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The Theban Martyrs

An amazing story about a town in Switzerland has come to my attention relating to Coptic Christianity. Two weeks ago, I wrote about Coptic influence on Europe. I referred to St Maurice as a “messenger to Switzerland where today a town bears his name”. Tom Bloomer wrote to suggest that St. Maurice was more than just a ‘messenger’, and that he may have effected a crucial turning point in the spiritual history of Switzerland.

Tom lives on the northern side of Lake Geneva in Switzerland, about 100 kms from St Maurice which nestles in the valley running south from Montreux at the eastern end of the lake, towards Mt Blanc and the St Bernard Pass. You can ask Tom for the full story at TomBloomer@compuserve.com but here is the gist of what happened.

Late in the 3rd century AD, Maximian Caesar was having trouble with rebellious Gauls north of the Alps. So he despatched the Theban legion from Upper Egypt in the region of the city of Thebes, now Luxor, to put the rebellion down. Maximian assumed that as distant foreigners with no shared language and culture, the legion would not be tempted to side with the rebels.

However, the soldiers were all Coptic Christians. Maurice, the commander of the Theban legion, heard that the rebels were also Christians and that their rebellion consisted of refusing to worship the Emperor as a god. The Egyptian commander and his men flatly refused to attack the Gauls. So Maximian ordered the “decimation” of the Thebans – one out of every ten soldiers was put to death. The Thebans stood their ground, so Maximian ordered a second decimation, still to no avail. So he ordered the execution of the rest of the 7000 members of the Theban legion – his own soldiers – for refusing to worship him and to put to death their fellow Christians.

Maurice’s speech to the emperor has been handed down to us by church tradition. As Tom says, it is a “model of clarity of thinking and expression on the difference between submission and obedience, a subject often misunderstood today.” Here it is in part:

“Emperor, we are your soldiers, but we are above all servants of God. We owe you military obedience, but we owe Him innocence. We receive from you the wages of our labor, from Him we have received life. We cannot deny God our Creator and Lord, and your Creator also, whether you wish it or not.

“We have always fought for justice, respect, and the lives of the innocent; that was our recompense for the dangers we faced. We have fought in faithfulness; but how can we preserve this faithfulness toward you, if we refuse it toward our God? We have first of all sworn an oath to God, and secondly to the Emperor. Know that our second oath is meaningless, if we violate the first. You order us to put Christians to death. Search no further, here we are! We confess our faith: ‘We believe in God, Father and Creator of all things; we believe in His Son Jesus Christ, our God.’

“Christians we declare ourselves to be; we cannot persecute other Christians.”

The town of St Maurice stands today on the site of martyrdom, the Theban camp. In 515, King Sigismod of the Burgondes charged local monks to maintain the “Laus perennis”, or perpetual praise to the Lord, in an abbey built nearby.

“Every day since then, for 1487 years, praise has gone up to God from that Abbey,” writes Tom. “It is the oldest place of continuous worship in the West. My theory is that one of the principal sources of God’s blessing on Switzerland is the willing martyrdom of these 7000 Egyptian Christians.”

What lay behind this courageous stand of Maurice and his fellow Thebans? Eusebius, the original church historian, tells us of a rich heritage of martyrdom in Thebes in the face of savage persecution of Christians under Emperor Decius a generation prior to Maurice, and in Maurice’s day under Diocletian.

“There were occasions when on a single day a hundred men as well as women and little children were killed, condemned to a succession of ever-changing punishments,” writes Eusebius. “No sooner had the first batch been sentenced, than others from every side would jump on to the platform in front of the judge and proclaim themselves Christians. They paid no heed to torture in all its terrifying forms, but undaunted spoke boldly of their devotion to the God of the universe and with joy, laughter and gaiety received the final sentence of death: they sang and sent up hymns of thanksgiving to the God of the universe till their very last breath.” (Eusebius, The History of the Church, Penguin, London, 1965, p. 337-8)

At the Council of Nicea in 325, the Alexandrian delegation included a number of monks and hermits who bore disfigurement from Roman persecution. Two from Thebes, Potaman and Paphnutius, both had had their right eyes gouged out with a sword and the empty socket seared with a red-hot poker.

Such was the background to Tertullian’s most famous retort to the authorities who blamed Christians for public disasters, and which has comforted generations of persecuted believers worldwide:
‘Your cruelty [against us] does not profit you, however exquisite. Instead, it tempts people to our sect. As often as you mow us down, the more we grow in number. The blood of the Christians is the seed [of the church]… The very obstinacy you criticize teaches for us. For who on seeing it is not excited to enquire what lies behind it? Who, having enquired, does not embrace our faith?’ (Apology 50)

Till next week,

Jeff Fountain

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