Christian martyrdom

Daily Reading for June 2 • Blandina and her Companions, the Martyrs of Lyons, 177

Martyrdom was, in theory, enjoined upon all, but it also required extreme virtue and courage. One expositor and cautious apologist for martyrdom, Clement of Alexandria, approached the egalitarianism of martyrdom by citing as precedent for early Christian martyrdom the deaths of more ancient and brave people, as evidence of a general human ability, when informed by reason, to strike an attitude of contempt toward suffering in view of a higher or more permanent state of happiness: “Neither, then, the hope of happiness nor the love of God takes whatever happens ill but remains free, although through among the wildest beasts or into the all-devouring fire; though racked with a tyrant’s tortures. Depending as it does on the divine favor, it ascends aloft unenslaved, surrendering the body to those who can touch it alone” (Miscellanies 4.8). Here Clement reflects a culturally elite view of martyrdom, wherein the most highly trained person is the one who can approach a painful death calmly. . . . Perhaps thinking of the story of the mother of the Maccabees, Clement writes, “So the church is full of those, as well chaste women as men, who all their life have practiced for the death that rouses up to Christ. For the one whose life is framed as ours is, may philosophize without education, whether barbarian, whether Greek, whether slave—whether an old man, or a boy, or a woman. For self-control is common to all human beings who have made choice of it.” Clement uses this dictum, Stoic in origin, to orient his discussion of martyrdom, and in particular his views about the relative positions of men and women, divided into superior and inferior in this world by their possession of bodies, but in the next equal because they are all humans and rational. Although part of a larger discussion about the worth and the proper preparation and conditions for martyrdom, his statement can stand here to indicate that already in the late second century an established tradition viewed martyrdom as the common destiny of Christ’s disciples.

From “Martyrdom as Exaltation” by Robin Darling Young, in Late Ancient Christianity, edited by Virginia Burrus, volume 2 in the series A People’s History of Christianity (Fortress Press, 2005).

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