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Early Christian Martyr Stories: An Evangelical Introduction with New Translations

by Bryan M. Litfin

Baker Academic. 2014.

Reviewed by Daniel Shinjong Baeq, director, Hiebert Global Center, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Bearing in mind differing theological and ecclesiological stances and controversies, Bryan Litfin’s scholarship carefully guides readers to consider how the implications of martyrdom can be relevant to Christians today.

Litfin first discusses the origin of the Greek word martys, which means “to give eye witness testimony in court” (p. 9). Under Roman law, which called people to worship the emperor, Christians were prosecuted as criminals, charged that they were a political, social, and economic threat to the Roman society. Their noble death, however, bore valuable witness to their eternal hope of God in Christ. Thus, it was due to their witness in the Roman courts under systematic persecution that the Christian community later adopted the term martyr to praise the confessors of Christ who died in defense of their faith. 

After an insightful introduction, Litfin carefully selects thirteen cases of Christian martyrdom, also including martyrs from the Maccabean revolt, before the time of Christ. He includes Jewish martyrs such as the Seven Sons of a Jewish mother, who were forced to witness, one by one, the torture of each of their tongues being cut out, limbs amputated, and being fried alive in a pot of oil. Despite this horrific torture, they refused to eat pork but instead bravely declared to the end, “The king of the universe will resurrect us to eternal life because we died for his laws” (p.25).

While Litfin presents the more familiar stories of Christian martyrs such as Apostles Peter and Paul and Church Fathers Ignatius, Polycarp, Justin, Tertullian, and Origen, he also carefully introduces stories of unfamiliar martyrs like Germanicus, Vettius Epagathus, Blandina, and Perpetua. His selection includes Jews and Gentiles, male and female, orthodox and non-orthodox, all the while presenting geographical and cultural diversity, covering regions of the holy land, Asia (Turkey and Greece), southern Europe (Rome and France), and North Africa (Egypt and Tunisia). 

While historical sketches can be devoid of transformative power, Litfin illuminates the lives of Christian martyrs in a way that resonates with contemporary readers. He does this by briefly introducing each martyr, then letting the translations of primary sources vividly recount the martyrs’ unwavering faith and hope in God. 

Persecution and martyrdom is more relevant today than ever. We live in a time when countless Christians still die for their faith each day and where the news of the Coptic and Ethiopian Christians being martyred by the ISIS militant group sounds all too familiar. This timely book will help the general readers as well as college and seminary students of Early Church history, biblical studies, and mission, to not only learn about the Early Church martyrs, but also to “reflect on what it may mean to take up their cross and follow in the Lord’s footsteps” (p.2).

….

EMQ, Vol. 51, No. 4 pp. 456-457. Copyright  © 2015 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism.  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.

 

 

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