witness with us of his resurrection " ( Acts ). Peter also refers to himself as a "witness of the sufferings of Christ " ( 1 Peter 5:1 ).In his first public discourse the chief of the Apostles speaks of himself and his companions as "witnesses" who saw the risen Christ and subsequently, after the miraculous escape of the Apostles from prison, when brought a second time before the tribunal, Peter again alludes to the twelve as witnesses to Christ, as the Prince and Saviour of Israel, Who rose from the dead; and added that in giving their public testimony to the facts, of which they were certain, they must obey God rather than man ( Acts sqq. But even in these first examples of the use of the word martus in Christian terminology a new shade of meaning is already noticeable, in addition to the accepted signification of the term.The disciples of Christ were no ordinary witnesses such as those who gave testimony in a court of justice.Among the difficulties he encountered in the execution of his commission one of the most serious concerned the Christians.The extraordinarily large number of Christians he found within his jurisdiction greatly surprised him: the contagion of their "Superstition", he reported to Trajan, affected not only the cities but even the villages and country districts of the province (Pliny, Ep., x, 96).The position of the faithful was always one of grave danger, being as they were at the mercy of every malicious person who might, without a moment's warning, cite them before the nearest tribunal.It is true indeed, that the delator was an unpopular person in the Roman Empire, and, besides, in accusing a Christian he ran the risk of incurring severe punishment if unable to make good his charge against his intended victim.Heretics and schismatics put to death as Christians were denied the title of martyrs ( St. Lactantius, on the other hand, has only mild censure for a Christian of Nicomedia who suffered martyrdom for tearing down the edict of persecution (Do mort. If they (the lapsi ) truly and with constancy repent of what they have done, and the fervour of their faith prevails, he who cannot be delayed may be crowned " (Ep. Acceptance of the national religion in antiquity was an obligation incumbent on all citizens; failure to worship the gods of the State was equivalent to treason.This universally accepted principle is responsible for the various persecutions suffered by Christians before the reign of Constantine; Christians denied the existence of and therefore refused to worship the gods of the state pantheon. It is true, indeed, that the Jews also rejected the gods of Rome, and yet escaped persecution.Yet the term martyr was still sometimes applied during the third century to persons still living, as, for instance, by St. Basil as "a martyr", but evidently employs the term in the broad sense in which the word is still sometimes applied to a person who has borne many and grave hardships in the cause of Christianity. Polycarp, persuaded several of his fellow believers to declare themselves Christians, was a warning of what might happen to the over-zealous: Quintus at the last moment apostatized, though his companions persevered. Writing to his priests and deacons regarding repentant lapsi who were clamouring to be received back into communion, the bishop after giving general directions on the subject, concludes by saying that if these impatient personages are so eager to get back to the Church there is a way of doing so open to them.Cyprian, who gave the title of martyrs to a number of bishops, priests, and laymen condemned to penal servitude in the mines (Ep. Tertullian speaks of those arrested as Christians and not yet condemned as martyres designati . The description of a martyr given by the pagan historian Ammianus Marcellinus (XXII, xvii), shows that by the middle of the fourth century the title was everywhere reserved to those who had actually suffered death for their faith. Breaking idols was condemned by the Council of Elvira (306), which, in its sixtieth canon, decreed that a Christian put to death for such vandalism would not be enrolled as a martyr. "The struggle is still going forward", he says, "and the strife is waged daily.