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Martyrdom and Rome.

By G.W. Bowersock. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. 106 pp. $24.95.

Unlike W.H.C. Frend, who concluded that "without Maccabees and without Daniel a Christian theology of martyrdom would scarcely have been thinkable" (Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church, p. 54), G.W. Bowersock argues in the 1993 Wiles Lecture that martyrdom was a special creation of the Roman Empire. Missing from the earlier "episodes of courageous resistance" (p. 37) among Jews and Greeks are the distinctive hallmarks of attested Christian martyrdoms during the second and third centuries: use of the word martyr ("witness") to express a "conceptual system of posthumous recognition and anticipated reward" (p. 595); "authentic documentation of the legal hearing" (p. 27) reproduced in the acta, eyewitness accounts, and the "protocols of interrogations conducted by Roman magistrates" (p. 36). Some may wish to challenge Bowersock's disqualification of Jewish martyrdom, or his somewhat less confident exclusion of Stephen (p. 13), but no one is likely to dispute the significance of the unparalleled documentary record. His analysis (lecture/chapter II) of the Christian and secular texts, which could only have been produced within the legal system of the Roman Empire, is meticulous, nuanced, and compelling. These may indeed be considered "precious remnants of a lost world . . . [that] shed a bright light on the dark space between the Gospels and hagiography" (p. 39).

The role that Asia Minor may have played in the "invention of martyrdom" (p. 17) is explored in lecture/chapter III. Here Bowersock suggests that indigenous Montanism, with its celebration of sacrificial death, was perfectly paired with the tradition of public spectacles in the amphitheatre sponsored by the provincial elite. This conjunction was clearly important in Anatolia, and may well have produced the earliest confrontations between Christians and Roman authorities, but can it explain the incidence of martyrdom elsewhere? Are the martyrs of Lyons, most of whom apparently emigrated from Asia and Phrygia (see App. 4), where they may have been connected with the Montanists, sufficient support for Bowersock's hypothesis that the impulse originated in Anatolia and spread to other regions? Perhaps, but the hypothesis works best for the second-century experience and does not account fully for the pattern of distribution during the third century, when the participants were more diverse and the locations of martyrdom more widely dispersed.

Bowersock's assessment (lecture/chapter IV) of the psychology of martyrs within a culture shaped by pagan institutions and polytheism is provocative. Should "eagerness for martyrdom" (p. 71), which some third-century Christians equated with suicide and Augustine definitively denounced, be considered simply a demonstration of extraordinary faith or an appropriation of contemporary perceptions of "glorious death". Bowersock's response (p. 72) is again unequivocal: "Without the glorification of suicide in the Roman tradition, the development of martyrdom in the second and third centuries would have been unthinkable."

In these Wiles Lectures, Bowersock has redefined and recontextualized the inquiry. He not only has produced hypotheses and interpretations of the evidence that challenge conventional wisdom but has also reaffirmed the significance of martyrdom for both historians of the Roman Empire and of early Christianity.
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Author:Eadie, John W.
Publication:Journal of Church and State
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1997
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