Martyrdom in the Second-Century

Accounts of persecution and execution of believers in the second-century


Kathy L. McFarland

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Martyrdom Accounts in the Second Century

Letters by churches, acts that recount their trials and narrations of the passionate drama record the last days and death of the martyrs of the second century. Christian authors Cyprian, Origen, and Tertullian wrote exhortations to martyrdom in the third century, and by the fourth century, annual commemorations of the death of specific martyrs were celebrated in the church meetings.[1]

Martyrdom of Polycarp (156?)– This most influential document was written by Polycarp’s church at Smyrna to the church at Philomelium in Phrygia.  The date of Polycarp’s persecution is thought to be around 156; however, other dates between 167-68 and 177 are also suggested by some scholars.[2]

The author warns the congregation at Philomelium to stop the practice of volunteering for martyrdom, and recounts a case when someone did this and denied his faith in Christ under the tremendous pressure of persecution.  He encourages the Christians, instead, to be the example of Polycarp, who first left the city to escape persecution and death, but when captured, stood strong and confessed his faith; he endured the trial and execution with dignity and courage.

The Acts of Saints Carpus, Papylus, and Agathonice (165?) - Captures the martyrdom of a woman named Agathonice along with her cohorts Carpus and Papylus. Eusebius dates these acts to about 165; however, an updated Latin version suggests third century.

The Acts of Justin and his Companions (167) – This act of a trial of Christians is one of the oldest surviving documents written from a Christian viewpoint.  It recounts the progressive drama of the trial that unfolds and leads to the beheading of Justin and his companions for their Christian belief.

The Acts of Apollonius (167) – Two speeches by philosopher Apollonius who defends Christianity through his apologetics effort are claimed by some to be part of a trial; however, such an apology is unlikely to have been allowed in a court setting.[3]

The Letter of the Churches of Vienne and Lyons (177) – Another important document of the second-century martyrdom literature captures the firsthand account of the brutal experiences of the persecuted Christians and the outrage of those who watched the atrocities unfold.  Great numbers of martyred Roman Christians being beheaded or condemned to the wild beast contests in the Coliseum arena are recorded.

Eusebius preserved the letter to the churches in his book 5 of Church History. The letter vividly captures the faith of a young Christian heroine named Blandina and others, who endured hideous tortures, while forgiving their fellow believers who were weak and denied the faith. The humble victims of persecution preferred the label of “confessors” and the reserving of the term “martyr” for those who were dead.

The Acts of the Martyrs of Scilli (180) – Notable as the earliest surviving Latin account of twelve North African Christian examinations by the governor of the provincial capital of Carthage. A case containing the letters of Paul accompanied this work.

The Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas (203) – It is a unique Latin narrative of martyrdoms in Carthage at the beginning of the third century in 203. Young Catechumen Perpetua and slave Felicitas and several others were martyred with a terrible flogging, exposure to wild beasts, and eventually beheaded.  They were baptized while in confinement.

The Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas combines the diary of Perpetua, one of the few women known from the ancient church, with additional chapters written by her catechist, with an introduction and conclusion by a witness of their martyrdom.  It is considered by most scholars to be one of the most reliable accounts of martyrdom.  The women were celebrated in the canon of Mass until modern canons were composed.[4]




Ferguson, Everett Ferguson. Church History Volume 1: From Christ to Pre-Reformation. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 2005.

Cabaniss, A. "Perpetua" In , in Who's Who in Christian History, ed. J.D. Douglas and Philip W. Comfort. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1992.

[1] Everett Ferguson, Church History Volume 1: From Christ to Pre-Reformation (Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 2005), 80.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, 81.

[4] A. Cabaniss, "Perpetua" In , in Who's Who in Christian History, ed. J.D. Douglas and Philip W. Comfort (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1992), 549.

Kathy L. McFarland is a Becker Bible Studies teacher and author of Guided Bible Studies for Hungry Christians. She has received her Bachelor of Science degree in Religious Studies from Liberty University, and is currently seeking her Master of Divinity (Professional Ministries Track) degree from Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary & Graduate School. Kathy is also a Hebrew language student attending an Israeli taught Ulpan and a noted expert on Old Testament exegesis, Christian apologetics, and Bible typology and mysteries.


Last modified: Wednesday, 18 September 2013, 12:23 PM