Chapter XVIII.—Events at Edessa: Constancy of the Devout Citizens, and Courage of a Pious Woman.
But we must here mention certain circumstances that occurred at Edessa in Mesopotamia. There is in that city a magnificent church 611 dedicated to St. Thomas the Apostle, wherein, on account of the sanctity of the place, religious assemblies are incessantly held. The Emperor Valens wishing to inspect this edifice, and having learnt that all who usually congregated there were opposed to the heresy which he favored, he is said to have struck the prefect with his own hand, because he had neglected to expel them thence also. As the prefect after submitting to this ignominy, was most unwillingly constrained to subserve the emperors indignation against them,—for he did not desire to effect the slaughter of so great a number of persons,—he privately suggested that no one should be found there. But no one gave heed either to his admonitions or to his menaces; for on the following day they all crowded to the church. 612 And when the prefect was going towards it with a large military force in order to satisfy the emperors rage, a poor woman leading her own little child by the hand hurried hastily by, on her way to the church, breaking through the ranks of the prefects company of soldiers. The prefect irritated at this, ordered her to be brought to him, and thus addressed her: Wretched woman! whither are you running in so disorderly a manner? She replied, To the same place that others are hastening. Have you not heard, said he, that the prefect is about to put to death all that shall be found there? Yes, said the woman, and therefore I hasten that I may be found there. And whither are you dragging that little child? said the prefect: the woman answered, That he also may be made worthy of martyrdom. 613 The p. 105 prefect on hearing these things, conjecturing that a similar resolution actuated the others who were assembled there, immediately went back to the emperor, and informed him that all were ready to die in behalf of their own faith. He added that it would be preposterous to destroy so many persons at one time, and thus persuaded the emperor to control his wrath. In this way were the Edessenes preserved from being massacred by order of their sovereign.
The kind of church here meant was a memorial structure to a martyr, erected where his relics were deposited, and was called Μαρτύριον . See Bingham, Christ. Antiq. VIII. 1.104:612
The same church which above was called a μαρτύριον from its origin, is here called εὐκτήριος τόπος, from its use (a place of prayer).104:613
Gibbon, in his Decline and Fall, chap. 16, quotes a number of extracts from Sulpicius Severus and Ignatius, showing the honor in which martyrdom was held in the early church, and the eagerness with which it was sought. To check the excess of zeal which was thus manifested, the Council of Elvira, in 306 a.d., passed a canon (its sixtieth) to the following intent: that if any one should overthrow idols, and should therefore be put to death, inasmuch as this is not written in the Gospel nor found done among the apostles at any time, such a one should not be received among the martyrs.