Reading: Letter from the Suffering Church of Gaul
In this excerpt from Eusebius' history of the church, we read what has
been called the pearl of Christian literature from the second century.
The Letter of the Churches of Vienna and Lyons to the Churches of Asia and Phrygia including the story of the Blessed Blandina.
The servants of Christ residing at Vienna and Lyons in Gaul to the brethren throughout Asia and Phrygia, who have the same faith and hope of redemption as ourselves, peace, grace, and glory from God the Father, and from Christ Jesus our Lord. . .
The Enemy Attack
We cannot accurately tell or describe in detail the magnitude of the distress in this region, the fury of the heathen against the saints, or the sufferings of the blessed Witnesses. For with all his strength the enemy fell upon us, giving us a foretaste of his future unrestrained activity among us. He used every means to familiarize and train his own subjects against the servants of God. Not only were we excluded from houses, baths, and the forum, but it was forbidden for any one of us to appear in any place whatsoever. But the grace of God acted as our general against him. It rescued the weak and set them as firm pillars, able through patience to bear up against the whole force of the assaults of the wicked one. These encountered him, enduring every form of shame and torture. They made light of their great sufferings. They hurried on to Christ, showing in reality that the "sufferings of the present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed in us." 1 First they nobly endured the evils heaped on them by the people,-namely, mockings, beatings, draggings, robberies, stonings, and imprisonments, and everything that an infuriated mob delights to inflict on those whom they consider bitter enemies. Then, being brought to the forum by the tribune of the soldiers and the rulers that had charge of the city, they were examined in the presence of the whole crowd. Having confessed, they were shut up in prison until the arrival of the governor.
The Venerable Vettius
Afterwards, when they were brought before the governor, he treated us with the greatest cruelty. Vettius Epagathus, one of the brethren and a man filled with love for God and his neighbor, interfered. His life was so disciplined that even though he was a young man, he deserved to be described in the words used of the elderly Zacharias: "He had walked therefore in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless." 2 He was also untiring in every good work to his neighbor. He was zealous for God and fervent in spirit. Because of His character, he could not bear the unreasonable judgment passed among us. Moved with indignation, he asked to testify in defense of his brethren, to prove that there is nothing ungodly or impious in us. But, those who were round the judgment-seat cried out against him, for he was a man of distinction. The governor refused his just request and merely asked him if he also were a Christian. Confessing in the clearest voice that he was, he also was taken up into the number of the Witnesses. He was called the Advocate of the Christians, but he had the Advocate, the Spirit, more abundantly than Zacharias. He showed this by the fullness of his love. Of his own good-will he even offered to lay down his own life in defense of the brethren. For he was and is a genuine disciple of Christ, "following the Lamb whithersoever He goeth."3
Then the others were divided, and the first martyrs were assured and ready. These eagerly finished their testimony. But some appeared who were unprepared and untrained. They were still weak and unable to bear the tension of a great contest. Of these about ten in number proved abortions; causing great grief and immeasurable sorrow amongst us and damping the ardor of the others who had not yet been arrested. For these, although they suffered every kind of cruelty, remained nevertheless in the company of the Witnesses and did not forsake them. Then all of us were greatly alarmed because of our uncertainty of their confession. We did not fear because of the tortures inflicted, but because we looked to the end and dreaded lest any one should fall away. Those who were worthy, however, were daily arrested, filling up the number of the others. Out of the two churches [Lyons and Vienne] all the zealous people and those to whom the churches owed most their establishment, were collected together in prison. Some heathen household slaves belonging to our people were also seized, since the governor had commanded that all of us should be examined publicly. These, trapped by Satan and fearing the tortures which they saw the saints enduring, urged on also by the soldiers, falsely accused us of cannibalism and incest and other crimes which it is unlawful for us either to mention or think of. Indeed, we shrink from believing that any such crimes have ever taken place among men. When these accusations were reported, all the people raged against us like wild beasts. If any previously had been moderate in their conduct to us on account of friendship, they were now exceedingly furious and exasperated against us. So was fulfilled that which was spoken by our Lord: "The time shall come when every one who slayeth you shall think that he offereth service to God."4
Then finally the holy Witnesses suffered tortures beyond all description, Satan striving eagerly that some of the evil reports might be acknowledged by them. But the whole fury of the mob, the governor, and the soldiers particularly fell on Sanctus, a deacon from Vienne; Maturus, a recent convert yet a noble combatant; Attalus, a native of Pergamus, where he had always been a Pillar and foundation of the church; and on Blandina, through whom Christ showed that the things that to men appear vile and deformed and contemptible are with God of great glory, on account of love to Him,-a love which is not a mere boastful appearance, but shows itself in the power which it exercises over the life. We were all afraid, especially her earthly mistress, who was herself one of the combatants among the Witnesses, that she would not be able to make a bold confession on account of the weakness of her body. But, Blandina was filled with such power, that those who tortured her one after the other in every way from morning till evening were wearied and tired. They admitted they were baffled. They had no other torture they could apply to her. They were astonished that she remained alive. Her whole body was torn and opened up. They said that even one of the forms of torture employed was enough to have destroyed her life, not to mention so many excruciating punishments. But the blessed woman, like a noble athlete, renewed her strength in her confession. Her declaration, "I am a Christian, and there is no evil done amongst us," brought her refreshment, rest, and insensibility to all the sufferings inflicted on her.
Sanctus also nobly endured all the excessive and superhuman tortures which man could possibly devise. For the wicked hoped, because of the continuance and greatness of the tortures, to hear him confess some of the alleged unlawful practices. But he opposed them with such firmness that he did not tell them even his own name, nor that of his nation or city, nor if he were slave or free. In answer to all these questions, he said in Latin, "I am a Christian." . . .He gave this confession to every question placed to him. Therefore the governor and the torturers determined to subdue him. When every other means failed, they at last fixed red-hot plates of brass to the most delicate parts of his body. And these indeed were burned, but he himself remained inflexible, unyielding, and firm in his confession. He was refreshed and strengthened by the heavenly fountain of the water of life which issues from the belly of Christ.5 But his body bore witness to what had happened. It was all wounds and welts, shrunk and torn up. It had externally lost the human shape. In him Christ suffering worked great wonders, destroying the enemy. He was an example to the others that there is nothing fearful where there is the Father's love, and nothing painful where there is Christ's glory. For the wicked after some days again tortured the Witness. They thought that, since his body was swollen and inflamed, if they were to apply the same tortures they would gain the victory over him, especially since the parts of his body could not bear to be touched by the hand. Possibly he would die from the tortures and inspire the rest with fear. Yet not only did no such thing happen to him, but even, contrary to every human expectation, his body unbent itself. It became erect during the subsequent tortures and resumed its former appearance and the use of its limbs. The second torture turned out through the grace of Christ a cure, not an affliction.
Among those who had denied Christ was a woman named Biblias. The Devil thought he had already swallowed her and wished to damn her still more by making her accuse falsely. He brought her out to punishment and used force to compel her, already feeble and spiritless, to utter accusations of atheism against us. But during the tortures she recovered herself, awaking as it were out of a deep sleep. For the temporary suffering reminded her of the eternal punishment in hell, and she contradicted the accusers of Christians, saying, "How can children be eaten by those who do not think it lawful to partake of the blood of even brute beasts?" And after this she confessed herself a Christian and was added to the number of Witnesses.
But when the tyrannical tortures were made powerless by Christ through the patience of the blessed ones, the devil invented other schemes, such as confinement in the darkest and most foul-smelling cells of the prison, the stretching of the feet on the stocks, even up to the fifth hole, and the other outrages which attendants who are stirred up by anger and full of the devil are accustomed to inflict on the imprisoned. The result was that very many suffocated in prison, being chosen by the Lord for this manner of death, that he might manifest in them his glory. For there were others who were tortured so cruelly that it seemed impossible for them to survive even with the most careful nursing. Yet they remained alive in prison, destitute indeed of human care, but strengthened by the Lord. Invigorated both in body and soul, they inspired and encouraged the rest. But the new converts who had been recently arrested and whose bodies had not previously been tortured, could not endure the confinement, but died in the prison.
Aged Bishop Abused
Now the blessed Pothinus, who had been entrusted with the bishopric of Lyons, was dragged before the judgment-seat. He was over ninety years of age and very infirm. Though he breathed with difficulty on account of the feebleness of the body, yet he was strengthened by spiritual zeal through his earnest desire to bear his testimony. His body, indeed, was already worn out by old age and disease, yet his life was preserved that Christ might triumph through him. When he was brought by the soldiers to the judgment-seat, accompanied by the civil magistrates and a multitude who shouted against him in every manner, as if he himself were the Christ, he gave the good testimony. When the governor asked who was the God of the Christians, he said, "If thou art worthy, thou shalt know." Then he was unmercifully dragged away and endured many blows. Those near him struck him with their hands and feet, showing no respect for his age. Those at a distance hurled against him whatever they could seize. All of them thought they would sin greatly if they omitted any abuse in their insulting treatment of him. For they thought that in this way they would avenge their gods. And Pothinus, breathing with difficulty, was cast into prison, and died two days later.
Then a great dispensation of God's providence took place. The immeasurable mercy of Jesus was shown by something rarely seen among the brotherhood, but not beyond the power of Christ. For those who in the first arrest had denied their faith, were imprisoned along with the others and shared their hardships. Their denial, in fact, turned out at this time to be of no advantage to them. But those who confessed what they really were, were imprisoned simply as Christians, no other accusation being brought against them. But those who had denied their faith were detained as murderers and immoral persons and were punished twice as severely as the others. But the confessors' burdens were lightened by the joy of their testimony, their hope in the promises, by their love to Christ, and by the Father's Spirit. But the consciences of those who had denied were so greatly distressed that they were easily distinguished from among the rest by their faces when they were led out. The confessors went out rejoicing. Glory and abundant grace was apparent in their looks, so that their chains seemed like beautiful ornaments around them, as around a bride adorned with variegated golden fringes. They were perfumed with the fragrance of Christ, so that some even thought that they were anointed with earthly perfume. But the deniers were downcast, humbled, sad-looking, and weighed down with every kind of disgrace. They were reproached even by the heathens with being base and cowardly and charged with the crime of murder. They had lost the altogether honorable, glorious, and life-giving name. When the rest saw this, they were strengthened. Those who were arrested confessed unhesitatingly, paying no attention to the devil's reasoning... After these things, then, their testimonies took every shape through the different ways in which they departed. For, adorning a crown from different colors and flowers of every kind, they presented it to the Father. It was right therefore that the noble athletes, after having endured many contests and gained grand victories, should receive the great crown of incorruption.
Roasted in the Hot Seat
Therefore, Maturus, Sanctus, Blandina, and Attalus were publicly exposed to the wild beasts. To give the heathen public a spectacle of cruelty, a day for fighting wild beasts was appointed on account of our people. Both Maturus and Sanctus again endured every form of torture in the amphitheater, as if they had no suffering at all before. Or rather, like athletes who had overthrown their enemy several times and were now contending for the crown itself. Again they endured the usual lashes. They were dragged about by the wild beasts and suffered every indignity which the maddened people cried out for from around the amphitheater. Last of all they were placed in the iron chair, on which their bodies were roasted. They themselves were filled with the fumes of their own flesh. But the heathen did not stop even here, but became still more frantic in their desire to overcome the endurance of the Christians. But still they did not hear anything else from Sanctus except the confession which he had made from the beginning. These, then, after life had lasted a long time throughout the great contest, were at last sacrificed. Instead of all the variety which usually takes place in gladiatorial shows, they alone were the spectacle to the world throughout that day.
But Blandina was hung up fastened to a stake and exposed, as food to the wild beasts that were let loose against her. Because she appeared as if hanging on a cross and because of her earnest prayers, she inspired the combatants with great zeal. For they looked on this sister in her combat and saw, with their bodily eyes, Him who was crucified for them, that He might persuade those who trust in Him that every one who suffers for the glory of Christ has eternal communion with the living God. When none of the wild beasts at that time touched her, she was taken down from the stake and taken back to prison. She was preserved for another contest. By gaining the victory in more conflicts, she might make the condemnation of the Crooked Serpent unquestionable, and she might encourage the brethren. Though she was an insignificant, weak, and despised woman, yet she was clothed with the great and invincible athlete Christ. On many occasions she had overpowered the enemy, and in the course of the contest had woven for herself the crown of incorruption.
Attalus also was loudly called for by the mob because he was a person of distinction. He entered the contests readily on account of his good conscience. He had been truly practiced in the Christian discipline and had always been a Witness of the truth among us. He was led round the amphitheater, a tablet going before him, on which was written in Latin, "This is Attalus the Christian;" The people were filled with indignation against him. But the governor, learning that he was a Roman, ordered him to be taken back to prison and kept with the rest who were there. He had written to the Caesar about these and was waiting for his answer.
The intervening time did not prove barren or unfruitful to the Witnesses. Through their patient endurance the immeasurable love of Christ was made manifest. For through the living the dead were made alive; and the Witnesses conferred favors on those who were not Witnesses. The virgin mother had much joy in receiving back alive those whom she had given up as dead abortions. But because of the faithful Witnesses most of those who had denied the faith returned as it were into their mother's womb and were conceived again and made alive. They too had now learned to confess. Being now restored to life and strengthened, they went up to the judgment-seat to be again questioned by the governor. God, who does not desire the death of the sinner, but mercifully calls to repentance, put sweetness into their souls. This new examination took place because the Caesar had given orders that the Witnesses should be punished, but that if any denied they should be set free. At the beginning of the public festival which took place there and was attended by crowds of men from all nations, the governor brought the blessed ones up to the judgment-seat. He exhibited them as a theatrical show and spectacle to the mobs. He examined them again. Whoever had the rights of Roman citizenship he beheaded. The rest he sent to the wild beasts.
Now Christ was greatly glorified in those who formerly denied Him; for, contrary to every expectation of the heathen, they confessed. These were examined separately, under the belief that they were to be set free; but confessing, they were added to the number of the Witnesses. But there were also some who remained without; namely, those who had no trace of faith, and no perception of the marriage garment. These did not understand the fear of God. As sons of perdition they blasphemed the Way through their apostasy. But all the rest were added to the Church.
Gets Caught Sending Signals
Present at the examination of these was a certain Alexander, a native of Phrygia and a physician by profession. He had lived for many years in Gaul and had become well known to all for his love to God and his boldness in proclaiming the truth. He was not without a share of apostolic grace. He stood near the judgment-seat and gave signals to those who had denied. With these signs he was trying to persuade them to now confess. He looked to those standing by as if in pain. But the mobs, enraged that those who had formerly denied should now confess, cried out against Alexander as if he were the cause of this change. Then the governor summoned him before him and asked him who he was. When Alexander said he was a Christian, the governor exploded and condemned him to the wild beasts. On the next day he entered the amphitheater along with Attalus. To please the mob the governor again exposed Attalus to the wild beasts. These two, after being tortured in the amphitheater with all the instruments devised for that purpose, and having undergone an exceedingly severe contest, at last were themselves sacrificed. Alexander did not groan or murmur at all, but conversed in his heart with God. But when Attalus was placed on the iron chair, and all the parts of his body were burning, and the fumes were rising from his burning body, he said to the multitude in Latin, "Look this which you do is eating men. But as for us, we neither eat men nor practice any other wickedness." And being asked what name God has, he answered, "God has not a name as men have."
The Blessed Blandina, Last One Left
After all these, on the last day of the gladiatorial shows, Blandina was again brought in along with Ponticus, a boy of about fifteen years of age. These two had been taken daily to the amphitheater to see the tortures which the rest endured. The authorities tried to force Blandina and Ponticus to swear by the heathen idols. But they remained steadfastly refused. So the multitude were furious against them. They had no compassion for the youth of the boy or respect for the sex of the woman. Therefore they exposed them to every terror and all the terrible sufferings and took them through every round of torture. Repeatedly they tried to compel them to swear to the idols. But it didn't work. Ponticus was encouraged by his sister; even the heathens saw that she encouraged and strengthened him. After enduring nobly every kind of torture, he died. But the blessed Blandina, the last one left, having, like a noble mother, encouraged her children and sent them on before her victorious to the King, endured herself the same conflicts. She hurried on to them with joy and exultation at her departure. It was as if she were called to a marriage supper rather than cast to wild beasts. After she had been scourged and exposed to the wild beasts, and roasted in the iron chair, she was at last enclosed in a net and cast before a bull. She was tossed by the bull. But she didn't feel the things which were happening to her. This was because of her hope and firm hold of what had been entrusted to her and her communion with Christ. Thus, she also was sacrificed. The heathens themselves confessed that never among them did woman endure so many and such terrible tortures.
Yet not even in this was their madness and their savage hatred to the saints satisfied. For wild and barbarous tribes, when excited by the Wild Beast, were not easily appeased. Their insulting conduct expressed itself still again in the way they treated the dead bodies of the Witnesses. For, through their lack of human reason, they were not even ashamed that it was actually as if they had been conquered themselves. Their defeat only inflamed their rage more. Governor and people, like a wild beast, showed a similar unjust hatred of us, that the Scripture might be fulfilled, "He that is unjust, let him be unjust still; and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still."6 For they threw to the dogs those who had been suffocated in prison. They carefully watched them day and night, so that none of them should be buried by us. They then laid out the bodies of the others-the mangled remains left by the wild beasts, the scorched remains left by the fire, and the heads of the rest along with their trunks, and for many days they had military guards see to it that we did not bury them. There were some who raged and gnashed their teeth at them, seeking to get from them further vengeance. Others laughed and mocked them, at the same time magnifying their own idols, and attributing to them the punishment inflicted on the Christians. Even the more reasonable and those somewhat sympathetic frequently reproached them saying, "Where now is their God? What good have they got from that religion which they chose in preference to their life?" Their conduct toward us was indeed confused! But our state was one of deep sorrow that we could not bury the bodies. For night did not help us in this matter; money failed to persuade; and entreaty did move them to compassion. But they kept up the guard in every way, as if they were to gain some great advantage from the bodies of the Christians not receiving burial...
Still Another Indignity
The bodies of the Witnesses, after having been maltreated in every way and exposed in the open air for six days were burned. Their ashes were swept by the wicked into the river Rhone, which flows past so that no trace of them might be visible on earth. They did all this as if they had been able to overcome God. They thought they could deprive them of their second birth in order, as they said, that "they may not have hope in a resurrection. Through the Christians' trust in the resurrection they bring to us this foreign and new religion. They despise dangers and are ready to even go to death with joy. Now let us see if they will rise again, and if their God can help them and rescue them out of our hands.". . .
Refusing the Title
The Witnesses were zealous in their imitation of Christ, who, being in the form of God, thought it not a prize to be treated like God.7 The Witnesses had received such honor and had borne their testimony not once, nor twice, but often. They were brought back to prison after exposure to the wild beasts, covered with burns and scars and wounds. Yet they did not proclaim themselves Witnesses, or allow us to address them by this name. If any one of us on any occasion, either by letter or in conversation, called them Witnesses, they rebuked him sharply. For they willingly gave the title of Witness to Christ, "the faithful and true Witness,"8 and first-born from the dead, 9 and the leader to the divine life. They reminded us of those Witnesses who had already departed, and said: "These indeed are now Witnesses, whom Christ has considered worthy to take up to Himself in the very act of confession. He put His seal upon their testimony through their departure. But we are mean and humble confessors." And with tears they begged the brethren that earnest prayers might be offered that they might be made perfect. They really did all that is implied in the term "testimony," acting with great boldness towards all the heathen. They clearly showed their nobility through their patience, fearlessness, and courage. But they refused the title of Witness, as implying some superiority to their brethren, they refused, being filled with the fear of God.
They humbled themselves under the powerful hand by which they are now highly exalted.10 Then they pleaded for all, but accused none. They absolved all. They bound none. They prayed for those who inflicted the tortures. . . Because of the genuine love of the believers, they had this very great conflict with the Devil. This was so that beast would vomit up those he thought he had already swallowed. They assumed no airs of superiority over the fallen. With those things in which they themselves abounded they helped the needy, displaying towards them the compassion of a mother. And pouring out many tears for them to the Father, they begged life. And He gave it to them, and they shared it with their neighbors. Victorious over everything, they departed to God. Having always loved peace and having recommended peace to us, in peace they went to God. They left no sorrow to their mother, nor division and dissension to their brethren, but joy, peace, and love....
Alcibiades Ate Better in Prison
There was one named Alcibiades, who lived a very austere life. His ate only bread and water. He tried to continue this practice in prison. But it was revealed to Attalus after his first conflict in the amphitheater that Alcibiades was not pursuing the right course. In refusing to use the creatures of God he was leaving an example which might be a stumbling-block to others. And Alcibiades was persuaded and partook freely of all kinds of food, and thanked God. For they were not without the oversight of the grace of God, but the Holy Spirit was their counselor.