martyrdom of forty wrestlers

As I was visiting one church, a guest pastor decided to make an illustration using an event he describes as taking place under the reign of Nero. This event involved the murder of 40 soldiers who were all Christians.

The story is that there were 40 acclaimed warriors. They were told to renounce Christianity (after Nero began the persecution of Christians), but they instead chose punishment. They are sent into a lake to freeze. Their songs and their resolve enticed a guard to join their ranks. In the morning, they are all alive.

Now this was news to me, I had never heard such a story. If it existed it would be very interesting, as all our current evidence points to Nero’s persecution being local and not specifically persecuting Christians for being Christians. An event where Nero kills 40 soldiers for the crime of being Christian would rewrite history. As Bart Ehrman (who is not a Christian) points out:

A. The first emperor to be involved with persecutions was Nero (c. 64 A.D.), who used Christians as scapegoats for the fire in Rome that he evidently started himself.
1. It is important to note, however, that in this case, Christians were condemned for arson, not for being Christian.
2. Moreover, this persecution was localized to Rome. It may, however, have set a precedent for later civil authorities.

It would be major to discover that Nero performed this other persecution.

After some searching for the source of this story I came to two conclusions. 1. Christians generally do not like to source stories (throughout sermons and blog posts). 2. Christians generally have a very bad understanding of early Christian history.

I finally did find the information for which I was seeking.

It turns out that this story was actually attributed to Emperor Licinius Centurion Sempronius (Licinius for short). This took place around 320AD whereas Nero (a co-temporary of Paul) reigned from 54-68AD. The difference is huge, enough to rewrite all of Church history. Imagine a story about terrorists blowing up the Twin Towers but in 1730 AD. Not a small mistake.

The first written account we have of this event is from St. Basil (329-379AD) about 50 years after the actual event. The story is as follows, per St Basil:

Thus it was that they were sentenced to spend the night under the open sky. The lake, round about which the populous town lies and in which the Saints contested, was covered with ice and had become, as it were, solid land fit for chariot driving…

When they had heard the command (in this, consider the invincible courage of the Martyrs), with joy each one cast off even his undermost tunic, and all hastened to encounter death from the cold…

Such consolations did they afford one another, and, each encouraging the others as if they were keeping guard at the hour of battle, they spent the night courageously bearing things present, rejoicing in the things looked for, and deriding the enemy…

As the Martyrs were in the midst of their contest and the guard was keeping watch over events… Throwing off his raiment, he joined himself to the naked ones, crying out in unison with the Saints: “I am a Christian.” The bystanders were astonished at the unexpectedness of his conversion, and as he gave himself to complete their number…

Due to the St Basil detailing this at a memorial service for these martyrs, we can most likely conclude that this did, in fact, happen and long before St. Basil began preaching. This did not, however, happen until Christianity was fairly well progressed. Christianity was then being actively suppressed due to the mere fact that it was a powerful and subversive religion. It was only shortly after this martyrdom that Constantine would declare Christianity as the new state religion.

It makes for a good story, but not one from the reign of Nero.

HT: stevekray88 and Scott Bratt for helping me make this article better.

About christopher fisher

The blog is meant for educational/entertainment purposes. All material can be used and reproduced in any length for any purpose as long as I am cited as the source.
This entry was posted in Ehrman, History, People. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to martyrdom of forty wrestlers

  1. stevekray88 says:

    You may want to check YOUR history. Vespasian was Roman Emperor from AD 69-79. He was a military official during the reign of Nero who killed Christians for more than just arson.

    • Great point! I am always happy to be corrected. I incorrectly listed Vespasian. The real emperor was Licinius. If you have any further information about persecutions under Nero, please, I and the rest of the world need to know. To the extend of modern scholarship, Nero’s persecution was local and under the charges of “arson” not “atheism”. Thanks!

  2. Will Forbes says:

    “…Christians were condemned for arson, not for being Christian”. A little logic here. Christians were condemned for arson because they were Christians.
    “…this persecution was localized to Rome”. That’s like saying, the IRS is localized to Washington D.C. Rome was the center of the Roman Empire. All roads led to Rome.
    “Please Christians, learn your history”. You judge all Christians because you heard one preacher. Please do your research before you discriminate against a whole group of people.

    • Come let us reason together:

      “Christians were condemned for arson because they were Christians.” How is that different than “Christians were condemned for arson, not for being Christian”. Who is being condemed? Isnt the fact that they are Christian evident? My statement, although conveying the same thought is actually a little more true. When Christians were condemned, the official charge was “arson”.
      “That’s like saying, the IRS is localized to Washington D.C.” The IRS comes to harass farmers in North Dakota. No Christian was persecuted for arson outside of Rome.
      “You judge all Christians because you heard one preacher.” Well, I am a Christian. All does not always mean all. It is called an idiom. Paul explains this in Corinthians: 1Co 15:27 For “HE HAS PUT ALL THINGS UNDER HIS FEET.” But when He says “all things are put under Him,” it is evident that He who put all things under Him is excepted.
      Paul is pointing out people should not be woodenly literal. When I say Christians, I am referring to those like you who claim that Nero’s persecution was global rather than local. They dont care to understand the history before making assertions. In my experience, this is common among Christians.

  3. Pastor Ron says:

    This old post, is new to me. I stumbled here in an attempt to “verify” the 40 wrestlers illustration. I found a beautiful story about Nero and Vespasian. It was moving and powerful, just not accurate. I am a pastor and found many illustrations and helps for pastors on line. They are a huge help, but they need to be investigated. If we use illustrations that are NOT accurate, then how can our congregation trust us to tell the truth in the message of the Gospel. PLEASE, pastors, do your homework and check out all the illustrations you use. Some pastors are guilty of using stories from their own lives that will stand up at the dinner table in the wife’s company. Our messages must be able to stand up for eternity. The power of this illustration is not discounted by taking a few minutes and finding the right Emperor and the right Centurion. Try looking up: 320 AD, the Emperor Licinius Centurion Sempronius –

  4. Scott Bratt says:

    Wow. I heard this from a preacher the same way you did. It really stuck out to me and was very powerful, but I wowondered about it’s legitimacy. So to the internet I went and here I am. I think truth is very important. No one should give an illustration claiming it to be historically accurate without it being properly researched. That being said, I am no historian. I don’t know who was emperor when or who killed who or for what official reason or what motives. I don’t even know where to go. Textbooks are filled with lies and it seems to me that truth gets lost depending on the agenda of the one telling it. Now I think this article has some very good points. I do feel, however, the aim of this article is not edification. I read several offensive and attacking statements. Had I not read closely, I would think you were asserting preachers are liars. I would have enjoyed this article more if the focus was more of correction. You got lost in this silliness of Christians not knowing History instead of this beautiful illustration. Yes, many preachers do not tell it correctly. So tell them how to tell it. It is still powerful wether it’s Nero or not.

    Once again thank you for the information and I would love to know where I can look at some historcal accounts for myself.

    To God be Glory

  5. Thank you. I was searching for an illustration to demonstrate the reality of the living Christ for Easter Sunday and I came across the story of the 40 wrestlers in a book I had, which attributed the story to the reign of Nero, in Gaul!! Ever wanting to verify my facts I kept digging hoping that the story was true and before coming to your blog found it had happened at the time you state, in the time of Licinius in Armenia. Your blog helped to confirm the fact. God bless. Oh for real Christian courage.

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