Christian martyrdom narratives explored in Medieval Studies talk

In a Medieval Studies Brown Bag Lunch, Eric Rebillard discussed his recent book, “Greek and Latin Narratives about the Ancient Martyrs,” a collection of texts that describe the martyrdom of Christians executed before A.D. 260. The collection includes texts in Latin or Greek with facing English translations, a hagiographical dossier of each martyr, critical information about the manuscript tradition of the different texts and an analysis of their composition. The event took place March 8 in Stimson Hall.

Many of the texts collected by Rebillard, professor of classics and history, were long thought to be eyewitness accounts, derived from court recordings, and dictated by the events themselves. “They were not considered as literary texts but as spontaneous expressions of Christian persecution,” said Rebillard. These claims have been contested, and he noted that some recent scholars have argued there were no authentic acts of Christian martyrdom, that the stories are frauds and full of inconsistencies.

The question remains, said Rebillard, of what to do with these martyr narratives: “If we leave aside the issue of their authenticity, don’t we still need to account for the many stories of martyrdom?” He said the first step to answer the question is to define a corpus of texts independently of assumptions about their authenticity, and for this purpose he looked for external evidence to date their composition.

Eusebius’ history of the church, written in the early 4th century, proved an important source. “It was clear he knew of a number of martyr narratives,” said Rebillard, “and I arrived at a short list of four texts that were very likely the ones he knew of.” Augustine (died A.D. 430) provided parallel evidence for six Latin texts, as the bishop read from these texts before preaching on the feast of a martyr.

“What’s striking in this corpus of texts is that there’s often nothing in the text to date them, including no date of execution,” said Rebillard. “I wanted the collection to try to stop readers from looking at the texts as commentary on different persecutions and to decouple the text from the date of execution because there is no evidence of when the texts were written.”

In his next monograph, Rebillard is further exploring this corpus of texts. He believes the composition of martyr narratives occurred at a time when there was no external persecution but a great deal of division among Christians. “The texts were definitely not spontaneous products of circumstances; they were a conscious decision to write a narrative to serve an agenda not directly or clearly related to the martyrdom,” said Rebillard. “They were not a preparation for martyrdom, as some have suggested. All these martyr narratives address issues of authority and its sources in the Christian communities at a time when bishops tried to impose themselves as the unique heads of the local churches.”

The Medieval Studies Brown Bag Lunch Series is held at noon on the second Thursday of each month during the semester. The series features faculty in the field of Medieval studies discussing work in progress and current research topics.

This article also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle. 

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		 Image of the Martyrdom of Saint Apollonius of Rome: executioner standing over Apollonius with an axe poised to fall, while Apollonius kneels at his feet