Christmas martyrs in the Great Persecution

N obody knows the year for sure, but the day was Christmas Day and the place was Izmit in Turkey.

Nobody knows the exact number of believers who perished in the blazing churches, but it was many thousands.

For a few decades (286-330 AD) Izmit, then called Nicomedia, was the most important city in the Roman Empire. During that time it also became, for a while, the scene of intense anti-Christian persecution. Tradition records that 20,000 Nicomedian Christians were martyred.

Soon after Diocletian became emperor in 284, he divided the vast and unwieldy empire into two halves: east and west. He himself ruled the eastern half, with Nicomedia as his capital and Galerius as a junior emperor (to assist him and later take the senior emperor position). The western half was ruled from Rome by another pair of senior and junior emperors.

The Christian faith was flourishing in Nicomedia and, by the beginning of the fourth century, it was said that half the city’s population were Christians. Many in the emperor’s household were believers, which to begin with was not an issue. Diocletian, although a worshipper of the Roman gods, was quite favourably inclined towards Christians. Later, however, he was persuaded, especially by Galerius, to start persecuting Christians. 

The edicts of Emperor Diocletian

Apparently Diocletian at first hoped that he could repress Christianity without bloodshed, for example, by purging the imperial household and army of Christians.

But soon things grew much worse. Over a period of about a year, beginning 24 February 303, Diocletian issued four edicts for the suppression of Christianity. The first forbade Christians to gather for worship and decreed that Christian Scriptures were to be burned and church buildings destroyed. Christians in public service were demoted and deprived of their civil rights. Christian freedmen were made slaves again, which meant they could legally be tortured. The day before issuing this edict, Diocletian had ordered that a church building in Nicomedia, near to the imperial palace, be razed to the ground and its Scriptures burned.

Emperor Diocletian [Image credit: Dennis Jarvis, flickr]

No penalties were mentioned in the first edict, so local magistrates could be as harsh or lenient as they chose in punishing transgressors. The later edicts became gradually more specific and severe. The second edict ordered church leaders to be imprisoned. Soon the prisons were so full of Christian clergy that there was no room for ordinary criminals.  Towards the end of the year, a third edict offered the prisoners their freedom if they would sacrifice to the Roman gods, but torture and mutilation if they refused. The fourth edict (early 304) ruled that everyone must sacrifice to the Roman gods. The punishment for those who refused was death and the confiscation of their property.

It was in this context, known as “the Great Persecution”, that countless Nicomedians died for Christ. 

“Should we not lay down our lives for Him in this holy place?”

As the Great Persecution proceeded, Christians were daily being arrested, tortured and executed in various cruel ways. At the request of his flock, Anthimos, Bishop of Nicomedia, went into hiding in a nearby village. From here he continued to encourage the Christians who remained in the city, sending them written messages urging them to stand firm in the faith.   

One Christmas many thousands of Nicomedian Christians were burned to death in the churches where they had gathered in large numbers to celebrate Christ’s birth. On imperial orders, the army piled wood and kindling around the church walls and set up an altar to the Roman gods outside the door. The Christians were commanded to sacrifice to the Roman gods as they left the building, or remain inside and be burned to death. Soldiers with swords drawn were ready to deal with any who tried to escape. Thousands perished, singing, in the flames.

A courageous leader in one church urged the congregation to remember Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, the young men who were thrown into a blazing furnace in Babylon for exactly the same issue as faced the Nicomedians, that is, refusing to worship an idol (Daniel 3:1-27). He continued:

Now a new Nebuchadnezzar, not a whit less cruel or ungodly than the old, prepares a furnace for us, so let us emulate them. They were mere children, only three in number, lacking examples of bravery to imitate in contending for the Lord. But there is an enormous crowd of us, and many of our number have reached old age. Furthermore, we have numerous models of courageous suffering for Christ to inspire us. May love for this fleeting existence not turn us into snivelling cowards! May we never prefer the present life to God, Who created us and underwent death in the flesh for our sake! Truly, it would be a pity if we failed to understand that the approaching contest is a wondrous opportunity for us to prove our faith unshakeable. 

This is so, even if there were no reward at all for sufferings endured for Christ. But how paltry is the pain inflicted by tormentors compared with the recompense awaiting martyrs beyond the grave! Is it any wonder that the saints are eager to exchange a few days or years here for eternal felicity; the transitory esteem of men for everlasting glory, riches that cannot be taken away, and joy unending? What holds us to the earth? Why do we not hasten to die for Christ and gain the celestial realm, while we have the chance?

 

“But how paltry is the pain inflicted by tormentors compared with the recompense awaiting martyrs beyond the grave!”

 

He also reminded them that Holy Communion, as celebrated in the Church, commemorated  the Lord’s sacrifice for them, so “should we not lay down our lives for Him in this
holy place?”

The congregation responded with a shout: “We are Christians! We are Christians, and refuse to worship your false gods, O Emperor!”

They were filled with great zeal to die for Christ. And die they did, for they were not delivered from the flames as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego had been. Perhaps they spoke to the Roman soldiers the same words of faith and courage that Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego used to King Nebuchadnezzar: “The God we serve is able to save us … and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” (Daniel 3:17-18)

God, in His sovereign wisdom, chose not to save the Nicomedians from the flames but to grant them the gift they now yearned for – to die for Christ.

Anthimos, Theophilus and Christian prisoners

Meanwhile Bishop Anthimos was sending letters to Christians in Nicomedia, especially those in prison. Once a deacon called Theophilus was caught bringing in such a letter. The enraged emperor ordered some of the jailed Christians to be brought into his presence where he berated them severely and then gave them the letter. The Christians noticed Theophilus standing some distance away and smiled affectionately at him. This caused the emperor to turn his wrath on Theophilus, demanding to know the author of the letter. Theophilus answered boldly who it was but said he would never betray the bishop by revealing his location. The bishop was pastoring his flock by letter-writing, said Theophilus, and was encouraging them with words spoken by the pre-eminent Shepherd: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Matthew 10:28, NKJV).

For this speech, Theophilus had his tongue cut out. Then he and the others were killed.

Troops set off to search for Anthimos. They found him but did not recognise him. Promising to show them the bishop they sought, Anthimos fed them as his guests and then revealed his identity. The astonished soldiers offered to report back that they had failed to find Anthimos, but the bishop insisted on returning with them to Nicomedia. On the way he shared the Gospel and the soldiers were converted and baptised. Anthimos was beheaded.

After Diocletian

In the western half of the empire, where the edicts were never very rigorously enforced, persecution ceased altogether when Diocletian abdicated in 305 owing to ill health. Galerian took his place as senior emperor in the east and continued harshly enforcing Diocletian’s four edicts, adding a fifth of his own in 308. This included the command that everything sold in the markets must be sprinkled with offerings made to the gods, thus polluting it in the eyes of Christians. The aim was doubtless to starve the Christians, although Galerian generally seemed to prefer burning them alive.

It appears that at times there were too many Christians to kill, so they were maimed instead.  In about 309 a group of 97 Egyptian Christians – men, women and children – were sent to the copper mines in Palestine, which was then under the rule of an exceptionally ruthless governor called Firmillianus. Each of the 97 had their right eye blinded by sword and fire and their left leg disabled by hot irons. The same punishment was inflicted on other Christians, including a group “in the city of Gaza, being in the habit of assembling themselves for prayer and being constant in reading the Holy Scriptures”. 1

On his painful, stinking and revolting deathbed, Galerius issued one more edict. This time it was an edict of toleration (30 April 311), reversing the earlier edicts. A few days later he died.

Yet the Great Persecution did not stop. Galerius was succeeded by Maximin, who refused to sign Galerius’s edict of toleration. It seems, however, that Maximin must have indicated that the degree of pressure put on Christians could be decided locally. Thousands of Christians were released from mines and from exile and in some places new church buildings were constructed and ruined ones restored. But in Tyre the town council put up a plaque forbidding Christianity within the city and in Nicomedia the citizens begged Maximin for permission to banish Christians. The martyrdoms continued.

The Great Persecution finally came to an end in 313 when Emperor Maximin was defeated in battle.

The story of the Nicomedian martyrs appears in Patrick Sookhdeo’s book of 366 daily devotional readings on Christian martyrs, Heroes of Our Faith Vol. 2.  (Isaac Publishing, 2021, ISBN 978-1-952450-15-0) See entry for December 25. To purchase a copy please go to barnabasaid.org/resources/books or contact your nearest Barnabas Aid office (addresses on inside front cover) or write to sales@barnabasbooks.org

 

1 Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, lived from c.260 to c.339. This description and quotation come from his book History of the Martyrs in Palestine, edited and translated by William Cureton (published in London and Edinburgh by Williams and Norgate, 1861). See pp.26-28.

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