Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs (Translation)

Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs: brief Latin text, describing the trial of six Christian martyrs executed in 180 CE.

The earliest Christian text in the Latin language appears to be little more than a court record. Six Christians from the unknown North-African town of Scilli were brought before their provincial governor in Carthage. They were put to trial according to the procedure known to us from the letters of Pliny the Younger (Letter 10.96). Although the hearing and the subsequent passing of sentence took place behind closed doors (in secretario), the record must have been acquired and copied by other Christians. Only at the end is there evidence that a Christian redactor added to the original text.

The Latin text is mainly that of Bastiaensen (1987), except for the final paragraph, where preference is given to the edition of Musurillo (1972).

Further reading


The Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs

1. [Latin] During the consulship of Praesens (second term) and Condianus, on 17 July, in Carthage, there were led into the governor’s office: Speratus, Nartzalus and Cittinus; Donata, Secunda, Vestia.

Saturninus the governor said: “You can have mercy from our lord the emperor, if you return to your senses.”
 

The manuscripts erroneously mention a Claudianus: during Praesens’ second term as consul in 180 C.E., Condianus was his colleague.

As the annual term of a proconsul started 1 July, the trial against the Christians must have been one of the new governor’s top priorities. He is identified as Publius Vigellius Saturninus mentioned by Tertullian (Ad Scapulam 3.4) as the first persecutor of Christians in Northern Africa.
     

2. [Latin] Speratus said: “We have never done wrong. We have stayed clear of treating people unfairly. We have never spoken ill of anyone. Instead, when treated badly, we have offered thanks, because we obey our own ruler.”

 

“done wrong”: behavior commonly associated with being a Christian for not participating in the popular worship of other deities.

“offered thanks”: to God, §15; for the scriptural basis (see §12), see Matthew 5:11-12; 1 Peter 4:14-16.
     

3. [Latin] Saturninus the governor said: “We too are religious and our religion is simple: we swear by the birth spirit of our lord the emperor and offer sacrifice for his health, which you must do as well.”

 

“simple”: there is only one requirement for those on trial, and no one except a Jew or a Christian would have a problem with it.

“birth spirit”: considered by Christians as a false god.
     

4. [Latin] Speratus said: “If you are prepared to listen to me, I will tell you a mystery of simplicity.”

 

“I will tell you”: for testifying about Christian teachings while under trial, see Matthew 10:18; Acts 26:1, 22-23.

“mystery”: the term occurs in several New Testament passages, see especially Ephesians 1:9-10.

“simplicity”: Speratus may think of all mankind united under a single divine ruler and one God, as opposed to a limited and religiously diverse empire ruled by a mortal emperor who depends upon the favor of innumerable deities.
     

5. [Latin] Saturninus said: “If you’re going to tell bad things about our sacred rituals, I will not listen to you. Rather, swear by the birth spirit of our lord the emperor.”

  “our sacred rituals”: Saturninus knows that the traditional mysteries are unacceptable to a Christian. Speratus must have seemed to be condescending by offering a “mystery” of his own.
     

6. [Latin] Speratus said: “I do not acknowledge the authority of this world, but I rather serve that God whom no one has seen or can see with these eyes. I have never been guilty of theft, but whenever I buy, I pay the tax, because I acknowledge my lord, the king of kings and ruler of all peoples.”

 

Speratus does “acknowledge authority” when he is “paying tax” (Romans 13:1, 6-7). However, since he serves “rather God” (Acts 5:29), his obedience to the state has its limits; see §9.

“whom no one… can see”: quoted from 1 Timothy 6:16; the addition “with these eyes” may be inspired by 2 Corinthians 4:18.
     

7. [Latin] Saturninus the governor said to the others: “Stop being of this persuasion!”

Speratus said: “Bad is the persuasion to commit murder, to bear false testimony.”
  “to commit murder, to bear false testimony”: according to Speratus, the governor will transgress two of the Ten Commandments if he puts the Scillitans to death.
     

8. [Latin] Saturninus the governor said: “Stop being part of this madness!”

Cittinus said: “We have no other to fear but the Lord our God, who is in heaven.”
 

“fear”: see Matthew 10:28; in particular, the fear to fall out of God’s favor by fearing or worshipping other gods.

“who is in heaven”: concerning God this combination occurs repeatedly in Matthew, starting in 5:16.
     

9. [Latin] Donata said: “Honor to Caesar in his capacity as Caesar, but fear to God.”

Vestia said: “I am a Christian.”

Secunda said: “What I am is exactly what I want to be.”
 

“honor to Caesar… fear to God”: the Scillitans combined the principles in Matthew 22:21, 1 Peter 2:17 and Romans 13:7 to honor the emperor only as far was his due: “fear” or “worship” is indebted to no other than God.

     

10. [Latin] Saturninus the governor said to Speratus: “Do you persevere in being a Christian?”

Speratus said: “I am a Christian”, and all uttered their agreement with him.
   
     

11. [Latin] Saturninus the governor said: “Do you want some time to consider the matter carefully?”

Speratus said: “In such a just cause there is no need for careful consideration.”
   
     

12. [Latin] Saturninus the governor said: “What sort of things do you have in that case of yours?”

Speratus said: “Books and letters of Paul, a righteous man.”
  “Books”: probably the gospels (of Matthew at least) and Acts. As can be seen in the notes above, the Scillitans appear to have had clear knowledge of these, the letters of Paul and 1 Peter.
     

13. [Latin] Saturninus the governor said: “Have a delay of 30 days and think things over!”

Again Speratus said: “I am a Christian”, and all uttered their agreement with him.
  “delay”: the governor tries the utmost to have the Scillitans recant.
     
14. [Latin] Saturninus the governor read aloud the sentence from a tablet: “Concerning Speratus, Nartzalus, Cittinus, Donata, Vestia, Secunda and the others who have confessed that they live according to the Christian religion: because inspite of the opportunity given to them to return to the Roman way of life, they have stubbornly persisted in maintaining theirs, I have decided that they be put to the sword.”  

“a tablet”: a wooden board coated with wax to inscribe with notes.

“the others”: see §16.

“persisted”: disobeying the Roman state official is the legal ground for capital punishment.
     

15. [Latin] Speratus said: “We offer thanks to God.”

Nartzalus said: “Today we are martyrs in heaven. Thanks to God.”
  “Today”: the lapse of time until the resurrection will go unnoticed by those who are woken up (1 Thessalonians 4:16).
     
16. [Latin] Saturninus the governor ordered a herald to declare his sentence: “I have ordered Speratus, Nartzalus, Cittinus, Veturius, Felix, Aquilinus, Laetantius, Januaria, Generosa, Vestia, Donata and Secunda, to be executed.”  

“declare”: to the people outside; the governor’s office was not open to the public.

The six Christians that have not been previously mentioned must have had an earlier hearing.
     

17. [Latin] All said: “Thanks to God.”

And immediately they were decapitated for the name of Christ.

Amen.
  “And immediately ... Amen”: an obvious addition by a Christian editor. Other manuscripts show a lengthier expression of faith: “and so all were crowned with martyrdom and reign with the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit for ever and ever. Amen.”