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Early Christian Martyrdom

When we think about early Christian martyrdom and where does Christian martyrdom come from, our earliest evidence for Christian martyrdom comes from Asia Minor.

It comes from traditions associated with Peter, like 1 Peter.  It comes from the writings of Paul and the letters that he wrote to churches in Asia Minor; and it comes from the writings of Ignatius and later his co-martyr Polycarp, who was from Smyrna, which was another town less than important than Antioch, but not that far from it.

And so, what we see happening is we see there’s some kind of experience that was perhaps shaped by the importance of imperial cult in Asia Minor and the importance of worship of Zeus and other deities there in which Christians are under a lot of social pressure to conform to these other religious groups and they resist.

One of the ways they think about this, and one of the ways that Ignatius, in particular, thinks about suffering and a resistance is it’s a way of following in the footsteps of Christ; it’s a form of discipleship.  He gets his language from Paul; and he gets his language from writings like 1 Peter, from writings that are from Asia Minor; and he’s, perhaps, our best example of this idea of martyrdom as discipleship and imitation of Christ.  That’s an idea that we find particularly in Asia Minor; and that we don’t really find outside of there, at least not in the first century.

it seems that when we have early Christian authors thinking about their experience of social marginalization, pressure, it’s a form of pushing back. It’s developing ideas found in the Maccabean literature of refusing to conform to the ideals of this dominant, oppressive, political power.

But, in the case of Ignatius, we find something else; we find love and almost desire; he desires to die like Christ. He’s taking very seriously passages in the Gospels about taking up your cross and following Jesus, or Paul’s language about being just like Jesus, imitating Jesus and instructing his churches to imitate him as he imitates Christ. And, that’s the kind of idea that we find in Ignatius; we find this idea he says that he longs to imitate the suffering of Christ, that he wants to be made into food for wild beasts. This is very striking language to us, it sounds like suicide; but for Ignatius it’s because he thinks that in order to really be a disciple, in order to really be a Christian, you have to die like Christ.

  • Candida R. Moss

    Candida R. Moss is a professor in the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. She is the author of Ancient Christian Martyrdom (Yale, 2012) and co-edited (with Jeremy Schipper) Disability Studies and Biblical Literature (Macmillan 2012). She consults for and appears in numerous documentaries focused on early Christian history.