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Martyr Devotion in the Alexandrian School: Origen to Athanasius

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 March 2016

John Anthony Mcguckin*
University of Leeds


The Christian interpretation of fatal persecution was a complex one with distinct ecclesial themes merging with Jewish elements from apocalyptic and biblical literature, as well as Hellenistic motifs such as the constancy of the Socratic martyr. The New Testament understanding of the term ‘martyr’ is predominantly that of legal witness, although some specific senses of blood-witness are emerging already in the first century and have become common by the second. Varying reactions can be traced in the literature of different parts of the Church: for example, in Rome, Alexandria, Asia, Africa, or Palestine. This paper looks primarily at the Egyptian interpretation as a microcosm of the general development of the role of martyrs, and does so by reference to the writings of the theologians whose works cover the main phases of that process. It highlights the distinction that existed between the sophisticated literary interpretation of martyrdom, and the forms of popular devotion that flourished among the non-literate peasantry. The tension between the two approaches, witnessed in both Origen and Athanasius, is demonstrably resolved by the time of Cyril, who represents the harmonious synthesis of both traditions in the new conditions of Christian political ascendancy in fifth-century Byzantine Egypt. The peculiar circumstances of the Egyptian Church, in particular the unusually radical separation that existed there between town and country (and the class and cultural divisions reflected in that), as well as the specific challenge posed to Christianity by the enduring vitality of the old Egyptian religions in the countryside, both left their marks on the specific form of martyr devotion in Christian Egypt, but the most noteworthy aspect is arguably the subtext of the theological encomia of martyrdom that seems to have the definite concern of subjugating the popular devotion to martyrs, confessors, and ascetics to the interests of the Church hierarchies.

Research Article
Copyright © Ecclesiastical History Society 1993

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1 Cf. Gunther, E., Martus: Die Geschichle eines Wortes (Berlin, 1941)Google Scholar; Strathmann, H., ‘Marcus’, in Kittel, G. and Friedrich, F., eds. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (London, 1964), pp. 474508.Google Scholar

2 As, for example, in Rev. 2.13.

3 Martyrdom of Polycarp, 2, PG 5, cols 1029–32: Irenaeus, Adversus haereses, 5.9.2, PG 7, col. 1144: Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis, 4, 4–5, 21, PG 8, cols 1225f.

4 For a general survey cf. Lane Fox, R., Pagans and Christians (London, 1986), pp. 41992.Google Scholar

5 Eusebius, Historia ecclesiastica, 6.1.1; 8.7, PG 20, cols 522, 756.

6 Vita Severi, 17.1 (Aelii Lampridii), in H. Peter, ed., Scriptores hisloriae Augustae, 1 (Leipzig, 1884), pp. 247–99.

7 Cf. Frend, W. H. C., ‘A Severan Persecution? Evidence of the Historia Augusta ’, in Forma Futuri: Studi in onore di Card. M. Pellegrino (Turin, 1975), pp. 47080 Google Scholar; Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church (Garden City, 1964); Barnes, T. D., ‘Legislation against the Christians’, Journal of Roman Studies, 58 (1968), pp. 3250.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

8 Dodgson, Tr. C., Library of the Fathers, 10 (Oxford, 1842), pp. 1507.Google Scholar

9 For a general treatment cf. Delehaye, P., ‘Les Martyrs d’Egypte’, AnBoll, 40 (1922), pp. 5154.Google Scholar

10 Eusebius, Historia ecclesiastica, 6.2.12.

11 Roussell, Aline, ‘La Persecution des chrétiens dans Alexandrie au IIIe siècle’, Revue historique de droit français et étranger, 2 (1974), pp. 22251 Google Scholar. Text discussed in H. Crouzel, Origen (Edinburgh, 1989), p. 6.

12 Eusebius, Historia ecclesiastica, 6.4.1.

13 Ibid., 6.4: ‘As Origen himself expresses it, after receiving her baptism by fire Herais departed this life.’

14 Mt. 10.23; cf. Origen, Homilies on the Book of Judges, hom. 9, PG 12, cols 987–8.

15 Origen, Exhortation to Martyrdom [hereafter ExM], tr. O’Meara, J. J., Ancient Christian Writers, 19 (London, 1954); cf. ExM, 41, p. 185.Google Scholar

16 ExM, 6–10, pp. 146–50.

17 ExM, 11–21, pp. 151–61.

18 ExM, 22–7, pp. 162–7; cf. Origen, Commentary on Romans, 4.10, PG 14, col. 999.

19 It was designed to offset the rising tide of anri-Origenism among the less educated by the strongest appeal Eusebius could make to popular sentiment in his day—that Origen ought to be venerated as a martyr.

20 Yet, in the end he suffered heroically, in the Decian persecution, so that Eusebius’ devotion was not ill judged.

21 Contra Celsum, 3.8, PG 11, col. 929.

22 ExM, 50, p. 195; Commentary on John’s Gospel, 2.28, PG 14, cols 176–7.

23 For the confessor as a significant power in the Church, cf. Eusebius, Historia ecclesiastica, 5.1.45; 5.2.5; 5.18.6 (Montanists), PG 20, cols 404f.; Cyprian, Epistles, 15–16; 17.2; 20–3; 27; 35–6, PL 4, cols 270f.; Eusebius, on Dionysius of Alexandria, Historia ecclesiastica, 6.42.5-6, PG 20, cols 614–15; Tertullian, De pudicitia, 22, PL 2, col. 1080; Ad uxorem, 2.4.1, PL I.col. 1407; Ad martyres, 1.6, PL 1, col. 700; De poenitentia, 9.4, PL I.col. 1354; Scorpiace, 10.8, PL 2, cols. 166–7.

24 Cf.McGuckin, J., ‘Origen’s doctrine of priesthood’, Clergy Review, 70 (Aug. 1985), pp. 27786 Google Scholar; ibid., 70 (Sept. 1985), pp. 318–25.

25 The mid-second-century Martyrdom of Polycarp already has a motif of the quest for the ashes as relics, and the third-century Acts of Thomas has dust from the martyred Apostle’s tomb curing a child.

26 ExM, 30, p. 171.

27 Origen, Homilies on Leviticus, 2, PG 12, col. 418.

28 Commentary on the Book of Judges, homily 7, PG 12, col. 981; also in the Commentary on John’s Gospel, 6.36, PG 14, col. 293.

29 Cf. Delehaye, H., Les Origines du culte des martyrs = Subsidia hagiographica, 20 (Brussels, 1912)Google Scholar; Grabar, A., Martyrium: Recherches sur le culte des reliques et l’art chrétien antique (College de France, Fondation Schlumberger pour les études byzantines), 2 vols (Paris, 1946).Google Scholar

30 Those of Decius (249-51), Valerian (257), Diocletian [The Great Persecution (303-11)], and Maximin Daia (311-13).

31 He has only sixteen references in tolo. Cf. G. Muller, who lists them in Lexicon Athanasianum (Berlin, 1952), p. 877.

32 Cf. De incamatione, PG 25, cols 144, 145, 181, 189.

33 Peter was martyred in 311 after five years in hiding. His Canonical Epistle was published in 306 against the background of grave troubles in the internal order of the Church, and the complications of the Melitian schism. St Dionysius of Alexandria: Letters and Treatises, ed. and tr. C. L. Feltoe (London, 1918).

34 Life of Antony [hereafter LA], tr. R.T. Meyer, Ancient Christian Writers, 10 (Westminster, Maryland, 1950); cf. eh. 46, p. 59.

35 Cf. Dorries, H., ‘Die Vita Antonii als Geschichtsquelle’, NachGott, 14 (1949), pp. 1729 Google Scholar; Barnes, T. D., ‘Angel of light or mystic initiate? The problem of the Life of Antony’, JTS, 37 (1988), pp. 35368.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

36 The discourse to the monks (LA, 16–43) ostensibly spoken by Antony is clearly Athanasius’ theoretical excursus on demonology, attributed to one whose own praxis against them was one of his famed attributes while alive.

37 LA, 67, tr. Meyer, p. 76; cf. Athanius, Letter to Dracontius, ch. 9, PG 25, cols 531–4.

38 LA, 69–70, tr. Meyer, pp. 78–9.

39 These are the famous trials of St. Antony, LA, 8–1O, pp. 26–9.

40 LA, 48, pp. 60–1.

41 For Theophilus, cf. Quasten, J., Patrology, 3 (Utrecht, 1975), pp. 101, 103 Google Scholar; for Cyril, cf. Letter to Calosirius, in Wickham, L., Cyril of Alexandria, Select Letters (Oxford, 1983), pp. xxxxxxi, 21421.Google Scholar

42 Cf. H. Leclercq, ‘Momie’, in Cabrol, G., ed., Dictionnaire d’archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, 15 vols (Paris, 1907-53)Google Scholar; Mackean, W. H., Christian Monasticism in Egypt (London, 1920).Google Scholar

43 Cyril of Scythopolis, The Lives of the Monks of Palestine [mid-sixth century], tr. R. M. Price (Kalamazoo, 1991).

44 LA, 90–1, pp. 94–6.

45 LA, 90, p. 94.

46 The motif of disciples burying the master’s body is a common one in the literature, not so the motive Athanasius ascribes to the command. He lays great stress on the secrecy attached to the place: ‘To this day only those two disciples know the place of burial’, but there were traditions of Hilarion venerating the tomb shortly after Antony’s death. In 561 the site was ‘acclaimed’, and the relics were transferred to Alexandria, hence to Constantinople in 635 after the Islamic invasion, and thence to France after the Crusades. Since 1491 the relics have been kept in the church of St Julien, at Arles, and thence partially distributed to Rome and other European churches in smaller reliquaries, one of which is in the present author’s possession.

47 LA, 92, tr. Meyer, p. 96.

48 For Cyril’s discovery of the remains of Saints Cyrus and John, the ‘healing martyrs’ or ‘holy unmercenaries’. cf.McGuckin, J., ‘The influence of the Isis cult on St. Cyril of Alexandria’s Christology’, Studia Patristica, 24 (1992), pp. 1919 Google Scholar; for Ambrose’s discovery dream for Saints Gervase and Protasius, cf. Ambrose, Epistle 22, PL 16, cols 1019–26; for Pulcheria’s dream and discovery of the relics of the forty martyrs of Sebaste, and Eudocia’s triumphant adventus from Jerusalem with the relics of the protomartyr, cf.Holum, K. G., Theodosian Empresses (London, 1982)Google Scholar.