But no matter; it’s highly probable that he really existed and really was martyred for his faith in Christ, along with thousands of others from the first century on.
Early in my Christian life I was exposed to the accounts of the sufferings of the first century church that were given in the book of Acts. I read of the persecutions and numerous arrests of the apostles and of the martyrdoms of Stephen and James, the brother of John. I read of the harassment of the early church by Saul of Tarsus, who later became Paul, the apostle and was himself persecuted by those to whom he presented the gospel, and finally died for his faith. I read of the warnings Jesus gave to His early disciples. As I read the epistles, I found them full of allusions to and warnings of, sufferings and persecution, even possible death.
Later I read Foxe’s Book of Martyrs with its accounts of the sufferings of those in the early church, as well as throughout the centuries since. I read of martyrs burned at the stake or slaughtered in the Coliseum because of their faith in Christ.
It’s easy for us 21st century American Christians to see these accounts as just ancient morality tales or tales of long ago heroism, simply given to inspire the readers. We are tempted to regard them as far removed from our enlightened age, or on the other hand, to regard them as metaphors for the minor discrimination or taunting that we may experience.
But these are real stories about real people! And similar stories are being repeated today!
Our English word “martyr” is directly related to the Greek word martus (plural martures), which originally had the meaning of “witness.” A martus was one who had seen an event occur and who then would testify, often in a legal sense, to its having occurred. The word had this meaning in the New Testament and is still used in this way in modern Greek.
This is the most common use of the word in the New Testament. Matthew 18:16: “…by the mouth of two or three witnesses, every matter will be established.” 26:65: “Why do we have further need of witnesses?”
In Luke 24:48, however, the word takes on a particular specialized meaning, that of a witness to Christ’s resurrection. When Jesus appeared to His disciples after His resurrection and explained how the Old Testament Scripture applied to Him, He commanded them to proclaim these truths to all nations and said, “You are witnesses of these things.”
It is in the book of Acts that this specialized meaning becomes almost a theme. Of the 13 times the word martus is used, it is used in this way 11 times.
So in Acts, the word has taken the meaning of: “A person who has seen Christ risen from the dead, and who has taken the assignment of proclaiming this truth.”
“…you will be My witnesses, both in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and until the end of the earth” (1:18).
“This Jesus, God raised up, of which we are all witnesses” (2:32).
However, in Acts 22:20, the word begins to take on a new shade of meaning. The apostle Paul in relating his prayer after his conversion speaks of Stephen, the first “witness” to be put to death for carrying out his assignment. “…and when the blood of Stephen, Your witness, was shed, I also was standing and giving approval …”
In the book of Revelation, this idea was carried even further. The risen Christ speaks in 2:13 of: “Antipas, My faithful witness who was killed among you …”
In Revelation 11:3, He speaks of: “My two witnesses …” who are later killed (verse 7).
In Revelation 17:6, John sees the scarlet woman “drunk from the blood of the saints, and the blood of the witnesses of Jesus.” Some English translations (the KJV for one) even translate the word here as “martyrs.”
Jesus Himself is called “The faithful Witness” in 1:5 and 3:14. It has been thought that here there may be a subtle reference to His death.
Anyway, we can see that by the time of the book of Revelation, which is dated at the latest in the mid-90’s, the word martus had taken on this new shade of meaning: “One who has borne witness of Christ, even to the point of death,” although the original meaning was also retained.
By the mid-second century, the word was clearly being used of those who were put to death for their faith in and witness to Christ. One of the most well-known documents from that time period is a letter to which has been given the title, “The Martyrdom of Polycarp.” In this account, we are told of a bishop or overseer named Polycarp, who was burned at the stake for his refusal to recant and to confess Caesar as Lord. He is included among a number who were martyred (19).
But, as mentioned earlier, martyrdoms of followers of Christ were not simply events of the past. Down through the ages people have been put to death for their faith. Sometimes sadly, even by those who have claimed that faith as their own.
It has been claimed by some that the 20th century saw more martyrs than all previous centuries put together. I can’t say so for sure, but certainly it had more than its share – the purges by Stalin and Mao, the slaughter of Armenian Christians by Turkey, come to mind.
And martyrdom is still going on today, as well as other persecutions. Though there are few nations where it is blatantly against the law to even be a Christian, many Muslim nations have “blasphemy laws” which demand a sentence of death for those who reject Islam. Many Hindu states have “anti-conversion laws.” And, of course, there are the Communist and Atheist regimes. And even where persecution is not government sponsored, in many countries, government simply looks the other way when family or village members kill and persecute followers of Christ.
And some of the worst persecutors are allies of the U.S.!
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:26: “… if one member suffers, all the members suffer together.” I urge that we who know Christ pray regularly for those members of Christ’s body who are suffering and speak out as we have opportunity.
For further information on today’s persecuted church, see: http://www.persecution.com/.