Christian Martyrs: Neither Uniform Nor Legion

Christianity SeminarChristianity has long been celebrated as the religion that triumphed over Rome—and hence, the world—by the blood of its many martyrs, people who died because they were unwilling to compromise with Roman practices such as sacrifice to the emperor. “I am a Christian,” these unruffled martyrs would state before an unsympathetic judge, often while their families stand to one side pleading for them to relent, after which they are condemned to gruesome, torturous deaths.

Especially after the start of the reign of Decius in 249 ce, martyr stories exploded in popularity. A handful date at or before that: the Martyrdom of Polycarp; Leontius, Hypatius and Theodulus; the Passion of the Scillitan Martyrs; and Perpetua and Felicitas. The Acts of Paul and Thecla also involve multiple, thwarted attempts at martyrdom, even an incident involving killer seals (yes, you read that right!). The story of Perpetua and Felicitas is especially compelling, full of emotion and powerful visions, including one in which the young noblewoman Perpetua defeats a fearsome “Egyptian.” In what is likely a fictional diary account, Perpetua describes being thrown into a dark, dank prison followed by a heartbreaking scene in which her aging father begs her on his knees to remember her family, especially her young son, for whom she also worries. Nevertheless, she stays the course. In a vision that plays on her own maternal care for her earthly child, she climbs a bronze ladder guarded by a dragon into an immense garden:

In it a gray-haired man sat in shepherd’s garb; tall he was, and milking sheep. And standing around him were many thousands of people clad in white garments. He raised his head, looked at me, and said, “I am glad you have come, my child.”

He called me over to him and gave me, as it were, a mouthful of the milk he was drawing; and I took it into my cupped hands and consumed it. And all those who stood around said: “Amen!” At the sound of this word I came to, with the taste of something sweet still in my mouth. I at once told this to my brother, and we realized that we would have to suffer, and that from now on we would no longer have any hope in this life.

Artistic renderings of women martyrs often fail to represent the calm and control the women exert over their deaths. Instead, they are often painted in helpless, anguished positions. This painting (unattributed?) of Perpetua comes close by showing her at the moment she pulls the sword across her throat. Notice how her hand is positioned to draw the sword closer rather than push it away.

As moving and dramatic as these stories are, evidence from the earliest generations of the Jesus movement does not support the claim that martyrdom was widespread and systematic. Douglas Boin’s Coming Out Christian in the Roman Empire provides a helpful vignette of the conversations about martyrdom that took place among the scholars of Westar’s Christianity Seminar at the Spring 2015 national meeting:

Even after A.D. 313, when Christians didn’t have any legal reason to fear “coming out” anymore, many kept on doing two things at once. They visited the racetrack on festival days, when Rome’s gods were honored. They went to baths, where Rome’s gods were honored, too. They lived hyphenated lives.

Many of these quieter Christians have been tucked away for years behind bigger names, labeled martyrs, but I think they have something important to tell us about the rise of Christianity. The Christian men and women who learned to juggle being both Christian and Roman played a role in raising the profile of their movement, too—not just their more opinionated peers. (5)

Without implying that persecution is a complete myth—death in the arena was a reality for many people in the Roman Empire, and Christians no doubt were among the troublemakers condemned to it—nevertheless scholars cast serious doubt on claims that large numbers of ancient Christians were systematically harmed and killed as a result of their faith. Among the voting items put forward were the following:

Jews, Christians, and Christ people were executed by Roman imperial agents and government. Recommendation: red (agree)

First- and second-century Christ people and Christians were systematically targeted for execution by Roman imperial agents and government. Recommendation: black (disagree)

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. Recommendation: pink (somewhat agree)

For those of you unfamiliar with Westar Seminar voting, a red vote indicates that you agree with a statement, pink means you somewhat agree, grey means you somewhat disagree, and black means you disagree. We always try to formulate positive statements for clarity’s sake, so sometimes the recommendation will be to vote red, sometimes black, as you can see in the examples above. Both scholars and members of the public followed the recommendations: this means there was a general consensus that, while Jews, Christians, and Christ people were likely executed, the execution was not systematic, that is, not heavily targeted at these groups. It might be fair to say that early Christ people were carried along on the waves of general Roman violence, in that their “deviant” behaviors were not treated that differently from other forms of deviance frowned upon by the empire. At the recommendation of Carly Daniel-Hughes of Concordia University, scholars and members of the public voted red the statement:

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.

The question of the exact motivations and concerns of these early followers of Jesus remain complicated, however, in part because of the diversity pointed to by Daniel-Hughes based on a case study of early martyr writings in North Africa, especially those of Tertullian (160–220 ce). “Even among those people who are promoting martyrdom, or constructing it, or theorizing martyrdom in North Africa, they don’t all agree on what martyrdom is, what it means, and particularly what the martyr symbolizes.” Some viewed martyrdom as intermediaries, possibly anticipating the cult of the saints. Others, like Tertullian, was adamantly against this view of martyrs and wanted to limit the effects of martyrdom to personal benefit for the individual only.

Maia Kotrosits of Denison University sought to intervene in the standard view of Ignatius of Antioch, who was martyred sometime during the reign of the Trajan (98–117 ce), that is, that he died as a result of being a Christian and as a key figure in the emergence of orthodox Christianity, especially over against Judaism, as though his only context is one of an emergent religion. “I suggest this is not just an anachronistic picture but a somewhat romantic one [that] ignores a whole set of historical forces and factors,” she said, and advocated for seeing him as situated in a web of forces including “Judea’s recent and ongoing longings for and failures to recover some level of national sovereignty.” Susan (Elli) Elliott, an independent scholar and author of Cutting Too Close for Comfort (2003/2008), echoed this concern in terms of how we do history:

Why was Ignatius arrested? … There are latent assumptions about which side of history we’re reading from. From the side of the people who get arrested, the rationality is not as clear as if we’re looking for rationality from the Roman Empire. We see that today: Was the young man shot because he was a threat or because he was perceived as a threat? The question that brings those two together is, “What was the threat that was perceived?” For the Roman Empire, it may be just that he [Ignatius] was assembling people.

Judith Perkins of Saint Joseph College (Emerita) called upon the work of Michel Foucault and Giorgia Agamban to draw attention to the way political states relegate certain groups to nonhuman (by implication, nonvaluable) status, what Agamban called “bare life.” Rome employed violence regularly to exert control through war, killing games, and so on. “To take life is the quintessential sign of power and control in this environment,” she explained. “… The Empire’s overarching attitude was that it wanted no trouble, no social unrest, and nothing to upset the community’s ability to contribute to the imperial center.”

While scholars and the public agreed with (voted red) Hal Taussig of Union Theological Seminary’s proposal that “discursive martyrdom played a significant role for Jews, Christians, and Christ people in negotiating and strategizing their relationship to imperial violence,” scholars more tentatively endorsed the possibility put forward by Kotrosits that the real issues at stake were “questions of sovereignty, belonging, diaspora, and social integrity/vulnerability” (voted pink). Public participants were more willing to entertain this possibility, and voted it red.

Coming at the question of motivation from yet another angle, Christine Shea of Ball State University wondered aloud whether martyr stories set out to do what a patrician would do to honor a dead leader, while Bernard Brandon Scott of Phillips Theological Seminar (Emeritus) continued the rich parallels and borrowings from Roman culture to put forward the following proposal about Paul based on the presentation of his new book The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Voice (2015):

Paul understands Jesus in the noble death tradition, not sacrificial atonement. Recommendation: red (agree)

This approach to Paul depends on sorting out an enormous number of translation issues, common misunderstandings about how Paul understood himself in relation to the Jewish tradition, and the continuously frustrating problem of separating Paul’s authentic writings from texts written in his name. Watch the blog next week for a separate, more detailed post (and radio interview!) about this issue. Here it suffices to say that both scholars and members of the public followed the recommendation and voted it red.

More can be said here about the noble death tradition. To flesh this out, Elliott presented a detailed story of Roman gladiator culture alongside martyr stories. Gladiators, though slaves, came to represent Roman identity (Roman virtus) in a powerful way. Christians coopted this strategy, in a sense claiming to be “more Roman than the Romans” in service of a spiritual rather than physical empire. Several ballot proposals were put forward, including this one:

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. Recommendations: pink/grey (somewhat agree/somewhat disagree)

One theme that has persisted across the entire Christianity Seminar since it launched, and which emerged throughout the martyrdom discussions, is the acknowledgement that the Roman Empire was the backdrop and primary opponent/competitor in the eyes of early Christ followers—in other words, the Jews were not seen as their primary opponents, contrary to the claim made in the book of Acts of the Apostles. Indeed, it is likely that many/most early Christ followers saw themselves as Jewish or at least compatible in some way with Judaism. As Scott observed, what was the Christian peace if not competition with Roman peace (the Pax Romana)? Elliott elaborated this further by pointing out parallels between Roman gladiators’ willingness to tolerate pain for the sake of honor and Christians’ willingness to tolerate pain for the sake of allegiance to their God. Both scholars and members of the public followed Elliott’s recommendation and voted this statement pink.

All of these questions must also be considered through the lens of how the martyr stories were practically employed by successive generations of Christians. Why have they survived for us to read today? Jennifer Wright Knust of Boston University reminded us that martyr stories were physically bound together with biblical texts in the same codices (books). Our modern separation of texts in the Bible from other texts written in the same historical era is not at all representative of how Christians were reading these texts even in late antiquity, at least through the sixth century ce, and in medieval times. Knust worked closely with the material evidence, in many cases even traveling to the locations where the manuscripts are actually housed so that she could work directly with them. This experience caused her to question a popular way of studying the New Testament and early Christian history:

Ruinart [in his Acta primorum Martyrum sincera published in seventeenth-century France] attempted to identify which of the martyr acts were authentic—what was true and what was fiction. He wanted to know. He ignored, as most who edit these stories do today, the practical use of the stories by ancient and medieval Christians, which is why we have them at all, because they were read in largely liturgical contexts and other kinds of devotional settings. This habit with martyr stories of attempting to fix the text … to establish the historical truth of that account or not, and to remove legendary accretions and excesses from texts, seemed very familiar to me as a New Testament scholar.

The obsession with “what’s the real text” and “what’s the real truth” in New Testament studies can cloud our understanding of how texts were used in late antiquity. The martyr stories in fact “promiscuously mingled” with canonical texts (the texts of the Bible). It’s important therefore not to separate texts artificially where they were not separated by early Christians. Knust’s full presentation can’t be summarized here, so please watch for a separate report on this topic.

Want to know more? If you found this report interesting, you might like to learn more about Westar's Christianity Seminar. Find the report on Jennifer Wright Knust's presentation on martyr stories and canonization here: "Historical Reasons Not to Limit the Contents of Your Bible." You can also browse all the Spring 2015 Meeting reports.

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Cassandra Farrin Dec 2014 smCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history. 

3 replies
  1. Gene Stecher says:

    May I request clarification on a couple of matters:

    Why is there an up-front recommendation? Certainly that places a confirmation bias in the minds of lay folks who may not know any more about the subject than what they just heard/read at the meeting. The area in question may also not be a matter of expertise for most of the scholars present who could overly rely on the immediate presentation to form an opinion. If all or most of what one knew about the subject matter came from this one presentation, it’s hard to see how a vote with any degree of validity could be expected. The situation seems to be basically different from the days of the Jesus Seminar when all participants were “expert” at investigations which separated the authentic Jesus material from the opinions and notions of the gospel writers.

    As an example of confirmation bias I would submit the red recommendation for Paul standing in the noble death tradition rather than the sacrificial atonement tradition. As indicated in Cassandra’s essay, the data on which such a decision is based is very complicated, and scholar’s widely differ on how the material could be interpreted. If one had even the slightest bias in advance of the investigation, it could color all results. I do not know how the participants could make an informed choice without hearing proponents from at least the two major angles on the subject matter

  2. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    I tend to agree with Candida Moss (The Myth of Persecution) in her introduction: “As we will see, the traditional history of Christian martyrdom is mistaken. Christians were not constantly persecuted, hounded, or targeted by the Romans. Very few Christians died, and when they did, they were often executed for what we in the modern world would call political reasons. There is a difference between persecution and prosecution.” She goes on to debunk the argument that Christians were persecuted in any systematic way.

    It is interesting that in America, where almost three-fourths of the citizens are Christians, Evangelicals consider themselves a persecuted group, from conversations I have tried to have with them and when I have pointed out the fact that their culture permeates the country and is by far a majority, it is called “un-Christian.” This is the sentiment that has caused the anti-gay legislation in several states this year and which we beat back in Georgia. (Yes, I contacted legislators.) Not being able to discriminate against others is an abrogation of their rights as Americans, a peculiar take on the First Amendment. But, this is the usual way they look at their world. From my experience, one of the earliest things kids learn is about Christians being thrown to the lions. And, lions had big teeth!

    I would caution about the historicity of the Ignatiana. Van Manen (Old Christian Literature III: Epistles, from Encyclopaedia Biblica) does not question whether there was an Ignatius who died around 115-116 ce, but his dating is probably more accurate than moderns would place it. He stated, “The importance the writer attaches to acceptance of monarchical church government as a guarantee of purity of doctrine and life, and his animadversions on Marcionite errors, also point to a date near the middle of the second century…” This would set it in the same time frame as other “martyrdom” stories.

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