Martyrdom

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4.23 – Martyrdom

Sources

Jewish

When we read Daniel 7-12, we saw that Jews, at the beginning of the Maccabean struggle in Judea, developed the conviction that the defenders of Israel should not compromise with the pagan occupiers of the land of Israel but should be prepared to suffer and die for the sake of preserving their beliefs and practices. [Questions: Maccabees – 164-63; Seleucid king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes; set up altar to Zeus; forbade certain Jewish practices on penalty of death] There were other Jewish texts from that period which told stories about heroic Jewish martyrs who were tortured and killed by pagan tyrants in the process of trying to force Jews to recant their beliefs and practices.

Stoic philosophy

As we said before, the Hellenistic philosophies believed that humans could come to possess an internal happiness that no external circumstances could spoil if one achieved the purpose for which he or she was created – reason, or the grasp of the right ideas/beliefs/values. One Stoic philosopher in particular was very fond of describing exchanges between a philosopher and a tyrant:

What is it then that disturbs and terrifies the multitude? Is it the tyrant and his guards? I wish that it was not so. It should not be that what is by nature free can be disturbed by anything other than itself. It is a man's own opinions which disturb him. When the tyrant says to a man, "I will chain your leg," he who values his leg says, "Do not chain my leg; have pity!" However, the person who values his will more than his leg says, "If it seems advantageous, chain my leg." "Do you not care?" the tyrant might ask. I do not care. The tyrant says, "I will show you that I am master." He cannot do that. Zeus has set me free. Do you think that he intended to allow his own son to be enslaved? The tyrant is master of my carcass, this body. Take it if you will. "So when you approach me, you have no regard to me?" the tyrant says. No, but I have regard to myself; and if you wish me to say that I have regard to you also, I tell you that I have the same regard to you that I have to my cooking pot. Discourses 1.19

Epictetus also explicitly uses the term “witness” (Greek: martyr) for the philosopher’s task of showing others what it means to live free of human opinion and authority and obedient to God’s will:

‘In what role are you now mounting the stage?’ As a witness (martus) called by God who says: ‘Go and bear witness (marturia) for me, for you are worthy to be produced as a witness (martus) by me … What kind of testimony (marturia) do you bear for God? Discourses 1.29

The Stoics also thought the most important “political” entity that humans could belong to were not empires or nations but the “cosmopolis,” or the city of the world, ruled by God’s reason and will.

Historical Facts

Early Christians, like early Jews, were sometimes the victims of mob violence, or pogroms, because of their unique religious identity and beliefs under the Roman empire. Official Roman persecution of Christians, however, was fairly rare, and generally a side effect of occasional attempts to renew the practice of offering sacrifices for the emperor throughout the empire in the 3rd and 4th centuries. Official persecution began in the 250s under the emperor Decius and Valerian, when Christians were legally compelled to sacrifice to Roman gods or face imprisonment and execution. In the worst official persecution, which lasted from 303-313, the persecution was directly sanctioned by emperor Diocletian, and Christian churches and texts were ordered to be destroyed and meetings forbidden (but even there enforcement differed according to province). Persecution largely came to an end with the Edict of Milan in 313, where Constantine made Christianity legal, and more firmly in 380 with the Edict of Thessalonica, when Christianity was made the sole official religion of the empire.

In the second century, during which, along...
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