Category Archives: Martyrs and martyrdom

Another to be made a tag? The idea was to include here Jewish martyrs of the Maccabean era along with Christian martyrs. Include biblical martyrs, e.g. in Daniel and Acts.

Why a Saviour Had to Suffer and Die? Martyrdom Beliefs in Pre-Christian Times

The next time I hear someone say that no-one would make up a saviour who suffers and dies I will be able to point them to the table in this post. I think we can conclude that a suffering and dying messiah is exactly what we should expect to emerge from a world where all seemed lost and there was no hope for real deliverance in this life. Note, for example, #13. The table is taken from Ethelbert Stauffer’s New Testament Theology, to which I was directed by Morna Hooker in her book, Jesus and the Servant.

The Principal Elements of the Old Biblical Theology of Martyrdom

(Chief passages and proof texts)

A. The shape of martyrdom

1. The people of God is the martyr nation among the Gentiles. Psa. 73.3 ff.; 78.1 ff.; 79.9 ff.; 82.3 ff.; Jdth. 9.8; Isa. 42.1 LXX; AEn. 85 if.; 89.59 if.; IV Ezra 3.27 ff.; MEx. on 20.23; SB, II, 284
2. Those people of God who are loyal to the Torah are persecuted by the Gentiles and their accomplices DaG, 3; 9; 11 f.; I Mac. 2.27 if.; II Mac. 5.27; 7.2, 30; IV Mac. 5.16 f; PsSol. 17.19; AssMos. 8.6; Martls. 2.8 ff.; PsPhil. 6.9, 16; San. 49a; Cantr. 8.6 f.
3. Those people of God who are loyal to the Torah are persecuted by their apostate fellows Psa. 21; 40.9 f.; 68; II Chron. 24.1; Wisd. 2 f.; 5; PsSol. 4; 12; Dam. 1.20; IV Ezra 7
4. The people of God persecute the messengers of God (III βασ 19.2 ff.; Ex. 17.4; 32.9; Num. 14.10; 17.14; Jer. 6.10; 9.25; 11.19; Isa. 40 if.; II Chron. 36.16; Jub. 1.12; Martls. 3; 5; Paraljer. 9.20 ff.
5. The blood of Abel cries to heaven till the end of time AEn. 22.7; TestAbr. 11
6. Even the picture of Messiah has traces of the martyr in it SB, II, 273 ff.; IV Ezra 7.29; 10.1, 16, etc., in Jeremias, Deutsche Theologie, II, 1929, 106 ff.
7. Even the picture of the Son of Man has traces of the martyr in it Joachim, Jeremias, briefly: Motifs from the Servant Songs in the texts about the Son of Man in AEn. 37 ff; Traditions about the past earthly life, the present heavenly existence and the future return of the Son of Man in AEn. 39.4 ff; 71.14 ff.; 90.31, etc.

–0–

B. The fate of martyrdom

8. The confessors live in the desert, far from the wickedness and pursuits of the world I Mac. 1.56; PsSol. 17.16 f.; AssMos. 9; Martls. 5.11 ff; PsPhil. 6.7 ff; Dam. 6.5
9. The persecutors use suspicions and slanders, false accusations and false witnesses against those who are faithful to God Jer. 15.15; Psa. 26.12; 34.11; DaΘ. 6.5 f.; Wisd. 2.22; III Mac. 7.11; Ps. Sol. 12.1ff; Martls. 3.8 f.
10. The martyrs are treated undeservedly like thieves and killed and in this sense suffer innocently Psa. 34.7, 19; 58.4 f; Wisd. 2.19, 22; 3.5; PsSol. 12.4; II Mac. 7.40; IV Mac. 12.14
11. The martyrs frequently suffer and die in the arena, which was a recognized institution also in Palestine in hellenistic times III Mac. 4.11 [IV Mac. 5.1; 15.20]; cf. Jer. 12.5; Eccl. 9.11; I Mac. 1.14; II Mac. 4.12 ff; IV Mac. 4.20; JosAnt. 12.241; 15.268 ff, 341; remains in Jerusalem, Samaria, Rabbath-Ammon, Gerasa, etc.
12. Martyrs are often scourged and crucified, and ‘cross’ therefore appears occasionally as the inclusive term for a martyr’s fate AssMos. 8.1; JosAnt. 12.256; Gnr. on 22.6; further A. Schlatter, Die Märtyrerer den Anfängen der Kirche, 1915, 70 and n. 259 above
13. The martyr’s death is a sign of his coming victory Dan. 3; Wisd. 2.17; Martls. 5.7; Ber. 61b; AZ. 18a
14. Lists of martyrs kept memory fresh about the typical murder of the saints in history IV Mac. 16.20 f; 18.11 ff. L. Zunz, Die gottesdienstl. Vortrage der Juden, 1832, 142; Elbogen, 203; 228 ff.; Kaufmann, REJ, 1887, 250; SB, I, 582
15. History has also seen some miraculous deliverances which God has wrought for his faithful ones Dan. 3.49 f; III Mac. 6.18 ff.; 7.16; PsPhil. 6.9, 17 f; Gnr. on 15.7; 22.19

–0–

C. God’s Glory and the shame and glory of martyrdom read more »

Religion and Understanding the Zealots, Theirs and Ours

A few weeks ago in the course of explaining why I called this blog “Vridar” I posted a few remarks about American author Vardis Fisher. The name “Vridar” was Vardis Fisher’s fictionalized autobiographical name in the last novel of his Testament of Man series, Orphans of Gethsemane. I was pleased to read last evening that I am not alone in my interpretation of some key aspects of Vardis Fisher’s life and interests . . . and I wonder if I even share some of his reasons for taking a special interest in the violence and trauma arising from the politics of the Middle East. The bolding in the critic’s quotation is, of course, my own.

In a period of the resurgence of fundamentalist religions in many parts of the world, Vardis Fisher’s Testament of Man may be a text of some significance.

Fisher, raised by a strict Mormon mother on a solitary Idaho homestead, commanded a more sympathetic view of zeal than could most American intellectuals of his time. Possessed of a dual consciousness, Fisher rejected the rule-bound exclusivity of any self-appointed “chosen” people, but was all the same drawn to the passion of the prophet. In Testament of Man, he carried out his own arduous quest — to understand the moral development of western humanity. He donned the prophet’s mantle to warn against the dangers of fanaticism. Chronicling the spiritual development of his forebears, Fisher created a prophetic work [i.e. the Testament of Man series of novels] mourning the lost opportunities of Judeo-Christian tradition. He identified those points at which, in his opinion, a wrong turn was taken, a wrong road chosen.

In dishonoring the Mother, demonizing the “other,” [in  privileging law over ethics, and failing to synthesize love of wisdom with love of God, humanity set a course that has led to Inquisition and Holocaust. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, that course has yet to be adequately altered. Religion and reason have yet to be reconciled, and Reuben’s passionate appeal in The Island of the Innocent has yet to be answered: “But there’s a job to be done or there’ll be no Alexandrias. We’ll have a world of Jerusalems”(63).

Zahlan, Anne R. 2000. “A World of Jerusalems”: The Middle East as Contested Space in Vardis Fisher’s Testament of Man.” In Rediscovering Vardis Fisher: Centennial Essays, edited by Joseph M. Flora, 191-207. Moscow, Idaho; University of Idaho Press.

The four novels set in historical Palestine that Anne Zahlan discusses are

  • The Divine Passion (1948)
  • The Valley of Vision (1951) — set in the kingdom of Solomon
  • The Island of the Innocent (1952) — set in the time of the Maccabean revolt
  • Jesus Came Again (1956)
Although it can be tiresomely didactic, The Island of the Innocent serves as the philosophical centre of Fisher’s monumental sequence. At novel’s end, all hopes for a marriage of the best Judaic and Hellenic principles are buried with Judith and Philemon. The work’s repeated debates as to the merits of reason and faith, beauty and righteousness end in violent encounter and the tragic failure of synthesis at the heart of the Testament of Man. Zahlan, pp. 201f.

The anthropology and sociology that informed Fisher’s views have been superseded in the academic world but read as human dramas they have not lost their relevance for today. Of The Island of the Innocent Zahlan writes,

The Island of the Innocent is a daring book. Perhaps only someone raised among Mormons withdrawn from a world of “Gentiles” could, in the last 1940s and early 1950s, have written such a work. In the years after World War II when the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust were being exposed, Vardis Fisher had the courage and clear-sightedness to maintain an adamant opposition to exclusivist religion and politics. Having been exposed as a boy to theocratic-fortress mentality, he could insist on the need to resist the powerful temptation of a tribalist response to even the most extreme persecution. (p. 201)

The tribalism permeating so much of Israeli society and politics is no less problematic today.

Rejecting or misunderstanding teachers such as Joshua [Jesus], the people of Vardis Fisher’s Holy Land continue in the erroneous ways of their ancestors and base three major religions on rejection of the Mother and deification of the Word.

Fisher’s Middle East focuses on Jews and centers on Jerusalem. . . . His concentrating of theological, ethical, and political struggle on the Jews does not, however, unreasonably privilege Jewish perspectives. In fact, he dwells on dissensions among Jewish believers as, in later volumes of the Testament, he emphasizes divisions among Christians: Hasidim contend with Letzim, and Essenes with Pharisees, as do the factions of the early church among themselves. A onetime citizen of the Mormon Zion, Fisher no more endorses ways of thinking such as those that underlie right-wing movements in contemporary Israel than he does any other exclusivist ideology. To the degree that he deals with the historic relationship of the Jews with other peoples, Fisher foregrounds tensions similar to those that plague the Middle East today.

Interestingly Anne Zahlan introduces another scholar who has also influenced my views, Edward Said, and as I have done in posts here singled out a tragically ironical point that Said makes about antisemitism:

In the second half of the twentieth century, Said explains, the “myth of the arrested development of the Semites” underwent a curious bifurcation: “[O]ne Semite went the way of Orientalism, the other, the Arab, was forced to go the way of the Oriental.”15 In the aftermath of World War II, anti-Semitic hostility has been redirected to Arabs; Israelis now serve the western imagination as new colonial heroes who stand in for “white men” in a depraved Orient. Some of Fisher’s depictions of “the Syrians” and “Antiochus of Corinth” fit an updated Orientalist model of cruel barbarians besieging devout Hebrews, but the author of the Testament of Man takes no stand above or distant from the Semitic peoples he describes. . . . 

Portraying the Middle East as he does, Fisher looks not only back but also “ahead” to . . . his own [world]. He depicts the birthplace of western civilisation was a battleground, painting a picture colored by pained awareness of the failings of his own culture. (pp. 205f)

So I’m not alone in my dual interest of religion and politics, in particular seeking to understand the roots of religion and the violence of religiously minded people today — all the while idealistic enough to do my little bit for a world of Alexandrias competing with the Jerusalems.

 

 

 

 

The Late Invention of Polycarp’s Martyrdom

I’m currently reading The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom, by Candida Moss. (See her Wikipedia entry for her credentials and links to several reviews of The Myth of Persecution.) One aspect of her discussion of Polycarp’s martyrdom struck me more than the details alerting us to the fictional elements of the account, and that was the evidence suggesting our account of his death was composed a hundred years later than commonly thought.

One piece of evidence is the sub-narrative about Quintus, a clear foil for the true martyr, Polycarp. Of Quintus we read:

Now one named Quintus, a Phrygian, who was but lately come from Phrygia, when he saw the wild beasts, became afraid. This was the man who forced himself and some others to come forward voluntarily [for trial]. Him the proconsul, after many entreaties, persuaded to swear and to offer sacrifice. Wherefore, brethren, we do not commend those who give themselves up [to suffering], seeing the Gospel does not teach so to do.

Quintus was one who rushed to martyrdom. He believed Christians should actively seek out martyrdom. Yet his position is shown to be a complete sham once he confronts reality, and he departs the faith instead.

Candida Moss comments:

Some years after the death of Polycarp, around the turn of the third century, voluntary martyrdom became an issue in the early church. Clement of Alexandria, for instance, a Christian philosopher and teacher in Egypt, argued that those who rushed forward to martyrdom were not really Christians at all, but merely shared the name. (p. 101)

It may be significant, too, that Quintus is singled out as a Phyrgian. It was in Phrygia that the anarchic Montanist movement began from around 168 CE. The Montanists were notorious for their wild prophetic utterances and zealous seeking of martyrdom.

The problem of suicidal volunteering for martyrdom was a phenomenon of the late second and third centuries. Polycarp was supposed to have been martyred 155 CE. read more »

Invitations to Watch a Martrydom: The Letters of Ignatius (or Peregrinus) continued

This post is a continuation of Solving a Puzzle (or four) in the Letters of Ignatius: The Christian Years of Peregrinus

IN MY PREVIOUS POST I argued that the Asian delegates to Antioch mentioned in the letters to Philadelphia and to Smyrna should be identified as being part of the Asian delegations that, according to Lucian, were sent to encourage Peregrinus when he was imprisoned by the governor of Syria.

The author of the letters was Peregrinus, I maintain, and when he wrote them he himself was being led in chains to Antioch for imprisonment and— he hoped—martyrdom.

And having heard that the recent factional turmoil in the church of Antioch had ceased, he wanted the churches in Philadelphia, Smyrna and other cities in Asia to appoint delegates to go Antioch for his martyrdom.

.

THIS POST will inspect the other letter that he wrote after learning that peace had been restored in the Antiochene church.

.

That letter is the letter to Polycarp, and although it was written at the same time as the letters to Philadelphia and Smyrna, it differs from them in several significant particulars. As will be seen, these differences are the clue to its true character.

Solving the many puzzles of this letter will confirm that the would-be martyr was indeed being led to Antioch, not Rome.

.

The Letter to Polycarp

Polycarp is identified as the bishop of Smyrna in the letter addressed to him but, strangely, not in the letter to the Smyrneans that was written at practically the same time.

one would never guess that the two men had just parted

The prisoner wrote the two letters just a short while after his departure from Smyrna, having visited with Polycarp and his church during his stop there. Yet, from the kind of advice contained in the first five chapters of the letter to Polycarp, one would never guess that the two men had just parted. One could legitimately wonder why they didn’t discuss the material in those chapters when they talked face-to-face presumably just days before. And the advice to Polycarp regarding his responsibilities to the members of his church who are widows, or married, or slaves (IgnPoly 4 & 5) looks like advice for a newly installed bishop.

It looks like most blessed Polycarp has been forced into a text where he was not originally present.

read more »

Christianity and the “let’s turn the world upside down” bandwagon

Central panel of the Triptych of the Crucified...
Image via Wikipedia

While one sometimes hears it said that the gospel message when first heard in the early Roman empire was “shocking” and “turned the world upside down”, it is in fact more correct to say that the gospel message was a product of its age.

In the century or so leading up to the common era and beyond, the idea of winning by losing, of conquering and gaining life through death, and the virtues of patient endurance and self-denial when faced with tyrannical powers and losses in this world, were emerging as a “new morality”. The Christian message of finding one’s life by losing it was the product of its age.

The Christian saviour who is a king who conquers by dying was the kind of hero that resonated with the popular figures of both serious and light literature of the day.

If in another time heroic figures were great conquerors of cities and slayers of giants — Agamemnon bringing down Troy, Dionysus and Alexander conquering Asia, Odysseus outwitting and slaying Cyclops, David felling and decapitating Goliath — there was another value emerging in those generations preceding the time of Christ that came to stand as an alternative virtue for the powerless.

Here is what a non-Christian Jewish text from around the same era as Christ wrote of heroic figures. The conquering king is the loser; the victor is the one who yields up his body to be a public spectacle as it is tortured to death. The blood of the martyrs is even said to be the salvation of the nation. read more »