Re-assessing the Early Christian Martyr Acts: A new approach to ancient heroes of resistance
Kate Cooper, Leverhulme Trust Major Research Grant (2012-15): Abstract
The early Christian martyrs were–and remain–heroes of the Christian faith, but their importance to the early churches has yet to be accounted for in a way that has relevance to modern debates about religion and violence. This project aims at s a far-reaching re-assessment of the date and pastoral setting of the most important early martyr narratives, the pre-Decian Acts of the Martyrs. The resulting publications will show how these stories used descriptions of suffering as a pedagogial tool to give urgency to the martyrs’ witness in the imagination of ancient readers.
The present project proposes a new interpretation of this stunningly evocative group of texts,
which celebrate the willingness of second-century Christians to endure unbearable pain for the
sake of their faith. The narrative power of these stories has attracted attention since antiquity.
But still to be accounted for is the genre’s specific way of remembering its heroes and heroines.
While second-century writers like Tertullian and Justin Martyr sought to incite indignation on
behalf of righteous suffering in an apologetic context, the literary genre of ‘martyr acts’ focuses
on the martyr’s ability to ‘rise above’ suffering, celebrating his or her staying-power in the face
of ever-escalating challenges.
Our main aim will be to understand when and why the martyr acts genre came into being.
Since the time of the first church historian Eusebius of Caesarea (d. 339), it has been believed
that the martyr acts were a contemporary reaction, like the apologies, to the second-century
persecutions. On this view, the ‘acts’ genre does not need to be accounted for: it is simply the
result of a ‘natural’ need to commemorate the dead. But if the genre only emerged later, after
250, then the fact that its distinctive character requires explanation becomes harder to ignore.
The starting-point for a new view of the martyr acts will be to consider the interests and agendas
of Eusebius. One of the most interesting aspects of his Ecclesiastical History is his view of the
early Christian movement as characterised by communal asceticism. This is a view very
different to that reflected in the New Testament, where for every First Corinthians reminding the
faithful of the coming end-time there is a First Timothy arguing that the community leaders
should all be married men who have raised obedient children.
Eusebius drafted the Ecclesiastical History during the Great Persecution of 303-11. At the same
time, the ascetic movement was finding its feet, and it is well known that the early ascetics saw
their own way of life as a kind of witness (martyria) comparable to that of the martyrs (this
would continue to be true when persecution ended after 311). It is entirely possible that through
ascetic contacts Eusebius had access to a kind of martyr story not yet widely in circulation,
which he disseminated as a pastoral resource for churches facing persecution.
On the face of it, ascetic communities are the obvious location for the emergence of a new genre
celebrating the endurance of the martyrs. If we look to the traditions of the desert fathers, we
find a breathtakingly apt context for the martyr acts as textbooks in a monastic curriculum
centred on lessons in endurance. In reading these tales of implausible heroism in the arena,
young men—children in fact—were taught fundamental lessons in suffering. The ability to
endure deprivation and physical hardship, arbitrary punishment and psychological bullying: all
of these were vital in breaking down earthly attachments, and in rebuilding young men who
could themselves heroically embody the austere demands of their calling.