Examining Martyrdom in Early Christianity

I’m going to be posting some book reviews in the next month or so and continue the series on the History of the English Bible.

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Candida Moss. Ancient Christian Martyrdom: Diverse Practices, Theologies, and Traditions. Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012. xiv + 256pp (cloth) $40.00.

Candida Moss. The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2013. 308pp (cloth) $25.99.

Often, one of the first “apologetic” arguments Christians are exposed to are the martyrdom narratives in the early church, that is, the death of early Christians for their faith. Perhaps the most readily recognized in anecdotal apologetics is Christianity must be true (especially details regarding the resurrection and the life of Christ) since people assuredly would not die for what they knew to be a false or for a false cause. As Candida Moss states,

For much of the Christian era, martyrdom was viewed as particular to Christianity and as an indication of Christianity’s unique possession of religious truth. If Christians alone were prepared to die for their beliefs, it was thought, then there must be something special about Christianity (Ancient Christian Martyrdom, 23).

Moss, a graduate from Oxford and doctorate from Yale University, is professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Notre Dame. She is also the author of another book on the subject of martyrdom, The Other Christs: Imitating Jesus in Ancient Christian Ideologies of Martyrdom (Oxford, 2010).

The two titles reviewed here cover the same material. Ancient Christian Martyrdom (ACM) is the more detailed and “scholarly” contribution and is part of the Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library. Moss has extensive notations and is painstakingly detailed in ACM, while The Myth of Persecution (MP) is the same material presented in a more popular writing style. ACM contains a near-exhaustive bibliography (205–30); however, the bibliographic support for MP, while present, must be culled from the notes (263–95) and not in a separate listing, which even in this more “popular” format must be counted as a negative. Both works have very helpful indexes.

As Moss demonstrates the study of the subject of martyrdom is complex, even in terms of definition. “Originally, martyrs referred to the testimony or witness presented by an individual in a trial setting” (ACM, 2). However, by the time of Polycarp (AD 69–155), “the meaning of this term had been transformed from a material witness to an executed Christian” (ACM, 3).

Moss states,

As a history of ideologies of martyrdom, this book will utilize a functional definition of martyrdom that incorporates texts whose protagonists are memorialized as martyrs, even if the texts do not use martys in a technical sense (ACM, 5).

Moss presents her study of martyrdom geographically more for convenience and organization, although she notes the variation of accounts and ideology in the differing regions. “The arrangement of this book [ACM] into discrete geographically and sociohistorically grounded ideologies is an attempt to do justice to regional variations of Christianity and should not be taken too literally” (20).

Moss notes, correctly in our view, that while martyrdom accounts were stories that served both an inspirational and apologetic purpose, “Martyrs were ordinary people—slaves, women, and children—as well as bishops and soldiers who had risen above the constraints of their circumstances to display exceptional courage” (MP, 19). However, the downside, especially in modern history, are those same stories in some circles produce an “us vs them” mentality.

It is this idea, the idea that Christians are always persecuted, that authenticates modern Christian appropriations of martyrdom. It provides the interpretative lens through which to view all kinds of Christian experiences in the world as a struggle between “us” and “them (MP, 13).

Moss begins MP by arguing that the “Age of Martyrs” (Christianity before Constantine) is largely an exaggeration. She also makes the important distinction between “prosecution” and “persecution” (MP, 14; ACM, 9–12) “although prejudice against Christianity was fairly widespread, the prosecution of Christians was rare, and the persecution of Christians was limited to no more than a handful of years” (MP, 14). She notes that,

Before Decius, the prosecution of Christians was occasional and prompted by local officials, petty jealousies, and regional concerns. That Christians saw themselves as persecuted and interpreted prosecution in this way is understandable, but it does not mean that the Romans were persecuting them. This interpretation does not match up with the political and social realities: Christians were ridiculed and viewed with contempt, and there were even sometimes executed, but there weren’t the subjects of continual persecution (ibid).

Part of the problem that Moss notes is that modern sensibilities are offended by the harshness of governmental penalties in the ancient world (MP, 164–79). For example, Nero accused Christians of causing the great fire of Rome in AD 64, and subsequently burned many Christians alive. “The fact that Nero would have had Christians burned alive, however, was perfectly in keeping not just with Nero’s own penchant for cruelty, but also with the general principles of Roman punishment” (MP, 165; see also ACM, 77–79). As a comparison, during the American Revolutionary War, George Washington ordered 25 to 50 lashes for soldiers for failing to use the proper latrine and execution of soldiers, often with a level of cruelty, for non-treasonous, lesser offenses was not uncommon.

Moss’ discussion of the “Cultural Contexts: The Good Death and the Self-Conscious Sufferer” (ACM, 23–48), is important. “martyrdom was viewed as particular to Christianity and as an indication of Christianity’s unique possession of religious truth” (ACM, 23). She particularly discusses the death of Socrates (ACM, 33–37). She notes, “Socrates’s dying on principle in many ways stands [according to his biographers] as guarantor of the truth of his message. His nonchalant and at times joyful approach to death earned him admiration from many quarters, not least from the early Christians” (ACM, 35).

In short, unlike some misguided believers in the Ante-Nicene era (ACM, 149–55), martyrdom is neither desirable nor to be sought after. More importantly, while those who have been martyrs serve as examples of faithful steadfastness should not be viewed, biblically speaking, as a category of believers who are somehow spiritually superior (cf. MP, 19). Because he avoided a martyrs death, Myles Coverdale (c. 1488–1569), even though he assisted William Tyndale (c. 1494–1536), produced the first complete English translation of the Bible and worked on two others (The Matthews and Great Bibles), is often viewed in a disparaging manner in comparison to Tyndale. Moss’ discussion of the “Avoidance of Martyrdom” (ACM, 155–59) is singularly helpful on this point. In terms of a Biblical example, the Apostle Paul is a model in this regard. In Acts 22:24, when faced with a punishment that nearly always resulted in death he exerted his rights to avoid that possibility (compare mastzin anetazesthai “examine by scourging” in Acts 22:24 and ekelenon rabsizein “beaten with rods” in Acts 16:22, the later, while painful rarely resulted in death or disabling injury, while the former almost always did); but at the end of his life when his death was inevitable he was confident that the Lord would “bring me safely into His heavenly kingdom” (2 Tim 4:18).

These two works are important contributions to the study of martyrdom and the apologetics of the early church. Her observations and conclusions regarding the non-inspired texts of the church fathers on this subject will run counter at an emotive level to the popular evangelical understanding of martyrdom; but they are recommended as significant studies and a corrective. The entire concept of martyrdom is difficult, as Moss notes, “it is, perhaps, a cultural script that glorifies comfort and the pursuit of long life at any costs that reads martyrdom as unintelligible” (MP, 166).

Her questioning of the historiography of the Biblical accounts and, by implication, the uniqueness of Christ’s vicarious and propitious death, should not distract from her underlying arguments and observations. Her through examination of the history and realities of martyrdom in the early church require thoughtful consideration. An evangelical, biblically-based examination of martyrdom is clearly a need in the modern church, which is seeing persecution and killing of Christians (in the broadest sense of that term) rising in many regions and perhaps Moss’ work will inspire such an undertaking..