The Abitinian Martyrs – The Christians Who Couldn’t Do Without a Lord’s Day Service.

The Abitinian Martyrs – The Christians Who Couldn’t Do Without a Lord’s Day Service.

 

            "Sine dominico non possumus" ("We can't do without the Lord’s Day"). This was the answer of a group of 49 Christians (31 men and 18 women) who were arrested for participating in a Lord’s Day service. They lived in or around Abitina, a city in today's Tunisia which was at that time under Rome. It was the year 304, and Emperor Diocletian had launched an empire-wide persecution against Christians, forbidding their meetings, destroying their churches, and demanding them to hand over (tradere) their Scriptures.

            Defying the emperor’s orders, this group, led by their presbyter Saturninus, continued to meet secretly for worship in private homes. Discovered and arrested, they were sent to Carthage, about 50 miles away, to be tried by proconsul Gaius Annius Anulinus.

            Commenting on this arrest, the author of the Acts of the Abitinian Martyrs[1] – most likely an eye-witness – wrote: “As if a Christian could exist without the Lord’s Day, or the Lord’s Day exist without a Christian celebration! Do you not know, Satan, that the Christian is based on the Lord’s Day, and the Lord’s Day is based on a Christian, so that the one cannot survive without the other? When you hear the phrase ‘Lord’s Day,’ understand that it means the assembly of the Lord. And when you hear the bell ring, recognize that it is the Lord’s Day.”[2]

            On their way to Carthage, the Christians encouraged each other by singing hymns. Once there, they unanimously refused to renounce their faith. Imprisoned, they were denied food, while any supporter who tried to bring supplies was sent away. This measure gave way to a small brawl outside the prison.

 

A Collective Decision

            When an eager relative, Fortunatianus, rushed to rescue his sister Victoria by claiming that she and a few other women had been deceived, Victoria rose in protest. She had attended worship of her own free will and with full knowledge of what she was doing, she said. Fortunatianus should have known better. She had previously refused an arranged marriage by escaping through a window.

            Moved by this family exchange, Anulinus tried to convince Victoria to listen to her brother. “I am a Christian, and my brothers are those who keep God’s commandments,” she replied. “These are my convictions, and I have never changed them. If I have participated to the Sunday service with my brothers and sisters, it is because I am a Christian.”[3]

            Augustine of Hippo, writing a century later, gives a specific date for their trial: February 12, 304. This leads us to think he had seen a copy of the proconsular acts. But the account that has been passed on through the ages includes details that Roman officials did not normally record, particularly the spontaneous cries of the martyrs during torture.

            The first person to be tortured was the senator Dativus who, due to his position, was thought to have been an instigator (Fortunatianus had placed the blame on him). While Dativus was being prepared for torture, another Christian, Thelica, stepped forward to clarify that the meeting was a collective decision: “We are Christians. It was we who came together.”

            As expected, Thelica was the next to be placed on the rack. While torn apart by iron claws, he alternated prayers for his persecutors with exhortations: “God most high, do not regard these deeds of theirs as sins. ... You [persecutors] should do what the Most High God commands. You are being unjust, poor men; you are torturing the innocent. We are nor murderers, we have committed no fraud. ... God, have pity on them.”[4]

            As most of the other Christians, he prayed for strength. “For your name’s sake, Lord, give me the strength to bear what I have to bear. Deliver your servants from the prison of this world. Thanks be to you. I cannot thank you, God, enough. ... It is for the glory of God. I thank God for it, the God of all royal powers. The eternal kingdom is in sight, the kingdom that knows no corruption. Lord Jesus Christ, we are Christians, we are your servants, you are our hope, the hope of Christians. God most holy, God most high, God almighty, we praise you, we praise your name.”

            In spite of his prayers, Thelica had a moment of weakness. Under torture, when asked who had organized the meeting, he gave the name of Saturninus. But he hastened to add, “and all of us.”[5]

            When Thelica looked as though he was about to die, Anulinus told him: “You would have done better to keep the commandments of the emperors and Caesars.” But Thelica had not lost his determination: “I care for nothing but the law of God that I have learned. That is what I keep; for that I will die; in that I shall be perfected, and there is none beside it.”

            He was then taken back to prison and the record stops mentioning about him. But Saturninus was tortured so badly that his bones were visibile. Under excruciating pain, he asked God to move his torturers to end his life. “Listen to me, Christ, I beg you. O God, thanks be to you. Tell them to behead me. I beg you, Christ, have pity on me. Son of God, help me.”[6]

            Moved by Saturninus’s cries, another Christian, Emeritus, stepped forward, claiming the blame should fall on him, since the meeting had taken place in his house. The persecutors then tortured Emeritus, while Saturninus was executed. “I have only a short time to suffer,” Emeritus reminded himself. “May I have no cause for shame.”[7]

            Most of the other Christians are mentioned just by name. They include Saturninus’s four children. Most of them were grown, but even the youngest, Hilarion, refused any invitation to dissociate from his father and siblings, as he replied, quite simply: “I am a Christian, and I participated in the assembly of my own free will, together with my father and my siblings.”[8] He laughed when the proconsul threatened to cut off his ears and nose.

            Today, these martyrs continue to be remembered for their courage and their unswerving conviction that no "Christian could exist without the Lord’s Day."      

 

 

 



[1] The Acts were probably composed by an eyewitness, since some of the martyrs' cries would not have been recorded in the official government acts. They were later revised, possibly around the time of the Council of Carthage in 411.

[2] Acts of the Abitinian Martyrs, XII, translated from Latin by David Noe.

[3] Acts of the Abitinian Martyrs, quoted in http://www.cassiciaco.it/navigazione/africa/martiri/abitina.html, my translation

[4] A. Hamman, Early Christian Prayers, tr. Walter Mitchell, Chicago, Henry Regnery, 1961, 55

[5] Hamman, Early Christian Prayers, 56

[6] Hamman, Early Christian Prayers, 56

[7] Hamman, Early Christian Prayers, 56

[8] Acts XVII, quoted in Giuseppe Laiti, “Sine dominico non possum. La singolare testimonianza dei martiri di Abitina”, Esperienza e Teologia 20 (2005), 63, my translation from Italian.

 

Simonetta Carr

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