The Origins of Martyrdom in Republican Political Theology Part II

Nov 08 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Jon Stewart smells what Republicans are cooking

Yesterday I began an examination of martyrdom in Republican political theology. I suggested at the end of that article that the writings of Revelation suggest that it was more a case of the Christians being against Rome than Rome being against the Christians. Likewise, the Republican narrative since 2008 (and indeed since the defeat of Goldwater) that insists upon plots and wars against Christianity has really been less about the government being against Christians than Christians being against the government.

Like fundamentalist Christians in late antiquity, fundamentalist Christians today want to make of themselves victims; a political theology that thrives on claims of being marginalized and persecuted requires a steady diet of martyrs. It is no accident that  Norwegian conservative Christian and terrorist Anders Breivik called on conservatives to “embrace martyrdom.” The connection between Breivik and religious conservatives in America is a very real one.

Arthur J. Droge (writing with James Tabor), can interpret martyrdom as a “noble death”[1] but it is hardly likely the befuddled Pagan Roman authorities, for whom religion had nothing to do with belief, saw it that way.  Glen Bowersock argues that references to Socrates’ “martyrdom” occurring in Apollonius and Pionios “occur in the context of persuading incredulous pagans that what the martyrs are doing is not irrational.”[2] It could not have been a convincing argument. Marcus Aurelius had his typically stoic countenance flustered at the thought of martyrs, and no wonder Marcus was frustrated. Look at what third century apologist Origen wrote in his Dialogue with Heracleides:

Bring wild beasts, bring crosses, bring fire, bring tortures. I know that as soon as I die, I come forth from the body. I rest with Christ. Therefore let us struggle, therefore let us wrestle, let us groan being in the body, not as if we shall again be in the tombs in the body, because we shall be set free from it, and shall change our body to one which is more spiritual. Destined as we are to be with Christ, how we groan while we are in the body![3]

And why shouldn’t Christians strive for martyrdom when Origen cites it as the second best way (after baptism) of winning remission of sins?[4] Christians might wonder at Islamic terrorists without realizing the seeds for the same behavior in their own religion. We’ll get back to that in a moment.

While we are on the subject, we should inquire as to how much trust can be placed in these martyr accounts? T.D. Barnes notes:

“Modern scholarship, besides unearthing purer recursions of acta martyrum previously known only in a late and unreliable form, has succeeded in proving that many of the transmitted acta or passiones of pre-Decian martyrs are neither contemporary nor authentic records of what actually happened.”[5]

It seems irresponsible to assert, as does Bowersock, that the acta are valuable historical sources. After all, Bowersock admits that “The Acts of the early martyrs that we possess clearly contain much that is fictional and was introduced by subsequent redactors,” but argues that “clearly these Acts contain much authentic material excerpted and included by the redactors, if occasionally supplemented or altered.”

Yet he himself alludes to the similarity of these pieces to ancient Pagan romances and takes note of the fact that the martyr stories appeared as the romances disappeared from the scene: “It can hardly be accidental, and has often been remarked, that the decline of historical fiction in the Roman empire (the Greek novels in particular) coincided quite precisely with the rise of Martyr Acts.”[6] The fact that they contain accurate portrayals of trials and hearings no more proves the truth of the events described than would the same description in a modern novel or film. Realism has ever been essential to a good yarn.

The similarity of much of Acts of the Apostles to Hellenistic romance has also been well noted,[7] and Paul’s shipwreck, while almost certainly fictional, is quite realistic. Michael Grant, in fact, argues for the sense of realism imparted, saying “in its main lines it may be true”[8] and Bruce Chilton accepts that it is.[9] Rodney Stark in a recent work notes in its defense that the Acts account “is fully in accord with meterological and nautical conditions and principles.”[10]

But as H.H. Huxley demonstrates, shipwrecks were a popular motif in ancient literature. They occurred “in Epic poetry…in comedy and tragedy, in lyric, elegiac, and didactic verse. History, epistolography, and philosophical prose furnish further examples.” And divine intervention while being tossed about in stormy seas was a Pagan motif far older than the book of Acts.[11]  The Gods were just as willing to save their devotees, and even some nominally Christian Norsemen preferred to rely on the intercession of Thor to the figure they knew as the White Christ when making a sea journey.[12]

Gerd Lüdemann concludes that Luke “spends sixty verses – most of them purest fiction – on the sea voyage to Rome.”[13] And in answer to Stark, any of these accounts, however fictional, could be quite realistic. In the end, it is the preconceived notion that these events really occurred that make them so “true” for Christian readers. After all, if you “know” the persecutions took place, the stories about them become much more believable. But if the alleged persecutions are made suspect, there is much less reason to assume this body of literature has any historic value at all. In the end, as Frend says, “in attempting to apply rules for assessment and categories of verisimilitude to each Acta martyrum, the historian has still to decide each case for himself.”[14]

And we all know how a fundamentalist Christian will decide. It is true because the pervading myth at the very heart of Christianity requires it to be true. That was true in the late Roman Empire and it is true today. If it is true, as was and is claimed, that Christianity was/is marginalized and persecuted, there must ipso facto be martyrs. It stands to reason that if the persecution is a myth that the martyrs who stand as evidence for it are myths also. And if the Romans would not oblige them, they would up the ante; there were always idols to smash and temples to deface and worship to disrupt, not to mention crowds to rouse to frenzy. This sort of behavior continues today among Christians as we see nearly every day in the news – outrageous claims and statements made, legislation proposed, and opposition to it met with claims of persecution. As Gaddis remarks, “Extremist violence, then, aimed at unmasking and provoking, forcing the authorities to act in such a way as to confirm the zealots’ darkest suspicions.”[15]

One aspect of martyr stories is most useful to us historically, however. That is that they demonstrate the importance of martyrdom to early Christians. They positively thirsted for it – they wanted to die for their God. And their example was Jesus himself. Montanus, the founder of the Montanist movement in the second century is said by Tertullian to have been visited by the Holy Spirit, who told him, “Desire not to die in bed, in miscarriages, or soft fevers, but in martyrdoms, to glorify Him who suffered for you.”[16]

In his examination of religious violence in the Christian Roman Empire, Michael Gaddis writes,

I found in ideologies of martyrdom and resistance a continuity between the suffering of violence and violent action, making sense of the behavior of zealots not only in their violence against non-Christians but also in sectarian conflict between Christians, and in their mixture of martyrial ideology and ascetic zeal I began to see common elements underlying a paradigm of religious extremism, a justification for zealous action enacting the anger of God against enemies of the faith.[17]

This analysis will sound familiar to modern audiences. In the ancient world, he observes, a transformation took place “from dying for God to killing for God.” We have seen this at work in our own time, with right-wing zealots eager to kill those whom they feel God wants eliminated. Even presidents.[18]

And here again we see the new cult’s sense of inferiority. Christianity’s heroes must be better, a superiority marked by their suffering. Look at Herman Cain, the conservative black man who, by virtue of his religion and politics is better than liberal blacks – a genuine black man, we are assured. A liberal of any color is less legitimate than a conservative of any color. It is not Christians who are being marginalized but non-Christians and those Christians who filled the niche once defined as heretical, those who profess “wrong beliefs” about Jesus.

Like all those ancient martyrs, like Pat Buchanan, Sarah Palin and other modern-day martyrs, Cain must suffer persecution on account of his beliefs. Christ, after all, had suffered. So must his witnesses on earth. And reality, like history, can always be re-purposed to that end.

In order to accomplish his task in Exhortations Origen takes up the new concept of martyrdom and reads it back into the Old Testament, rewriting, as Christians were wont to do, the past. These examples were designed, as Frend points out, “To teach that martyrdom was both a symbol of the Christian’s intimate love of Christ, of his gratitude for benefits received from Him, and an example to the heathen.”[19]

And, if not in the way they intend, they do make quite an example, do they not? And as Origen reads things into the Old Testament that were not there, so modern fundamentalists like David Barton read things into America’s early history that were not there. Nothing has changed in 2000 years. There is no reason to suppose that in 2000 more we will have seen any change as reality continues to pass fundamentalist Christianity by at the speed of light.

Were there victims? Certainly. But as there were not government sponsored persecutions until the mid-third century, there were no flocks of Christians going to the lions. Most of the so-called martyrs of early Christianity were inarguably victims of Pagan citizens aroused to fury over the disruptive and downright criminal behavior (vandalism of sacred sites, disruption of festivals, etc) of these Christians seeking to be examples – in other words, criminals who fell victim to vigilante justice. In the end, if pushed to extremes, citizens were quite happy to oblige their death-wish by lynching them.

When Christians did go to the arena (whether to lions or otherwise) it was as criminals, not as members of a persecuted religion. What crimes brought one to the sands? “Arson, murder, treason, and the desecration of temples” were among the offenses for which one received such a sentence.[20]

Things were bad enough in the second century but it was to get worse. It was this sort of criminal, terrorist behavior, MacMullen suggests, that “got Christians onto the north African police lists as early as Tertullian’s time.” By the third century things had gotten so bad that in 305 CE the church in Spain felt compelled to take action, denying martyrdom to “anyone who breaks idols and gets killed at it”.[21] The “provocation”, as MacMullen observes, “is too blatant.”

Even the intolerant Augustine in Africa a century later attempted to reduce tensions by appealing not to legality or morality, but to self-interest: some landowner might lodge a complaint.[22] This behavior did not abate when Christianity became first legal in 314, and then the official state religion in 324; on the contrary, it got worse. By the end of the fourth, as Christian writer Sulpicius Severus observed wryly “In fact, they vied with each other in rushing upon these glorious struggles, and martyrdom by glorious deaths was then much more keenly sought after than bishoprics are now attempted to be got by wicked ambition.”[23]

Wicked ambition is nothing new to fundamentalist Christians. Wicked ambition drives the Christian Right in America in the twenty-first century.

Yet it is the Roman government and Paganism that is blamed for these irrational individuals just as the American government and liberalism are blamed today! Christians believed then as they believe now that “truth should [not] be forced to live on equal terms with falsehood.[24]

Perhaps one day equally misguided historians will apportion the blame for the current crises and find the United States culpable for the deaths of so many Islamic martyrs. The comparison is not extreme or unreasonable. These Christians felt they needed to die for a cause; the same is equally true of Islamic extremists. And they both look towards the same rewards in the afterlife – paradise. The Islamic term for martyr has an unsurprising source. Notes Bowersock:

Perhaps the most astonishing and influential extension of the concept of martyrdom as witnessing came in Arabic after the Muslim conquest of Palestine in the seventh century. Just as the Syriac speakers had done, the Arabs translated the Greek word is “witness” into Arabit (shahid). This was to become a designation of Muslim martyrs who fell in battle before the infidel and could therefore count on great rewards in the afterlife.[25]

And of course, through their martyrdom, these people, past and present (and future no doubt) seek to motivate their fellow religionists not only to greater fervor and heights of faith but to follow their example. The Christian martyrs were too successful in this regard. Though Bowersock may be right in arguing that the origins of martyrdom have Graeco-Roman rather than Jewish roots, the Pagan authorities must have been completely flabbergasted, even if the actual numbers of martyrs were far fewer than the numbers of martyr stories composed in the fourth century reflect. Such bizarre behavior was not rational. People should not want to suffer, much less die.

Though suicide was not unknown in the Hellenistic and Graeco-Roman worlds, neither was it commonplace, and wrecking havoc simply to accomplish one’s own death is difficult enough for those of us in the 21st century west to understand, much less Pagan Romans completely unprepared and unused to revealed religion.

Even if the story is untrue, the attitude of the Roman proconsul of Asia, C. Arrius Antoninus, described in Tertullian is no doubt correct: “You wretches, if you want to die, you have cliffs to leap from and ropes to hang by.”[26] Even today, perhaps particularly today, almost twenty centuries later, one has to sympathize with Antoninus as well deal with waves of would-be martyrs persisting in a myth that has never been true, that Christianity is under attack and being threatened with extinction.

One wonders if, without the myth of martyrdom and persecution whether a fundamentalist form of Christianity could even survive. Certainly, while it persists and retains its hold on the Republican Party, the GOP will remain a Bible-driven entity and in place of a political platform will continue to express itself by way of a political theology. And America will continue to struggle toward the Enlightened promise of the nation’s founding.



[1] See Arthur J. Droge, James D. Tabor,  A Noble Death: Suicide and Martyrdom Among Christians and Jews in Antiquity (HarperSanFrancisco, 1992). Droge also thinks the question of a historical Jesus is “uninteresting.”

[2] Bowersock, (1995), 9.

[3] Origen,  Dial. 453.

[4] Origen Homil. in Lev. 2.4

[5] T.D. Barnes, “Legislation against the Christians.” The Journal of Roman Studies 58, Parts 1 and 2 (1968), 44.

[6] Bowersock, (1995), 24.

[7] Bart Ehrman, The New Testament, 134. Though Ehrman does not himself seem to be persuaded by this thesis, he notes that “Among the subgenres typically employed in the novels are travel narratives, shipwreck scenes, dialogues, speeches, and private letters – all of which are found in the book of Acts.”

[8] Michael Grant, Saint Paul (Phoenix Press, 1976), 11,

[9] Bruce Chilton, Rabbi Paul, 246. Gerd Ludemann shows a willingness to accept a trip to Malta but believes that the fact Acts suddenly seems to forget that Paul is a prisoner “cast doubt on the historicity of the whole episode.” See Gerd Ludemann, The Acts of the Apostles, 342.

[10] Rodney Stark, Cities of God (San Francsico: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 16. Citing the studies of  Jefferson White, Evidence and Paul’s Journeys (Hilliard, OH: Parsagard Press, 2001) Hanson (1968).

[11] H.H. Huxley, “Storm and Shipwreck in Roman Literature,” Greece & Rome 21 (1952), 117-124. See also Ludemann, The Acts of the Apostles, 333-334. Ludemann calls Acts 27 “a typical episode in a religious novel.” Ludemann would no doubt say of Grant’s credulity, since he says the same of James D.G. Dunn, The Acts of the Apostles (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1996), 335, that “he places altogether too much trust in the verisimilitude created by ‘the details of the storm and the desperate measures taken.’”

[12] For example, Helgi, who though “he believed in Christ…made vows to Thor for sea-faring and hardy deeds.” Landnamabok 3.12.

[13] Gerd Ludemann, The Acts of the Apostles: What Really Happened in the Earliest Days of the Church (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2005), 362.

[14] Frend, W.H.C. Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church (Oxford: Blackwell, 1965), xii.

[15] Gaddis (2005), 6.

[16] Tertullian, de fuga 9, ad fin. Cited in Bowersock, Martyrdom, 2.

[17] Gaddis (2005), ix-x.

[18] Gaddis (2005), xi.

[19] Frend (1965), 288.

[20] Amy Zoll, Gladiatrix: The True Story of History’s Unknown Woman Warrior (Berkley Boulevard, 2002), 100.

[21] At the Council of Elvira (Illiberis), canon 6. The date is not known with any certainty and MacMullen’s assignment of the council to 305 (with Hefele) is as good as any other as dates have been suggested from 300-314. The dating of Pierre Chuvin (1990), 15 who offers “Either shortly after 300, or perhaps in May 309” illustrates the problem of chronology associated with this council. The purpose of the council was to restore order and discipline to the church – in a word, to establish what was and was not allowed. In the end, 81canons were adopted. But Maurice Meigne, “Concile ou collection d’Elvire,” Revue d’histoire ecclésiastique 70 (1975) 361-387, argues that only 21 canon were issued by the council and that the rest were added later, probably from other councils. Some of these other canons prohibited the marriage of Christians to Pagans, Jews and “heretics” as well as participation in Pagan festivals.

[22] Ramsay MacMullen, Christianity & Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries (Yale University Press, 1997), 15.

[23] Sulpicius Severus, Chron. 2.32.4. trans. Philip Schaff. See also Bowersock, (1995), 4.

[24] Gaddis (2005), 6.

[25] Bowersock, (1995), 19.

[26] Tertullian, ad Scap. 5.

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