HIST 4742 Dying for God: Judaism, Christianity and the Meaning of Martyrdom (also JWST 4742, RELST 4742) (HPE, HEU)
Professor Olga Litvak
Martyrdom is one of the most troubling legacies of monotheistic belief. The idea and the practice of martyrdom remain with us, despite the inroads of secularization into every other aspect of Judaism and Christianity. Thanks to the global reach of mass media, martyrs continually intrude upon our consciousness. The willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice inspires, enrages and terrifies us. Where did this controversial ideal originate and why has it gained such enormous cultural power? This course examines the beginnings of martyrdom in the ancient Mediterranean, the cradle of Christianity and rabbinic Judaism. Looking closely at the historical context - the intellectual, social and political developments — that gave rise to the iconic figure of the martyr in the world of late antiquity, we will explore how men and women came to embrace the opportunity of “dying for God,” and why the cult of martyrdom became a public institution. Ancient people viewed the spectacle of martyrdom
with an equal measure of admiration and alarm; looking closely at evidence of their ambivalence, we will gain some perspective on our own mixed feelings about this deeply disconcerting phenomenon.