The Testimony of Blood: The Charisma of Martyrdom -- By: David F. Wright

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 160:640 (Oct 2003)
Article: The Testimony of Blood: The Charisma of Martyrdom
Author: David F. Wright

The Testimony of Blood:
The Charisma of Martyrdoma

David F. Wright

The first article in this series discussed an experience common to all Christians—baptism. This final article concludes with an experience that may be given to very few, if any, in the United States today—martyrdom. Historians commonly characterize the period leading up to Constantine as “the age of the martyrs,” and appropriately so. Constantine did not, as is often asserted, make Christianity the official religion of the Roman state, but he did put an end to the persecution of Christians, or their liability to persecution. Thus terminated an era, in fact the only era, in which the whole of the Christian church was exposed to harassment and possible martyrdom. In some subsequent centuries martyrs have been more numerous, but only in part of the church at any one time.

But the label “the age of martyrs” is misleading if taken to imply that persecution was continuous and universal and that martyrs were counted in huge numbers. No estimate of the sum of martyrdoms in the first three centuries can be more than approximate, but a good case can be made for there being neither too many nor too few—that is, neither too many nor too few for the roles they played in the making of the early Christians.

Martyrs as Super-Christians

Martyrs were beyond doubt the super-Christians of the early centuries. They were truly filled with the Spirit, and endowed with a

kind of instinctively acknowledged charismatic authority. At times this clashed with the regular authority of bishops and presbyters, especially in the granting of pardon and reconciliation to those who had “lapsed” in persecution. Perpetua realized that she was “privileged to pray for” her young brother Dinocrates who had died.1 Martyrs and confessors received visions and were given not only the words to speak by the Spirit, as Jesus Himself had promised, but also the strength to wrestle with demonic forces in a contest unto death.

The martyrs gained this exalted status partly because they died not only for and with Christ but also like Him. In martyrdom the imitation of Christ reached its highest level. This made Christian martyrdom unique. Martyrdom itself was not restricted to Christianity. It has long been argued, for example, that the accounts of the Jewish Maccabaean martyrs in the second century B.C. influenced not only the language of the New Testament in reference to the death of Christ but also later Christian martyrology. In Augustine’s time the North African church commemorated the Ma...

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