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Acts of The Martyrs

Accounts of early Christian martyrdoms, divisible into several categories:

(1) Official transcripts of court proceedings (acta proper; gesta), deposited in archives: e.g., Justin, the Scillitans, Cyprian.

(2) Broader, more literary narratives compiled by Christians from the personal testimony of participants (e.g., Perpetua) or spectators (Gr. martyria; Lat. passiones): e.g., Polycarp, martyrs of Lyons and Vienne, Perpetua and Felicitas.

Both these genres were liable to interpolation (e.g., the Scillitans' acta), normally with embellishment of the miraculous, a feature not always absent from the original versions.

(3) Largely legendary stories constructed around a slender historical core, sometimes solely the martyr's name: e.g., Ignatius, Vincent, Lawrence, George, Catherine of Alexandria. As the golden age of martyrdom faded into the past, this literature multiplied and became the Christians' novels and romances. Their reflection of popular Christianity gives them a secondary historical value.

These various accounts served for apologia (“the blood of the martyrs is seed”) and edification (the martyr's imitatio Christi) as well as commemoration (in the West, especially Africa, the acts were read liturgically on the martyr's “birthday,” natalitia). There existed models both Jewish (e.g., 2 Maccabees) and pagan (H.A. Musurillo, The Acts of the Pagan Martyrs, 1954).

H. Delehaye, Les Passions des Martyrs et les genres littéraires (1921); idem, Les Origines du culte des Martyrs (2nd ed., 1933); H. von Campenhausen, Die Idee des Martyriums in der Alten Kirche (1936); H. Leclercq in DACL 1, pp. 373-446; J. Quasten, Patrology 1, pp. 176-85.

Texts: R. Knopf, G. Krüger, G. Ruhbach, Ausgewählte Martyrerakten (4th ed. 1965). With translation: H. Musurillo, The Acts of the Christian Martyrs (1972).