Acts of the Martyrs

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The official court records of the trials of early Christians for their faith. Taken in a broader sense, the Acts of the Martyrs, or Acta Martyrum, include all the varied accounts (acta, gesta, passiones, martyria, and legenda ) of the arrest, interrogation, condemnation, execution, and burial of the martyrs of the first centuries. These narratives make up an extensive and important body of Christian literature, but are of unequal value, ranging from authentic accounts of trustworthy eyewitnesses to complete fictions, and even forgeries. The Bollandist H. delehaye has divided the Acts into six categories accepted by other hagiographers, even though differences of opinion exist about the value of any particular Acts.

Acta, or Court Proceedings. In a Roman criminal court, the questions asked by the judge and the responses of the defendants, along with the official verdict, were taken down in shorthand by professional notaries (notarii, exceptores, or censuales ). These notes were then transcribed in regular characters and deposited in the archives (instrumentum provinciae ) where they could be consulted years, and even decades, later as is attested by Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History 5.18.9; 7.11.6), St. Augustine (Contra Cresconium 3.70), St. Jerome (Adv. Rufinum 2.3), and Lydus (De magistratibus populi Romani 3.29). Copies of the proceedings could be obtained for private circulation and were used for public reading in the liturgy. Within less than a year after Cyprian's first interrogation at Carthage the acta proconsulis were in the hands of confessors in the mines of Numidia (Cyprian, Epistles 77.2). The earliest of the authentic Acts are those of justin martyr and his six companions, executed at Rome c. 164 by order of Junius Rusticus, prefect of the city. The Acta Martyrum Scillitanorum report the trial and condemnation of 12 Christians from Scilli on July 17, 180, by the proconsul Saturninus at Carthage.

The Proconsular Acts of Cyprian, one of the most important and moving documents of the early Church, contains a transcript of his first trial in 257; another of his second the following year; and a description by an eyewitness of his execution on Sept. 14, 258. The Acts of Fructuosus preserve the protocol of the trial of the bishop and his two deacons, Augurius and Eulogius, along with a description of their deaths by fire (Jan. 21, 259). Other authentic Acts from the time of Diocletian are those of Maximilianus, who was executed at Theveste in Numidia in 295 for refusing to enter military service, and of the centurion Marcellus, beheaded at Tangier in Mauretania in 298 for throwing away his military belt. A number of other Acts are occasionally placed in this first category, but in general they seem to be interpolated or to be of somewhat doubtful authenticity.

Passiones and Martyria. Accounts of eyewitnesses or well-informed contemporaries are frequently called passiones in Latin and in Greek martyria. They were written by Christians and are of a more personal and literary character than the acta. The earliest of these writings is the Martyrdom of polycarp of Smyrna, composed by a certain Marcion and sent in the name of the Church of Smyrna to the Christian community at Philomelium in Greater Phrygia. These Acts describe the arrest, trial, and heroic death of the aged bishop in the arena at Smyrna, most likely on Feb. 22, 156. Another report of this same type is the encyclical letter preserved by Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History, sent by the Churches of Lyons and Vienne to the Churches in Asia and Phrygia, describing the persecution of the Christians at Lyons in 177. Among the numerous victims was Bishop Pothinus "over ninety years of age"; Blandina, a slave girl; Sanctus, a deacon of Vienne; and Ponticus, a boy of 15. This famous letter, the first important document of Gallic Christianity, may have been composed by St. irenaeus of lyons, disciple of Polycarp and successor of Pothinus. The Passio SS. Perpetuae et Felicitatis gives an engaging account of the imprisonment and death in the amphitheater at Carthage on March 7, 202, of Saturus Saturninus, Revocatus, and two young women, a slave Felicitas and her mistress, Vibia Perpetua, 22 years of age, "well born, liberally educated, honorably married, having father and mother and two brothers, one like herself a catechumen, and an infant son at her breast." The longest portion of the passio (ch. 310) was written by Perpetua herself, and another section, by Saturus, (ch. 1113) while they were waiting execution. The two documents were given an introduction and conclusion describing the deaths of the saints by a contemporary of considerable literary talent, possibly tertullian.

The Acts of SS. Carpus, Papylus, and Agathonice is a description of the trial and deaths of three saints at Pergamum under Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus (a.d. 161169) or, more likely, during the persecution of Decius (250251). A similar chronological problem is connected with the death of Pionius at Smyrna. His passio was taken by an unskilled editor from three sources: a memorial left by Pionius himself or one of his companions, and two official interrogations. The structural and ideological resemblances between the passio of Marion and James, that of Montanus and Lucius, who suffered in Africa (c. 259), and that of Perpetua and Felicitas have raised questions regarding their authenticity, but they are probably genuine. The Acts of Phileas, Bishop of Thmuis, condemned by Culcianus, Prefect of Egypt, at Alexandria early in the fourth century also belong to this category.

Interpolated Accounts. The third class of martyrs' Acts is much more extensive. It consists of accounts drawn from written documents that have been more or less extensively edited at a later date to suit the purpose of the author. An example of this type of development may be seen in seven different redactions of the Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs. Among the pieces in this class are the passiones of Maximus, crispina, Irenaeus, Pollio, Euplus, Philip, Quirinus, Julius; of agape and Chionia; of Saturninus, Dativus and their companions, Claudius, Asterius and their companions; and of the Persian martyrs Simeon, Pherbuta, Sadoth, and Bademus. Many of the narratives in the Menology of Symeon Metaphrastes also belong here. Since the mid19th century, numerous attempts have been made, using both internal and external criteria, to sift the facts from the fiction in these Acts, but the conclusions reached are often uncertain.

Historical and Imaginative Romances. These are late works based on neither written documents nor definite oral traditions. A few facts are set down in an elaborate, imaginary framework. Usually what is historical in these compositions is the saint's name, the date of his feast, and the existence of his shrine. Acts of this type are very numerous. They include those of Vincent, Peter Balsam, George, Cyricus and Julitta, Lucianus and Marcianus, Firmus and Rusticus, and the series of cycles of the Roman legendarium that include the martyrdoms of SS. agnes, cecilia, hippolytus, lawrence, Sixtus, sebastian, john and paul, and cosmas and damian. Here also belong the Acts of St. Felicitas and her seven sons. The execution of seven martyrs at Rome on July 10 (their feast) is guaranteed by the Philocalian calendar (354); the account of their kinship is probably due to the influence of the Biblical story of the heroic Jewish mother and her seven sons tortured to death by Antiochus the Great (2 Mc 7.142).

Imaginative romances were likewise written using the martyr story as a theme. In legends of this type not only are the narrated events fictitious, but the saint's existence has no foundation in fact. The Acts of Didymus and Theodora, of genesius The Comedian who was converted while ridiculing Baptism, and of SS. Barbara and catherine of alexandria are apparently of this category. The Acts of Theodotus of Ancyra were woven about an ancient tale already known to Herodotus (Hist. 2.121); and the story of barlaam and joasaph, which contains the greater portion of the Apology of the second century aristides, is essentially a Christian retelling of the ancient Buddha legend from the East. Stories of this type that followed the tradition of the Hellenistic novel were extremely popular in the sixth and seventh centuries. Unfortunately, Christians of later times took these tales for history.

Hagiographical Forgeries. These accounts about the death of martyrs were written for neither the edification nor the amusement of readers, but to deceive them. The Acts of Paul and Thecla are the earliest examples of this type. They were composed out of excessive devotion to St. Paul by a priest of Asia who was later deposed for his pains (Tertullian, De baptismo 17). Such stories were also fabricated to substantiate the Apostolic founding of Gallic sees; and in most instances it is impossible to determine the real authors of the frauds since the writer may simply be elaborating an already current tale.

Growth of Martyr Literature. Several factors contributed to the growth of martyr literature. There was, first of all, the natural desire to preserve the memory of those who had died for a cause. Jewish counterparts of the Christian Acts are found not only in the Book of Machabees, but also in the martyrdoms of Akiba and Jehuda ben Baba. Pagan parallels existed in the political martyrs of the Acta Alexandrinorum and in the trial of Secundus, the Silent Philosopher, at Athens by the Emperor Hadrian. There was an appreciation of the apologetic value of martyrdom as a proof of the divine origin of Christianity (Tertullian, Apologeticum 50; Justin, 2 Apology 13) and of the theological notion that the martyr was the perfect imitator of Christ in his passion, and there was the edification that could be derived from a reading of the sufferings of the saints.

In Africa, Gaul, and Spain the custom quickly rose of reading in the liturgy the Acts of the martyrs on their feasts. The practice was not introduced at Rome until a much later date. This seems to explain why, with the exception of the account given by Justin Martyr of the condemnation of three Christians by Lollius Urbicus (c. 160; 2 Apology 2) and the Acts of Justin and his companions, there are no authentic records of the trials and executions of the numerous Roman martyrs. During the centuries following the persecutions, anonymous writers tried to make up for this deficiency. According to a late fifthcentury document, the so-called Decretum Gelasianum 1 (Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. Migne [Paris 187890] 59:171172), the gesta sanctorum martyrum were not read in church at Rome since their authors were unknown and they could be a source of ridicule. Later centuries were less critical; and by the end of the eighth, a martyr's Acts were liturgically read at Rome on his feast (Hadrian I, Epistolae ad Carolum Regem; Patrologia Latina 98:1284).

The legendary Acts of the martyrs are historically useful for the knowledge they supply regarding popular beliefs and social, political, and legal institutions during the centuries in which they were composed. The authentic Acts are important for the direct and indirect evidence they afford of practices and beliefs traditional in the early Church: a reverence for Scripture (Passio SS. Scillitanorum 12); the preservation of relics (Acta Procons. Cypriani 5); infant Baptism (Martyrdom of Polycarp 9); martyrdom as a second Baptism (Passio SS. Perpetuae et Felicitatis 21; Passio SS. Jacobi et Mariani 11); prayers for the souls of the departed (Passio SS. Perpetuae et Felicitatis 78); devotion to "Mother" Church (Letter of the Churches of Lyons and Vienne; in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 5.2.67); the observance of fasts (Acta SS. Fructuosi, Eulogii et Augurii martyrum 3), particularly before the reception of the Eucharist (Passio SS. Jacobi et Mariani 8); and the essential difference in the veneration shown to Christ and to the saints: "For Him, who is the Son of God, we adore; but the martyrs, we love as disciples and imitators of the Lord" (Martyrdom of Polycarp 17). Even more intimately than the arguments of the apologists and the speculations of the Alexandrian theologians, the authentic Acts make contact with our spiritual ancestors, the common Christians called to make a heroic confession. They present the moving spectacle of men and women of every age and every walk of life dying for their faith in the firm hope of attaining everlasting life.

Bibliography: e. c. e. owen, ed. and tr., Some Authentic Acts of the Early Martyrs (Oxford 1927). h. delehaye, The Legends of the Saints tr. d. attwater (New York 1962). h. leclercq, Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie. ed. f. cabrol, h. leclercq and h. i. marrou (Paris 190753) 1.1:373446. a. hamman, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiberg 195765) 7:133134. w. h. c. frend, Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church (Oxford 1965). g. a. bisbee, Pre-Decian Acts of Martyrs and Commentarii (Philadelphia 1988).

[m. j. costelloe]