Martyrdom as a continuing challenge

Another important point in this and other stories collected in John of Ephesus' Lives of the Eastern Saints is full commitment to the truth. From the perspective of John, who wrote during the Christological controversies of the sixth century, this meant resistance to the Chalcedonian Creed, which the imperial authorities in Byzantium tried to impose upon all Christians. Owing to political and geographical circumstances, becoming a confessor or martyr was a true challenge for the Syrian faithful. They had to stand up for their beliefs against their fellow Christians and the persecuting power of the Christian empire. This might explain why the Maccabean mother (St Shmuni according to Syriac tradition) and her children, who figure as prototypes for the later Christian martyrs, together with St Stephen and St Thecla, became more prominent in the Syrian churches than elsewhere. Not only have the adherents of the Church of the East always been a minority, under either Zoroastrianism or Islam, but they have had to manage various conflicts with neighbours and rulers of other beliefs. The martyrs of Najran in southern Arabia were massacred under Jewish rulers in the sixth century. Even in the Roman Empire Christians stood against Christians soon after the consolidation of Christianity as the state religion.

From the seventh century onwards West Syrian Christians had to live under Islamic rule, which might have seemed at times the more favourable proposition for those dissenting from the Byzantine imperial creed. However, the toll of Syrian Christians killed in late antiquity was relatively low. A much greater number died during the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. At that time many ethnic Syrian Christians were driven out of their traditional settlements in Eastern Turkey or lost their lives in local conflicts with Kurds and Turks. The Maronite community was particularly afflicted during a massacre committed by the Druze in 1860. Considering the political context, it is hardly surprising that the celebration of new martyrs, such as Anthony, a martyr from the times of the caliph Harnn ar-Rasid (786-809), according to Melkite Synaxaria, was retained rather than the celebration of early Christian figures, particularly in the Church of the East. However, general liturgical commemoration of unnamed saints and the continuing copying and rewriting of the lives of ancient heroes provoked less suspicion, but served the same purpose.

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