Martyrs in Christian History

From Post-Biblical times to modern day Christians, throughout their long history, have met with martyrdom. An overview of some of these brave men and women of the Christian Faith


Trinity College of Biblical Studies-Free Online Bible College

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Course Description/ Syllabus:

(1) Persecution and Martyrdom in the Early Church. A survey of the Church’s experience of persecution up to the ‘Peace of the Church’. Consideration of the motives behind the various persecutions, the Christian response thereto, and the effects of the persecutions. This opening lecture will introduce the theme of the weekend with an overview of what remains the ‘imaginative centre’ of Christian martyrdom. Particular attention will be paid to the development of a theology of martyrdom in this period.

(2) The New Martyrs of the Christian Empire. From illegal cult to state religion; the convergence of state interest in religious unity and the church's need for doctrinal and organisational unity. From imperial enforcement of conciliar decisions to imperial persecution of religious dissidents. The ominous example of Priscillian and St Martin's failure to prevent sentence of death being passed on him. The iconophile martyrs and confessors. The martyrs to imperial uniatism.

(3) The New Martyrs under Muslim Rule. The status of the "people of the Book" under Islamic rule. The general policy of tolerance and the exceptional periods of persecution. The impact of the Crusades. The millet system under Ottoman rule. An attempted typology of the New Martyrs: [a] main grounds for condemnation: conversion of a Muslim to Christianity; conversion of a non-Muslim to Christianity; reversion to Christianity by a convert to Islam; insult to Islam by a Christian; refusal of the opportunity to embrace Islam as a means to avoiding execution for a crime. [b] main types of martyr: the Muslim drawn to Christianity by another's example; the non-Muslim convert to Christianity; the economic convert to Islam who repents; the person tricked or forced into conversion who renounces it; the conforming non-Muslim who confesses to being a Christian; the Muslim who discovers his/her Christian origins and reverts; the hero for Christ who seeks voluntary martyrdom; the person accused of a crime and offered conversion to Islam as a means of evading sentence, the Crypto-Christians who declared their true faith in times of a rebellion that failed. [c] The Ethno-Martyrs who are also Martyrs to Christianity: victims of pogroms in periods of rebellion include religious figures who clearly suffered because of their religious as well as ethnic identity - under Ottoman rule the two are not, in any case, totally distinct.

(4) The New Martyrs of Russia. The last lecture will take our study of martyrdom up to the C20 – a century in which more are estimated to have died for their faith than in the first Christian centuries. We will look at the experience of the Church under a militant atheist regime, examining perennial issues such as the choice between compromise and active opposition when faced with a hostile government. A number of figures will be looked at closely building up a picture of contemporary martyrdom in which the various themes and issues of the weekend can be discussed. We shall compare experiences of martyrdom in Russia with Orthodoxy in the Diaspora as two forms of witness and shall examine processes of canonisation in the 1990s.

Some general issues to be addressed: both in lectures and in discussion students will be invited to consider exactly what are the criteria for deciding that someone is indeed a Martyr. St Adauctus and the fortieth Martyr of Sebaste were, by tradition, pagans brought to seek a voluntary death in the one case because his friend was being lead to execution as a Christian, in the other, because of the vision of the forty crowns - or for emulation of the martyr soldiers' heroism. St Zourzos the gardener died because he confessed to being a Christian, but did not know anything about the Christian faith. How voluntary must a martyr's death be? To what extent can a victim of a pogrom be seen as a martyr? Can an Orthodox Christian regard the martyrs of other Christian (or for that matter non-Christian) religions as truly martyrs?

Learning on the Course:

By lecture, group work, text study and discussion.

Learning Achievement:

As a result of the course, within the constraints of the time available, students should be enabled to:

  1. 1) Have an overview of the history and theology of martyrdom within the Christian tradition
  2. 2) Appreciate some of the principal questions and issues relating to the history and theology of martyrdom


Assessment of learning outcomes will be the basis for accreditation. Successful completion of the course will require:

  1. 1. completion and return of a Personal Statement of Learning;
  2. 2. completion of a written assignment of c2000 words on one of the following topics or on a topic agreed with one of the course tutors, to be handed / sent in by an agreed submission date.

Essay Questions:

  1. 1) ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed’. What did Tertullian mean by this – and was he right?
  2. 2) ‘Only good emperors persecute’. Discuss.


  1. 3) Under the Christian Emperors the Church moved from being a persecuted to a persecuting organization. How do we explain this change, and can it be justified?
  2. 4) What makes a martyr?
  3. 5) How does the Christian understanding of martyrdom differ from that of any other faith tradition?
  4. 6) Examine the causes and consequences of the persecution of Christians in a period and region of your choice.


2. Research paper A research paper of 10 pages (12 point, type written, double spaced) will allow the student to investigate a particular issue of Christian practice/ethics addressed in the epistle; the student is to explore the topic with respect to its primary historical context, and then in irrelevance for the 21 century church. Many examples of topics may be gleaned from the list of class topics. Please obtain in advance the instructor’s approval for the topic you propose to research. Include documentation and bibliography.

3. Theology paper A theology paper of 8-10 pages (12 point, type written, double spaced) For this paper, a particular doctrinal theme may be traced throughout all or part of the class material; or a practical issue may be chosen and investigated regarding its associated theological implications. Papers should not merely report the results of research, but should show that the student is evaluating and processing the material. Be sure that 1) research regarding social/historical background, 2) exegesis of relevant passages of class material, and 3) application to the present day, are all evident. Work should be free of grammar and spelling mistakes Papers are due as identified in the course schedule. Late submissions will be penalized


Required Reading(click on link to download)

Martyrs in the History of Christianity

The Passion of the Holy Martyrs Perpetua and Felicity

Correspondence between Pliny and the Emperor Trajan

Fox's Boof of Martyrs

Reference Links