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David Otten: The Martyrdom of Cyprian of Carthage

By David Otten
Contributing writer
updated: 8/28/2021 7:29 PM

Greetings from Faith Lutheran Church in Eldorado.

"Cyprian was bishop of Carthage in Tunisia between 249 and 258, when he was executed during the persecution of Valerian and Gallienus. His life and works are very well known ... from an early date." (Page 197, Greek and Latin Narratives About the Ancient Martyrs, edited by Eric Rebillard).

This is an example where the local population was at odds with the state on martyrdom of a local Christian.

Cyprian began his life as a well-to-do and highly respected Roman pagan. Most Christians at that time were common folk or even slaves, while Cyprian was wealthy and educated and became an excellent choice for a bishop.

Cyprian was charitable with his wealth and led relief efforts when a plague hit Carthage. He directed Christians to care not just for fellow Christians but pagans as well. Many of the pagans fled Carthage and Christians were practically the only ones there to care for the dying and the sick. This added to Cyprian's respect among the pagan citizens. But a few years following the plague came the persecution of Valerian and Gallienus.

Cyprian underwent two trials.

The first: The proconsul Paternus asked of Cyprian if he would submit to Roman ceremonies referring to sacrificing to Caesar. Here is Cyprian's answer, "I am Christian and a bishop. I know no other gods but the one true God, who made heaven and earth, the sea and all that are in them. We Christians serve this God, to him we pray day and night for ourselves and for all men and for the safety of the emperors themselves." (Pg. 239)

He was also asked to betray presbyters (pastors). He would not, and added, "Our teaching prohibits anyone from giving themselves up voluntarily." (Pg. 239)

Following this he was exiled. Both Christian and pagan friends urged him to move further away and were willing to offer up their own estates, but he would not go.

Soldiers eventually were sent to return him to Carthage. Upon his return many met him on the way and through the city -- even staying with him through the night in his former residence.

The next day was the second trial but this time with the proconsul Galerius Maximus. Cyprian again refused to perform the rite of sacrificing to Caesar. Galerius, after conferring with the council, wrote the verdict and delivered it. It referred to Cyprian as an enemy of the Roman gods and sacred laws, and the ... emperors ... the instigator and standard-bearer of a most vile crime. "It is resolved that Tascius Cyprian be executed by the sword." Cyprian's only response was, "Thanks be to God." (Pg. 243)

He was led out to a field, used his cloak to kneel on, gave his tunic to the deacons and bid the people pay the executioner 25 gold coins. People gave him handkerchiefs for a blindfold. His body remained in the field until that night when Christians recovered it.

• Greek and Latin Narratives About the Ancient Martyrs, Oxford University Press, Oxford, United Kingdom, 2019. David Otten is pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Eldorado.