There is only one fact on which nearly all accounts about Jesus of Nazareth, whether written by persons hostile or devoted to him, agree: that, by order of the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate, he was condemned and crucified in c. AD 30. The aristocratic Roman historian Tacitus (c. 55-115), who knew virtually nothing about Jesus, mentions only that the emperor Nero (54-58)

substituted as culprits and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of persons hated for their vices, whom the crowd called Christians. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not only in Judea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where everything horrible or shameful in the world gathers and becomes fashionable.1

The Jewish historian Josephus includes Jesus of Nazareth in a list of troubles that disturbed Jewish relations with Rome when Pilate was governor of Jerusalem (roughly 26-36). A comment attributed to Josephus reports that “Pilate, having heard him accused by men of the highest standing among us…condemned him to be crucified.”2

Jesus’ followers confirm this report. The gospel of Mark, probably the earliest of the New Testament accounts (c. 70-80), tells how Jesus was betrayed by Judas Iscariot at night in the garden of Gethsemane outside Jerusalem, and then arrested by armed men as his disciples fled (14:43-51). Charged with sedition before Pilate, he was condemned to death (15:1-15). Jesus remained alive on the cross for several hours before, as Mark tells it, he “uttered a loud cry” (15.37) and died. The gospels of Luke and John, written perhaps a generation later (c. 90-110), give a more heroic account: Jesus forgives his torturers and, with a prayer, yields up his life.3

All four of the New Testament gospels describe his suffering, death, and hasty burial, interpreting the circumstances leading to his death to demonstrate his innocence. Mark says that the chief priests and religious leaders in Jerusalem planned to have Jesus arrested and executed because of his teaching against them (15:10). In John’s fuller, and more historically plausible, account, he reports that as Jesus’ popularity grew, the chief priests gathered the council of the Sanhedrin to discuss the dangers of riot. Many of the uneducated Jews already acclaimed Jesus as Messiah (11:45-53)—the “annointed king” who they expected would liberate Israel from Roman imperialism and restore the Jewish state. The council feared that Jesus’ presence in the city would provoke a nationalist revolt among thousands of Jews who came to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover holiday. The council was responsible for keeping peace between the Jewish population and the Roman occupying army—a peace so tenuous that only a few years later, when a Roman soldier stationed in Jerusalem during Passover contemptuously exposed himself in the Temple courtyard, he provoked a riot in which 30,000 people are said to have lost their lives. Josephus, who tells this story, adds: “Thus the Feast ended in distress to the whole nation, and bereavement to every household.”4

John reconstructs the council debate concerning Jesus: “What are we to do?…If we let him go on thus,” the crowds may demonstrate in favor of this alleged king, “and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation” (11:47-48). The chief priest Caiaphas argued that it would be expedient to arrest Jesus at once, rather than endanger the whole population (11:49-50). Even the author of John recognized the political acumen of this reasoning: he reports that after the insurrectionary Jewish War of 66-70, the Romans burned the Temple to the ground, devastated the city of Jerusalem, and decimated the population—just as Caiaphas had predicted, according to John.

But although the sources agree on the basic story of Jesus’ execution, Christians sharply disagree on how it should be interpreted. The ancient papyrus texts discovered in 1945 near Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt reveal how other Christians—whose views were later condemned as heretical—interpreted Christ’s suffering and death.5 Those who read and circulated these writings, attributed to Jesus and his disciples in the first centuries of the Christian era, far from considering themselves to be heretics, called themselves gnostics (literally, “those who know”). And they claimed that they possessed secret, esoteric knowledge (gnosis) of the spiritual nature of man hidden from most believers. One gnostic text from Nag Hammadi, the Apocalypse of Peter, relates a version of the crucifixion that differs radically from the New Testament accounts:

…I saw him apparently being seized by them. And I said, “What am I seeing, O Lord? Is it really you whom they take? And are you holding on to me? And are they hammering the feet and hands of another? Who is this one above the cross, who is glad and laughing?” The Savior said to me, “He whom you saw being glad and laughing above the cross is the Living Jesus. But he into whose hands and feet they are driving the nails is his fleshly part, which is the substitute. They put to shame that which remained in his likeness. And look at him, and [look at] me!”6

Another of the Nag Hammadi texts, the Second Treatise of the Great Seth, reports that Christ said:


It was another…who drank the gall and the vinegar; it was not I. They struck me with the reed; it was another, Simon, who bore the cross on his shoulder. It was another upon whom they placed the crown of thorns. But I was rejoicing in the height over…their error…. And I was laughing at their ignorance. [56.6-19]7

The fragmentary Acts of John, one of the most famous gnostic texts found before the discovery at Nag Hammadi and repeatedly denounced by the orthodox, explains that Jesus was not a human being at all, but a spiritual being who appeared to each believer in a different form appropriate to his or her spiritual understanding. In the Acts John tells how James once saw Jesus in the form of a child standing on the shore and pointed him out to John,

I [John] said, “Which child?” And [James] answered me, “The one who is beckoning to us.” And I said, “This is because of the long watch we have kept at sea. You are not seeing straight, brother James. Do you not see the man standing there who is handsome, fair and cheerful looking?” But he said to me, “I do not see that man, my brother.” [88]8

When they go ashore to investigate, John says,

He appeared to me again as rather bald-[headed], but with a thick flowing beard, but to James as a young man whose beard was just beginning…. I tried to see him as he was…. But he sometimes appeared to me as a small man, with no good looks, and then again as looking up to heaven….[89]

John continues:

I will tell you another glory, brethren; sometimes when I meant to touch him I encountered a material, solid body; but at other times again when I felt him, his substance was immaterial and incorporeal…as if it did not exist at all. [93]

Since John can find no footprints and he notices that Jesus does not blink his eyes, he concludes that Christ’s nature is spiritual, not human.

The Acts tells us that Jesus anticipated arrest, and called his disciples to Gethsemane the night before:

…he assembled us all, and said, “Before I am delivered to them, let us sing a hymn to the Father, and so go to meet what lies before [us].” So he told us to form a circle, holding one another’s hands, and himself stood in the middle….[94]

Instructing the disciples to “Answer Amen to me,” he began to intone a mystical chant:

“To the Universe belongs the dancer.” “Amen.”

“He who does not dance does not know what happens.” “Amen…”

“Now if you follow my dance, see yourself in Me, who am speaking….

You who dance, consider what I do, for yours is this passion of Man

This passion I am to suffer. For you could by no means have understood what you suffer

Unless to you, as Logos I had been sent by the Father…

Learn how to suffer and you will be able not to suffer.”9

At the moment of the crucifixion, Jesus appears to John in a cave in Gethsemane, and tells him,

“John, for the people below…I am being crucified and pierced with lances…and given vinegar and gall to drink. But to you I am speaking, and listen to what I speak.” [97]

Then the vision reveals to John a “cross of light,” and explains that “I have suffered none of the things which they will say of me; even that suffering which I showed to you and to the rest in my dance, I will that it be called a mystery” (98).

Other gnostics, followers of the poet and teacher Valentinus, interpret the meaning of such paradoxes in a different way. According to the Treatise on Resurrection, discovered at Nag Hammadi, in so far as Jesus was the “Son of Man” he suffered and died like the rest of humanity.10 But since he was also the “Son of God,” the divine spirit within him could not die: and in that sense he transcended suffering and death.

By contrast, orthodox Christians insist that Jesus was a human being, and that the crucifixion was an actual historical event. This central belief appears in the Apostles’ Creed, which states that “Jesus Christ suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and buried.” Pope Leo the Great (c. 447) condemned such writings as the Acts of John as “a hotbed of manifold perversity,” which “should not only be forbidden, but entirely destroyed and burned with fire.”


What lies behind this vehemence? Why does faith in the passion and death of Christ become an essential belief—some say the essential belief—of orthodox Christianity? I am convinced that we cannot answer this question fully until we recognize that for Christians of the first and second centuries the interpretation of Christ’s suffering and death raised an urgent practical question: How are believers to respond to persecution, which raises the imminent threat of their own suffering and death?

No issue could be more immediate to Jesus’ disciples, who had witnessed his betrayal and arrest, and heard accounts of his trial, torture, and final agony. When Peter and James, the most prominent of the disciples, were arrested and executed, every Christian recognized that joining the movement placed him in danger. Both Tacitus and Suetonius, the historian of the imperial court (c. 115), vividly describe the official persecution of early Christians, as in Tacitus’ account of their suffering under Nero at the time of the fire in Rome:

First, then, those of the sect were arrested who confessed; next, on their disclosures, vast numbers were convicted, not so much on the count of arson, as for hatred of the human race. And ridicule accompanied their end: they were covered with wild beasts’ skins and torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and, when daylight failed, were burned to serve as torches by night. Nero had offered his gardens for the spectacle….11

Roman persecution of the Christians was the continuation of a policy begun during Augustus’ reign (27 BC-AD 14), when the emperor and the Senate moved to suppress social dissidents—as they suppressed astrologers, magicians, followers of foreign religious cults, and philosophers.12 The Christian group bore all the marks of conspiracy. First, they identified themselves as followers of a man accused and executed for practicing magic,13 as well as for treason; second, they were “atheists,” who denounced as “demons” the gods who protected the fortunes of the Roman state—even the genius (divine spirit) of the emperor himself; third, they belonged to an illegal society. Besides, rumor indicated that their secrecy concealed atrocities such as rituals that included eating human flesh and drinking human blood—practices of which magicians were commonly accused.14 Although at this time no law specifically prohibited converting to Christianity, any magistrate who heard a person accused of Christianity was required to investigate.15 When Pliny the Younger was governor of Bythinia, a province in Asia Minor (c. 112), he wrote to the emperor Trajan about the problem of dealing with such cases:

this is the course I have taken with those who were accused before me as Christians. I asked them whether they were Christians, and I asked them a second and third time with threats of punishment. If they kept to it, I ordered them taken off for execution, for I had no doubt that whatever it was they admitted, in any case they deserve to be punished for obstinacy and unbending pertinacity…. As for those who said they neither were nor ever had been Christians, I thought it right to let them go, when they recited a prayer to the gods at my dictation, and made supplication with incense and wine to your statue, which I had ordered to be brought into court for the purpose, and moreover, cursed Christ—things which (so it is said) those who are really Christians cannot be made to do.16

Trajan replied approving Pliny’s handling of the matter.

Justin, a second-century Platonist philosopher who had converted to Christianity, boldly wrote to Emperor Antoninus Pius and his son, Marcus Aurelius, protesting the injustice Christians endured in imperial courts. Justin relates a recent case in Rome: a woman who had been converted to Christianity through the influence of her teacher Ptolemy refused to take part in drunken sexual activities with her husband and servants as she had in the past. Her friends persuaded her not to divorce, hoping for some reconciliation, but when she learned that her husband had acted more flagrantly than ever, she sued for divorce and left him. He immediately brought a legal accusation against her, “affirming that she was a Christian.” When she won a plea to delay her trial, her husband attacked her teacher Ptolemy. Judge Urbicus asked Ptolemy only one question: was he a Christian? And when he acknowledged that he was, Urbicus immediately sentenced him to death. A man in the courtroom named Lucias challenged the judge: “Why have you punished this man, not as an adulterer, nor fornicator, nor thief, nor robber, nor convicted of any crime at all, but one who has only confessed that he is called by the name of Christian?”17 Urbicus replied only, “You also seem to be one,” and condemned him to follow Ptolemy to death.

Recounting this story, Justin points out that anyone can use the charge of Christianity to settle a personal grudge against a Christian: “I, too, therefore, expect to be plotted against and crucified.”18 And Justin was right: apparently it was an accusation by his rival Crescens, the Cynic philosopher, that led to his own arrest and condemnation. The trial was conducted by Rusticus, a personal friend of the young emperor Marcus Aurelius. The record of the trial shows that Rusticus asked Justin,

“You do admit, then, that you are a Christian?” “Yes, I am,” said Justin.19

Then Rusticus interrogated several of Justin’s students, who also declared themselves Christians. The account proceeds:

“Well, then,” said the prefect Rusticus, “let us come to the point at issue, a necessary and pressing business. Agree to offer sacrifice to the gods.”

“No one of sound mind,” said Justin, “turns from piety to impiety.”

The prefect Rusticus said, “If you do not obey, you will be punished without mercy.”20

When they replied, “Do what you will; we are Christians, and we do not offer sacrifice to idols,” Rusticus pronounced sentence: “Let those who have refused to sacrifice to the gods and to yield to the emperor’s edict be led away to be scourged and beheaded in accordance with the laws.”21 Since they were Roman citizens they were immediately executed; less fortunate Christians who were not citizens were sentenced to extended torture in the public sports arena.

Charged with the unpleasant duty of ordering that Christians who would not renounce their faith be executed, Roman officials often tried to persuade the accused to save their own lives. An account from North Africa (c. 180) describes the appeal made by the proconsul Saturninus to nine men and three women arraigned as Christians:

“If you return to your senses, you can obtain pardon of our lord the emperor…. We too are a religious people, and our religion is a simple one: we swear by the genius of our lord the emperor and offer prayers for his health—as you ought to do too.”22

Meeting their determined resistance, Saturninus asked, “You wish no time for reconsideration?” Speratus, one of the accused, replied, “In so just a matter, there is no need for consideration.” The proconsul ordered a thirty-day reprieve, but thirty days later, after interrogating the accused, Saturninus was forced to order that:

…whereas, though they have been given the opportunity to return to the Roman usage, they have persevered in their obstinancy, they are hereby condemned to be executed by the sword.23

Narzalus, one of the accused, said, “Today we are martyrs in heaven. Thanks be to God!”

The word “martyr”—derived from “martus,” the Greek word for witness—was often used by Jews and Christians of the first and second centuries to refer to those who chose to die rather than renounce their faith. For a time, the term was used for any Christians who dared to protest the unjust treatment that their fellow believers received in Roman courts. Justin and others like him faced a simple choice: either to speak out, risking arrest, torture, a pro forma trial, and exile or death—or to keep silent and remain safe. Eventually, although the early Christians revered those who spoke out as “confessors,” they regarded only those who died for their faith as “witnesses,” or martyres.

But not all Christians spoke out. Many made the opposite choice. Some considered martyrdom foolish, wasteful of human life, and so contrary to God’s will. They argued that “Christ, having died for us, was killed so that we might not be killed.”24 In this way their interpretation of Christ’s death became central to decisions about the urgent and practical question of martyrdom.

The orthodox who most vehemently tried to refute “heretical” views of Christ’s passion were, without exception, persons who had firsthand knowledge of the dangers Christians faced—and who encouraged and revered martyrdom. When that great opponent of heresy, Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, was arrested and tried, he is said to have accepted the death sentence with joyful exultation. He saw it as his opportunity to “imitate the passion of my God!”25 Condemned to be sent from Syria to Rome to be killed by wild beasts in the public amphitheater, Ignatius wrote to the Christians in Rome, pleading with them not to interfere in his behalf:

I am writing to all the churches, and I give injunction to everyone, that I am dying willingly for God’s sake, if you do not prevent it. I plead with you not to be an “unseasonable kindness” to me. Allow me to be eaten by the beasts, through whom I can attain to God. I am God’s wheat, and I am ground by the teeth of wild beasts, so that I may become pure bread of Christ…. Do me this favor…. Let there come upon me fire, and the cross, and struggle with wild beasts, cutting and tearing apart, racking of bones, mangling of limbs, crushing of my whole body…may I but attain to Jesus Christ!26

What does Christ’s passion mean to him? Ignatius says that “Jesus Christ…was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate, was truly crucified, and died.”27 He vehemently opposes gnostic Christians, whom he calls “atheists” for suggesting that since Christ was a spiritual being, he only appeared to suffer and die:

But if, as some say…his suffering was only an appearance, then why am I a prisoner, and why do I long to fight with the wild beasts? In that case, I am dying in vain.28

Ignatius complains that those who challenge his view of Christ’s suffering “are not moved by my own personal sufferings; for they think the same things about me!”29

Justin, who is traditionally known as “the martyr,” declares that before his own conversion, he witnessed the public torture and execution of Christians. Their courage, he says, convinced him of their divine inspiration.30

It is clear that no one can terrify or subdue us who believe in Jesus Christ, throughout the whole world. For it is clear that though beheaded, and crucified, and thrown to the wild beasts, in chains, in fire, and all other kinds of torture, we do not give up our confession; but the more such things happen, the more do others, in larger numbers, become believers.31

In keeping with his admiration for martyrs and his courageous acceptance of his own death sentence, Justin believed that “Jesus Christ, our teacher, who was born for this purpose, was crucified under Pontius Pilate and died, and rose again.”32 Justin claimed that his second Apology (“Defense” for the Christians) was written for the sole purpose of refuting “wicked and deceitful” gnostic ideas. He attacks those who are “called Christians,” but whom he considers heretics—followers of Simon, Marcion, and Valentinus.33 “We do not know,” he says darkly—combining admission with insinuation—whether they actually indulge in promiscuity or cannibalism, but, he adds, “we do know” one of their crimes: unlike the orthodox, “they are neither persecuted nor put to death” as martyrs.

Bishop Irenaeus of Lyon, the best known opponent of the Valentinian gnostics, also witnessed martyrdom and persecution during his life. He mentions many who were martyred in Rome, and he knew from personal experience the loss of his teacher Polycarp, who was caught by a mob and burned alive. Twelve years later, in the summer of 177, Irenaeus witnessed the harassment of Christians in Lyon. First they were prohibited from entering public places—the markets and the baths. Then, when the provincial governor was out of the city.

…the mob broke loose. Christians were hounded and attacked openly. They were treated as public enemies, assaulted, beaten, and stoned. Finally they were dragged into the Forum…were accused, and, after confessing to being Christians, they were flung in prison.34

When the servants of Christians were tortured, they “confessed” that their employers committed sexual atrocities and cannibalism. An eyewitness account by one of the Christians reports:

These stories got around, and all the people raged against us, so that even those whose attitude had been moderate before because of their friendship with us now became greatly angry and gnashed their teeth against us.35

Every day new prisoners were brought in from the churches in Lyon and the neighboring town of Vienne. They were brutally tortured along with the others as they awaited the day set for the mass execution, August 1. On this holiday celebrating Rome and the emperor, the governor was required to sponsor lavish public entertainment for the population of the city—a spectacle that traditionally required enormous expenses for hiring professional gladiators, boxers, wrestling teams, and swordsmen. By 177, a new imperial law allowed the governor to substitute condemned criminals who were not Roman citizens, offering the spectacle of their torture and execution instead of athletic exhibitions—at the cost of six aurei per head, one-tenth the cost of hiring a fifth-class gladiator, with proportionate savings for the higher grades. This new law undoubtedly encouraged official persecution of Christians, who could provide, as they did in Lyon, the least expensive holiday entertainment.

Irenaeus himself managed to escape arrest, and he brought an account of the terrible suffering that he saw in Lyon to Christians in Rome. When he returned to Gaul, he found the Christians there in mourning: nearly fifty martyrs had died in the two-month ordeal. He himself was persuaded to become the leader of the Christian community, succeeding the ninety-year-old Bishop Pothinus, who had died of torture and exposure in prison.

Yet Irenaeus expresses no hostility against his fellow townsmen—only against the gnostic “heretics,” “false brethren” who

…have reached such a pitch of audacity that they even pour contempt upon the martyrs, and vituperate those who are killed on account of confessing the Lord, and who…thereby strive to follow in the footsteps of the Lord’s passion, themselves bearing witness to the one who suffered.36

He also attacks gnostic interpretations of Christ’s passion, condemning as blasphemy their claim that only Christ’s human nature experiences suffering, while his divine nature transcends it. Irenaeus insists that

the same being who was seized and experienced suffering, and shed his blood for us, was both Christ and the Son of God…and he became the Savior of those who would be delivered over to death for their confession of him, and lose their lives.37

The North African theologian Tertullian (c. 160-225), another fierce opponent of heresy, reports that seeing Christians tortured and dying brought about his own conversion. He saw a condemned Christian, dressed up by Roman guards to look like the god Attis, torn apart alive in the arena, and he admits that he, too, once enjoyed “the ludicrous cruelties of the noonday exhibition.”38 But after his own conversion Tertullian’s views changed. Like Irenaeus, he connected the teaching of Christ’s passion and death with his own enthusiasm for martyrdom: “You must take up your cross and bear it after your Master…. The sole key to unlock Paradise is your own life’s blood.” 39 Tertullian also suggested that it was fear of persecution that led certain Christians to turn to heretical beliefs such as gnosticism as a theological justification for their cowardice:

This among Christians is a time of persecution. When, therefore, the faith is greatly agitated and the church on fire…then the gnostics break out; then the Valentinians creep forth; then all the opponents of martyrdom bubble up….40

To what he considers “heretical” arguments against martyrdom Tertullian replies:

Now we are in the midst of an intense heat, the very dog star of persecution…the fire and the sword have tried some Christians, and the beasts have tried others; others are in prison, longing for martyrdoms which they have tasted already, having been beaten by clubs and tortured…. We ourselves, having been appointed for pursuit, are like hares being hemmed in from a distance—and the heretics go about as usual!41

What pattern, then, do we observe? The opponents of heresy in the second century—Ignatius, Polycarp, Justin, Irenaeus, Tertullian—are unanimous in their belief in Christ’s passion and death and in their admiration for martyrdom. At the same time, they all denounce the heretics both for false teaching about Christ’s suffering and for “opposing martyrdom.” Irenaeus declares:

The church in every place, because of the love which she cherishes toward God, sends forth, throughout all time, a multitude of martyrs to the Father; while all others not only have nothing of this kind to point to among themselves, but even maintain that bearing witness [martyrium] is not at all necessary…with the exception, perhaps, of one or two among them…who have occasionally, along with our martyrs, borne the reproach of the name.42

Irenaeus here denies that gnostics who die for the faith deserve to be called martyrs: at best they are only “a sort of retinue” granted to the true martyrs, who are orthodox Christians.

Although Irenaeus undoubtedly underestimated the number of heretics who willingly died for their faith, martyrdom did occur rarely among gnostic Christians. What attitudes did gnostics take toward martyrdom, and on what grounds? Evidence from Nag Hammadi shows that some advocated it, while others repudiated it on principle. Followers of Valentinus took a mediating position between these extremes. But for all gnostic groups, as for all orthodox Christians, the attitude toward martyrdom corresponds to the interpretation of Christ’s suffering and death.

Like the orthodox, some groups of gnostics argued that Christ actually suffered and died. Several texts discovered at Nag Hammadi, including the Apocryphon [Secret Book] of James, the Second Apocalypse of James, and the Apocalypse of Peter, were claimed to have been written by disciples known to have undergone martyrdom—James, the brother of Jesus, and Peter. The author of the Apocryphon of James, probably a second-century Christian who feared that he would be persecuted, places himself in the situation of James and Peter. As they wait to be tortured and executed, he reports, Jesus appears to them and likens the ordeals they face to his own:

…If you are oppressed by Satan and persecuted, and you do his (the Father’s) will, I [say] that he will love you and make you equal with me…. Do you not know that you have yet to be abused and to be accused unjustly; and have to be shut up in prison, and condemned unlawfully, and crucified [without] reason, and buried [shamefully], as I (was) myself?…Truly I say to you, no one will be saved unless he believes in my cross. But those who have believed in my cross, theirs is the kingdom of God…. Truly I say to you, none of those who fear death will be saved; for the kingdom of death belongs to those who put themselves to death.43

Like Ignatius, the author of the Apocryphon of James believes that through suffering Christians become identified with Jesus: “Make yourselves like the Son of the Holy Spirit!” (6.19-20).

Other gnostics denied Christ’s passion and attacked such enthusiasm for martyrdom. The Testimony of Truth, discovered at Nag Hammadi, declares:

The foolish thinking in their hearts that if they confess, “We are Christians,” in word only [but] not with power, while giving themselves over to ignorance, to human death, not knowing where they are going, nor who Christ is, thinking that they will live, when they are [really] in error, hasten toward the principalities and authorities, and they fall into their clutches because of the ignorance that is in them.[31.22-32.8]

The author ridicules the popular view that martyrdom ensures salvation: if it were that simple, he says, everyone would confess Christ and be saved. Those who live under such illusions

…are [empty] martyrs, since they bear witness only [to] themselves…. When they are “perfected” with a [martyr’s] death, this is what they are thinking: “If we deliver ourselves over to death for the sake of the Name, we shall be saved.” These settled matters are not settled in this way…. They do not have the Word which gives [life]. [33.24-26].

This gnostic author is attacking the orthodox conviction, found in an account of Polycarp’s martyrdom, that “through suffering of one hour,” martyrs “purchase for themselves eternal life.”44 The gnostic author of the Testimony of Truth also ridicules orthodox teachers like Ignatius and Tertullian, who see martyrdom as an offering to God, and who suggest that God desires “human sacrifice”: such a belief makes God into a cannibal. Finally, he attacks those who believe that martyrdom ensures that they will be resurrected. When Rusticus, the Roman judge, asked Justin, “Listen, you who are considered educated…do you suppose you will ascend into heaven?”, Justin answered, “I do not suppose it, but I know it certainly and am fully persuaded of it.”45 But the Testimony of Truth declares that such Christians are only “destroying themselves”—they are deluded in thinking that Christ shared their own mortality, when in reality his divine power protected him from suffering and death.

The Apocalypse of Peter tells how Peter, who is noted for his misunderstanding, discovers the true secret of Jesus’ passion. The author of this book, like the author of the Apocryphon of James, was apparently a second-century gnostic Christian who feared Roman persecution. As the Apocalypse opens, “Peter” suggests that he and his Lord face the same danger: “I saw the priests and the people running up to us with stones as if they would kill us; and I was afraid we were going to die” (72.5-9). He falls into an ecstatic trance and receives a vision of the Lord, who warns him that many who “accept our teaching in the beginning” (73.23-24) will fall into error. These “false believers” represent orthodox Christians, and according to the gnostics, they drive innocent fellow believers “to the executioner”:

These are the ones who oppress their brothers, saying to them, “Through this [martyrdom] our God shows mercy, since salvation comes to us from this.” They do not know the punishment of those who are gladdened by those who have done this deed to the little ones who have been sought out and imprisoned.[79.11-21]

The author rejects the orthodox argument that martyrdom earns salvation and expresses horror at the pleasure the orthodox take in acts of violence done to the “little ones.”

Gnostic sources written by Valentinus and his followers take a more ambiguous view of Christ’s passion. Several major Valentinian texts discovered at Nag Hammadi clearly acknowledge Jesus’ passion and death. The Gospel of Truth, which the Dutch scholar Gilles Quispel attributes to Valentinus or one of his followers, tells how Jesus was “nailed to a tree” and “slain” (18.24-20.6). Borrowing and extending a common Christian metaphor, the author describes Jesus as a new “fruit of the tree of knowledge” which yields not death, but life:

…nailed to a tree he became a fruit of the knowledge (gnosis) of the Father, which did not, however, become destructive because it [was] eaten, but gave to those who ate it cause to become glad in the discovery. For he discovered them in himself, and they discovered him in themselves….[18.24-31]

Unlike orthodox sources which interpret Jesus’ death as a sacrifice redeeming Christians from guilt and sin, this gnostic gospel suggests that the crucifixion can help believers to discover the divine spirit within Jesus and within themselves.

The Tripartite Tractate, another Valentinian text discovered at Nag Hammadi, introduces the Savior as “the one who will be begotten and who will suffer” (113.33-34). Moved by compassion for humanity, Jesus willingly became

…what they were. So, for their sake, he became manifest in an involuntary suffering…. Not only did he take upon himself the death of those whom he intended to save, but also he accepted their smallness…. He let himself be conceived and born as an infant in body and soul.[114.33-115.10]

But the Savior is not merely human The Tripartite Tractate explains that although the Hebrew prophets predicted the “one who is born and who suffers,” they were not aware of “that which he was before, and what he is eternally, an unbegotten, impassible Word, who came into being in flesh” (113.35-38).

None of these sources denies that Jesus actually suffered and died; but all try to show that through his divine power Christ transcended human nature and prevailed over death. In this way the Valentinians first raised a problem that became central to Christian theology some two hundred years later—the question of how Christ could be simultaneously human and divine. For this, Adolf von Harnack, historian of Christianity, calls them the “first Christian theologians.”

What does this mean for the Valentinians’ view of martyrdom? Irenaeus accuses the Valentinians of “pouring contempt” on the martyrs and “casting a slur upon their martyrdom.” Heracleon, the distinguished gnostic teacher and a student of Valentinus, refers to Jesus’ comment that

…everyone who acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God; but whoever he who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God…. And when they bring you before…the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious how or what you are to answer….46

Heracleon considers the question, What does it mean to “confess Christ”? Many people, he suggests, confess Christ in their faith and in their everyday conduct—while some Christians, particularly the orthodox, acknowledge only a verbal confession made before a magistrate. Heracleon points out that “even hypocrites can make this confession.” What is required universally of all Christians, he says, is the first type of confession; the second is required of some, but not of all. Although disciples like Matthew, Philip, and Thomas never “confessed” before the magistrates, they confessed Christ in the superior way, “in faith and conduct throughout their whole lives.” 47

Heracleon suggests a wholly different attitude toward martyrdom from his orthodox contemporaries. He expresses none of their enthusiasm for martyrdom, none of their praise for the “glorious victory” earned through death. Above all, he never suggests that the believers’ suffering is similar to Christ’s. For if only the human element in Christ experienced the passion, this suggests that the believer, too, suffers only on a human level, while the divine spirit within transcends suffering and death. Apparently the Valentinians consider the martyr’s “blood witness” inferior to the witness to Christ favored by some gnostics, a witness of faith and everyday conduct. Such a view could well provoke Irenaeus’ anger that these gnostics “show contempt” for the martyrs and devalue what he considers the “ultimate sacrifice.”

Why did the orthodox view of martyrdom—and of Christ’s death—prevail? I suggest that persecution gave impetus to the formation of the organized church structure. While some Christian apologists, like Justin, protested the unjust treatment of Christians in the hope that the Roman authorities would end it, most of the stories of the martyrs were written for a different purpose, and for a different audience. They were sent exclusively to other Christian churches, not in the hope of ending persecution, but to warn them of their common danger, encourage them to emulate the martyrs’ “glorious victory,” and strengthen the communities both internally and in relation to one another.

In this way the Roman violence that menaced Christian groups in remote provinces of the Empire in the second and third centuries became known to Christians throughout the world. When Ignatius was condemned to be executed in the public arena, he occupied himself on his final journey to Rome writing letters to provincial churches, telling them of his situation and urging them to support the catholic (“universal”) church organized around the bishops. He warned them above all to avoid heretics who did not recognize the bishops’ authority or the orthodox doctrines of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection. Ignatius’ letters to the Christians in Rome, whom he had never met, testify to his faith that such communication would be effective: he is confident that they would intervene to prevent his execution if he allowed them to do so. Nearly seventy years later, in June, 177, when some fifty Christians from Lyon and Vienne were arrested, they immediately wrote of their suffering to their “brothers in Asia and Phrygia who have the same faith,” and sent Irenaeus to inform the well-established church in Rome.

Pressed by their common danger, increasing numbers of Christians from scattered groups throughout the world exchanged letters and traveled from one church to another. As accounts of the martyrs—often taken from records of their trials and from eyewitnesses’ reports—circulated among the churches in Asia, Africa, Rome, Greece, Gaul, and Egypt, members of these greatly varied churches became aware that their regional differences were inconsistent with their claim to participate in one catholic church. Irenaeus insisted that all churches throughout the world must agree on all vital points of doctrine; but even he was shocked in 190 when Victor, Bishop of Rome, demanded that Christians in Asia Minor abandon their traditional practice of celebrating Easter on Passover, and conform instead to Roman custom—or else give up their claim to be “catholic Christians.” During this time, the Roman church was compiling the definitive list of books eventually accepted by all Christian churches. An increasingly stratified institutional hierarchy consolidated the Christian communities and encouraged regular communication with what Irenaeus called “the catholic church dispersed through the whole world, even to the ends of the earth”—a network of groups with increasingly uniform doctrine, ritual, canon, and political structure.

Among outsiders, reports of brutality toward Christians aroused mixed emotions. Even the arrogant Tacitus, describing how Nero had Christians mocked and tortured to death, was moved to add:

Even for criminals who deserve extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed.48

After the slaughter in the arena at Lyon, some of the townspeople wanted to mutilate the corpses; others ridiculed the martyrs as fools; while yet others, “seeming to extend a measure of compassion,” asked, “What advantage has their religion brought them, which they preferred to their own life?”49 Justin and Tertullian both say that seeing martyrs encouraged them to investigate the movement, and then to join it; and both attest that this happened to many others. As Justin remarked, “The more such things happen, the more do others, in larger numbers, become believers.”50 Tertullian writes defiantly to Scapula, the proconsul of Carthage: “Your cruelty is our glory.” 51 And he boasts to the Roman prosecutor that “the oftener we are mown down by you, the more we grow in numbers: the blood of the Christians is seed!”52 These new converts followed the orthodox consensus in doctrine and church politics, confessing the crucified Christ, worshiping and encouraging the martyrdom that became the hallmark of the “universal” church. By contrast, groups of gnostic Christians, who resisted doctrinal conformity, questioned the value of the “blood witness,” and often opposed submission to episcopal authority, were scattered and lost.

In its portrait of Christ’s life and his passion, orthodox teaching offered a means of interpreting human experience. Rejecting the gnostic view that Jesus was essentially a spiritual being, the orthodox insisted that, like the rest of humanity, he was born, lived in a family, became hungry and tired, ate and drank wine, suffered and died. They also insisted that he rose bodily from the dead, thus implicitly affirming bodily experience as one of the central facts of human life. What one does physically and in one’s social and political life—how one eats and drinks, engages in sexual life or avoids it, supports one’s community or ignores it, saves one’s life or gives it up—all are vital elements in one’s religious development. But those gnostics who were most concerned with “inner spirit” dismissed such physical and social experience, pleasurable and painful, as a distraction from spiritual reality—indeed, as an illusion.

In this series of articles we have seen how the gnostic Christians were attacked and suppressed as their doctrines came into conflict with the authority of the orthodox church and challenged its hierarchical structure. In the case of the interpretation of Christ’s passion it is no wonder that far more people identified with the orthodox images of man and of Jesus than with the “bodiless spirit” of gnostic tradition. Not only the martyrs but many other Christians who have suffered, who have feared and faced death, have found encouragement and support in the story of the human Jesus.

(This is the last article in a four-part series on the gnostics.)

This Issue

December 6, 1979