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E00219: The Letter of the Churches of Lyon and Vienne, probably of the late 2nd century, quoted by Eusebius of Caesarea in his Ecclesiastical History, provides the earliest surviving instance of the term 'confessor' used to define a person suffering for the Christian faith, distinct from a 'martyr', a person who dies for the sake of Christ. Written in Greek in central/southern Gaul, and quoted in Palestine, 311/325.

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posted on 2014-11-27, 00:00 authored by pnowakowski
Letter of the Churches of Lyon and Vienne, quoted by Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History 5.2.2-3

(2.) «οἳ καὶ ἐπὶ τοσοῦτον ζηλωταὶ καὶ μιμηταὶ Χριστοῦ ἐγένοντο, ὃς ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ ὑπάρχων οὐχ ἁρπαγμὸν ἡγήσατο τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ, ὥστε ἐν τοιαύτῃ δόξῃ ὑπάρχοντες καὶ οὐχ ἅπαξ οὐδὲ δὶς ἀλλὰ πολλάκις μαρτυρήσαντες καὶ ἐκ θηρίων αὖθις ἀναληφθέντες καὶ τὰ καυτήρια καὶ τοὺς μώλωπας καὶ τὰ τραύματα ἔχοντες περικείμενα, οὔτ’ αὐτοὶ μάρτυρας ἑαυτοὺς ἀνεκήρυττον οὔτε μὴν ἡμῖν ἐπέτρεπον τούτῳ τῷ ὀνόματι προσαγορεύειν αὐτούς, ἀλλ’ εἴ ποτέ τις ἡμῶν δι’ ἐπιστολῆς ἢ διὰ λόγου μάρτυρας αὐτοὺς προσεῖπεν, ἐπέπλησσον πικρῶς. (3.) ἡδέως γὰρ παρεχώρουν τὴν τῆς μαρτυρίας προσηγορίαν τῷ Χριστῷ, τῷ πιστῷ καὶ ἀληθινῷ μάρτυρι καὶ πρωτοτόκῳ τῶν νεκρῶν καὶ ἀρχηγῷ τῆς ζωῆς τοῦ θεοῦ, καὶ ἐπεμιμνήσκοντο τῶν ἐξεληλυθότων ἤδη μαρτύρων καὶ ἔλεγον· «ἐκεῖνοι ἤδη μάρτυρες, οὓς ἐν τῇ ὁμολογίᾳ Χριστὸς ἠξίωσεν ἀναληφθῆναι, ἐπισφραγισάμενος αὐτῶν διὰ τῆς ἐξόδου τὴν μαρτυρίαν, ἡμεῖς δὲ ὁμόλογοι μέτριοι καὶ ταπεινοί», καὶ μετὰ δακρύων παρεκάλουν τοὺς ἀδελφοὺς δεόμενοι ἵνα ἐκτενεῖς εὐχαὶ γίνωνται πρὸς τὸ τελειωθῆναι αὐτούς.

'(2.) "And they were to such a degree zealots and imitators of Christ—who, although living in the form of God, did not regard his own being equal to God as a privilege to seize [Philippians 2:6] — that, although they were in such glory, and had been martyred not once or twice, but many times, having just been taken back from the wild beasts, with burns and scars and wounds all over them, yet they neither proclaimed themselves martyrs, nor did they allow us to address them by this name. But, if any one of us, in letter or conversation, ever called them martyrs, they reprimanded him bitterly. (3.) For they happily conceded the appellation of martyrdom to Christ the faithful and true witness [Revelation 3:14] and firstborn of the dead [Revelation 1:5] and prince of the life of God; and they commemorated the martyrs already departed, and said, "Martyrs are already those whom Christ has deemed worthy to be taken up in the hour of their confession, sealing their martyrdom by their departure; as for us, we are just modest and humble confessors (homologoi)". And they besought the brethren with tears, asking that long prayers be offered for them to reach their end.'

Text: Schwartz et al. 1999. Translation: E. Rizos.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Martyrs of Lyon (Gaul), ob. 177 : S00316

Type of Evidence

Literary - Hagiographical - Accounts of martyrdom Literary - Other narrative texts (including Histories) Literary - Letters



Evidence not before


Evidence not after


Activity not before


Activity not after


Place of Evidence - Region

Palestine Gaul and Frankish kingdoms Gaul and Frankish kingdoms Asia Minor

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc

Caesarea Maritima Lyon Vienne

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

Caesarea Maritima Lyon Tours Tours Toronica urbs Prisciniacensim vicus Pressigny Turonorum civitas Ceratensis vicus Céré Vienne Tours Tours Toronica urbs Prisciniacensim vicus Pressigny Turonorum civitas Ceratensis vicus Céré Nicomedia Νικομήδεια Nikomēdeia Izmit Πραίνετος Prainetos Nicomedia

Major author/Major anonymous work

Eusebius of Caesarea

Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs

Transmission, copying and reading saint-related texts

Cult activities - Rejection, Condemnation, Scepticism

Considerations about the hierarchy of saints


The Letter of the Churches of Lyon and Vienne The Letter of the Churches of Lyon and Vienne to the Churches of Asia and Phrygia is known only from its partial quotation by Eusebius in the Ecclesiastical History. It is the only part of Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History extensively referring to the Latin-speaking provinces of the Roman Empire beyond the city of Rome. Eusebius seems to have used only Greek sources about the west. His access to the Letter was perhaps due to the fact that it was written in Greek and was addressed to an Anatolian readership. Eusebius dates it to the seventeenth year of the reign of Marcus Aurelius (AD 177), but how he reaches this chronology is unclear from the parts of the text he quotes. These lengthy passages constitute only a fraction of the original document which was included in full in a lost collection of martyrdom accounts compiled by Eusebius before AD 300 (the Martyrdoms of the Ancient or Ancient Martyrs, on which see E00139). It is a document of the utmost interest for the history of early Christianity, and the only extant piece of documentary evidence for Christianity in 2nd century Gaul. If it is what it purports to be, it allows some unique insights into the mechanisms of the spread of Christianity in the 2nd century, presenting a Christian community in Gaul, largely consisting of Greek-speaking Anatolian immigrants and keeping strong connections to Christian groups in Rome and Asia Minor. Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History Written between 311 and 325, the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius of Caesarea is the first literary work to employ the methodology and objectives of classical historiography – which, since Herodotus and Thucydides, had traditionally focused on military and political events – in a novel field, the history of the Christian community. It survives in several Greek manuscripts, in a Latin translation by Rufinus, and in Syriac and Armenian translations. The first paragraphs of the work outline its chronological framework and thematic range: it is a narrative of events in the life of the Christian community from the times of Christ and the Apostles to the times of Eusebius (c. AD 260-340); it records the leaders of the most important communities (i.e. successions of bishops in Alexandria, Antioch, Rome and Jerusalem); it records the most notable exponents of Christian doctrine and their works, and also the main heresies and their proponents; it finally records persecutions and people that suffered and were martyred during them. The Ecclesiastical History is mostly a synthesis of quotations and summaries from other sources, for which Eusebius often gives concrete references. Thus his work preserves excerpts from early Christian texts which do not survive in their full form. Since the author knew Greek and Syriac, but no Latin, his source material is confined chiefly to Greek texts, originating from Christian centres in Anatolia, Syria, Palestine and Egypt. These areas constitute the main geographical range of his narrative, while his information about Christianity in the western provinces of the Roman Empire (except Rome) is very limited. Eusebius lived in Caesarea Maritima in Palestine between c. AD 260 and 340. He was a pupil and friend of the martyred Christian intellectual Pamphilus. Under Constantine, he emerged as one of the most influential Christian figures of the Roman Empire, and was ordained bishop of Caesarea.


This passage contains the earliest instance in Greek of the terms 'confession' and 'confessor' in their evolved Christian sense. Unlike the Christian term 'martyr' which results from the semantic transformation of a pre-existing word (μάρτυς, martys, originally meaning 'witness'), the words for 'confessor' seem to have been established within Christian circles during the first three centuries AD. Our passage captures an early stage in the formation of the term and its definition: it is the only known instance of the word ὁμόλογος (homologos) in the sense of 'confessor'. Ὁμόλογος is normally used as an adjective meaning 'agreeing' or 'corresponding', which probably made its use problematic in this particular context. It is therefore no surprise that it was the verbal noun ὁμολογητής (homologētēs) that eventually prevailed as the term used for confessor. Homologētēs first appears in a passage from the late 2nd century author Gaius of Rome, quoted by Eusebius who himself uses the same word several times in the Ecclesiastical History (5.4.3; 5.18.5; 5.28.8, quoting Gaius; 6.43.5). The Greek ὁμολογητής (homologētēs) and its Latin counterpart confessor derive from the verbs ὁμολογέω (homologeō) and confiteor, meaning to 'confess' or to 'admit'. Although grammatically correct and perfectly possible verbal nouns, they do not appear to have been used in any pre-Christian text, perhaps because the act of confessing never acquired the significance it had for the Christians. It was indeed in the period of persecutions that it became an act of special bravery to confess/admit one's Christian faith before the hostile authorities, risking one's life. Evidently, not everyone had the courage to confess during an interrogation, and consequently those that did so were specially acknowledged, thus leading to the birth of a new title which may have sounded a bit paradoxical to non-Christians. Unsurprisingly, the distinction between 'confessor' and 'martyr' (= witness) was at first unclear, since both words in their original sense meant very similar things, and were therefore often used interchangeably. The Martyrs of Lyon are praised by the author of the Letter for their humility, because, while in gaol, they forbid people to address them as 'martyrs'. In their messages, they purportedly insist that, as long as they are still alive, they are mere homologoi, 'confessors'; martyrs, by contrast, are only those killed while suffering for their faith. According to this definition, a confessor is a person that proclaims their faith, thus risking their life; they can become a martyr only if this confession leads to their death. We thus have a unique and very early attempt to frame the notion of two Christian 'technical terms': martyr and confessor. This clear distinction between 'confession' (living individuals suffering for the faith) and 'martyrdom' (individuals dying for the faith) did not prevail straightaway. The author of the Letter of the Churches of Lyon and Vienne himself does not seem to understand it, as he writes that the Martyrs of Lyon 'had been martyred (μαρτυρήσαντες – martyrēsantes) not once or twice, but many times … yet they neither proclaimed themselves martyrs (μάρτυρας – martyras) …’. Confession, according to the Martyrs of Lyon, is the temporary state of a person willing to die for Christ – a condition of a living individual, unworthy of reverence, unless made perfect through death. By contrast, the condition of a martyr, as a state of perfect salvation, truly worthy of reverence, is ascribed only to dead people. In this spirit, the title confessor was applied to survivors of persecutions: in some cases, people were arrested and tortured for their Christian faith without being put to death, and returned to their communities with the aura of a living hero. These almost-martyrs became a distinctive group within the church, known as 'confessors', and enjoyed a form of authority, even being allowed to join the clergy without the normal processes of ordination. They were practically a group of charismatic leaders or living saints who, to some extent, came to rival the role of the ordained clergy. Their presence became somewhat problematic after the brief Decian persecution (AD 251) which produced an unprecedented number of confessors (see Kötting 1976). The use of the title 'confessor' for the revered dead was first introduced by Cyprian. He uses the word in order to define people that die incarcerated for their faith, but not in a violent way. For Cyprian, martyrs are only those suffering a violent martyrdom. According to him, both confessors and martyrs are worthy of honour and veneration, but the latter occupy a higher position (Delehaye 1921, 31-33; idem 1927, 86-95; Baumeister 1988, 118). From the 4th century on, as the reality of the persecutions became a thing of the past, the word confessor/homologētēs was accordingly associated with figures from that distant heroic age. Thus confessors gradually became a category of (dead) saints, although their character was never sufficiently clarified. In many cases the term confessor was interchangeably used with the term martyr (typically in Syrian Christianity). Eusebius of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa (Encomium of the Forty Martyrs, PG 46, p. 781, lines 40-44) use the word confessor for people that suffered for the faith, distinguishing it from martyr. John Chrysostom is also clearly familiar with the notion of confession (Adversus Iudaeos, PG 48, p. 865, l. 24-29), even though he surprisingly never uses the term homologētēs, and, in some cases, he seems to be ignoring its distinction from martys (see E00069). Being relatively indefinite, the word confessor/homologētēs was often used for various categories of non-martyred saints, including holy ascetics and bishops. Gregory of Tours seems to regard all non-martyred saints as confessors, while, in the East, the title is later ascribed to ecclesiastics tortured or exiled by Christian rulers for their orthodoxy, like *Maximos the Confessor (S01455) and Pope *Martin I (S00859).


Text and translations: Schwartz, E., Mommsen, T., and Winkelmann, F., Eusebius Werke II: Die Kirchengeschichte. 3 vols. (Die Griechischen Christlichen Schriftsteller der ersten drei Jahrhunderte NF 6/1-3; Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1999). Rebillard, E. Greek and Latin Narratives About the Ancient Martyrs (Oxford Early Christian Texts; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 145-173. Seeliger, H.R., and Wischmeyer, W., Märtyrerliteratur: Herausgegeben, übersetzt, kommentiert (Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur 172; Berlin/München/Boston: De Gruyter, 2015), 47-86 (with German translation, commentary, and bibliography). Translations: Lake, K., Oulton, J.E.L., and Lawlor, H.J., Eusebius of Caesarea: The Ecclesiastical History. 2 vols. (Loeb Classical Library; London and Cambridge, MA: Heinemann and Harvard University Press, 1926). Williamson, G.A., and Louth, A., Eusebius: The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine (London: Penguin, 1989). Further reading: Baumeister, T., “Heiligenverehrung,” in: E. Dassman (ed.), Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, vol. 14 (Stuttgart: Anton Hiersemann, 1988), 96-150. Delehaye, H., “Martyr et confesseur,” Analecta Bollandiana 39 (1921), 21-49. Delehaye, H., Sanctus: essai sur le culte des saints dans l'antiquité (Subsidia Hagiographica 17; Brussels: Société des Bollandistes, 1927). Kötting, B., “Die Stellung des Konfessors in der alten Kirche,” Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum 19 (1976), 3-23. Moss, C.R., Ancient Christian Martyrdom: Diverse Practices, Theologies, and Traditions (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2012), 100-121. Reynauld, J.-F., and Fündling, J., “Lyon,” in: Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, vol. 23 (Stuttgart: Anton Hiersemann, 2010), 802-828. Ruysschaert, J., “Les « martyrs » et les « confesseurs » de la Lettre des Eglises de Lyon et de Vienne,” in: Les Martyrs de Lyon (177). Lyon 20-23 Septembre 1977 (Paris: CNRS, 1978), 155-166.

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