The Martyrdoms of Ignatius, Polycarp, and Perpetua

Windows into Christian Discipleship in Ancient Rome

Nicholas W. Gentile

Nicholas W. Gentile, "The Martyrdoms of Ignatius, Polycarp, and Perpetua: Windows into Christian Discipleship in Ancient Rome," Religious Educator 24, no. 2 (2023): 76–105.

Nicholas W. Gentile ( is an institute director for Seminaries and Institutes of Religion in East Lansing, Michigan. He is completing a PhD in leadership and serves as a counselor in the Michigan East Lansing Mission presidency. 

image depicting various martyrdom storiesThe martyrdom stories of Ignatius, Polycarp, and Perpetua have many profound applications for Latter-Day Saint educators as they help students wrestle with sacrificial aspects of discipleship in the twenty-first century. Detail from Ignatius van Antiochië laat zich door leeuwen verscheuren (Ignatius of Antioch allows himself to be mauled by lions), by Jan Luyken.

Keywords: Bible, discipleship, New Testament, martyrs, trials, sacrifice

Relevance to Latter-day Saint Religious Educators

In January 2023 Elder Clark G. Gilbert, Commissioner of the Church Educational System for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, gave a landmark address at the Seminaries and Institutes of Religion Annual Training Broadcast. He invited religious educators to allow five themes from President Russell M. Nelson to guide their teaching of young adults, regardless of the courses they teach. As he explained, “In identifying these themes, we have focused on the prophet’s anchor message, ‘Choices for Eternity.’[1] . . . Each of these themes has been identified through careful review with the CES university presidents, including S&I’s administrator, Brother Chad Webb, as well as the leadership of the Executive Committee of the Church Board of Education.”[2] The first of these themes is “Know your divine identity,”[3] which President Nelson taught includes being (1) a child of God, (2) a child of the covenant, and (3) a disciple of Jesus Christ.[4]

This article seeks to help religious educators fulfill Elder Gilbert’s invitation by exploring aspects of President Nelson’s third basic designation in the first theme: being a disciple of Jesus Christ. To be relevant to religious educators in 2023, especially those who are paid or called to teach the New Testament as aligned with Come, Follow Me, this article explores discipleship through New Testament scriptures and themes. These scriptures and themes focus on sacrificial aspects of discipleship—sacrificing, suffering, and giving one’s life to follow and emulate Jesus Christ—through the lens of three early Christian martyrs: Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, and Perpetua of Carthage. The fascinating stories of these martyrs provide colorful and compelling illustrations of the teachings in many New Testament verses (see, for example, Matthew 5:10–12; 13:20–22; 24:9; Mark 8:34–35; Acts 5:41; 12:2; Romans 8:17–18, 35–39; 2 Corinthians 4:8–11; 1 Peter 4:16; and Revelation 2:9–10). In doing so, these stories add depth to the definition of discipleship, helping students understand the spiritual motivations behind “the innocent blood of all the martyrs under the altar that John saw” (Doctrine and Covenants 135:7) and what it means to seal “the truth of [one’s] words by [one’s] death” (Mosiah 17:20). As the Prophet Joseph Smith revealed, “Whoso is not willing to lay down his life for [Christ’s] sake is not [his] disciple” (Doctrine and Covenants 103:28; see also Doctrine and Covenants 101:35–37). Though discipleship today rarely includes death as part of laying down one’s life for the Savior, the examples of Ignatius, Polycarp, and Perpetua inspire students to consider how they can give their lives for Christ in the present day. What time, talent, or treasure is God asking them to place on the altar? What popularity, philosophy, priority, or practice is God asking them to give up to follow him? The Holy Ghost can help students answer these questions for themselves as they learn about sacrificial aspects of discipleship, both from New Testament scriptures and themes and from the stories of these early Christian martyrs.


Four days before Passover in the year Christ was crucified, the gentle Savior left the stone walls of Herod’s temple and traveled east with his disciples. The party descended from the Temple Mount, dipped down into the Kidron Valley, and ascended the Mount of Olives. Somewhere amidst the olive groves dotting the mount’s rolling slopes, Jesus sat and answered questions from two pairs of brothers. Four of his apostles, Peter and Andrew (the sons of Jonah) and James and John (the sons of Zebedee), had come to him privately and asked about (1) the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple and (2) the signs of Jesus’s Second Coming and the end of the world (see Matthew 24:1–3; Mark 13:1–4).

In answer to their first question, Jesus explained that in the decades following his death, perilous times would come. False Christs and false prophets would deceive many. Offenses, betrayals, afflictions, hatreds, and destructions would multiply. Sin would surge, and love would lessen. The Romans would besiege Jerusalem and dismantle its temple and many other prominent buildings.[5] Finally, as the most extreme consequence of rising persecution, Christ prophesied that “[they] shall kill you” (Matthew 24:9).

It is instructive to consider three possible meanings for the word you in the phrase “[they] shall kill you.” First, if the you refers to Peter, Andrew, James, and John as apostles, then it helps scholars consider whether Christ instituted an ecclesiastical structure that matters in defining his Church. Did he intend apostles, who would be authorized witnesses of his resurrection, to be part of his Church? What about bishops, priests, deacons, or elders? Did Christ care about passing down ecclesiastical authority and keys—or was having and following his word in scripture enough? What about the necessity—or lack thereof—of ordinances like baptism and the sacrament? If they were needed, who was authorized to perform them, and who or what gave them authorization? The many ways to answer these questions explain, in large part, the many denominations of Christian churches today.[6] Second, if the you refers to Peter, Andrew, James, and John as Jews, who often chafed against living in a client state (Judaea) of the Roman Empire, then it helps historians consider the horrors that Emperor Vespasian’s and his son Titus’s Roman legions inflicted upon Jews in AD 70 during the First Jewish–Roman War (AD 66–73).[7] As the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus explained, during this horrible event, “No pity was shown for age, no reverence for rank; children and greybeards, laity and priests, alike were massacred. . . . The stream of blood was more copious than the flames and the slain more numerous than the slayers.”[8] Certainly this description fulfills (at least in part) Christ’s prophecy that “[they] shall kill you.” Third, if the you refers to Peter, Andrew, James, and John as “Jesus-followers,”[9] then it helps academics consider the plight of early Christian martyrs, who died for the conviction that salvation outweighed suffering.[10] Regarding this fate, Peter taught that “if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed” (1 Peter 4:16), and John recorded a vision in which the Lord showed him “the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held” (Revelation 6:9).

Though a study of the killing of Christ’s apostles in the contexts of ecclesiastical history or the First Jewish–Roman War would be fascinating, the purpose of this article is to consider lessons from the third possible meaning for the you in Christ’s prophecy. Toward that end, this article will focus on three sad but inspiring stories of Christian martyrs from the Roman world of the second and early third centuries: Ignatius of Antioch (d. AD 107), Polycarp of Smyrna (d. AD 155), and Perpetua of Carthage (d. AD 203). These stories teach many powerful lessons about aspects of Christian discipleship, which was often at odds with the polytheism of ancient Rome. As historian Jo-Ann Shelton has asserted, “Christianity posed a . . . threat [to the Roman Empire]. With its roots in Judaism, it was a monotheistic cult, and its one god would tolerate no rivals. Unlike the Jews, however, the Christians were aggressively, sometimes offensively monotheistic, and their denial of the existence of any god but their own angered polytheists. . . . Christians . . . refus[ed] to acknowledge or worship the state gods.”[11] Ignatius, Polycarp, and Perpetua demonstrated inflexible and unwise (to Romans)—or steadfast and inspiring (to Christians)—adherence to monotheism, preferring death to compromise. As Eusebius, the third- and fourth-century Greek historian and Christian bishop, quoted from an anonymous second-century follower of Jesus, “The Christians . . . endured every kind of insult and punishment. In their zeal for Christ, they considered many things to be but few, and they truly proved that ‘the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. . . . The first martyrs were ready and waiting, and they completed their confession of martyrdom with all eagerness.”[12] As part of the long history of Christian martyrs in ancient Rome, Ignatius, Polycarp, and Perpetua were ready, waiting, and eager to prove their discipleship by fully embracing the meaning of martyr, which derives from the Greek word for “witness” (martys).[13] As the following accounts demonstrate, these disciples sealed their witnesses of Christ with their blood.

Ignatius of Antioch

Ignatius was a bishop in Antioch (part of modern-day Turkey) who saw being willing to suffer for Christ as the marrow of discipleship. As one who wrote that he wanted to be the “pure bread of Christ,” he saw death for his witness of Christ as an opportunity to be “the wheat of God,” an offering ready to be “ground by the teeth of wild beasts”[14] (foreshadowing the grisly method of his execution) to achieve his glorious end. As he journeyed to Rome to face the wild beasts of martyrdom around AD 107, he explained, “Now I begin to be a disciple. . . . Let fire and cross, flocks of beasts, broken bones, dismemberment, come upon me, so long as I attain to Jesus Christ.”[15] Ignatius’s words beg the question—if he claims to have “begun” his discipleship on the road to martyrdom, was he not a disciple before that time, despite living a life that was, at least outwardly, devoted to the Savior? Legend has it that he was the little child that Jesus set in the midst of his disciples when they were wondering who was the greatest in the kingdom of heaven (see Matthew 18:1–4).[16] Whether Ignatius really was that child remains unknown. Either way, he grew up believing in Christ and served faithfully for over half a century as a bishop of one of the most ancient Christian strongholds, Antioch (where, Luke stated, “the disciples were called Christians first”; Acts 11:26). He called himself “the bearer of God” and was widely respected for his piety.[17] Certainly, as evidenced by his lifelong conviction and service, if a disciple is a follower, Ignatius was a disciple of Christ long before he decided to make the ultimate sacrifice by dying for his beliefs in the imperial capital.

On the other hand, Christ taught that necessary suffering, even to the point of martyrdom, is part of discipleship, and there appear to be unique blessings associated with such devotion. Christian martyrs became types of Christ (a manifestation of the Latin phrase imitatio Christi, or the “imitation of Christ”): their deaths for the gospel cause were, in their own nonsalvific way, shadows of his death for the gospel cause. Despite not being able to overcome spiritual or physical death for anyone through their deaths,[18] martyrs did have the unique opportunity of imagining, as much as possible, what it may have been like for Christ to offer the ultimate sacrifice. As they walked their own Via Dolorosa during the final hours of their consecrated lives, they could picture—in a uniquely personal way—Christ taking his final mortal steps down from the Passover of the Upper Room, up to Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives, down to his six trials throughout Jerusalem, and finally, up to the cruel cross on Golgotha’s hill. Putting themselves in his shoes and knowing that he had already trodden that lonely road might have given the martyrs hope as it helped them to connect their suffering to a greater purpose, a higher cause. This higher cause included expressing their devotion to the Lord through emulating his willingness to lay down the body for the hope of a glorious resurrection. The apostle Paul explained suffering as a form of emulation in this way: “We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed; always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body. For we which live are alway delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh” (2 Corinthians 4:8–11). Christ won eternal life through enduring righteously to the end in death, and Christian martyrs believed that they could too.

Winning through losing was one of the great Christian paradoxes that martyrs like Ignatius were able to experience. From the Isle of Patmos, John the Revelator taught, “Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life” (Revelation 2:10). The concept of life through death aligns itself with Christ’s teachings about saving through losing, which Mark records in his Gospel: “Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it” (Mark 8:34–35). Martyrdom allowed some disciples, figuratively speaking in most cases (but literally in others), to take up a cross of death to follow Christ. Perhaps Ignatius was referring to this unique opportunity when he spoke of beginning to be a disciple. Historian Justo Gonzalez certainly seems to think so. He concludes, “As Ignatius goes on to say, his purpose is to be an imitator of the passion of his God, Jesus Christ. As he faces the ultimate sacrifice, Ignatius believes that he begins to be a disciple; and therefore all that he wants from Christians in Rome is that they pray, not that he be freed, but that he may have the strength to face every trial.”[19] Though such a cavalier attitude toward death may seem fanatical to some scholars today, Ignatius appeared to be wholly committed to the special emphasis death would give to his witness of the Lord. Historians William Schoedel and Helmut Koester posit, “It is possible to view Ignatius as embodying the highest ideal of ministry and martyrdom—that is, . . . as selflessly devoted to Christ. . . . Of course it has been recognized that his passion for martyrdom (especially in the letter to the Romans [quoted above]) has a fanatical ring, but it seems understandable under the circumstances and may be taken as evidence of the depth of the bishop’s convictions.”[20] To Ignatius, dying for Christ bore a more compelling witness than living for him. Martyrdom was the ultimate demonstration of discipleship.

To disciples like Ignatius, proving oneself through remaining faithful during the most difficult trials may have also led to a stronger assurance of a greater reward in heaven. As he walked toward his death in Rome, Ignatius believed he was walking into heaven. Schoedel and Koester argue that “Ignatius is in fact far from seeing his journey in sober historical terms. He views it rather as a triumphant march of mythic proportions,” one that would end in the glory of Christ’s arms.[21] In a letter to fellow Jesus-devotees in Rome, Ignatius demonstrated his belief in this doctrine by forcefully exclaiming he did not want to be rescued because doing so would make it “very difficult for me to attain unto God.” Ignatius felt God had given him the test of martyrdom, and he did not want to be robbed of the chance to pass it and prove his faithfulness, which would preserve his reward through Christ’s gift of grace. He explained that he wanted to become a martyr “so that I may not only be called a Christian, but also behave as such. . . . My love is crucified. . . . When I suffer, I shall be free in Jesus Christ, and with him shall rise again in freedom.”[22] Ignatius saw martyrdom as a way to be, as James said, a doer of the word and not a hearer only (see James 1:22). He saw death for Christ as a ticket to freedom: the freedom that comes from not worrying about one’s standing before the Lord.

As historian Diarmaid MacCulloch has explained, Ignatius also saw his martyrdom as a ticket to heaven. In his magisterial Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, MacCulloch argues that “the first people whom Christians recognized as saints (that is, people with a sure prospect of Heaven) were victims of persecution who died in agony rather than deny their Saviour, who had died for them in agony on the Cross. Such a death, if suffered in the right spirit (not an easy matter to judge), guarantees entry into Heaven.”[23] Though not all Christian churches teach that only a righteous death guarantees eternal life, being willing to surrender everything to witness of Christ even unto death in the most horrific ways (for example, by wild beasts, by being burned alive, by being mutilated and suffocated, or by being crucified) certainly demonstrates stubborn conviction—or, to put a more inspiring and optimistic spin on it, deep love. Love was the reason Ignatius offered for his choice to suffer death for Christ. His faith in Jesus made love for the Lord “everything” to Ignatius.[24] In fact, he uses the noun love sixty-four times in his letters (more than any other reason, with faith as a distant second) to describe his reason for accepting death by wild beasts.[25] Martyrdom allows John’s words, “We love him, because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19), to take on an even deeper meaning. Here Ignatius is essentially saying: “I die for him because he first died for me.” Whether or not Ignatius believed his death would guarantee salvation, he certainly seemed to feel it would demonstrate his love for Jesus.

Out of love, then, in AD 107 Ignatius was ready to seal his witness with his blood. Shortly before his death, he told other Jesus-followers, “If you remain silent about me [meaning ‘If you do not try to save me’], I shall become a word of God. But if you allow yourselves to be swayed by the love in which you hold my flesh [meaning ‘if you let your care for me cause you to stop my martyrdom for the cause of Christ’], I shall again be no more than a human voice.”[26] To Ignatius, dying for a cause brought a certain type of immortality to the message of that cause. Making the ultimate sacrifice gave his witness of the Savior greater weight and greater longevity because it gave people a remarkable image to ponder and remember: the image of being so certain of something—the truth of Christ’s gospel and the reality of his Atonement and Resurrection—that dying for it was preferable to living against it.

Polycarp of Smyrna

Polycarp of Smyrna (AD 67–155) was a contemporary of Ignatius. He, too, served faithfully as one of the early bishops of the Christian Church in present-day Turkey and corresponded often with Ignatius, who, as an older bishop, was something of a mentor to him. Whether it was discussing if Church funds should be used to manumit slaves (which Polycarp and Ignatius opposed) or if there should be an ecclesiastical hierarchy governed by top-down leadership (which Polycarp and Ignatius both supported, and which laid the groundwork for the vertical power structure of a Catholic Church led by a pope, cardinals, archbishops, bishops, priests, etc.), Polycarp benefitted greatly from his relationship with his fellow shepherd.[27] Almost fifty years following Ignatius’s execution in Rome, Polycarp would also benefit greatly from Ignatius’s example of enduring to the end of a martyr’s death, as Polycarp would suffer death by fire, becoming the first Christian recorded as having been burned to death for his faith.[28]

Polycarp’s martyrdom teaches many lessons about Christian discipleship, but the most memorable may be the importance of keeping the first and second commandments of the Mosaic law. On Mount Sinai (likely the same mountain as Mount Horeb), Jehovah revealed the foundational tenets of monotheism[29] to Moses the prophet. These two tenets would cause much trouble for Christians in the polytheistic Roman world:[30] “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” and “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image. . . . Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them” (Exodus 20:3–5). According to the unnamed author of The Martyrdom of Polycarp, who wrote as an eyewitness to Polycarp’s execution in Smyrna in AD 155, these commandments were at the heart of the elderly bishop’s dispute with the Romans who sought his life. The dispute began when members of Polycarp’s congregation refused to worship Roman gods: hand-carved idols of man-made deities such as Jupiter, Neptune, Mars, and Venus (the Roman equivalents of the Greeks’ Zeus, Poseidon, Ares, and Aphrodite, respectively).[31] After the refusal became public, Roman occupation troops in Smyrna took Germanicus of Smyrna, who was by some accounts very old and by others very young, to face death by wild beasts. As this faithful disciple bravely accepted his fate and called for the beasts to kill him, the pro-Roman crowd, incensed by his conviction, shouted two things: (1) “Death to the atheists!” and (2) “Bring Polycarp!”[32]

By calling the Smyrnian Christians “atheists,” the angry crowd alluded to the Roman teaching that those who believed in “invisible gods” (meaning the Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ, and Holy Ghost of Christian doctrine,[33] who are usually spiritually, and not physically, discerned) instead of the “visible gods” of Rome (that is, tangible idols) should be treated as believing in no gods at all.[34] This very interesting concept raises two profound issues: one about ontology and another about epistemology. The Romans were persecuting the Smyrnian Christians for believing in a deity they could not see at that moment. At the same time, however, the Smyrnian Christians believed that the handmade statues of Roman deities were just that—statues—and that these symbols did not correspond to real people, let alone real deities. Ultimately, unlike the Christian Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ, there would be no Jupiter or Neptune to embrace or speak with face to face. Despite (most likely) never seeing them in this life, these Christians believed that Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ were real, that they lived, and that the Holy Ghost testified of their living reality. As Paul (the first-century Apostle whose epistles the Smyrnian Christians would likely have been familiar with) explained, “Your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God. . . . The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:5, 14). To Christians like Polycarp, truth is reality, and the reality of truth is taught by the Holy Ghost (see John 14:26; 15:26; 16:13; 1 Corinthians 2:5–14; 12:3; Matthew 16:13–17). In this philosophy spiritual things are learned through spiritual means, so humans should not be surprised when a spiritual question does not yield a physical answer or vice versa. The Romans, as Paul’s “natural men,” found these truths to be “foolishness” because they are “spiritually discerned,” and the Romans did not understand the language of the Spirit. For these reasons—a misunderstanding of reality and a misunderstanding of the Spirit as a viable epistemological tool[35]—the Romans insisted that the Smyrnian Christians worship the Roman gods, which, given the Smyrnian Saints’ understanding of the first two commandments, they could not do without betraying their deeply held spiritual convictions.

As the shepherd of the Church in Smyrna, Polycarp entered this debate about true gods versus false gods, living deities versus graven images, by asserting that the Romans were the true atheists because their gods were no gods at all. Despite what they could see—gold or silver statues shaped like deities—they did not believe in anyone living, real, intelligent, or powerful. When a Roman judge ordered the aged bishop Polycarp to shout, “Out with the atheists [meaning the Christians who believed in gods who were usually felt and not seen]!” he infuriated the pro-Roman crowd by turning to them, pointing, and then agreeing: “Yes. Out with the atheists [meaning the believers in the false gods of the Romans]!”[36] Like Paul, Polycarp was “not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation” (Romans 1:16), and he made his conviction known at the peril of his own life. Enraged by this act of defiant courage, the judge gave Polycarp an ultimatum: curse Christ or be burned alive. Undaunted, Polycarp gave his ready answer: “For eighty-six years I have served [Christ], and he has done me no evil. How could I curse my king, who saved me?”[37] Polycarp’s reply echoes Peter’s sublime revelation about suffering, which states, “If ye suffer for righteousness’ sake, happy are ye: and be not afraid of their terror, neither be troubled; but sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to . . . [those who] falsely accuse your good conversation in Christ. For it is better, if the will of God be so, that ye suffer for well doing, . . . for Christ also hath once suffered for sins . . . that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:14–18). Christ had died for Polycarp, and Polycarp was ready to die for Christ. Incensed, the Roman judge ordered the guards to light a bonfire and prepare Polycarp for his fate.

The decision to burn the venerable bishop appears to be unprecedented. Until that point (AD 155), death by the sword or wild beasts had been commonplace. Polycarp would be “the first Christian to be recorded as having been burned alive.”[38] Rather than bemoan such a grisly fate, Polycarp used this extraordinary circumstance to his advantage. As the flames began sending their sparks of light heavenward, he took the opportunity to preach to the hissing crowd about the true Light of the World, who allows God’s children to ascend to heaven (see John 8:12). In bonds, his body tied to a post in the burning fire, Polycarp testified that the Roman judge’s fire was temporary, whereas the eternal fire of God’s glory that awaited him would never burn out. He looked up and, as flames began destroying his earthly tabernacle, cried, “Lord Sovereign God . . . I thank you that you have deemed me worthy of this moment, so that, jointly with your martyrs, I may have a share in the cup of Christ.”[39] To Polycarp, sharing in Christ’s cup meant receiving an eternal reward for his suffering. As historian Richard Lim explains, “Christians, mostly converts from polytheism, were left with a grim choice: return to the religious custom of their ancestors and worship the [Roman] gods, or face the charge of atheism. Those who chose the latter underwent what Christians called martyrdom, a form of witnessing for Christ, by which, according to some contemporaries, they gained immediate entrance into Paradise.”[40]

Though Christians disagree on whether martyrdom alone results in immediate entrance into heaven, they have often agreed that, for better or worse, it is an egalitarian form of imitatio Christi. As MacCulloch has asserted, “The attractive feature of a martyr’s death was that it was open to anyone, regardless of social status or talent. . . . The necessary ability was to die bravely and with dignity, turning the agony and humiliation into shame and instruction for the spectators. Martyrs’ bones were treasured and their burial places became the first Christian shrines. . . . The stories of martyrs were lovingly preserved as an example to others.”[41] In fact, most scholars who have analyzed the conscious construction of The Martyrdom of Polycarp’s narrative have emphasized the accessible Christlike example it underscores for Jesus-followers, and there are at least fifteen ways in which Polycarp’s martyrdom is similar to Jesus’s death.[42] Historian Stephanie Cobb has noted many of these similarities:

The author of the Martyrdom of Polycarp often has been viewed as employing a pronounced—one might even label it pedestrian—imitatio Christi motif: like Jesus, Polycarp waits to be handed over (1.2); he is not far from the city when he is arrested (5.1); he prophesies his death (5.2; 12.3); he is betrayed by someone close to him (6.2); a man named Herod plays a part in his death (6.2); he is sought as a robber (7.1); he is apprehended at night (7.1–2); he chooses not to flee, preferring instead that God’s “will be done” (7.1); he is led into the city on an ass (8.1); a Roman ruler is reluctant to sentence him to death (9.3–11.2); the crowd calls for his death (3.2; 12.2–13.1); the Jews are particularly instrumental in his death (13.1); he is stabbed (16.1); the Jews raise concerns about the Christians receiving his body (17.2); and he dies on a Sabbath, perhaps at Passover (21).[43]

In his martyrdom, Polycarp found an unusual way to take Jesus’s admonition “Come, follow me” (see Matthew 16:24; Mark 1:17; Luke 9:23; Luke 18:22) to a literal level. With the general hope of finding life through death and the specific ways that his martyrdom imitated Christ’s ultimate sacrifice, Polycarp sealed his witness with his blood in a way intended to be inspiring for Christians and non-Christians alike. Would they desire to strengthen or start a new life in Christ because of his example? Such was his hope—that the way he met death would allow his witness to take on new life and increased usefulness. Like the words of his fellow shepherd Ignatius, Polycarp’s words would gain a certain immortality because of both his fiery faith and his fiery fate.

Perpetua of Carthage

Despite not being burned at the stake like Polycarp, Perpetua of Carthage (d. AD 203) provides one of the most fascinating accounts of martyrdom in the ancient world. The story of her sufferings and martyrdom in the Roman city of Carthage in present-day Tunisia, The Martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas, is one of the oldest extant Christian confessions of faith in the face of execution. It also contains a remarkably strong female perspective from an era dominated, at least publicly and legally, by men. By the time of her death at a little over twenty years old, she appears to have gained an unusual amount of education for a woman of her time[44] and used this rare gift to give voice to an even rarer feminine perspective on martyrdom. This perspective included an agonizing ultimatum: save her nursing child or defend her young faith. For many people today, Christ’s teachings about receiving “an hundredfold” and inheriting “everlasting life” for forsaking “houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for [his] name’s sake” (Matthew 19:29) might be more of a hypothetical than an actuality. For Perpetua, however, forsaking both her suckling infant and her father, who pleaded with her to recant her confessions of faith in order to remain with her baby, became an Abrahamic test of faith that she was determined to pass.

Choosing faith over family to meet martyrdom at Carthage is one of Perpetua’s most compelling legacies. Her desire to suffer with Christ and put a seal of living testimony upon her faith came because she had been changed by the Savior’s grace. This spiritual metamorphosis impelled her to seek God’s will above her own, spurning her baby and father to be like Christ and to give herself to Christ. As the most famous early modern treatment of imitatio Christi, Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ (which was published between 1470 and 1520 in over one hundred and twenty editions and seven languages), exhorts, Christians should be ready and willing to follow “the way of the cross” into heaven.[45] “The way of the cross” included martyrdom, and Kempis asks his Christian readers, “How shouldest thou sinful creature think that thou shouldest go to heaven by any other way than by . . . the way of the cross[?] . . . Now since the leader of life with all his martyrs have passed by the way of tribulation and the cross, who so ever intend to come to heaven without the way of tribulation and the cross they err from the right way.”[46] Christ’s life was full of tribulation, and he suffered death as a martyr; Christians like Perpetua therefore understood that following him would not be easy. As historian Brad Gregory asserted, Perpetua was simply one in a long line of Jesus-followers who understood that “Christians emulated their savior’s passion: the more the soul sustained pain and affliction ‘for his love, the more acceptable it shall be in his sight, . . . [for, as Kempis argued,] ‘by adversity thou art made conformable unto Christ and all his saints.’”[47] Perpetua did not just want to endure suffering for her Savior; she welcomed it. In her mind, suffering elevated her to a special class of disciples, disciples who rejoiced—indeed, who leaped for joy—at the privileges of being hated, separated from nonbelievers’ company, reproached, and cast out for Jesus (see Luke 6:22–23). She believed her reward for such extreme imitatio Christi would be “great in heaven” (Luke 6:23). Consequently, she embraced the horrors of execution for the name of Christ. After all, as Paul exclaimed in his epistle to Christians in Philippi, Christ’s name was a name above all others (see Philippians 2:9).

As Gonzalez explains, “When Perpetua and her companions were arrested, her father tried to persuade her to save her life by abandoning her faith. She answered that, just as everything has a name and it is useless to try to give it a different name, she had the name of Christian, and this could not be changed.”[48] In her own words, Perpetua compared her identity in Christ to a waterpot in her room. She told her anguished father as he pled for her change of mind, “Father, . . . do you see this vase here, for example, or waterpot or whatever? . . . Could it be called by any other name than what it is? . . . So too I cannot be called anything other than what I am, a Christian.”[49] Since Christ had made her a new creature in him, she could not escape him without rejecting her newfound identity. She was his. She did not just do Christian things. She was Christian because she was Christ’s. She was not her own (see 1 Corinthians 6:19). She had been purchased, “bought with a price,” as Paul wrote (1 Corinthians 6:20). Therefore, her independence from the world came from complete dependence on Jesus and life in him. She wanted the name of Perpetua to die so that Christ might live. He had become her obsession. As his possession, Perpetua desired others to see only him as she faded away. Her imitatio Christi was part and parcel of becoming his.

Perpetua’s imitatio Christi also became a significant vehicle for championing women’s agency and power in the ancient Roman world. As professor of classics Jennifer Rea asserts, the twenty-two-year-old Perpetua’s refusal to worship the Roman emperor Septimius Severus (AD 146–211)[50] and other Roman gods—her “act of conviction”—allowed her to be an actor who wielded gendered power, especially through leaving the world a record of her reasons for choosing martyrdom as a Christian.[51] This record, along with being one of the earliest Christian confessions from death row, is also the first known diary of a female Jesus-devotee.[52] Why are her written words so significant? As historians Graham and Kamm explain, in ancient Rome “legal records, literary accounts, even funerary epitaphs, were written primarily by men, whose voices reflect male perspectives and values (e.g., how many women would choose ‘not arguing with her husband’ as a most significant achievement to record [on a grave marker] for posterity?).”[53] Perpetua’s diary, in which she tells the story of her march to martyrdom from her arrest until the day before her execution[54] (after which an unnamed editor, perhaps the Montanist theologian Tertullian, finishes the rest of her passion narrative, including the horrific but moving scene of her martyrdom in the arena),[55] gives scholars a woman’s perspective on life and death in ancient Rome. Though she was only one woman (and a well-educated, patrician, married, Carthaginian, and Christian one, at that),[56] and her perspective may not be representative of most women in her time and place, the fact that she was a woman means that she provides one of a very small number of extant female voices from the Roman world.[57] This gendered perspective is valuable to historians who want to bring balance, nuance, and sophistication to the male-dominated narrative of this time in history.[58] What was it like to be a woman—especially a Christian woman—in ancient Rome? Perpetua’s diary gives readers an evocative glimpse.

Indeed, in this glimpse Perpetua’s commitment to her Savior caused her to utter some of the most moving words of Christian testimony that still survive from the ancient Roman world. In MacCulloch’s words, “Seldom do we read a Christian text which so brutally exposes what a Christian commitment might mean: it returns us to the terrifying story of Genesis 22, when God commanded the Patriarch Abraham to make a human sacrifice of his own young son, Isaac.”[59] Sent by Hilarianus (the governor of Carthage, who was enforcing Emperor Septimius Severus’s edict condemning conversion to Christianity) to face death in a packed amphitheater at the horns of a mad cow,[60] Perpetua remained steadfast to the bloody end. As she waited to enter the arena, she boldly refused to put on the robes of Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture,[61] which the Roman guard tried to force upon her. “We came to this of our own free will, that our [religious] freedom should not be violated. We agreed to pledge our lives provided that we would do no such thing. You agreed with us to do this,” she proclaimed defiantly. The tribune conceded her point and, cowering before her moral authority (or spiritual power from God), let her and her companions enter the arena without what the Christians considered to be the apostate robes of polytheistic idolatry. As the unnamed narrator observes, “Perpetua went along with shining countenance and calm step, as the beloved of God, as a wife of Christ, putting down everyone’s stare by her own intense gaze.”[62] The narrative paints her as a powerful woman of God who defied Rome and embraced her fate as a martyr.

Once in the arena with the mad cow, Perpetua’s blood ran freely, taking her imitatio Christi to a horrific but moving new level. Bolstered by a vision from the day before in which a shepherd representing Christ welcomed her to heaven and gave her eucharistic cheese,[63] Perpetua endured repeated goring by the mad heifer, which likely weighed hundreds of pounds. The cow smashed into her like a freight train, tossing her high in the air, slamming her back and head into the ground, and trampling her. Not evincing any pain, she requested a respite from the brutal assault only to have time to secure her loosened hair with a pin.[64] As Gonzalez explains, “Loose hair was a sign of mourning, and [Perpetua exclaimed that] this was a joyful day for her.”[65] As the beast continued its crushing attack, Perpetua’s clothes became soiled with blood, and her body became marred by wounds. The raucous crowd, convinced that the mad cow had done enough, signaled for a break at the arena’s Sanavivarian Gate (Latin for the “Gate of Health and Life”),[66] while the Roman executioners prepared for a coup de grâce by sword.[67]

Her body giving way, Perpetua had to be held up by Rusticus, a male Christian catechumen, who did not leave her side until the executioner’s call came. When it did, as blood ran down her arms, the twenty-two-year-old mother of a nursing infant son[68] offered her final verbal witness before striding back into the arena: “Stand fast in the faith and love one another, and do not be weakened by what we have gone through.”[69] Then she kissed her Christian companions, including a female slave named Felicitas who had given birth to a baby girl just two days before,[70] and asked for the terrible work to be finished. After the executioner stabbed Perpetua through the ribs, striking bone so forcefully that she screamed in agony, he could not bear to finish the job. Consequently, as the mesmerized crowd watched with shock and awe, Perpetua herself grabbed the “trembling hand of the young gladiator and guided it to her throat.” As the anonymous narrator, observing from somewhere deep in the amphitheater’s sea of spectators, proclaims, “It was as though so great a woman, feared as she was by the unclean spirit, could not be dispatched unless she herself were willing.”[71] Emboldened by her help, the young man completed his shameful duty, allowing Perpetua to seal her witness of Jesus—her imitatio Christi—with her blood.

Perpetua was dead, but her legacy of faith would take on an important life of its own as a rare window into the mind of an early Christian martyr. As professor of theology Sara Parvis concludes, “Perpetua and her narrator clearly both believed they belonged to a charismatic church, full of visions and deeds of power, as well as prophecy and the call to bear witness with one’s life. But it may be that other aspects of Perpetua’s theology are still more striking, and still more indicative of some of the lost theological voices of the early Church.”[72] Though there are many striking aspects of Perpetua’s theology (such as her emphases on the eucharist or physical expressions of spiritual commitments, Christ as a shepherd, the works of faith, Montanist tendencies toward personal revelation and prophecy, separation from family to pursue consecration, finding joy in Christ during times of terrible grief, and preoccupation with imitatio Christi), her theology of death may be most provocative. Was the desire to seek or even demand the blood and gore of a violent death (a far cry from merely accepting death when there is no other choice) part of genuine imitatio Christi and an admirable sign of wholehearted devotion? Or was it a manifestation of unhealthy fanaticism for a religious cause? Did a martyr’s death grant admission to heaven and a special status of sainthood that won a lofty place in ecclesiastical or mediatorial hierarchy? Or did it merely manifest a needless sacrifice born out of insecurity, self-centered desire to leave a legacy, or egalitarian opportunity to gain a certain type of power (one that otherwise obscure, powerless, or marginalized people would be tempted to claim)? Did martyrs demonstrate the Greco-Roman values of being, as historian Luke Drake asserts, “resolved in their convictions, unflinching in the face of excruciating pain, [and] anxious to meet a noble death”?[73] Or did they represent what controversial author John Krakauer calls the “dark side to religious devotion that is too often ignored or denied”?[74] Which perspective is more accurate? Perpetua’s theology of death invites scholars of Christianity, especially Christianity within the Roman Empire during its waves of intense persecution of Christians, to wrestle with unflinching questions about the competing meanings of a martyr’s death.


Wrestling with competing meanings aside, it is important to remember that the martyrdom writings of Ignatius, Polycarp, and Perpetua are part of a scarce smattering of surviving clues about Christian discipleship in the Roman world of the second and early third centuries. Drake explains the significance of these clues:

What we can say about Christianity in this period is the product of a relatively sparse amount of surviving historical evidence. For example, other than several dozen ancient writings, no Christian archaeological evidences survive from the first or second century—no buildings, no paintings, no sculptures, no pottery, nothing. Our only surviving evidences of Christian groups in this period are literary in nature: some letters, some fictional texts, some Christian regulatory handbooks, some sermons that would have been delivered in a worship setting, some Christian critiques of Jews and pagans, and so on. What this means for us is that in order to tell the story of second- [and early-third-] century Christianity, we must take an extremely close and critical look at the surviving literature of the period and then do our best to extrapolate cautiously from that literature in order to find answers to our questions.[75]

The surviving thoughts and feelings of Ignatius, Polycarp, and Perpetua thus constitute significant pieces of the puzzle of what it meant to think like a Christian, love like a Christian, worship like a Christian, and die like a Christian in the ancient Roman world. Their narratives provide windows into early Christian theology and doorways into the hearts of three committed Jesus-followers, disciples who wanted to seal their witnesses with their blood. Though scholarly debate may rage regarding the martyrs’ motives and the meanings of their deaths, the primary sources strongly indicate their belief that they died for the following reasons.

First, in extreme examples of imitatio Christi, these martyrs demonstrated their loving gratitude for the blood Jesus willingly spilled for them by willingly spilling their own blood for him. Though many Christians over the centuries have struggled to live for Christ, these martyrs embraced—even demanded—the struggle of dying for him.[76] Second, they embraced and demanded this struggle because they believed Paul’s teaching that “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18). What glory did they believe awaited them? Being joint-heirs with Christ forever (see Romans 8:17). As Paul declared, Christians would be glorified with their Savior in this sacred way if they “suffer[ed] with him,” (Romans 8:17), and in the minds of the martyrs, the agony of martyrdom was part of fulfilling that condition. Wild beasts, flames, mad cows, and swords were nothing compared to the glory that awaited them in Christ. If endured well, their sufferings in ancient Rome would bring them such an astonishing eternal reward that the net balance would be greatly in their favor. Martyrdom was a small price to pay for the riches of eternity: heavenly lives as joint-heirs with Christ.

Third, in a twist of the great Christian paradox, these heavenly lives would come through their earthly deaths because Christ’s earthly death had made possible their heavenly lives. Their Savior was everything to them and worth every sacrifice, including their lives. The martyrs believed that losing their lives for him would allow them to find their lives again, this time in heaven, and they saw themselves in Paul’s famous first-century epistle to Christians in Rome. Nothing—not “tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword, . . . neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature”—could “separate [them] from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:35–39). He had made the martyrs “more than conquerors.” He had made them “heirs of God, and joint-heirs with [him]” (vv. 37, 17). Fourth, the martyrs paid dearly because they loved dearly. They loved Christ because he had first loved them, and “greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (see 1 John 4:19; John 15:13). Jesus Christ was their closest, dearest, and truest friend, and their sacrifice of love for him came because of his sacrifice of love for them. Ignatius, Polycarp, and Perpetua fully embraced being martyrs for Christ because they fully embraced being witnesses for Christ, and they understood that the word martyr means “witness.”[77] As witnesses, they provided thought-provoking insights about what it meant to be a monotheistic Christian in the polytheistic world of ancient Rome: a world in which living one’s faith might lead to dying for it.

Applications for Latter-day Saint Religious Educators

The martyrdom stories of Ignatius, Polycarp, and Perpetua have many profound applications for Latter-day Saint religious educators as they help students wrestle with sacrificial aspects of discipleship in the twenty-first century. As they teach New Testament scriptures like Matthew 24:9, Acts 12:2, 2 Corinthians 4:8–11, Revelation 2:9–10, Romans 8:35–39, Matthew 5:10–12, Mark 8:34–35, Matthew 13:20–22, 1 Peter 4:16, Acts 5:41, and Romans 8:17–18, educators have opportunities to ask their students to consider sacrificing, suffering, and giving one’s life—in figurative ways—to follow and emulate Jesus Christ. As Elder Neal A. Maxwell explained, “Discipleship is a ‘contact sport.’”[78] It requires the collision of wills (the will of the child and the will of the Father) inherent in making the difficult decisions that come with giving time, talents, or treasure—or giving up a particular popularity, philosophy, priority, or practice—to make and keep baptism and temple covenants. This collision is not comfortable or convenient, but it is at the heart of consecration. Thus “in pondering and pursuing consecration, understandably we tremble inwardly at what may be required.”[79] Did Ignatius, Polycarp, and Perpetua tremble inwardly as they contemplated what consecrated discipleship required of them? It seems likely. Nevertheless, they sacrificed, suffered, and gave their lives faithfully and valiantly—and their stories invite students to consider earnest questions about their own discipleship, questions that invite introspection and application.

For example, the following introspective and applicative themes and questions related to the martyrdom stories of Ignatius, Polycarp, and Perpetua might lead to thoughtful discussion in a Latter-day Saint religious educator’s classroom.

  • Theme #1: Necessary suffering is part of discipleship.
    • Related Questions:
      • What have prophets and apostles taught about when suffering is necessary versus when it is unnecessary?
      • When did Jesus suffer necessarily? How did he demonstrate his perfect obedience to Heavenly Father’s will? How can we be more like him?
      • What do you believe about Jesus Christ that would motivate you to follow him, even if following him meant suffering for a time?
  • Theme #2: Imitatio Christi (the “imitation of Christ”) is part of discipleship.
    • Related Questions:
      • What have prophets and apostles taught recently about trying to be like Jesus?
      • What examples from the scriptures show disciples practicing imitatio Christi?
      • When has Jesus Christ helped you to become more like him?
  • Theme #3: As disciples of Jesus Christ follow him, their love and appreciation for him increase.
    • Related Questions:
      • How could you be more intentional in following Christ today?
      • As you have tried to emulate Jesus Christ, how have you come to love and appreciate him more?
      • Who is one person you know personally who is a great example of loving Jesus Christ? What has this person done to gain that love? Therefore, what can you do to emulate that example?
  • Theme #4: Winning through losing is one of the great paradoxes of discipleship.
    • Related Questions:
      • How did Jesus Christ win through losing?
      • What does God invite you to lose today so that you can win something greater?
      • What have you won through losing what God has invited you to lose (for example, pride, envy, resentment, words that push away the Spirit, friends who tempt you to sin, philosophies that contradict the teachings of living prophets, and so forth) as a disciple of Jesus Christ?
  • Theme #5: Bearing our crosses with Jesus Christ is part of discipleship.
    • Related Questions:
      • What crosses have you borne/do you bear with the Savior’s help?
      • In an October 2022 general conference talk, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland taught, “To be a follower of Jesus Christ, one must sometimes carry a burden—your own or someone else’s—and go where sacrifice is required and suffering is inevitable. A true Christian cannot follow the Master only in those matters with which he or she agrees. No. We follow Him everywhere, including, if necessary, into arenas filled with tears and trouble, where sometimes we may stand very much alone.”[80] What has Jesus Christ done for you that motivates you to carry a burden or stand alone for him? How can Jesus Christ help us to bear our burdens? What can we do to receive his help?
  • Theme #6: Discipleship requires being a doer of the word and not a hearer only (see James 1:22).
    • Related Questions:
      • Which of God’s words as taught by ancient or modern prophets should you do more about?
      • In an April 2021 general conference talk, President Russell M. Nelson asked, “What would you do if you had more faith?”[81] How could you respond today?
      • How has doing blessed you as a disciple of Jesus Christ?
  • Theme #7: Love is the highest motivation for discipleship.
    • Related Questions:
      • What do you love about Jesus Christ? What has that love motivated you to do?
      • Which of the thirteen attributes of Christ’s love in Moroni 7:45 would help you in this situation? What could you do to obtain them?
      • What are specific examples from the life of Jesus Christ in which he showed love? What do they teach you about his love?
  • Theme #8: Bearing witness of Jesus Christ is part of discipleship.
    • Related Questions:
      • How have you borne witness of Jesus Christ? What have you given up to bear that witness?
      • Apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ have borne their special witnesses of him in “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” (1995), “The Living Christ: The Testimony of the Apostles” (2000), and “The Restoration of the Fulness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ: A Bicentennial Proclamation to the World” (2020). What do their witnesses teach you about Jesus Christ, his restored gospel, and his restored Church?
      • What popularity, philosophy, priority, or practice might you need to give up for your witness of Jesus Christ and his restored gospel? Why would you be willing to give it up?
  • Theme #9: Discipleship includes following Jesus Christ even when doing so is not comfortable, convenient, or culturally compatible.
    • Related Questions:
      • When has your discipleship caused you to do something that was uncomfortable, inconvenient, or incompatible with prevailing cultural norms?
      • The 2022 edition of the For the Strength of Youth booklet states that “the Lord’s standard is for you to honor the sacredness of your body, even when that means being different from the world.”[82] What have you sacrificed to be different from the world? Why have those sacrifices been worth it to you?
      • What are living prophets teaching today that might be uncomfortable, inconvenient, or incompatible with prevailing cultural norms? Why do you choose to follow living prophets with patience and faith (see Doctrine and Covenants 21:5), even when it is hard? What scriptures or talks would you share with someone who is struggling to follow what the Lord’s prophets are teaching about challenging doctrinal, historical, or social issues?
  • Theme #10: Discipleship includes prioritizing our identity in Christ above all worldly priorities.
    • Related Questions:
      • Why is your identity in Christ worth more to you than any worldly designation? How has recognizing the value of your identity in Christ changed your desires, thoughts, words, and actions?
      • What do covenants have to do with our identity in Christ (see Mosiah 5:7)? How have making and keeping covenants deepened your relationship with Jesus Christ? How do you demonstrate that you have taken his name upon you?
      • When have you felt that you belong to Jesus Christ because he purchased you (see 1 Corinthians 6:19–20) through his atoning sacrifice? When has that belonging in Christ motivated you to stand up, speak out, and dare to be different from the world? When has your identity in him given you profound joy, regardless of difficult circumstances?

These themes and questions can assist religious educators as they help students unpack and apply principles of Christian discipleship. Doing so empowers students to follow President Nelson’s prophetic counsel about prioritizing being a disciple of Jesus Christ, along with being a child of God and a child of the covenant, above any other identities or objectives.[83] In his January 2023 address, Elder Gilbert invited religious educators to focus on this counsel because “as Sister Wendy W. Nelson has taught, while Satan is abroad in the land [see Doctrine and Covenants 52:14], we also have a prophet in the land, who we can look to for truth and clarity in these latter days.”[84] Prophetic truth and clarity are so critical to lifelong discipleship that Elder Gilbert pleaded with religious educators, “Regardless of the specific courses you are teaching . . . allow these messages to influence both your curriculum and the way you teach and minister to your students.”[85] Thus for seminary students studying the New Testament, prophetic messages about discipleship provide protection. For institute students enrolled in “The Eternal Family,” prophetic messages about discipleship create clarity. For religion students at a Church-sponsored university or college taking a class on American Christianity and the Restored Gospel, prophetic messages about discipleship teach truth. The protection, clarity, and truth of these prophetic messages make applying these messages to the martyrdom stories of Ignatius, Polycarp, and Perpetua worth the effort of exploring sacrificial aspects of Christian discipleship in ancient Rome.


[1] Russell M. Nelson, “Choices for Eternity” (worldwide devotional for young adults, May 15, 2022),

[2] Clark G. Gilbert, “A Prophet in the Land: Current Prophetic Emphases to Young Adults” (address given at the Church Educational System annual training broadcast, January 27, 2023),

[3] Gilbert, “Prophet in the Land.”

[4] Nelson, “Choices for Eternity.”

[5] This did subsequently come to pass. See Abigail Graham and Antony Kamm, The Romans: An Introduction, 4th ed. (New York: Routledge, 2020), 105–08.

[6] See Brad S. Gregory, “The Inescapability of ‘Church’ in the History of Christianity,” Church History 83, no. 4 (December 2014): 998–99. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints answers these questions boldly as a restorationist—rather than a Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox—Christian denomination, claiming to be “Christ’s New Testament Church restored.” See “TheRestorationoftheFulnessoftheGospelofJesusChrist:ABicentennialProclamationtotheWorld,”

[7] See Graham and Kamm, Romans, 105.

[8] Flavius Josephus, The Jewish War, trans. H. St. J. Thackeray (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1928), 257.

[9] This phrase is used in Bruce W. Longenecker, In Stone and Story: Early Christianity in the Roman World (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020), 6.

[10] See Jo-Ann Shelton, As the Romans Did: A Sourcebook in Roman Social History, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 408.

[11] Shelton, As the Romans Did, 408. Though the tension between Christian monotheism and Roman polytheism was one significant source of tension between Christian Romans and non-Christian Romans, there were other sources of cultural conflict as well. For example, historian and classicist Luke Drake listed the following: believing in resurrection, honoring a crucified malefactor, encouraging converts to choose faith over family (which sometimes fractured Roman families; see Matthew 19:29 and Luke 14:26), perceived cannibalism (for claiming to eat Christ’s flesh and drink his blood), perceived incest (for having sexual relations with “brothers” and “sisters”), and perceived plotting of insurrection (for clandestine meetings at night). See Luke Drake, “Christianity in the Second Century,” in New Testament History, Culture, and Society: A Background to the Texts of the New Testament, ed. Lincoln H. Blumell, (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2019), 762.

[12] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 5.1.6–9; cited in Shelton, As the Romans Did, 415.

[13] Shelton, As the Romans Did, 415n329.

[14] Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Romans (Ign. Rom.) 4.1; cited in William R. Schoedel and Helmut Koester, ed., A Commentary on the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 1.

[15] Ign. Rom. 5.3; cited in Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, vol. 1, The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 49.

[16] Gonzalez explains, “In his letters, [Ignatius] repeatedly calls himself ‘the bearer of God,’ as if this were a title by which he was known. . . . Much later, by making a slight change in the Greek text of his letters, people began speaking of Ignatius as ‘he who was borne by God,’ and thus arose the legend that he was the little child whom Jesus picked up and placed in the midst of his disciples.” Gonzalez, Story of Christianity, 41–42. Theologians and church historians Arthur Cleveland Coxe, James Donaldson, and Alexander Roberts have also acknowledged the widespread, unsubstantiated tradition that Ignatius was the little child in Matthew 18, calling it a “seductive myth” and one of the “legends which by and by connected themselves with the name of Ignatius.” As they summarized, Ignatius “came in course of time to be identified with the child whom Christ (Matt. xviii. 2) set before His disciples as a pattern of humility. It was said that the Saviour took him up in His arms, and that hence Ignatius derived his name of Theopharus; that is, according to the explanation which this legend gives of the word, one carried by God.” Ante-Nicene Fathers: The Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, Revised and chronologically arranged with brief prefaces and occasional notes by A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, American ed. (New York: Scribner, 1899), 45, 127–28; emphasis in original.

[17] Gonzalez, Story of Christianity, 41.

[18] Of course, thanks to Christ’s infinite, great, and last sacrifice, these martyrs did not need to overcome spiritual and physical death, either for themselves or for anyone else.

[19] Gonzalez, 53.

[20] Schoedel and Koester, Commentary on the Letters, 10.

[21] Schoedel and Koester, 11–12.

[22] Ign. Rom. 3.1, 4.3, 7.2; cited in Gonzalez, Story of Christianity, 53.

[23] Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (New York: Viking, 2010), 161.

[24] Ignatius, Letter to the Smyrnaeans (Ign. Smyrn.) 6.1; cited in Schoedel and Koester, Commentary on the Letters, 24.

[25] See Schoedel and Koster, 24.

[26] Ign. Rom. 2.1; cited in Gonzalez, Story of Christianity, 53.

[27] See MacCulloch, Christianity, 116, 133–34.

[28] MacCulloch, 161.

[29] Many scholars have described Judaism as monotheistic, and the following three quotes are representative: “No faith is more singularly monotheistic than is Judaism.” Roger R. Keller, “Judaism,” in Light and Truth: A Latter-day Saint Guide to World Religions (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2012), 208. “Exclusive monotheism (Nehemiah 9:6) . . . became [one of the] trademarks of Jewish identity shortly after the exiles’ return from Babylon.” Joshua M. Matson, “Between the Testaments: The History of Judea Between the Testaments of the Bible,” in New Testament History, 5. “That which set the Israelites apart from all others in the polytheistic Greco-Roman and Near Eastern cultures was their steadfast declaration of one omnipotent God, that is, their belief in monotheism.” M. Catherine Thomas, “The Provocation in the Wilderness and the Rejection of Grace,” in Sperry Symposium Classics: The Old Testament, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2005), 172.

[30] See Shelton, As the Romans Did, 408; and Graham and Kamm, Romans, 164–65.

[31] Graham and Kamm, Romans, 138.

[32] The Martyrdom of Polycarp (Mart. Pol.) 3.2; cited in Gonzalez, Story of Christianity, 54.

[33] The phrase “Christian doctrine” here does not imply specific knowledge of formal creeds, which came in the fourth century. It also does not imply specific knowledge of protocreedal summaries of belief such as “rules of faith,” which evolved slowly in the late first century and became more robust in the late second and early third centuries. To imply such knowledge would be anachronistic. Instead, here the phrase “Christian doctrine” implies that early Jesus-followers like John, Peter, Paul, Ignatius, Polycarp, and Perpetua shared beliefs in the existence of God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost that were central to their personal faith as Christians. These beliefs came from the teaching of Jesus and preaching of his followers, some of which became early manuscripts that predated Ignatius, Polycarp, and Perpetua, and these manuscripts eventually became part of the New Testament after a long and contested process of canonization. Elaborate summaries of orthodox Christian tenets came with Clement (ca. AD 95–96), who discussed a “famous and revered canon” of beliefs that had been “handed down,” and Irenaeus (late second century) and Tertullian (early third century), who, in the words of classicist Thomas Wayment, affirmed “that the earliest authoritative teaching consisted of a declaration about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Wayment, “Creating Canon: Authority, New Prophecy, and Sacred Texts,” in Ancient Christians: An Introduction for Latter-day Saints, ed. Jason R. Combs, Mark D. Ellison, Catherine Gines Taylor, and Kristian S. Heal (Provo: BYU Maxwell Institute, 2022), 69, 74. Even in the second century, however, the existence of rules of faith did not preclude the existence of competing ideas about what a Christian should believe. For example, Marcion, Valentinus, and Justin Martyr each led a different camp of Roman Christian thought in the mid-second century. As historian Luke Drake commented, these three early Christian intellectuals “disagreed strongly with one another on the question of Christ’s nature.” Drake, “Christianity in the Second Century,” 754.

[34] Gonzalez, Story of Christianity, 54. Most Christians have gained a witness of the reality of the Father and the Son from the Holy Ghost—not from seeing with physical eyes their resurrected, perfected bodies. This interpretation does not deny the reality that the Father and the Son have bodies of flesh and bone. They are not “invisible” in the sense that they do not have resurrected bodies—only in the sense that Christians usually do not see those bodies and usually must gain a witness of them from the Holy Ghost, whose influence is not physical but spiritual.

[35] See Brad S. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 30–38.

[36] Mart. Pol. 3.2, 9.2; cited in Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, 54.

[37] Gonzalez, 54.

[38] MacCulloch, Christianity, 161.

[39] Mart. Pol. 14.2; cited in Gonzalez, Story of Christianity, 54.

[40] Richard Lim, “The Gods of Empire,” in Cambridge Illustrated History of the Roman World, ed. Greg Woolf (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 286.

[41] MacCulloch, Christianity, 161. See also Peter Brown’s excellent body of work about how later Christians venerated martyrs and other saints and attached mystical, power-dispensing properties to their corporeal remains, especially The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).

[42] L. Stephanie Cobb, “Polycarp’s Cup: Imitatio in the Martyrdom of Polycarp,” Journal of Religious History 38, no. 2 (June 2014), 224.

[43] Cobb, “Polycarp’s Cup,” 224.

[44] As historian Catherine Gines Taylor explained, “Perpetua’s narrative includes the influence of scripture and classical texts, indicating that she was an educated person.” Taylor, “Inclining Christian Hearts: Work for the Dead,” in Ancient Christians: An Introduction for Latter-day Saints, ed. Jason R. Combs, Mark D. Ellison, Catherine Gines Taylor, and Kristian S. Heal (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, Brigham Young University, 2022), 411. See also Barbara K. Gold, Perpetua: Athlete of God (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 115–19. In ancient Rome, learning classical texts was usually reserved for young men over the age of twelve. At about seven years old, privileged girls and boys learned the basic skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic in primary schools. However, as Graham and Kamm assert, “Formal education ceased for girls at the age of 12, but boys who showed academic promise . . . [attended grammar schools that] emphasized Greek as well as Latin literature.” See Graham and Kamm, Romans, 194–95. Perpetua’s use of classical texts demonstrates an extraordinary level of knowledge for a Roman woman.

[45] See Thomas à Kempis, A full devoute and gostely treatyse of the Imytacyon and following the blessed lyfe of our moste mercyfull Savyour cryste [. . .] (London, 1517); cited in Brad S. Gregory, Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 51–52.

[46] Thomas à Kempis, Imytacyon 2.12; cited in Gregory, Salvation at Stake, 52.

[47] Gregory, Salvation at Stake, 52. The à Kempis quote is found in Imytacyon 2.12.

[48] Gonzalez, Story of Christianity, 98.

[49] Perpetua, The Martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas 3.1–2; cited in The Acts of the Christian Martyrs: English, Greek, and Latin Translations, ed. and trans. Herbert A. Musurillo (London: Oxford University Press, 1972), 109. All quotations from this source use the Musurillo translation, and page numbers are from Musurillo.

[50] See Graham and Kamm, Romans, 123.

[51] Jennifer A. Rea and Liz Clarke, Perpetua’s Journey: Faith, Gender, & Power in the Roman Empire (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 5–6.

[52] See Rea and Clarke, Perpetua’s Journey, 169–171.

[53] Graham and Kamm, Romans, 179.

[54] Rea and Clarke, Perpetua’s Journey, 7.

[55] See Perpetua, Martyrdom 2, 14–21; 109, 123–31. As Sara Parvis has asserted, “The author is sometimes held to be Tertullian, both because this section has some stylistic similarities with his writings, and because (as we shall see) it shows affinities with Montanism,” which emphasized individuals receiving new prophetic revelations in charismatic ways that diverged from mainstream church hierarchy and orthodoxy. Parvis, “Perpetua,” The Expository Times 120, no. 8 (2009): 365.

[56] Rea and Clarke, Perpetua’s Journey, 7.

[57] For an introduction to historiographical treatments of Perpetua, as well as English translations of her narrative and many other sources related to her and Felicitas, see L. Stephanie Cobb and Andrew S. Jacobs, The Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas in Late Antiquity (Oakland: University of California Press, 2021); Gold, Perpetua: Athlete of God; and Thomas J. Heffernan, The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012). Along with Rea and Clarke’s groundbreaking Perpetua’s Journey, each of these works discusses the importance of studying Perpetua from a gendered perspective.

[58] For more details about the gendered challenges and opportunities of Christian women in the ancient Roman world, see the following nuanced account by historian Ariel Bybee Laughton: “Church Organization: Priesthood Offices and Women’s Leadership Roles,” in Ancient Christians, 100–101, 114–15.

[59] MacCulloch, Christianity, 163. Sara Parvis, a professor of theology, agrees with MacCulloch’s emphasis on commitment and even goes one step further by comparing Perpetua’s witness to that of one of the most influential Church Fathers: Bishop Augustine of Roman North Africa. “Perhaps most importantly of all, [Perpetua] provides us in her diary with the first example of Christian autobiography; sketchy though it is, she gives us the sort of glimpse of her private life and the way she constructs her Christian identity that we will not see again until Augustine.” Parvis, “Perpetua,” 365. What did Christian commitment look like in crescendo? Perpetua’s diary, especially its climactic conclusion (allegedly written by an eyewitness at the arena), provides a window.

[60] See Perpetua, Martyrdom 6. Perpetua wrote about her sentencing in these words: “‘Are you a Christian?’ said Hilarianus. And I said: ‘Yes, I am.’ . . . Then Hilarianus passed sentence on all of us [Perpetua and four other young catechumens, Revocatus, Felicitas, Saturninus, and Secundulus, who were all preparing to receive baptism, which at least Perpetua received before entering the Roman prison in Carthage]: we were condemned to the beasts.” Perpetua, Martyrdom 6.4–6; 115.

[61] See Graham and Kamm, Romans, 152–53.

[62] Perpetua, Martyrdom 18.2–4; 127.

[63] See Perpetua, Martyrdom 4.8–9; 111–13; and Rea and Clarke, Perpetua’s Journey, 14–18. Historians have long debated the symbolism, if any, of the cheese, with many arguing for its eucharistic properties. Did Perpetua partake of a liturgical symbol of the body of Christ in her vision? Professor of theology Elizabeth Klein argues for this conclusion, stating, “Perpetua’s eucharistic cheese is a particularly poignant indicator of the Passio’s deeply cultic vision of reality; the cosmos is structured by and reaches its consummation in the worship of God by his saints.” Klein, “Perpetua, Cheese, and Martyrdom as Public Liturgy in the Passion of Perpetua and Felicity,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 28, no. 2 (Summer 2020): 202.

[64] See Perpetua, Martyrdom 20.3–5; 129.

[65] Gonzalez, Story of Christianity, 99.

[66] Parvis, “Perpetua,” 371.

[67] See Perpetua, Martyrdom 20.7; 129.

[68] See Perpetua, Martyrdom 2.2; 109.

[69] Perpetua, Martyrdom 20.10; 129–130.

[70] See Perpetua, Martyrdom 15.4–5; 123. As for the kiss, it was likely the Christian ritual that Paul called the “holy kiss” in Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, and 1 Thessalonians 5:26. Peter called it the “kiss of charity” in 1 Peter 5:14. This ritual kiss was important to early Christians as a way of demonstrating belonging, equality, and common cause in a close-knit community of Jesus-followers, who often kissed each other during prayers, baptisms, ordinations, monastic rituals, penitential practices, Eucharist services, greetings, funerals, and martyrdoms. See Michael Philip Penn, Kissing Christians: Ritual and Community in the Late Ancient Church (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005). In fact, Penn, a professor of religious studies, has called ritual kissing “one of the most prevalent features of early Christianity,” which he defines as the first five centuries AD. See Penn, Kissing Christians, 2.

[71] Perpetua, Martyrdom 21.9–10; 131.

[72] Parvis, “Perpetua,” 371.

[73] Drake, “Christianity in the Second Century,” 763.

[74] Jon Krakauer, Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith (New York: Doubleday, 2003), xxi.

[75] Drake, “Christianity in the Second Century,” 753–754. Longenecker would disagree, however. One of the most significant arguments in his works is that Pompeii and Herculaneum provide archaeological evidence for early Christianity in the Roman world. For further reading that Longenecker has compiled on the topic, see Longenecker, In Stone and Story, 269. See also Longenecker, The Crosses of Pompeii: Jesus-Devotion in a Vesuvian Town (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016).

[76] For example, Drake quotes one of Ignatius’s letters to demonstrate that Ignatius—and martyrs who shared his commitments about dying for Christ—actively demanded, not just passively endured, a martyr’s death:

While certainly not representative of all Christians of his day, Ignatius represents an illustrative example of one response to persecution that flourished in the second and third centuries AD: that of the Christian martyr who willingly and eagerly looked forward to dying on behalf of the Christian cause. Notice that Ignatius does not simply accept the prospect of a painful death—he demands it: “May I have the full pleasure of the wild beasts prepared for me; I pray they will be found ready for me. Indeed, I will coax them to devour me quickly—not as happens with some, whom they are afraid to touch. And even if they do not wish to do so willingly, I will force them to do it.”

Drake, “Christianity in the Second Century,” 763. The quote is from Ign. Rom. 5.2.

[77] See note 13.

[78] Neal A. Maxwell, “Consecrate Thy Performance,” Ensign, May 2002, 37.

[79] Maxwell, “Consecrate Thy Performance,” 38.

[80] Holland, “Lifted Up Upon the Cross,” Liahona, November 2022, 78; emphasis in original.

[81] Nelson, “Christ Is Risen; Faith in Him Will Move Mountains,” Liahona, May 2021, 103; emphasis in original.

[82] For the Strength of Youth: A Guide for Making Choices (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2022), 27.

[83] Nelson, “Choices for Eternity.”

[84] Gilbert, “Prophet in the Land.”

[85] Gilbert, “Prophet in the Land.”