Allen Kendall and Faculty Mentor: Stephen Bay, Comparative Arts and Letters
The study of ancient martyrdom literature has typically revolved around early Christian literature. Many scholars view the concept of martyrdom as a Christian construct, which borrowed only minimally from earlier literary traditions.1This assumption exists largely because Christian writers first used the term “martyr”—originally a Greek legal term referring to a witness in court—to refer to someone who died for their witness of Jesus Christ.2When reading Jewish literature, however, it becomes evident that although no term for martyrdom yet existed, the ideologies of martyrdom were nevertheless prevalent in Jewish thought. The aim of this project was 1) to establish the existence of martyrdom in Jewish literature before the advent of the Christian tradition, and 2) to assess the historical forces that may have sparked the genre.
The first step in this process was to establish the relevant Jewish texts. To be certain that the these could not have been influenced by Christian literature, it was necessary to establish that the texts were written before the existence of Christian martyrdom literature, of which the first text is the Martyrdom of Polycarp in the mid-second century CE. Therefore, only those Jewish martyrdom accounts which can be firmly dated to before this were acceptable. These qualifications resulted in the inclusion of the third and sixth chapters of Daniel, the tale of Susanna, found in the additions to Daniel in the Greek Septuagint, narratives within 2 and 4 Maccabees, the Ascension of Isaiah, and passages from Josephus’ War of the Jews and Philo’s Every Good Man is Free.
After establishing a list of relevant literature, the next step was to examine the texts for similarities which indicated that they were more than coincidentally related. After establishing the unity of the various texts, it was necessary to assess their dates of composition to see when martyrdom literature began appearing, so as to create a time frame for the creation of the genre, which then allowed us to look for likely historical events which might have caused it.
The various works we examined show a remarkable unity which refutes the assumption that they were not part of a trend of martyrdom literature but rather a minor influence. First, the various texts show narratological unity. The basic structure of each account is a narrative of a court scene, consisting of an official complaint against the martyr,3the bringing of the accusedmartyr before a presiding authority,4an opportunity for the martyr to renounce his or her faith which is refused,5a death sentence,6and an expression of willingness to suffer this fate.7
The texts also share a thematic unity. The central theme is the martyrs’ willingness to die for their faithfulness to the Law of Moses, which is normally explicitly expressed.8In addition to this, the literature shares a secondary theme of divine recompense for faithfulness.9The unity displayed demonstrates that martyrdom literature was not only present but reasonably well-developed in the Jewish tradition before the advent of Christianity.
The dates of the works’ composition reveal a trend. Though he anonymous nature of most of the texts makes exact dating difficult, details in the texts and quotations in other works give us reasonable dates of composition. These demonstrate that, while some elements of these texts may have developed in earlier periods, true martyrdom literature began in the second half of the second century BCE. There is one major event in Jewish history which stands out as a probable influence. In 167 BCE, shortly before martyrdom began to appear in Jewish texts, Antiochus IV, king of the Seleukid empire, attempted to eradicate Judaism by persecuting faithful Jews. This attempt to systematically stamp out the religion—the first of its kind—was an important event in the development of Judaism, and the timing of the development of martyrdom literature strongly indicates that this momentous event was the impetus for the creation of the genre, which encourages Jews to be faithful during times of persecution.
The results of this study lay the groundwork for further research because they justify the study of Jewish martyrdom literature in and of itself, and not merely as a footnote to the study of Christian literature. It also calls into question our assumptions about the development of religious thought in antiquity. If we can see how the themes of what is normally seen as a Christian tradition were formed in an earlier tradition, then we can better assess the historical development of religion in antiquity.
Jewish texts not only contain a developed idea of martyrdom, but the texts that exhibit this idea share a remarkable unity. This and the fact that these were written before these ideas were visible in Christian literature, demonstrate that, despite the lack of the word “martyr,” the concept of martyrdom predates Christianity. The fact that the appearance of texts dealing with martyrdom occur shortly after the first major attempt to stamp out Judaism implies that this threat helped Jewish writers develop the genre of martyrdom literature as they attempted to encourage faithfulness during times of persecution.
1 W. H. C. Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church: A Study of a Conflict from the Maccabees to Donatus (New York: New York University Press, 1967), 30-87.
2Candida R. Moss, Ancient Christian Martyrdom: Diverse Practices, Theologies, and Tradition. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011) 2-6.
3Daniel 3.10-16; 6.12-13; Susanna 36-37; Ascension of Isaiah 3.6-7.
4Dan. 3.13; 6.16; Susanna 28-30; 2 Maccabees 7.1; 4 Maccabees 5.4; 8.3; Mart. Is. 3.11-12.
5Dan. 3.15; 6.10; Susanna 20-21; 2 Macc. 6.18-22, 7.1-7; 4 Macc. 5.5, 8.5-11; Asc. Is. 5.8.
6Dan. 3.19-23; 6.16-17; Susanna 41; 2 Macc. 7.3-7; 4 Macc. 6.24-30, 9.10-12.19; Asc. Is. 5.1.
7Dan. 3.16-17; Susanna 23; 2 Macc. 6.24, 7.18; 4 Macc. 6.27; Mart. Is. 5.9-10.
8Susanna 3, 23; 2 Macc. 6.3, 23, 7.9; 4 Macc. 6.30, 9.1-2; Josephus, Bellum Judaiorum 2.152-3; Josephus, Contra Apionem 2.232; Philo, Quod omnis probus liber sit 1.88-92.
9Dan. 3.17, 6.6, 12.1-3; Susanna 35,42-44; 2 Macc. 7.9, 11, 14; 4 Macc. 7.18-19, 9.8-9.