For some time after its establishment, the Christian Church enjoyed the religious privileges of the Jewish nation, but from the nature of the case it is apparent that the chiefs of the Jewish religion would not long permit without protest this state of things.For they abhorred Christ's religion as much as they abhorred its Founder.One consequence of the general defection from the state religion was of an economic order: so many people had become Christians that purchasers were no longer found for the victims that once in great numbers were offered to the gods.Complaints were laid before the legate relative to this state of affairs, with the result that some Christians were arrested and brought before Pliny for examination.The suspects were interrogated as to their tenets and those of them who persisted in declining repeated invitations to recant were executed.Some of the prisoners, however, after first affirming that they were Christians, afterwards, when threatened with punishment, qualified their first admission by saying that at one time they had been adherents of the proscribed body but were so no longer.Others again denied that they were or ever had been Christians.Having never before had to deal with questions concerning Christians Pliny applied to the emperor for instructions on three points regarding which he did not see his way clearly: first, whether the age of the accused should be taken into consideration in meting out punishment; secondly, whether Christians who renounced their belief should be pardoned; and thirdly, whether the mere profession of Christianity should be regarded as a crime, and punishable as such, independent of the fact of the innocence or guilt of the accused of the crimes ordinarily associated with such profession.
It is in this sense that the term first appears in Christian literature; the Apostles were "witnesses" of all that they had observed in the public life of Christ, as well as of all they had learned from His teaching, "in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and Samaria, and even to the uttermost part of the earth" ( Acts 1:8 ). Peter, in his address to the Apostles and disciples relative to the election of a successor to Judas, employs the term with this meaning: "Wherefore, of these men who have companied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus came in and went out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day he was taken up from us, one of these must be made witness with us of his resurrection " ( Acts ). Peter also refers to himself as a "witness of the sufferings of Christ " ( 1 Peter 5:1 ).
To these inquiries Trajan replied in a rescript which was destined to have the force of law throughout the second century in relation to Christianity.
After approving what his representative had already done, the emperor directed that in future the rule to be observed in dealing with Christians should be the following: no steps were to be taken by magistrates to ascertain who were or who were not Christians, but at the same time, if any person was denounced, and admitted that he was a Christian, he was to be punished — evidently with death.
Thus, within the lifetime of the Apostles, the term martus came to be used in the sense of a witness who at any time might be called upon to deny what he testified to, under penalty of death.
From this stage the transition was easy to the ordinary meaning of the term, as used ever since in Christian literature: a martyr, or witness of Christ, is a person who, though he has never seen nor heard the Divine Founder of the Church, is yet so firmly convinced of the truths of the Christian religion, that he gladly suffers death rather than deny it. John, at the end of the first century, employs the word with this meaning; Antipas, a convert from paganism, is spoken of as a "faithful witness ( martus ) who was slain among you, where Satan dwelleth" ( Revelation ).