The Origins of Martyrdom in Republican Political Theology Part I

Nov 07 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

America in 2011 is inundated with would-be martyrs on the political right, making it imperative that we understand the phenomenon of martyrdom.  Historian Michael Gaddis writes that “the motives of late antique religious zealots cannot be understood apart from a worldview shaped by martyrdom and persecution.”  I would argue this holds true today and will guide our understanding of the fundamentalist embrace of martyrdom as a political weapon. Gaddis writes that “this oppositional mentality, grounded in Christianity’s early experience as a marginalized and often persecuted cult, derived legitimacy, authority, and authenticity from the actual or perceived suffering of its spiritual role models.” Of course, significantly as Gaddis goes on to observe, “persecution…need not always have been literal.”  Being forced to tolerate the “continued existence of pagans and heretics” was seen as persecution just as it seems to be today.[1]

The act, if not the English word that describes it, is, it is often argued, Jewish in origin. The word martyr or martuj, is a Greek word perverted to serve a very unnatural purpose, for it simply means “witness.”[2] The very word martyr is both a highly loaded theological and ideological term. It was twenty centuries ago and it remains so today in the charged atmosphere of both American and Middle Eastern religion and politics (the two having, after all, a common origin in Abrahamic revealed religion). Martyrdom in the modern world indicates not simply death, but death with an end in mind, death for a purpose, a glorious death, a death accepted willingly in the face of opposition and persecution. And more: a death with a point. A martyr is making a statement of purpose.

It is also a word that is used in entirely the wrong sense by the early Christian apologists. For the word martyr means not at all what Christians would have you believe. No more than does religion (a proper and reasonable awe of the divine), or superstition (an excessive fear or awe of the divine), or any of a number of other words the new sect appropriated and redefined for its own use. In the Bible the martyr or “witness” is an agent for the prosecution, someone who has stepped forward to help enforce the law – not a victim, making a martyr the one who is executed rather than the executioner.[3] This is far from the only example of Christianity turning reality on its head.

We see the same thing in the Greek history of the word, for it is, as Glen Bowersock notes, “naturally part of the legal language of the Greek courts, and it could be used metaphorically for all kinds of observations and attestation.” As well, he continues, “until the Christian literature of the mid-second century AD, it had never designated dying for a cause.”[4] It was at this point that the word began to develop its modern meaning.

Martyrdom would seem not to be a uniquely Christian misadventure, however. As noted above, it is often said that it has its roots in Judaism – many Christian scholars make this assertion – such claims constitute the intellectual construct we have discussed here before: “Judeo-Christian.” Church historian W.H.C. Frend, for instance observes that “It has sometimes been said that Judaism was itself a religion of martyrdom” and argues that even as early as the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BCE “some of the main characteristics of the later concepts of martyrdom were beginning to take shape.”[5] But Bowersock argues against this claim, asserting instead that the idea of martyrdom “was alien to both the Greeks and the Jews.” As he points out, Socrates was not a martyr in the Christian sense and the oft-cited examples in the Books of the Maccabees “are not described as such there.”

More important, the whole concept of martyrdom in Judaism, as expressed by the phrase qiddus ha-shem (sanctification of the name), does not occur until after the Tannaitic period – not until late antiquity at the earliest. The alleged martyrdoms at Masada in the first century or the Rabbi Akiva in the second are all retrospective constructions of a posterior age, an age substantially later than that of the first Christian martyrdoms.[6]

In other words, a re-purposing of history – something we are well familiar with thanks to the likes of David Barton and his disciples, including Michele Bachmann, Glenn Beck, and Rick Perry, to name three examples (two of them, frighteningly, presidential hopefuls!).

One might well argue with Bowersock’s claim and say “but 2 Maccabees has two examples of such martyrdom!” For instance, Frend says that “The narrative preserved by his epitomist in ii Maccabees 6-8 teaches the rightness of resisting a heathen oppressor to the death…” and points to 2 Macc 6:29 to 6:39 as describing how a martyr should die, unhesitatingly and as a representative of the people of Israel.[7] To this, Bowersock points out that these stories are missing from the earlier 1 Maccabees “and there is good reason, both textual and historical, to believe (as most scholars now do) that at least the second story is a later insertion into the narrative given in the second book of Maccabees. It is possible that the first is an addition as well.”[8] It has been recognized by scholars that the Christian canon is also replete with such later emendations designed to modify the narrative in the interest of theological developments.

Of course, Frend takes the events described in Maccabees uncritically and at face value:

Three main developments which arose from the revolt were later to influence the Christian attitude towards the Roman Empire. First, was the idea of martyrdom, namely personal witness to the truth of the Law against the forces of heathenism, involving the suffering and even death of the witness…[9]

Frend seems to completely ignore the fact that a work which, in Bowersock’s words “celebrates in almost every chapter the Second Temple at Jerusalem (destroyed in AD 70) as still standing” that the “two tales of resistance utterly lack any reference to the Temple. And the second tale,” Bowersock point out, “puts the Seleucid king in Palestine when he was not there.”[10] It is odd that so much attention is paid to these books by Christians when they date from such a later period. 2 and 4 Maccabees are both thought to date from the Roman era, though, Bowersock believes, before 70 CE and none of them are even mentioned until Clement of Alexandria in the late second century![11]

“There is no indication,” says Bowersock,

that these two stories must belong before the middle of the first century AD. The only thing of which we can be certain is that the narratives in the second book of Maccabees must precede the more amplified versions in the fourth, which could have been composed at any time down to Clement of Alexandria. This leaves us with a possible date for the stories of Elazer and the mother with her two sons in the second half of the first century, in other words, in the time when the New Testament documents were coming into being and the zealous Ignatius was growing up.

How handy! But it gets better: “So,” concludes Bowersock, “if the two stories in the books of the Maccabees have nothing to do either with the authentic history of the Maccabees or with the lost original text that recounted it, it may be suggested that they have everything to do with the aspirations and literature of the early Christians.”[12]

Now we’re getting somewhere.

Context, as is so often pointed out, is everything: 70 CE or 170 CE, a hundred years makes a great deal of difference. Frend rightly notes that “If iv Maccabees proved to be a work of an Alexandrian Jew of the second century A.D., rather than of an Antiochene Jew contemporary with Jesus its value as one of the sources of inspiration of Christian Acta martyrum would have to be re-assessed.”[13]

The earliest Christian reference to martyrdom in the current sense dates not from the pages of the New Testament (after all, Paul of Tarsus bragged about his great relations with Roman officials) but from the time of Polycarp, c. 150:

We are writing you, brothers, about those who were martyred, along with the blessed Polycarp, who put an end to the persecution by, as it were, setting a seal on it through his death as a martyr. For nearly everything leading up to his death occurred so that the Lord might show us from above a martyrdom in conformity with the gospel…Blessed and noble therefore, are all the martyrdoms that have occured according to the will of God.[14]

If, as Bowersock concludes this account was written not long after the event, he takes it that the “concept of martyrdom was constructed by the Christians in the hundred years or so between about 50 and 150, and the word adapted in the second half of that period.” Significantly, he adds that “The coincidence with the composition of the New Testament would suggest that the stories of Jesus’s life and death were related in one way or another to this extraordinary development.”[15]

It should be noted here, of course, that there is no hint of a persecution in this period, or in any period leading up to the third century, of any organized persecution of the Christian religion, nor of any laws against Christianity itself, rendering these stories of Polycarp and martyrdom suspect.[16] The writings of Revelation, also from this period, suggest that it was more a case of the Christians being against Rome than Rome being against the Christians.


[1] Michael Gaddis, There is No Crime for Those Who Have Christ:  Religious Violence in the Christian Roman Empire (University of California Press, 2005), 6.

[2] Glen W. Bowersock, Martyrdom and Rome (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 14, notes that the Greek word martuj appears frequently in the New Testament “but nowhere can be shown without question to be used in any sense other than that of ‘witness’.”

[3] In this case, there were many more Christian martyrs than even Christians suppose, as thousands upon thousands of Christians were central to prosecution!

[4] Bowersock, (1995), 5.

[5] W.H.C. Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church (Oxford: Blackwell, 1965), 22-24.

[6] Bowersock, (1995), 8-10.

[7] Frend (1965), 34.

[8] Bowersock, (1995), 10.

[9] Frend (1965), 34.

[10] Bowersock, (1995), 10.

[11] Bowersock, (1995), 10. Clement of Alexandria, Strom. 5:14-97.

[12] Bowersock, (1995), 12-13. Emphasis added.

[13] Frend (1965), xi.

[14] Mart. Pol. 1.1, 2.1 Ehrman translation. Bowersock (14) notes that the Greek word martuj appears frequently in the New Testament “but nowhere can be shown without question to be used in any sense other than that of ‘witness’.”

[15] Bowersock, (1995), 13-14.

[16] J.E.A. Crake, “Early Christians and Roman Law” Phoenix, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Spring, 1965), 70.

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