Of the multitude of holidays celebrated in the popular culture of medieval Europe – where some of the main roots of the modern West are to be found – only two remain in North American popular culture today: St. Patrick (March 17) and Valentine’s Day (February 14). ). With Saint Patrick we have two important texts from Patrick himself that reveal the real man. But who was Saint Valentine?
The name was popular in the Roman world, for the adjective worth expressed the idea of being vigorous and robust. In fact, we know of a dozen early Christians who bore this name. Our Saint Valentine was an Italian bishop who was martyred on February 14, 269, after a trial before the Roman emperor Claudius Gothicus (reign 268-270). According to the meager accounts we have, Valentin’s body was hastily buried, but a few nights later some of his associates picked him up and brought him back to his hometown of Terni in central Italy. ‘Italy. Other accounts mention him as an elder in Rome. An embellishment has him write a letter before his death and sign it, “your Valentine”.
“Saint Valentine was a martyr – yes, a lover, but one who loved the Lord Jesus to the point of laying down his life.”
What seems clear, however, from all we can determine, is that Saint Valentine was a martyr – yes, a lover, but someone who so loved the Lord Jesus that he would lay down his life for his commitment to Christ. For Christians to remember Saint Valentine adequately, we would therefore do well to consider what it meant to be a martyr in the early church.
Witnesses and martyrs
Our word martyr is derived from the Greek martys, originally a legal term used to refer to a witness in court. Such a person was a person “who has direct knowledge or experience of certain people, events or circumstances and is therefore able to speak and does so”.1 In the New Testament, the term and its cognates are frequently applied to Christians, who bear witness to Christ, often before real tribunals, when his claims are disputed and their faithfulness is tested by persecution.
The transition of this word within the first Christian communities of witness to what the English term martyr” implies serves as an excellent indicator of what was happening to Christians as they bore witness to Christ. In Acts 1:8, Jesus tells the apostles that they are to be his “witnesses” (martyrs) in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. At this point the word does not have the association of death, although in Acts 22:20 we read the “blood of Stephen”, the “witness” of the Lord (in Greek martyros), being poured. But it is really only at the end of the writing of the New Testament canon that the term martys acquires the association with death.2
At the very end of the apostolic era, the risen Christ in Revelation 2 commends his servant Antipas, his “faithful witness”, who was killed for his faith in Pergamos, “where Satan dwells” (Revelation 2:12-13) . Pergamon, it should be noted, was a key center of emperor worship in Asia Minor and the first city in that region to build a temple to a Roman emperor, Augustus Caesar. It was perhaps Antipas’ refusal to confess Caesar as Lord and worship him that led to his martyrdom.3 It has been estimated that by the middle of the 1st century, about eighty cities in Asia Minor had erected temples devoted to the worship of the emperor.4
Word martys seems therefore to have acquired its future meaning first in the Christian communities of Asia Minor, where the violent encounter between the Church and the empire was particularly intense.5 In this respect, it was certainly no coincidence that Asia Minor was “particularly fond” of the violent entertainment of gladiatorial spectacles. There was, in fact, a training school for gladiators in Pergamum. Along with the fascination with such violence, there would have been a demand for victims in addition to the required gladiators. Thus, recourse was had to Christians, among others.6
And so the word martys was restricted in its use to a single meaning: to bear witness to the person and work of Christ until death. Stephen and Antipas were the first of many such martyrs in the Roman Empire.
One of the most memorable clashes between Church and Empire was what has been called the Neronian Persecution. In mid-July 64, a fire broke out in the heart of Rome which raged out of control for nearly a week and ravaged most of the city. After its extinction, it was rumored that it was Emperor Nero (reigned 54-68) himself who started it, as it was common knowledge that Nero wanted to level the capital of the empire in order to rebuild the city in a style consistent with its conception of its own greatness. Aware that he had to allay the suspicions against him, Nero blamed the Christians.
The most complete description we have of this violence against the Church comes from the Roman historian Tacitus (c. 55-117), who describes the execution of these Christians as follows:
To quell the rumor [that he had started the fire], Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the greatest refinements of cruelty, a class of men, detested for their vices, whom the crowd called Christians. Christus, from whom they took their name, had been executed by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate when Tiberius was emperor; and the pernicious superstition was stopped for a short time, only to break out again, not only in Judea, the home of the plague, but in Rome itself, where all the horrible and shameful things of the world gather and find a home.
First, those who confessed were arrested; then, on their information, an immense multitude was condemned, not so much for incendiary as for hatred of the human race. Their execution was a sport: some were sewn in the skins of ferocious beasts and slaughtered by dogs; others were attached to crosses like living torches, to serve as lights when daylight failed. Nero made his gardens available for show and held games in the circus, mingling with crowds or standing in his chariot in chariot driver’s uniform. Therefore, although the victims were criminals deserving of the severest punishment, pity began to be felt for them because it seemed as if they were being sacrificed to satisfy a man’s thirst for cruelty rather than for the public good.seven
A number of Christians – including the apostle Peter, according to an early Christian tradition that seems authentic8 – were arrested and executed. Their crime was apparently arson. Tacitus seems to doubt the reality of this accusation, although he believes that Christians are rightly “hated for their vices”. The text of Tacitus explicitly mentions only one vice: “hatred of the human race”. Why should Christians, who preached a message of divine love and who were commanded to love even their enemies, be accused of such a vice?
Well, if you look at it through the eyes of Roman paganism, the logic seems irrefutable. It was, after all, the Roman gods who kept the empire safe. But the Christians refused to worship these gods – hence the accusation of “atheism” sometimes leveled at them.9 Therefore, many of their pagan neighbors reasoned, they cannot love the emperor or the people of the empire. Christians were therefore seen as fundamentally anti-Roman and therefore a positive danger to the empire.ten
“The blood of Christians is a seed”
This attack on the church was a turning point in the relationship between the church and the Roman state in those early years. This set an important precedent. Christianity was now considered illegal, and over the next 140 years the Roman state resorted to sporadic persecution of the Church. It should be noted, however, that no emperor launched an empire-wide persecution until the beginning of the third century, and that with Septimius Severus (reigned 193-211).11 Nevertheless, martyrdom was a reality that believers had to keep constantly in mind during this period of the ancient church.
“Instead of eradicating Christianity, persecution has often made it flourish.”
But the persecution did not always have the effect hoped for by the Romans. Instead of eradicating Christianity, persecution has often made it flourish. As Tertullian (born c. 155), the first Christian theologian to write in Latin, said: “The more you cut us down, the more we grow: the blood of Christians is seed.12 And as he said on another occasion: “Anyone who sees such noble endurance [of the martyrs] will first, as if stricken with some kind of uneasiness, be driven to inquire what it is all about, and then, when he learns the truth, will immediately follow the same path.13
Exceed all earthly loves
It was in the Middle Ages that the various stories of Saint Valentine circulated and were embellished, concretizing the memory of him as a martyr. But it was a medieval writer, Geoffrey Chaucer (1340s-1400s), who explicitly linked romantic love to Valentine’s Day in a poem called “Parliament of the Birds” which describes the gathering of a group of birds the “seynt valentynes day” to choose their friends.
How much Chaucer influenced the later connection between Valentine’s Day and lovers is not exactly clear, but as early as the 15th century lovers were sending love notes to each other on Valentine’s Day. Of course, with the rise of commercial cultures in the West in the 18th and 19th centuries, this practice morphed into a commodity and became an important part of the commercial world we know today. There is nothing inherently wrong with modern business traditions, but Valentine’s Day is a good day to also remember that there is a love that surpasses all earthly loves: our love for our great God and our Saviour, his dear divine Son, Jesus.