The Martyrs

The purpose of this article is to look at the history of the early Church, who was martyred, and when and why. I attempt to separate fact and fiction.

Where should we start when examining the tales of martyrs in the Christian Church? What is the commonly accepted view among Christians? It is that from the earliest times when some people started to call themselves Christians, Christians were hounded and killed first by the Jewish authorities and then by the Roman authorities. Many Christians believe that all, or almost all, of the apostles were martyred and that for hundreds of years Christians were continually persecuted and killed.

Not even the early Christians claimed that all the disciples were martyred. The following work was attributed to Hippolytus and shows what the early Christians thought happened to the apostles.


John, again, in Asia, was banished by Domitian the king to the isle of Patmos, in which also he wrote his Gospel and saw the apocalyptic vision; and in Trajan's time he fell asleep at Ephesus, where his remains were sought for, but could not be found.

(Clearly he must have been physically resurrected - after all, there was an empty tomb. He must also have been very old. It seems being a 1st century Christian was a healthy life).

And Matthew wrote the Gospel in the Hebrew tongue, and published it at Jerusalem, and fell asleep at Hierees, a town of Parthia.

Jude, who is also called Lebbaeus, preached to the people of Edessa, and to all Mesopotamia, and fell asleep at Berytus, and was buried there.

Simon the Zealot, the son of Clopas, who is also called Jude, became bishop of Jerusalem after James the Just, and fell asleep and was buried there at the age of 120 years.

And Matthias, who was one of the seventy, was numbered along with the eleven apostles, and preached in Jerusalem, and fell asleep and was buried there.

Naturally, most of this is legend, unless you believe that Simon the Zealot lived for 120 years, but not even the early Christians wildest legends say that all the disciples were martyred.

To start to examine the modern claims of huge numbers of martyrdoms , let us look at some contemporary accounts of persecution. Let us begin with a Pharisee called Josephus, living in Jerusalem at the time James, the brother of Jesus, was killed.

Josephus wrote about this in his Antiquities , Volume 20, Chapter 9, Section 1. He is talking about the new High Priest Ananus, appointed by Festus, at a time when Albinus was procurator. This was in 62 AD, about 30 years after Jesus was crucified.

"Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned, but.. as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws they disliked what was done; they also sent to the king (Agrippa II), desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act no more, for what he had already done was not to be justified; .... whereupon Albinus complied with what they said, and wrote in anger to Ananus,... on which king Agrippa took the high priesthood from him, when he had ruled but three months, and made Jesus, the son of Damneus, high priest.."

Consider what Josephus, a Pharisee, has just written. He is saying that when a Christian (James) was persecuted, the people rose up against no less a person than the High Priest and the Roman Procurator and Agrippa II, the king, both agreed that Ananus had to go. The king and the procurator got rid of the High Priest after less than three months, just because he persecuted a Christian. Does this sound as though the Jews had been systematically rounding up and killing Christians for 30 years? Only when the Roman Procurator, Albinus, was on the road did the High priest dare to act. Does this sound as though the Romans were persecuting Christians?

Acts 12 records another act of persecution. Here James, the brother of John, was killed by Agrippa I. Peter was arrested but not executed. This was in 42-44 AD. It occurred when there was no Roman procurator. Marullus stopped being procurator in 41 AD and Fadus was not appointed until 44 AD. Josephus does not record the killing of this James, but he agrees with Acts that Agrippa died shortly afterwards, although many people had prayed to God for his recovery. (Ant. 19.8.2).

It is interesting that both of these acts of persecution , spread over 20 years, occurred when there was no Roman governor. Acts also records the killing of Stephen. Stephen was not one of the disciples and he appears to have been lynched because he spoke out against the Temple (Acts 6:14).

So we have three acts of persecution spread over a thirty year period, one of which was a lynching of someone who spoke out against the Temple. Three persecutions in thirty years is three too many, but it does not sound like a systematic campaign to wipe Christianity off the face of the Earth.

Perhaps this explains why the author of Hebrews could tell his Christian readers that 'In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.' (Hebrews 12:4) He goes on to remind his readers that they should 'Remember those in prison as if they were your fellow-prisoners ,and those who are ill-treated as if you yourselves were suffering.' (Hebrews 13:3). Why does he say 'as if they were your fellow prisoners'? Surely if there were Christians in prisons, there would be no 'as if' about it - they actually would be their fellow-prisoners. Why does he not say 'Remember our Christian brothers in prison'?

Paul states in Galatians 6:12 that Christians could avoid persecution by insisting that converts to Christianity should be circumcised. Paul was a zealot for the Law, which stipulated circumcision, and he had himself persecuted Christians, presumably also over the issue of circumcision. Nowhere does he state that Christians had been persecuted for preaching a resurrection.

Were there any other martyrdoms?

I'll get to Peter and Paul later. Acts records only two killings of Christians . If there were more, why does the author not say so? He can hardly be accused of deliberately falsifying his story by the removal of references to Christian martyrs. Josephus only records one killing of a Christian. If there were any others he would have recorded them or not? In his books 'Antiquities' and 'The Jewish Wars', he goes out of his way to record any horrors which happened in Jerusalem. In 'Wars' , he records the life and death of an obscure lunatic called Jesus (no, not that one) in the 60s AD (Wars 6. 5). If Josephus devotes so much space to the death of a lunatic , then he would have given space for a few lines about the deaths of Christians. After all if he was so shocked by the death of James, what reason would he have for deliberately suppressing the deaths of any other martyrs?

Perhaps this is why the Christian apologist, Origen, writing in Contra Cells Book 3 Chapter 8, said that there had been very few Christian martyrs.
"For in order to remind others, that by seeing a few engaged in a struggle for their religion, they also might be better fitted to despise death, some, on special occasions, and these individuals who can be easily numbered, have endured death for the sake of Christianity, --God not permitting the whole nation to be exterminated, but desiring that it should continue, and that the whole world should be filled with this salutary and religious doctrine."

This was in the 240s AD. Even after two centuries of "persecution", Origen could still say that Christian martyrs were "easily numbered".

Another Christian, Melito - the Bishop of Sardis, also wrote about persecution, in a letter to the Roman Emperor. He reminds the Emperor that Christianity started in the reign of Augustus and in all the time since, only under Nero (64 AD) and Domitian (95 AD), have Christians been systematically persecuted.
"For, what never before happened, the race of the pious is now suffering persecution, being driven about in Asia by new decrees. For the shameless informers and coveters of the property of others, taking occasion from the decrees, openly carry on robbery night and day, despoiling those who are guilty of no wrong. ... if he guards the philosophy which grew up with the empire and which came into existence with Augustus; that philosophy which thy ancestors also honoured along with the other religions. And a most convincing proof that our doctrine flourished for the good of an empire happily begun, is this--that there has no evil happened since Augustus' reign, but that, on the contrary, all things have been splendid and glorious, in accordance with the prayers of all. Nero and Domitian, alone, persuaded by certain calumniators, have wished to slander our doctrine, and from them it has come to pass that the falsehood has been handed down, in consequence of an unreasonable practice which prevails of bringing slanderous accusations against the Christians. But thy pious fathers corrected their ignorance, having frequently rebuked in writing many who dared to attempt new measures against them. Among them thy grandfather Adrian appears to have written to many others, and also to Fundanus, the proconsul and governor of Asia. And thy father, when he also wast ruling with him, wrote to the cities, forbidding them to take any new measures against us; among the rest to the Larissaeans, to the Thessalonians, to the Athenians, and to all the Greeks. "

Actually, Melito may not have been right about the persecution under Domitian. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary says (Section 63:12) "Names of Christians persecuted under Domitian are sometimes given, but critical assessment leads to the conclusion that they may have been sympathisers with Judaism, but were probably not Christians".

Revelation is usually regarded as being written in response to persecution. If you read the Book of Revelation, you will see very few acts of persecution. The author mentions the banishment of John to a Greek island, the execution of Antipas (2:13) and the expectation that some Christians in Smyrna would be arrested (2:10). Are these the best examples of persecution that could be found by the author? It hardly sounds like a jihad launched against Christianity.

Peter and Paul

Acts never mentions the deaths of Peter and Paul. It leaves Paul under house arrest, waiting for a trial, but no real hint that he would be found guilty. Acts 'loses' Peter entirely after Chapter 15.

The first person to mention the deaths of Peter and Paul was the Bishop of Rome, Clement.. He wrote in 95 AD in 1 Clement as follows (Chapter 5)
" But, to pass from the examples of ancient days, let us come to those champions who lived nearest to our time. Let us set before us the noble examples which belong to our generation. By reason of jealousy and envy the greatest and most righteous pillar s of the Church were persecuted, and contended even unto death. Let us set before our eyes the good Apostles. There was Peter who by reason of unrighteous jealousy endured not one nor two but many labours, and thus having borne his testimony went to his appointed place of glory. By reason of jealousy and strife Paul by his example pointed out the prize of patient endurance. After that he had been seven times in bonds, had been driven into exile, had been stoned, had preached in the East and in the West, he won the noble renown which was the reward of his faith, having taught righteousness unto the whole world and having reached the farthest bounds of the West; and when he had borne his testimony before the rulers, so he departed from the world and went unto the holy place, having been found a notable pattern of patient endurance. "

As Bishop of Rome, Clement might reasonably be expected to have the best knowledge of what happened to Peter and Paul. Although he is writing thirty years after the events and, being a Christian, might have put a Christian gloss on what happened, he is t he only source we have, so we will have to make do with what he wrote.

Note that he never uses the word "martyred". He never says how Peter and Paul died. He never says that Peter and Paul died in Rome. All he says about Peter's trials is that he suffered "many labours". That is hardly detailed knowledge.. The closest Clement ever gets to saying that Peter and Paul were martyred is that they were "contended, even unto death". This may mean that Peter and Paul were killed or it may mean only that Peter and Paul were Christians till they died. Just a few lines before, Clement wrote that Joseph had been persecuted "even unto death". As Clement can hardly mean that Joseph died a martyr's death, the phrase "even unto death" does not mean that Peter and Paul died a martyr's death. In fact, Peter and Paul are mentioned in t he context of such figures as Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and David, none of whom were martyred.

All Clement is saying is that Peter and Paul were Christians to the end of their life despite setbacks and opposition.

Considering how Christians seized upon the martyrdoms which did occur, I find it amazing that the Bishop of Rome could be so blase about the deaths of the second and third greatest figures in the history of Christianity, who had (we are told) been martyred in his city, just a few decades earlier. He writes that they went to a "place of glory", but Christians believe that all Christians, not just martyrs, go to a place of glory.

Surely if Clement knew that Peter and Paul had been martyred in Rome, he would have written far more and given us far more detail about their deaths.

Of course, later people did write in far more detail about their deaths. About 140 years after Peter and Paul died, Tertullian was the very first person to say that Peter had been crucified . He wrote in 'Against Marcion' :-
How happy is its church, on which apostles poured forth all their doctrine along with their blood where Peter endures a passion like his Lord's where Paul wins his crown in a death like John's where the Apostle John was first plunged, unhurt, into boiling oil, and thence remitted to his island-exile.

Tertullian gives no evidence to back up his assertion that Peter had been crucified and that Paul had been beheaded and he says in the same sentence that John had escaped unhurt after being plunged into boiling oil. People who believe that Peter and Paul were martyred are committed to believing that someone could be plunged into boiling oil and live, as the evidence for that is just as strong , or weak, as the evidence Tertullian gives, or rather, does not give, about Peter and Paul.

The story so far

There is definite evidence of some martyrdoms under Nero and Domitian. There were also a few other isolated instances. There seems to be no great campaign of persecution. Perhaps this is what the New Jerome Bible Commentary means when it writes in Section 80:55 'Before the Emperor Decius (249-251) it is not clear to what extent processing Christianity was a capital offence. Yet there is indisputable evidence that in isolated instances earlier Christians were tried and condemned to death."

It was not until 250 AD that there was any Empire-wide persecution of Christians. I now look at how Christians from 200 onwards dealt with persecution.

Persecution and the later Christians

Persecution came about because Christians were monotheists and the vast majority of the population were polytheistic. Most people considered that it was only polite and prudent to worship the local gods of an area as well as any other gods that each person might happen to believe in. As Christians would not worship the local gods, they were often blamed for any bad things which happened, as it was considered that they had made the gods angry.

Jews were also monotheists, but as their religion was very old, it was often held in high regard. Christianity was new and it is often the case that what is new , is feared.

Because this sort of persecution was a result of bad things happening in one area, persecution occurred locally. Christians could just move to another area until the heat died down.

This all changed in 249 when Decius became the first Emperor to demand Empire-wide enforcement of the rules that local populations had to sacrifice to the gods. What made matters worse was that it demanded more than the annual sacrifice made at the star t of the New Year. Before that, Christians had simply to arrange to be out of town on that day and they would be safe for another year.

How did Christians deal with persecution?

It is often claimed that Christians were presented with two stark alternatives, renounce Christianity, or be killed. Faced with two unacceptable alternatives, people will find a third. This is what the majority of Christians did.

This is well documented in Tertullian's 'DE FUGA IN PERSECUTIONE'. In Chapter 6 he complains about Christians who quoted Matthew 10:23, as a justification for fleeing

I quote "6. Nay, says some one, he fulfilled the command, when he fled from city to city. For so a certain individual, but a fugitive likewise, has chosen to maintain, and others have done the same who are unwilling to understand the meaning of that declaration of the Lord, that they may use it as a cloak for their cowardice, although it has had its persons as well as its times and reasons to which it especially applies. "When they begin," He says, "to persecute you, flee from city to city".

Naturally, Tertullian found a way to excuse Jesus for fleeing , just sentences after he had accused Christians of cowardice for fleeing. In Chapter 8, he wrote 'He sometimes also fled from violence Himself, but for the same reason as had led Him to command the apostles to do so: that is, He wanted to fulfil His ministry of teaching;...'

Tertullian complained that even the clergy ran away leaving the others prey to all the beasts in the field. I quote ' And against them both Ezekiel and Jeremiah declaim with kindred threatenings, for their not only wickedly eating of the Sheep,--they feeding themselves rather than those committed to their charge,--but also scattering the flock, and giving it over, shepherdless, a prey to all the beasts of the field. And this never happens more than when in persecution the Church is abandoned by the clergy.'

Tertullian also complained about Christians who bribed potential persecutors and informers. In Chapter 12, he wrote 'Going further than you expected, therefore, I will also on this point give you my advice, distinctly affirming that persecution, from which it is evident we must not flee, must in like manner not even be bought off. The difference lies in the payment; but as flight is a buying off without money, so buying off is money-flight. Assuredly you have here too the counselling of fear. Because you fear, you buy yourself off; and so you flee. As regards your feet, you have stood; in respect of the money you have paid, you have run away.... It is not fit that Christ should cost us money.

In Chapter 13, he complains that whole Churches have bought off persecutors. 'Whole Churches have. I know not whether it is matter for grief or shame when among hucksters, and pickpockets, and bath-thieves, and gamesters, and pimps, Christians too are included as taxpayers in the lists of free soldiers and spies. '

The Persecution of Decius 250 AD

In the persecution of Decius, people had to be able to provide certificates proving that they had sacrificed to the gods. Christians could get these by lapsing, but there were other ways. Bribery was one common way. As Cyprian wrote in his letter to Donatus (Chapter 10) - "There is no fear about the laws; no concern for either inquisitor or judge; when the sentence can be bought off for money, it is not cared for."

Cyprian expressed sorrow that many Christians resorted to this . 'On the Lapsed' Section 10 -"The truth, brethren, must not be disguised; nor must the matter and cause of our wound be concealed. A blind love of one's own property has deceived many; nor could they be prepared for, or at ease in, departing when their wealth fettered them like a chain."

Christians could also obtain certificates by sending their pagan slaves to sacrifice on their behalf. These were all desperate measures, but they were desperate times.

After obtaining a pagan certificate , by one means or another, it was necessary to get a certificate from a Christian, granting absolution for the sins committed in getting the pagan certificates. These were not too hard to get. Cyprian had harsh words a bout certificates of absolution being handed out too readily.

I quote from Epistle 10, Section 1 by Cyprian " Although you sent letters to me in which you ask that your wishes should be examined, and that peace should be granted to certain of the lapsed as soon as the end of the persecution we should have begun to meet with our clergy, and to be gathered together once more; those presbyters, contrary to the Gospel law, contrary also to your respectful petition, before penitence was fulfilled, before confession even of the gravest and most heinous sin was made, before hands were placed upon the repentant by the bishops and clergy, dare to offer on their behalf, and to give them the eucharist,...."

And from Epistle 14 by Cyprian - " Moreover, when I found that those who had polluted their hands and mouths with sacrilegious contact, or had no less infected their consciences with wicked certificates, were everywhere soliciting the martyrs, and we re also corrupting the confessors with importunate and excessive entreaties, so that, without any discrimination or examination of the individuals themselves, thousands of certificates were daily given, contrary to the law of the Gospel, I wrote letters in which I recalled by my advice, as much as possible, the martyrs and confessors to the Lord's commands. " As you can see, thousands of certificates were handed out willy-nilly, to people who had pagan certificates.

Christians also forged certificates in the name of a dead confessor who had been giving out certificates indiscriminately as Cyprian explained in Epistle 22 - " For our brother Lucian, who himself also is one of the confessors, earnest indeed in faith, and robust in virtue, but little established in the reading of the Lord's word, has attempted certain things, constituting himself for a time an authority for unskilled people, so that certificates written by his hand were given indiscriminately to many persons in the name of Paulus; whereas Mappalicus the martyr, cautious and modest, mindful of the law and discipline, wrote no letters contrary to the Gospel, but only, moved with domestic affection for his mother, who had fallen, commanded peace t o be given to her. Saturninus, moreover, after his torture, still remaining in prison, sent out no letters of this kind. But Lucian, not only while Paulus was still in prison, gave everywhere in his name certificates written with his own hand, but even after his decease persisted in doing the same things under his name, saying that this had been commanded him by Paulus, ignorant that he must obey the Lord rather than his fellow-servant. In the name also of Aurelius, a young man who had undergone the torture, many certificates were given, written by the hand of the same Lucian, because Aurelius did not know how to write himself.


The early Christians behaved under persecution exactly how anybody else would behave under persecution. They did what they had to do to get by. On the whole, their behaviour showed no sign of enormous courage strengthened by the conviction that they were right. Many just gave up their faith and there were big debates about what to do with lapsed Christians who wanted to return to the fold after the persecutions ended.

(My thanks to Tim Bedding for his comments on this article)

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