Rethinking Martyrdom

In the spring of 2015, the Christianity Seminar turned its attention to martyrdom. The Seminar’s goal is to reimagine the history of the first two centuries of Christ groups in order to do justice to the complexity and diversity of our sources. We aim to complicate the notion of a transcendent (already present, even if faintly) Christian orthodoxy in these earliest centuries. It is critical, for instance, that the architects of orthodoxy, like Eusebius of Caesarea, had much at stake in representing the church as a community of martyrs whose suffering vindicated, even facilitated, its triumph under Constantine. Scholars have long noted that Roman persecution against Christians was sporadic and local, yet they have persisted in the notion that martyrdom, at least discursively if not referentially, was central to the composition of Christian identity. The Seminar asked whether martyrdom was in fact a pervasive concern of Christ groups in earlier centuries.

To this end, the Seminar hosted Judith Perkins, author of the critical study The Suffering Self: Pain and Narrative Representation in the Early Christian Era. In her work and conversations with the Seminar, Perkins highlighted how Christians conceived of themselves as “sufferers,” a social-positioning that was not uniquely Christian, but had resonance for many writers in the Roman Empire. Taking Perkins’s insights as our starting point, our discussions addressed whether and to what degree martyrdom could be identified as a Christian phenomenon. Our keynote speaker, Jennifer Wright Knust, pointed us to Judean sources such as 4 Maccabees and enriched our consideration of the noble death traditions that informed, but also extended beyond, early Christian writings. Conversation circulated around whether we should engage more closely with a local-historical approach, resisting the urge to read sources from Asia Minor with those from North Africa. Would doing so attend better to the particular local and colonial histories under which our sources were produced? We pondered how best to articulate the nature of violence, particularly Roman violence, in the Empire more generally. Does a focus on martyrdom participate in an “exceptionalist” history of Christianity? Can we resist such a history, yet also take seriously the pervasiveness of Roman violence and its effects on people and communities? We parsed carefully the emergence of the confessional statement Christianus sum (“I am a Christian”), which populates the martyr acts. Here we made an important insight that the term “Christian” first appears in our sources in juridical scenes. What might this indicate about the significance of the term in the Roman Empire for those who claimed it (and the moments in which they did so)?

Papers included here explore a variety of issues around these larger questions. Hal Taussig traces shifts and important theoretical insights for the Seminar found in scholarship on martyrdom and early Christianity in recent decades. Susan Elliott and I examine how Christian sources constructed martyrs as potent and powerful cultural symbols, whereas Maia Kostrosits asks whether reading for martyrdom overly determines writings like Ignatius’ letters, obscuring other concerns motivating them. Together, papers animated a lively conversation yielding new and innovative questions, which ultimately moved us beyond “martyrdom” to consider how Christ groups variously responded to Roman violence.

—Carly Daniel-Hughes