The Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs

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The Scillitan Martyrs were twelve North African Christians from Scilla (or Scillium) in Numidia who were tried in Carthage under the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. The Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs is the earliest authentic document on Christianity in North Africa and represents one of the earliest (if not the earliest) specimens of Christian Latin. The document takes a brief legal form, quoting the dialogue between the judge and those accused. The names of the 7 men and 5 women were Speratus, Nartzalus, Cittinus, Veturius, Felix, Aquilinus, Laetantius, Januaria, Generosa, Vestia, Donata, and Secunda.  Speratus, the principal spokesman of the Christians, claimed that he and his companions had lived quiet and moral lives, paid their dues, and did no wrong to their neighbours. But for refusing to apostatize (deny their faith) or swear by the “genius” of the emperor, they were executed on July 17, 180, by order of the Roman proconsul Saturninus:

 

WHEN Praesens, for the second time, and Claudianus were the consuls, on the seventeenth day of July, at Carthage, there were set in the judgment-hall Speratus, Nartzalus, Cittinus, Donata, Secunda and Vestia.

Saturninus the proconsul said: Ye can win the indulgence of our lord the Emperor, if ye return to a sound mind.

Speratus said: We have never done ill, we have not lent ourselves to wrong, we have never spoken ill, but when ill-treated we have given thanks; because we pay heed to OUR EMPEROR,

Saturninus the proconsul said: We too are religious, and our religion is simple, and we swear by the genius of our lord the Emperor, and pray for his welfare, as ye also ought to do.

Speratus said: If thou wilt peaceably lend me thine ears, I can tell thee the mystery of simplicity.

Saturninus said: I will not lend mine ears to thee, when thou beginnest to speak evil things of our sacred rites; but rather swear thou by the genius of our lord the Emperor.

Speratus said: The empire of this world I know not; but rather I serve that God, whom no man hath seen, nor with these eyes can see. I have committed no theft; but if I have bought anything I pay the tax; because I know my Lord, the King of kings and Emperor of all nations.

Saturninus the proconsul said to the rest: Cease to be of this persuasion.

Speratus said: It is an ill persuasion to do murder, to speak false witness.

Saturninus the proconsul said: Be not partakers of this folly.

Cittinus said: We have none other to fear, save only our Lord God, who is in heaven.

Donata said: Honour to Caesar as Caesar: but fear to God.

Vestia said: I am a Christian.

Secunda said: What I am, that I wish to be.

Saturninus the proconsul said to Speratus: Dost thou persist in being a Christian?

Speratus said: I am a Christian. And with him they all agreed.

Saturninus the proconsul said: Will ye have a space to consider?

Speratus said: In a matter so straightforward there is no considering.

Saturninus the proconsul said: What are the things in your chest?

Speratus said: Books and epistles of Paul, a just man.

Saturninus the proconsul said: Have a delay of thirty days and bethink yourselves.

Speratus said a second time: I am a Christian. And with him they all agreed.

Saturninus the proconsul read out the decree from the tablet: Speratus, Nartzalus, Cittinus, Donata, Vestia, Secunda and the rest having confessed that they live according to the Christian rite, since after opportunity offered them of returning to the custom of the Romans they have obstinately persisted, it is determined that they be put to the sword.

Speratus said: We give thanks to God.

Nartzalus said: To-day we are martyrs in heaven; thanks be to God.

Saturninus the proconsul ordered it to be declared by the herald: Speratus, Nartzalus, Cittinus, Veturius, Felix, Aquilinus, Laetantius, Januaria, Generosa, Vestia, Donata and Secunda, I have ordered to be executed.

They all said: Thanks be to God.

And so they all together were crowned with martyrdom; and they reign with the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, for ever and ever. Amen.

Leo the Great (c. 400-461): Christ as Man is less than the Father; as God He is co-equal with the Father

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“The Lord Jesus does, indeed, say to His disciples, as was read in the Gospel lection, ‘if ye loved Me, ye would assuredly rejoice, because I go to the Father, because the Father is greater than I;’ but those ears, which have often heard the words, ‘I and the Father are One,’ and ‘He that sees Me, sees the Father also,’ accept the saying without supposing a difference of Godhead or understanding it of that Essence which they know to be co-eternal and of the same nature with the Father. Man’s uplifting, therefore, in the Incarnation of the Word, is commended to the holy Apostles also, and they, who were distressed at the announcement of the Lord’s departure from them, are incited to eternal joy over the increase in their dignity; ‘If ye loved Me,’ He says, ‘ye would assuredly rejoice, because I go to the Father:’ that is, if, with complete knowledge ye saw what glory is bestowed on you by the fact that, being begotten of GOD the Father, I have been born ‘ye would rejoice because I go to the Father.’ For to you is offered this of a human mother also, that being invisible I have made Myself visible, that being eternal ‘in the form of God’ I accepted the ‘form of a slave,’ ascension, and your humility is in Me raised to a place above all heavens at the Father’s right hand. But I, Who am with the Father that which the Father is, abide undivided with My Father, and in coming from Him to you I do not leave Him, even as in returning to Him from you I do not forsake you. Rejoice, therefore, ‘because I go to the Father, because the Father is greater than I.’ For I have united you with Myself, and am become Son of Man that you might have power to be sons of God. And hence, though I am One in both forms, yet in that whereby I am conformed to you I am less than the Father, whereas in that whereby I am not divided from the Father I am greater even than Myself. And so let the Nature, which is less than the Father, go to the Father, that the Flesh may be where the Word always is, and that the one Faith of the catholic Church may believe that He Whom as Man it does not deny to be less, is equal as God with the Father.”

– Leo the Great (c. 400-461), On Whitsuntide, lII (Sermon 77)

John Bunyan (1628-1688): Saints have an Advocate to plead their cause

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“[I]t is evident that saints neither can nor dare adventure to plead their cause. Alas! the Judge is the almighty and eternal God; the law broken is the holy and perfect rule of God, in itself a consuming fire. The sin is so odious, and a thing so abominable, that it is enough to make all the angels blush to hear it but so much as once mentioned in so holy a place as that is where this great God doth sit to judge. This sin now hangs about the neck of him that hath committed it; yea, it covereth him as doth a mantle. The adversary is bold, cunning, and audacious, and can word a thousand of us into an utter silence in less than half a quarter of an hour. What, then, should the sinner, if he could come there, do at this bar to plead? Nothing; nothing for his own advantage. But now comes in his mercy-he has an Advocate to plead his cause-“If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.”

– John Bunyan (1628-1688), “The Work of Jesus Christ as an Advocate, Explained,” The Practical Works of John Bunyan, Vol. IV, p. 251

Augustine (354-430) on Christ’s crucifixion, burial, resurrection, ascension, and session at the right hand of the Father as the model for the Christian life

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“Whatever was done in the crucifixion of Christ, his burial, his resurrection on the third day, his ascension into heaven, his being seated at the Father’s right hand—all these things were done thus, that they might not only signify their mystical meanings but also serve as a model for the Christian life which we lead here on the earth. Thus, of his crucifixion it was said, ‘And they that are Jesus Christ’s have crucified their own flesh, with the passions and lusts thereof’; and of his burial, ‘For we are buried with Christ by baptism into death’; of his resurrection, ‘Since Christ is raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we also should walk with him in newness of life’; of his ascension and session at the Father’s right hand: ‘But if you have risen again with Christ, seek the things which are above, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For you are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God’.”

– Augustine (354-430), Enchiridion, 53

Thomas Goodwin (1600-1679) on the Trinitarian nature of the pactum salutis

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In this short excerpt, Thomas Goodwin exemplifies the Trinitarian nature of the pactum salutis, or covenant of redemption:

I will chuse him to Life, saith the Father, but he will fall, and so fall short of what my Love designed to him: but I will redeem him, says the Son, out of that lost Estate: but yet being fallen he will refuse that grace, and the offers of it, and despise it, therefore I will Sanctify him, said the Holy Ghost, and overcome his unrighteousness, and cause him to accept it.

– Thomas Goodwin (1600-1679), Works, 3:19

Matthew Henry (1662–1714) on Isaac’s question in Genesis 22:7 – “Where is the lamb?”

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7. Without any ruffle or disorder, he talks it over with Isaac, as if it had been but a common sacrifice that he was going to offer, v. 7, 8.

(1.) It was a very affecting question that Isaac asked him, as they were going together: My father, said Isaac; it was a melting word, which, one would think, would strike deeper into the breast of Abraham than his knife could into the breast of Isaac. He might have said, or thought, at least, “Call me not thy father who am now to be thy murderer; can a father be so barbarous, so perfectly lost to all the tenderness of a father?” Yet he keeps his temper, and keeps his countenance, to admiration; he calmly waits for his son’s question, and this is it: Behold the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb? See how expert Isaac was in the law and custom of sacrifices. This it is to be well-catechised: this is, [1.] A trying question to Abraham. How could he endure to think that Isaac was himself the lamb? So it is, but Abraham, as yet, dares not tell him so. Where God knows the faith to be armour of proof, he will laugh at the trial of the innocent, Job ix. 23. [2.] It is a teaching question to us all, that, when we are going to worship God, we should seriously consider whether we have every thing ready, especially the lamb for a burnt-offering. Behold, the fire is ready, the Spirit’s assistance and God’s acceptance; the wood is ready, the instituted ordinances designed to kindle our affections (which indeed, without the Spirit, are but like wood without fire, but the Spirit works by them); all things are now ready, but where is the lamb? Where is the heart? Is that ready to be offered up to God, to ascend to him as a burnt-offering?

(2.) It was a very prudent answer which Abraham gave him: My son, God will provide himself a lamb. This was the language, either, [1.] Of his obedience. “We must offer the lamb which God has appointed now to be offered;” thus giving him this general rule of submission to the divine will, to prepare him for the application of it to himself very quickly. Or, [2.] Of his faith. Whether he meant it so or not, this proved to be the meaning of it; a sacrifice was provided instead of Isaac. Thus, First, Christ, the great sacrifice of atonement, was of God’s providing; when none in heaven or earth could have found a lamb for that burnt-offering, God himself found the ransom, Ps. lxxxix. 20. Secondly, All our sacrifices of acknowledgment are of God’s providing too. It is he that prepares the heart, Ps. x. 17. The broken and contrite spirit is a sacrifice of God (Ps. li. 17), of his providing.

– Matthew Henry (1662–1714), Commentary on Genesis 22:7

Wisdom of Sirach on speech: This is the trial of men

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Belgic Confession Article 6 addresses the difference between the canonical and apocryphal books:

We distinguish between these holy books and the apocryphal ones, which are the third and fourth books of Esdras; the books of Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Jesus Sirach, Baruch; what was added to the Story of Esther; the Song of the Three Children in the Furnace; the Story of Susannah; the Story of Bell and the Dragon; the Prayer of Manasseh; and the two books of Maccabees.

The church may certainly read these books and learn from them as far as they agree with the canonical books. But they do not have such power and virtue that one could confirm from their testimony any point of faith or of the Christian religion. Much less can they detract from the authority of the other holy books.

 

Therefore we see that, though not canonical, the apocryphal books may be read for our edification in as far as they agree with the canonical Holy Scriptures. The Wisdom of Sirach, also known as Ecclesiasticus, offers some valuable insights regarding our speech:

 

“Honour and shame is in talk: and the tongue of man is his fall.”

– Wisdom of Sirach 5:13

 

“Learn before thou speak.”

– Wisdom of Sirach 18:19b

 

“He that can rule his tongue shall live without strife; and he that hateth babbling shall have less evil.

Whether it be to friend or foe, talk not of other men’s lives; and if thou canst without offence, reveal them not.

For he heard and observed thee, and when time cometh he will hate thee.

If thou hast heard a word, let it die with thee; and be bold, it will not burst thee.

There is one that slippeth in his speech, but not from his heart; and who is he that hath not offended with his tongue?”

– Wisdom of Sirach 19:6, 8-10, 16

 

“There is one that keepeth silence, and is found wise: and another by much babbling becometh hateful.

Some man holdeth his tongue, because he hath not to answer: and some keepeth silence, knowing his time.

A wise man will hold his tongue till he see opportunity: but a babbler and a fool will regard no time.

He that useth many words shall be abhorred; and he that taketh to himself authority therein shall be hated.

A wise man by his words maketh him beloved: but the graces of fools shall be poured out.

To slip upon a pavement is better than to slip with the tongue: so the fall of the wicked shall come speedily.

An unseasonable tale will always be in the mouth of the unwise.

A wise sentence shall be rejected when it cometh out of a fool’s mouth; for he will not speak it in due season.

A lie is a foul blot in a man, yet it is continually in the mouth of the untaught.

A wise man shall promote himself to honour with his words: and he that hath understanding will please great men.

Wisdom that is hid, and treasure that is hoarded up, what profit is in them both?

Better is he that hideth his folly than a man that hideth his wisdom.”

– Wisdom of Sirach 20:5-8, 13, 18-20, 24, 27, 30-31

 

“Hear, O ye children, the discipline of the mouth: he that keepeth it shall never be taken in his lips.

The sinner shall be left in his foolishness: both the evil speaker and the proud shall fall thereby.

Accustom not thy mouth to swearing; neither use thyself to the naming of the Holy One.

For as a servant that is continually beaten shall not be without a blue mark: so he that sweareth and nameth God continually shall not be faultless.

A man that useth much swearing shall be filled with iniquity, and the plague shall never depart from his house: if he shall offend, his sin shall be upon him: and if he acknowledge not his sin, he maketh a double offence: and if he swear in vain, he shall not be innocent, but his house shall be full of calamities.

There is a word that is clothed about with death: God grant that it be not found in the heritage of Jacob; for all such things shall be far from the godly, and they shall not wallow in their sins.

Use not thy mouth to intemperate swearing, for therein is the word of sin.

Remember thy father and thy mother, when thou sittest among great men. Be not forgetful before them, and so thou by thy custom become a fool, and wish that thou hadst not been born, and curse the day of thy nativity.

The man that is accustomed to opprobrious words will never be reformed all the days of his life.”

– Wisdom of Sirach 23:7-15

 

“As when one sifteth with a sieve, the refuse remaineth; so the filth of man in his talk.

The furnace proveth the potter’s vessels; so the trial of man is in his reasoning.

The fruit declareth if the tree have been dressed; so is the utterance of a conceit in the heart of man.

Praise no man before thou hearest him speak; for this is the trial of men.

The discourse of a godly man is always with wisdom; but a fool changeth as the moon.

If thou be among the indiscreet, observe the time; but be continually among men of understanding.”

– Wisdom of Sirach 27:4-7, 11-12

 

“Abstain from strife, and thou shalt diminish thy sins: for a furious man will kindle strife,

A sinful man disquieteth friends, and maketh debate among them that be at peace.

As the matter of the fire is, so it burneth: and as a man’s strength is, so is his wrath; and according to his riches his anger riseth; and the stronger they are which contend, the more they will be inflamed.

An hasty contention kindleth a fire: and an hasty fighting sheddeth blood.

If thou blow the spark, it shall burn: if thou spit upon it, it shall be quenched: and both these come out of thy mouth.

Curse the whisperer and doubletongued: for such have destroyed many that were at peace.

A backbiting tongue hath disquieted many, and driven them from nation to nation: strong cities hath it pulled down, and overthrown the houses of great men.

A backbiting tongue hath cast out virtuous women, and deprived them of their labours.

Whoso hearkeneth unto it shall never find rest, and never dwell quietly.

The stroke of the whip maketh marks in the flesh: but the stroke of the tongue breaketh the bones.

Many have fallen by the edge of the sword: but not so many as have fallen by the tongue.

Weigh thy words in a balance, and make a door and bar for thy mouth.”

– Wisdom of Sirach 28:9-18, 25