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E00122: Irenaeus of Lyon in his Against Heresies, written in Greek in the late 2nd c., acknowledges the existence of a few valid martyrs among heretics, even though heretics reject the necessity of martyrdom as a testimony of the Christian faith. Written in Lyon (central Gaul).

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posted on 2014-10-31, 00:00 authored by CSLA Admin
Irenaeus of Lyon, Against Heresies 4.33.9

... ἀλλ’ οὐδὲ μὴν ἀναγκαίαν εἶναι λεγόντων τὴν τοιαύτην μαρτυρίαν, εἶναι δὲ μαρτυρίαν ἀληθῆ τὴν γνώμην αὐτῶν, εἰ μὴ εἷς ἢ δύο ποτὲ διὰ παντὸς τοῦ χρόνου ἐξ οὗ ὁ Κύριος ἐφάνη ἐπὶ γῆς τοῖς ἡμετέrοις μάρτυσιν, ὡς καὶ αὐτὸς ἠλεημένος, τὸν ὀνειδισμὸν συνεβάστασε τοῦ ὀνόματος καὶ συνήχθη ὡς προσθήκη τις αὐτοῖς. Τὸν γὰρ ὀνειδιμὸν τῶν διωκομένων ἔνεκεν δικαιοσύνης καὶ παντοδαπὰς κολάσεις ὑπομενόντων καὶ θανατουμένων διὰ τὴν πρὸς τὸν Θεὸν ἀγάπην καὶ τὴν ὁμολογίαν τοῦ Υἱοῦ αὐτοῦ μόνη ἡ ἐκκλησία καθαρῶς ὑπομένει …

'... but they [the heretics] say that such a testimony [martyrdom] is not even necessary, whereas their opinion is a true testimony. Through all the time since the Lord appeared on earth, hardly one or two of them – as if receiving God’s mercy himself – ever suffered together with our martyrs the humiliation of the name [i.e. persecution for being called a Christian] and were led together with them [to martyrdom]. For the Church alone suffers in a pure way the humiliation of those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, and who suffer all sorts of punishments, and are killed for the love of God and the confession of his Son …'

Text: Rousseau and Doutreleau. Translation: E. Rizos.


Evidence ID


Type of Evidence

Literary - Theological works


  • Greek

Evidence not before


Evidence not after


Activity not before


Activity not after


Place of Evidence - Region

Gaul and Frankish kingdoms

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc


Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)

Lyon Tours Tours Toronica urbs Prisciniacensim vicus Pressigny Turonorum civitas Ceratensis vicus Céré

Cult activities - Rejection, Condemnation, Scepticism

Acceptance/rejection of saints from other religious groupings


The theological treatise known as Against the Heresies or, in its original title, Refutation of the Pseudonymous Gnosis, is the most important work of Irenaeus, an Anatolian-born Christian intellectual who became a presbyter and later bishop of the young Christian community of Lugdunum (Lyon) in Gaul in the late 2nd century, while keeping close contacts with the Christian groups of Rome and Asia Minor. Among the lengthiest and earliest books of Christian theology, Against the Heresies survives in substantial Greek and Latin fragments, which allow its almost full reconstruction. Its main target is the movement and doctrine of Valentinian Gnostics, although the author addresses other sects of his time, namely the Marcionites and Montanists.


This passage offers the earliest extant theoretical consideration about the validity of heretical martyrdoms. Irenaeus claims that the heretics reject the importance and necessity of martyrdom as a testimony of faith. The most interesting aspect of this passage is the acknowledgement of the existence of heretical martyrs and the virtually neutral stance of the author towards them. Although he attacks the stance of the heretics towards martyrdom, he does not seem to doubt the validity of the martyrdom and testimony of their martyrs, only underplaying their importance and number. This seems to echo the theory that any person dying for Christ is a martyr, even if they die unbaptised or in heresy. In much the same spirit, other early texts like the Martyrdom of Pionios and Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, although militantly anti-heretical, have no hesitation in enumerating Montanists and Marcionites among the martyrs, and naming their sectarian provenance (see e.g. E00145). It is doubtful if this stance had any substantial impact on the formation of the cult of such figures. Mere theoretical acknowledgement of heretical martyrdoms is unlikely to have ever evolved into active encouragement of the veneration of heretical martyrs. Nevertheless, there are a few cases of martyrs who are thought to have been of heretics in their own lifetime, such as *Autonomos of Nicomedia (S00016), very probably a Novatian bishop, and perhaps *Lucian of Antioch (S00151), the tutor of Arius (see Foss 1987). Both of them (especially Lucian) rose to substantial popularity in late antiquity, and had notable shrines. Unsurprisingly, their hagiography keeps silent about their doctrinal views.


Edition and French translation: Rousseau, A., and Doutreleau, L., Irénée de Lyon, Contre les Hérésies. Édition Critique. 10 vols. (Sources Chrétiennes; Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1979). English translations: Unger, D.J., and Steenberg, M.C., St. Irenaeus: Against the Heresies. 3 vols. so far published, covering Books 1-3 (Ancient Christian Writers; Mahwah, NJ, Paulist Press, 1991-2012). Roberts, A., and Rambaut, W., Against Heresies (The Ante-Nicene Fathers; Buffalo, NY, Christian Literature Publishing Company, 1885). Further references: Foss, C., “St. Autonomus and his church in Bithynia,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 41 (1987), 187-198.

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    Evidence -  The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity



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