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Historical Reasons Not to Limit the Contents of Your Bible

Whether you’re Christian or not, it’s tempting to assume that the Bible is the Bible is the Bible. Modern versions have a set number of books that only slightly differ depending on whether you picked up a Catholic or Protestant version, but otherwise it is what it is. But how settled, really, are the contents of your Bible?

The story is complicated, even without referring to translation issues. I’m referring to the actual big-picture decisions about what books should be considered of topmost value to Christians. In my previous post I gave an overview of Westar’s Christianity Seminar discussions on martyr stories and the emergence of Christianity. Here, I offer a report on Jennifer Wright Knust’s specific presentation on how early Christians were actually using the martyr stories, and what this can teach us not only about the first few centuries of Christianity but also, by implication, about modern biblical literalism.

Biblical literalism generally refers to reading a text for the plain or apparent meaning conveyed by the grammar and (limited) context. Setting aside the problem of how you literally read a translated text, were early Christians even reading the text “literally”?

As it turns out, that is practically a non-question. Early Christians were reading all sorts of texts they considered sacred and of doctrinal significance, many of which you won’t find in a modern Bible at all. This isn’t even a matter of individual Christians who defied the “official” version. Competing lists of biblical or “canonical” books appear even after the famous letter of Athanasius in 367 CE. Texts like the Letters of Clement, 1–4 Maccabees, the Odes of Solomon, Acts of Paul and Thecla, and so on, could be bound up in the same books as the biblical texts we know and love (or love to hate, as the case may be).

These mixed books come without explanations or excuses. A book’s canonical status had no bearing on its popularity. The collectors behind a given library of Christian texts had wide-ranging spiritual interests and actively put resources toward preserving texts they felt addressed both rituals/practices that mattered to them and important doctrinal issues. Even as late as the sixth and seventh centuries, Christian collections continued to vary in their content. “Christians in late-antique Egypt did not limit themselves to Saint Athanasius’ famous canonical list, … even in monasteries, where he was regarded as a hero of the faith,” Knust observed.

Codex Alexandrinus (c. 5th century) attests not so much to the achievement of universal status for these [the books of the Maccabees] and other books as to the endurance of local Christian canon lists, even in contexts where considerable thought and planning, not to mention expense, must have gone into a manuscript’s production. As an illustrated pandect, complete with decorative coronis and a now-lost set of canon tables, Alexandrinus was a luxury item wherever it was copied. … And yet it’s collection of sacred texts is unique and different from both Sinaiticus (mid-4th century) and Vaticanus (4th century).

Knust offered up three principles to guide our thinking about how texts were used by early Christians:

  • Religion and civic identity were, above all, public affairs.
  • Late medieval Christians did not limit themselves to the New Testament or Septuagint (Greek version of the Bible), so why should we, whether we’re studying the history or trying to define what it means to be Christian?
  • Christian manuscripts were part of a wider world of books and book-making.

Ironically, the torture of Jews in hell depicted in this Christian art mimics the tortures suffered by the Jewish Maccabean martyrs, whom the Christians venerated. (“Hell,” miniature from Hortus deliciarum, Herrad of Landsberg, c. 1185, reproduced in Heinz Schreckenberg, The Jews in Christian Art: An Illustrated History [New York: Continuum, 1996], plate 13. Photo Credit: Shira Lander)

Knust focused on the Maccabees as an especially interesting and telling case study. (If you aren’t familiar with the stories, you can read them here.) The Maccabees are Jewish stories that pre-date Jesus, yet they were wildly popular and were even celebrated by Christians at annual events. Over time, fully Christian locations including basilicas developed to venerate the Maccabees. One story in particular drew special attention and consideration by Christians: the gruesome martyrdom of a Jewish mother and her seven sons at the hands of the Seleucid King Antiochus IV (2 Macc 7) in the 2nd century BCE. As each son one by one refused to violate their religious commitments by eating pork, the King and his soldiers subjected them to torture and death, yet one by one each son faces his fate bravely. The first is scalped, has his hands and feet cut off, and then is fried alive in a pan while his brothers and mother look on. The equally terrible punishments that follow are described in vivid detail, and in the end the mother, too, is killed.

"These martyrs were upheld as models of the noble death by Jews and Christians, but were particularly important to late antique Christians," Knust said. In a detailed handout she listed the many "sightings and citings" of the Maccabean martyr story (see pp 6 & 7), which give a feel for the many ways it was used by Christian writers, such as this one from a commentary on Daniel by Hippolytus of Rome:

For we find also the seven martyrs who, under Anthochus, endured terrible punishments and were taken from the world. And so what of it? Was God not able to smite king Antiochus and to rescue the seven brothers? He was able, but he did not will to do this so that this example may become ours. For if he rescued everyone, who would he destin to testify? But if all were testifying and were killed, he would be reckoned by some of the faithless as being this: a powerless God.

What the various references reveal is a distinct shift in emphasis from the context of 2 Maccabees (the Maccabean revolt) to an interest in identifying model martyrs around whom a worship life could be constructed. "To Christians the Maccabeans were principally important for their precendent as proto-martyrs who suffered under a gentile tyrant, not for their role in the Maccabean revolt," Knust explained. By the fourth century, veneration of these martyrs only intensified, and even led to an official feast day (August 1). They were held up by Gregory of Nyssa, for instance, not in association with the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah but for their "Christ-inspired fortitude given to all those who possess a pure mind both before and after the incarnation." Gregory claims the Maccabean martyrs for the specific work of establishing holidays and liturgy (worship & ritual practices), not just as an obscure exercise in rewriting history or stirring up doctrinal debates. This sort of work doesn't end with re-appropriating Jewish martyrs for Christian ends. Knust goes on to give examples from the apocryphal acts of the apostles, such as the Acts of Peter, and other texts that enchanted early Christians and played a meaningful role in their religious practices.

The point here for anybody interested in Christianity today is, I hope, clear: if what was meant by "the Bible" was so incredibly diverse even into the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries CE, it's difficult to see why we should limit our definitions of "Christian" to a smaller circle of texts. For Christians, this could mean a dramatic opening of the gates for self-definition, community practice, ethics, and even the understanding of Jesus' role in Christianity. For non-Christians, it means, at minimum, being cautious when making blanket statements about the history of "Christianity" as though there was only one definition of it in antiquity. But I think the more important lesson for Christians and non-Christians alike is to give the voices in these other texts a fighting chance. Read them. You might be surprised and delighted by what you find.

Want to know more? If you found this report interesting, you might like to learn more about Westar's Christianity Seminar. The report on the Spring 2015 session of the Christianity Seminar can be found here: "Christian Martyrs: Neither Uniform Nor Legion." 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. 

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.