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Mapping the Martyrs: Were Early Christians Persecuted?

The guiding question for this research project is the following: "Where and when do we have evidence for persecution and martyrdom in the early centuries of Christianity?" Various theories and assumptions have existed to answer this question. Some have assumed that the first three centuries of Christianity were marked by constant persecution in every location. The image of Christians hiding in the catacombs of Rome holding secret worship services fed the popular imagination but did not accurately reflect the evidence. Others have countered that martyrdom is largely a fictional construction of early Christian leaders and polemicists.

But what do the sources themselves say? This project is an attempt to gather data from the ancient sources and create a spatial and chronological map of the evidence. The methodological approach is to take the sources seriously as containing claims about martyrdom, without necessarily accepting that the accounts are historically accurate. Thus, the reading is meant to be critical but not cynical, while also displaying sensitivity to the rhetorical aims and function of martyrdom and persecution stories.

In the first stage the focus is on persecution against Christians, but other categories of persecution (including persecution carried out by Christians against each other or other groups) will be included in the future. The articles are meant to be starting places for the study of this topic, not the final word. 

Through the generous support of a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation through the Five Colleges of Ohio, this project has been made possible. In addition, support from the Honors Program at Ohio Wesleyan University allowed the first stage of this project to be linked to an Honors course, Martyrdom and Persecution in Early Christianity, in the spring of 2015. Under the supervision of Dr. David Eastman, the professor in the course and the project director, students in the class produced the first round of entries for the site. This writing process included both peer review and receiving feedback from the instructor.

The project has five primary goals:

1. To document the nature and extent of the evidence for persecution and martyrdom in the early centuries of Christianity.

2. To involve undergraduate students in research, which can be difficult in the humanities, and to push them beyond data collection to the production of new knowledge. In this regard, it is hoped that the project will expand to include collaborations with faculty members and students at other institutions.

3. To publicize the excellent quality of students at Ohio Wesleyan and within the Ohio Five, and to highlight the innovative ways that we are working with these students.

4. To produce an open access tool that can be employed for teaching on this subject at all levels.

5. To mentor students in the value of adapting their expertise for the service of the larger community. Thus, the site is designed also as a resource for interested members of the general public.