This Spring 2015 Meeting report was compiled by Chris Shea of Ball State University
The Fourth R 28-4
July-August 2015

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For the Christianity Seminar’s fifth meeting, we returned to our home turf, the Flamingo Hotel in Santa Rosa. The general meeting theme “Tales of Sorrow, Tales of Power: Critical Questions about Religious Rhetoric” elicited six major papers on the intersection of rhetoric and history in Christian martyr tales. On March 20, the Seminar attracted some 165 participants, full of enthusiasm for our “martyrfest” (as Judith Perkins dubbed it).

The Seminar sessions were opened by presiders L. Michael White (University of Texas) and Emily Schmidt (University of California Santa Barbara). White’s work on the evolution of Christianity has spoken to a wide audience—he’s the on- and off-camera guru behind the four-hour PBS/Frontline program From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians (1998). Schmidt is a child (so to speak) of the Jesus Seminar, since she attended her first meeting as an undergraduate. She has gone on to an MTS at Harvard Divinity School and is hard at work on a PhD in Religious Studies at UCSB.

Seminar organizer Hal Taussig (Union Theological Seminary) launched the meeting with the intriguingly titled “What Do Fiction, Mass Crucifixions, and Killer Seals Add Up To?” Here, Seminar participants and Westar Associates were introduced to the idea that the martyrologies (ancient stories about martyrs) had a higher religious and cultural significance than Hollywood hacks—and many modern critics—are willing to accord them. “Indeed,” as Taussig puts it, “current scholarly conversation has shifted so complexly that current scholarship has more than several scholars suspecting that martyrological discourse in the first centuries may well have been a defining dimension of the emergence of Christianity itself.” In ironic contrast to previous schools of thought, however, Taussig argues that the martyr tales, as rhetorical constructs, have little to say about the history of the early Christ people. His paper is an invaluable and lucid guide to currents of scholarship on the early Christian stories about martyrs.

Martyrological discourse in the first centuries may well have been a defining dimension of the emergence of Christianity itself.

Continuing the day’s theme and integrating into the discussion ideas from his Wednesday workshop on Paul, Seminar organizer Brandon Scott (Phillips Theological Seminary, emeritus) tackled “Jesus the Martyr (Rom 3:21–26).” In a close analysis of a perplexing text, Scott convinced us that (1) Paul understands the death of Jesus within the context of the ancient literary convention of the “noble death”—a dramatic portrayal of how someone’s heroic way of facing death summed up the ideals for which that person had lived—not in the context of substitutionary atonement; and (2) there may be a kind of DNA (his term) that comes out of 4 Maccabees (a first century ce text glorifying Jewish martyrs), stays in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and feeds into Islam—and this DNA may lead to war. As topics for future study, he suggested the Seminar unpack the meaning of “noble death” and consider what motivated the Acts of Paul to discuss the death of Paul.

Maia Kotrosits (Denison University) returned to the Seminar after her “Second-Century Imaginations of Social Unity” last spring, presenting “Sovereignty in Ruins: The Death of Ignatius and Ecologies of Destruction.” In a densely packed argument she dealt with: the ecology of life and death in the Roman Empire, the politics of martyrdom, the myth of the exceptionality of Christian martyrdom, the Ignatius of scholarly romanticism, Ignatius as a Judean diasporic figure, the invention of the terms “Christian” and “Christianismos” (the Greek term at the root of our word “Christianity”) and their specific meaning within the martyr cult, the longing for the sovereignty of a Jewish state as an underpinning of martyr narratives, ancient concepts of the social body, and Maccabean echoes in Christian martyr tales. The response to Kotrosits’ paper came from distinguished classicist Judith Perkins (University of Saint Joseph, emerita), whose 1995 The Suffering Self: Pain and Narrative Representation in the Early Christian Era (Routledge) is a noteworthy contribution to martyrological research. Perkins developed Kotrosits’ analysis of the imperial “ecology of life and death” by pointing to the Empire’s “overarching values”: no uprising, no unrest, nothing is to interfere with the pumping of resources to the Empire’s center. This is Perkins’ first encounter with Westar; we’re pleased she promptly signed on as a Fellow.

Carly Daniel-Hughes (Concordia University in Montreal) led off the afternoon sessions with “Producing and Contesting Martyrdom in Pre-Decian Roman North Africa,” which critically examined the rhetoric of the third-century theologian Tertullian and the early Christian tales about the martyrs. A complex and closely reasoned work, her paper raised issues which cast doubt on popular perceptions of the Christian worldview, as well as on the historicity of the North African martyrologies. She touched on the techniques the martyrologists use to create a sense of Christian identity; she reminded us of the diversity of early views of martyrdom; she unpacked the group-formation rhetoric behind the “I am a Christian” assertions; and she revealed the gendered imagery in the theology of martyrdom. Perkins again responded, this time as author of Roman Imperial Identities in the Early Christian Era (Routledge 2009). This was Daniel-Hughes’ debut performance at the Seminar.

“Gladiators and Martyrs: Icons in the Arena” by Susan (Elli) Elliott followed. Her lively and moving analysis puts us in the arena seats, but as rooters for the victims of the gladiatorial games, as indeed the ancient viewers likely were. She argues that we regularly misunderstand the iconography of the gladiatorial combats—the gladiators come to represent the manly qualities that define Roman identity. Elliott is an independent scholar living in Red Lodge, Montana. As the convening collaborator of the Shining Mountain Institute, a grassroots think tank in the Big Sky region, and as a candidate for the Montana State Senate representing the Beartooth Front, she lends a unique flavor to the study of Christian origins. Her book Cutting Too Close for Comfort: Paul’s Letter to the Galatians in Its Anatolian Cultic Context (Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series #248, 2003) is regularly invoked in research on Paul’s impact on the Christian movement.

We regularly misunderstand the iconography of the gladiatorial combats—the gladiators come to represent the manly qualities that define Roman identity.

Boston University scholar Jennifer Wright Knust led off the late afternoon session with “Christian Sacred Scriptures and the Martyrs,” which proved a splendid introduction to a new Fellow. Philip Harland (York University Toronto), author of Dynamics of Identity in the World of the Early Christians (Bloomsbury 2009), whose podcast on Mediterranean religions has excited much attention from Fellows and Associates, was the respondent. Wright Knust’s close readings of early Christian texts elicited lively commentary, which threatened to extend the session into the dinner hour. In an engrossing exchange with the Fellows, she scored some points which will likely serve as programmatic for the Seminar: (1) we must “push back against the canonically driven lens of Christian works”; (2) we should be wary of “always tracing the canon as if it already existed”; (3) we must keep in mind that the centrality of texts is “local and opportunistic”; (4) on the vexing question of literacy among the earliest Christians we should recall that copies of Irenaeus turn up in Egypt about thirty years after the work was written in Gaul; and (5) we must avoid the printing press conception of canon.

The evening’s plenary session featured a genial conversation with longtime Fellow Joanna Dewey (Harvey H. Guthrie, Jr. Professor Emerita of Biblical Studies, Episcopal Divinity School, Cambridge), hosted by Art Dewey (Xavier University). J. Dewey’s struggle as a woman in a man’s profession set heads nodding all through the Ballroom. On a day with many notable contributions by female scholars, her story commanded enraptured attention.

Christianity Seminar Ballot Items

Jews, Christians, and Christ people were executed by Roman imperial agents and government. (Taussig)
Fellows: Red / Associates: Red

First- and second-century Christ people and Christians were systematically targeted for execution by Roman imperial agents and government. (Taussig)
Fellows: Black / Associates: Black

Jews were systematically targeted for execution at times by Roman imperial agents and government for the first half of the second century. (Taussig)
Fellows: Pink / Associates: Pink

In portions of the last half of the third century and very early fourth century Christians were systematically targeted for execution by Roman imperial agents and government. (Taussig)
Fellows: Pink / Associates: Pink

Discursive martyrdom played a significant role for Jews, Christians, and Christ people in negotiating and strategizing their relationship to imperial violence. (Taussig)
Fellows: Red / Associates: Red

Discursive martyrdom played a significant role in the emergence of early Christian culture. (Taussig)
Fellows: Pink / Associates: Pink

Paul understands Jesus in the noble death tradition, not sacrificial atonement. (Scott)
Fellows: Red / Associates: Red

Ignatius does not belong to an already existent phenomenon called Christianity. (Kotrosits)
Fellows: Red / Associates: Red

Rather than pathologically obsessed with his own death, Ignatius is captivated by imperial politics of visibility, in which the promise of being seen goes hand in hand with heightened odds of being destroyed. (Kotrosits)
Fellows: Pink / Associates: Red

Ignatius needs to be seen as a Judean diasporic figure. (Kotrosits)
Fellows: Pink / Associates: Red

Readings of martyrological materials should be recalibrated as questions of sovereignty, belonging, diaspora, and social integrity/vulnerability. (Kotrosits)
Fellows: Pink / Associates: Red

The dominant place of martyrdom in early Christian literature is not evidence of the extent of Roman persecution of Christians, but reflects the rhetorical agendas of early Christian authors. (Daniel-Hughes)
Fellows: Red / Associates: Red

Ancient Christians did not develop a singular ideology of martyrdom, but multiple and contested ones, with varying implications for how they understood Christian life and practice. (Daniel-Hughes)
Fellows: Red / Associates: Red

While some early Christians invested heavily in martyrdom, other Christians (perhaps the majority of them) complied and compromised with Roman authorities to avoid death and physical harm. (Daniel-Hughes)
Fellows: Red / Associates: Red

Some ancient Christians advocated compromise with Roman officials to avoid death and torture, and they had theological and scriptural rationales for doing so. (Daniel-Hughes)
Fellows: Red / Associates: Red

As the Christianity Seminar pursues a more accurate historical reconstruction of the development of early forms of Christianity than traditional interpretations, we must examine and question assumptions of Christian exceptionalism present in many previous interpretations of early Christian history. (Elliott)
Fellows: Red / Associates: Red

As the Christianity Seminar pursues a more accurate historical reconstruction of the development of early forms of Christianity than traditional interpretations, we must examine and question assumptions about the Roman Empire’s success in exercising absolute power. This means looking for the strategies that various groups in Roman society, including Christians, used to exercise power over their own lives and challenge imperial power. (Elliott)
Fellows: Red / Associates: Red

Although presented as projecting absolute power, the Roman amphitheaters and the programs of spectacles that took place within them provided a location for negotiating power dynamics around the centralization of power in the Emperor. (Elliott)
Fellows: Red / Associates: Red

Gladiators and the Christian martyrs as presented in the narratives of their deaths are both examples of images of a similar strategy for claiming the self as a subject in a situation intended for objectification and degradation. Both use strategies based on images of the ideal of Roman virtus. (Elliott)
Fellows: Pink / Associates: Red

Early forms of Christianity developed in a context where the Roman arena was a prominent location for social definition and struggle for social identity. The centrality of the image of the martyrs for sectors of Christianity that rose to dominance in late antiquity is a product of the need of audiences in those sectors for an image of Christian identity that presented an image of Roman virtus for imitation in the context of a new vision of a Christian empire. (Elliott)
Fellows: Pink / Associates: Pink

As presented in the narratives of their deaths, the Christian martyrs became icons for Christian identity in a Christian vision of the Empire much as the gladiators functioned as icons for Roman identity in the Roman Empire. (Elliott)
Fellows: Pink / Associates: Pink

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