November 13, 2012
One of the most commonly repeated “Sunday-school” stories from the early church is that until the conversion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, the Romans constantly and mercilessly persecuted the church. It is true that in some places and at some times, persecution was quite intense, but it was much more sporadic than constant, and persecution was rarely very systematic. Not only is the Sunday-school version of events incomplete about how widespread persecution was; it is also incomplete about how the church responded. To hear the story in Sunday School is often to come away with the impression that all Christians in those early centuries were heroes, valiantly going to the lions with the name of Christ upon their lips as they were torn limb from limb. Again, it is true that some Christians met their death in this way, but certainly not many. Far more people caved in during persecution, or sought to evade it, or something of that sort. After all, they weren’t that much different from us.
But before we disparage the Sunday-school version of events too much, we need to recognize that the early Christians themselves held up the famous martyrs as heroes for Christ. The martyr stories were the most popular and influential “biographies” of the early church, inspiring the masses of ordinary believers to be more obedient and faithful to Christ as well. What, though, did the obedience of the ordinary Christians look like? If few Christians were actually martyred, then how did the regular Christians emulate the brave martyrs who had gone to the lions?
Part of the answer to that question can be found during the most widespread persecution of the early church—the so-called “Great Persecution” that began in the year AD 303. Unlike most persecutions, this one did extend throughout the empire, although it lasted much longer in the East than it did in the West. Many martyr stories stem from events during this persecution, most commonly describing the brave Christians who refused to give up their copies of the Scriptures when the Roman officials came seeking them as part of their systematic effort to destroy the Christian Bible. In one particularly noteworthy story, a group of laypeople from the church of Abitina (near Carthage in what is today Tunisia) repudiated the action of their own bishop in giving up the church’s Scriptures, continued to hold Christian services without him, and were arrested, tried and executed for doing so. Christians have long celebrated the bravery of heroes like these Abitinian martyrs and have acknowledged the role their bravery played in the preservation of biblical texts.
But in addition to such overt acts of bravery, there were many smaller ones. Papyri sources reveal that some Christians told Roman officials that they had the Bible in their hearts (doubtless true, but probably also misleading, since there were likely to have been manuscripts somewhere as well). Others gave the Roman officials the runaround—giving names of church members who had the manuscripts, and those church members would give other names, and so on, until the officials would give up and inquire at a different church. Still other Christians gave up copies of heretical or even non-Christian writings, hoping the officials would not know the difference. And one account even indicates that a clever Christian handed over a copy of a medical textbook in the hope that the Roman official either couldn’t read or wouldn’t care, as long as he could go back to his boss with some confiscated writing.
Such duplicitous—even humorous—acts don’t make for great, inspiring reading, and it is not surprising that these were not the accounts that the church chose to preserve and pass on. But as papyri discoveries round out our picture of ancient history, we can recognize that such small deeds were acts of faithfulness nonetheless. Indeed the Lord has used the bold acts of people like the Abitinian martyrs to further his purposes and to preserve his Scriptures. But he has also used the little, ordinary actions of regular believers, who were being faithful to the degree that they thought they could.
In Finding God in Unexpected Places, Philip Yancey famously writes about “saints” and “semi-saints.” He has Ezra and Nehemiah in mind, but Christian history also has many examples of saints and semi-saints. Indeed, so does the present Christian church. And for most of us, who don’t feel very heroic and who read the stories of great saints with a bit of embarrassment and shame, maybe it is encouraging to know that God has worked—and does work—through semi-saints like us as well. Maybe the real role that the great martyr stories play in Christian history is that they inspire a lot of little acts of faithfulness—acts that, although small taken individually, amount to something when considered in aggregate. And maybe that is a sufficient reason to keep telling the Sunday-school version of the story.
Dr. Donald Fairbairn is the Robert E. Cooley Professor of Early Christianity. His responsibilities include further developing the Robert C. Cooley Center for the Study of Early Christianity at the Charlotte campus, which explores the historical foundations of the Christian faith.