Heretics and schismatics put to death as Christians were denied the title of martyrs ( St. Lactantius, on the other hand, has only mild censure for a Christian of Nicomedia who suffered martyrdom for tearing down the edict of persecution (Do mort. If they (the lapsi ) truly and with constancy repent of what they have done, and the fervour of their faith prevails, he who cannot be delayed may be crowned " (Ep. Acceptance of the national religion in antiquity was an obligation incumbent on all citizens; failure to worship the gods of the State was equivalent to treason.This universally accepted principle is responsible for the various persecutions suffered by Christians before the reign of Constantine; Christians denied the existence of and therefore refused to worship the gods of the state pantheon. It is true, indeed, that the Jews also rejected the gods of Rome, and yet escaped persecution.
It is in this sense that the term first appears in Christian literature; the Apostles were "witnesses" of all that they had observed in the public life of Christ, as well as of all they had learned from His teaching, "in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and Samaria, and even to the uttermost part of the earth" ( Acts 1:8 ). Peter, in his address to the Apostles and disciples relative to the election of a successor to Judas, employs the term with this meaning: "Wherefore, of these men who have companied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus came in and went out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day he was taken up from us, one of these must be made witness with us of his resurrection " ( Acts ). Peter also refers to himself as a "witness of the sufferings of Christ " ( 1 Peter 5:1 ).
These latter ran no risk in bearing testimony to facts that came under their observation, whereas the witnesses of Christ were brought face to face daily, from the beginning of their apostolate, with the possibility of incurring severe punishment and even death itself. Stephen was a witness who early in the history of Christianity sealed his testimony with his blood.
The careers of the Apostles were at all times beset with dangers of the gravest character, until eventually they all suffered the last penalty for their convictions.
Yet the term martyr was still sometimes applied during the third century to persons still living, as, for instance, by St. Basil as "a martyr", but evidently employs the term in the broad sense in which the word is still sometimes applied to a person who has borne many and grave hardships in the cause of Christianity. Polycarp, persuaded several of his fellow believers to declare themselves Christians, was a warning of what might happen to the over-zealous: Quintus at the last moment apostatized, though his companions persevered. Writing to his priests and deacons regarding repentant lapsi who were clamouring to be received back into communion, the bishop after giving general directions on the subject, concludes by saying that if these impatient personages are so eager to get back to the Church there is a way of doing so open to them.
Cyprian, who gave the title of martyrs to a number of bishops, priests, and laymen condemned to penal servitude in the mines (Ep. Tertullian speaks of those arrested as Christians and not yet condemned as martyres designati . The description of a martyr given by the pagan historian Ammianus Marcellinus (XXII, xvii), shows that by the middle of the fourth century the title was everywhere reserved to those who had actually suffered death for their faith. Breaking idols was condemned by the Council of Elvira (306), which, in its sixtieth canon, decreed that a Christian put to death for such vandalism would not be enrolled as a martyr. "The struggle is still going forward", he says, "and the strife is waged daily.