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Dying for God:
Martyrdom and the Making of Christianity and Judaism

by daniel boyarin
stanford univeristy press, 247 pages, $51 cloth, $19.95 paper

A colleague of mine teaches a popular introductory course on Catholic theology with the title, “A Faith to Die For.” Besides being a clever turn of a cliché, the name seems to echo a wider fascination today, curiously jarring in our complacent and largely nar­cis­sistic culture, with martyrdom. Some recent scholars have attempted to explain such ultimate witness to faith in nonreligious terms: as a gesture of political fanaticism or a cloak for sexual violence; others have redefined it as “voluntary death,” a forerunner for ancient sectarians of the modern “choice” of assisted suicide. Pope John Paul II, on the other hand, has pointed to Christian martyrdom as “the high point of witness to moral truth,” an indelibly powerful expression both of an individual’s affirmation of the moral order and of the holiness of the Church. In an age when it is generally thought that actual martyrs for faith have become few, the message of martyrdom to the wider world seems more puzzling and more engaging than ever.

In this new book, Daniel Boyarin—Taubman Professor of Talmudic Culture at the University of California, Berkeley—offers us a study of martyrdom in both the Jewish and Chris­tian communities of the first four centuries of our era. The first step in a longer investigation, Dying for God is intended to be “a case study and an experiment toward new ways of thinking about religious histories in late antiquity.” Originally given as four separate lectures, the book is divided into two sections that do not quite form a cohesive whole. The first chapter speculates about the degree to which Jews and Christians are likely to have thought of each other as different in the four centuries or so after the destruction of Jerusalem in 135, while the remaining three chapters analyze the phenomenon of martyrdom as it was understood and witnessed in these two emerging strands of religious literature.

In his elaborately argued first chapter, Boyarin suggests that rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity were probably less two separate religions, each with its own clear understanding of itself, than they were “points on a continuum” defined by the extremes of Marcion, the early Gnostic Christian who totally rejected the traditions of Israel as the work of an inferior God, and “the many Jews for whom Jesus meant nothing.” According to Boyarin, “rabbinic Judaism and Christi­anity . . . can perhaps be most richly read as complexly related subsystems of one religious polysystem, well into late antiquity and even beyond.” In making his tentative case, the author draws on a variety of hints in the ancient sources that Christian and Jewish religious practice may, in many places, have overlapped: the possibility that Christians in late-second-century Lyons normally ate kosher meat; the second-century practice of many Christian commu­nities in Asia Minor to celebrate the death of Jesus on the precise day of Passover rather than on the nearest Friday; observance of the Sabbath as well as Sunday as a day of rest and prayer by fourth-century monks in Egypt; joint psalm-singing by fifth-century communities of Jews and Christians on Majorca.

Boyarin does not deny that many documents from these early centuries go to some lengths to point out the differences between Jews and Christians. But “denials of sameness,” Boyarin observes, “are precisely what one would ex­pect in situations of difficult difference.” The very Jewishness of early Christian practice and self-understanding in many parts of the world may well have been the prime motive for both rabbis and Christian preachers to emphasize their points of opposition. In Boyarin’s view, it was only “the birth of the hegemonic Catholic Church” in the fourth century that led to the final definition of orthodox Christianity and rabbinic Judaism as distinct, even opposed and mutually exclusive, religious communities.

It is in the context of conflict over competing Christian and Jewish identities that Boyarin situates his study of martyrdom. Unfortunately, however, this second, much longer part of the book is marred by an argument that is palpably thin and even trails off at times into postmodern jargon. Boyarin spends most of his second chapter reflecting on a story preserved in a tract of the Babylonian Talmud about the famous second-century rabbi, Eliezer. Arrested during the reign of Trajan on suspicion of being a “sectarian”—in Talmudic terms, a Christian—the rabbi escaped, not by roundly denying his involvement with Christians, but by giving an evasive answer. Restored to his disciples, he admitted that the reason for his arrest—in God’s providence, if not in Roman law—may have been that he once “took pleasure” in a saying ascribed to Jesus. Boyarin is hesitant to invest the anecdote with a great deal of historical reliability, since it was probably only written down in its present form a century or more after the reported event. Yet he maintains that it reflects a third-century rabbinic consciousness according to which Christians in some sense “are us.” For this reason it was all the more necessary to “establish difference” between the two groups in their parallel evolution towards a self-conscious orthodoxy.

In his next section, Boyarin adapts to his purpose an interpretation of early Chris­tian martyrdom offered by a number of feminist theorists (Virginia Burrus, Elizabeth Cas­telli, Kate Cooper, Nicole Loraux), who suggest that at least by the fourth and fifth centuries narratives of martyrdom are replete with examples of “gender bending”: males taking on “female” characteristics such as submissiveness, self-denial, and withdrawal from public space, and females behaving in culturally critical ways. Claiming to find strong sexual overtones in accounts of the deaths of teenage vir­gins at the paws of hungry lions or the hands of savage male execu­tioners, Boyarin suggests that Christian martyrdom, by the end of the fourth century, had be­ come “an abiding sign of Christian resistance to the regimes of heteronormativity and natalism of the Greco-Roman world.” In other words, Christianity subverted culturally accepted norms of marriage and family.

Although Jewish practice in late antiquity still emphasized marriage and child­ bearing instead of virginity as the female ideal, Boyarin claims to find hints in Talmudic anecdotes that some of the rabbis, too, expressed their resistance to Roman domination by taking on what he sees as feminine or virginal traits. However, the evidence he produces to back this extraordinary assertion seems, to me at least, contorted and insubstantial. Moreover, the gender-based interpretation of ancient narratives of martyrdom, which Boyarin takes from other writers, often borders on the far-fetched.

The book’s final chapter doesn’t improve matters much. There Boyarin turns to the rhetoric (though not explicitly to the theo­l­ogy) of ancient Jewish and Christian texts on martyrdom and proposes, with full postmodern fanfare, “that we think of martyrdom as a ‘discourse,’ as a practice of dying for God and of talking about it,” rather than simply as an act of violence or of witness to faith. “Being killed is an event,” Boyarin observes; likewise, “martyrdom is a literary form, a genre.” His point seems to be that language, religious interpretation, is what makes martyrdom different from simple persecution, and for three reasons.

First, he sees it as “a ritualized and performative speech act,” in which the martyr discloses his or her religious identity: for the Jewish martyr, usually the recita­tion of the “Shema” (Deuteronomy 6.4“5: “Hear, O Israel . . . ”); for the Christian the state­ ment, “Christianus sum.” Second, a martyr’s death was seen in both communities as ful­fil­ ling a divine mandate: walking the way of Christ, or carrying out the command to “love the Lord your God with all your soul.” Third, and most implausibly, Boyarin holds that late antique martyr-literature contained “powerful erotic ele­ments,” including dream narratives and the language of passionate longing, to express the martyrs’ desire for death as an expression of their faith. In his view, accounts of martyrs’ deaths in this period “are all about love, about dying for God. What was new in martyrology was the eroticization of death for God, in the representation of martyrdom as the consummation of love, and it was new for both Christians and Jews.”

Here again, an important observation about the religious context of martyrs’ deaths seems to have become skewed by the imposition of contemporary literary theory. Surely a careful reader of ancient Christian or Jewish texts, whether exegesis of the admittedly erotic imagery of the Song of Songs or narratives of persecutorial violence, needs to distinguish carefully, as the ancients did, among the various forms of love. Similarly, he must recognize that expressions of what a modern reader calls passion need not necessarily carry “erotic” overtones for people living in a less sexually charged culture than our own.

This is a learned book, generous in its scholarship, abounding in endnotes—many of which are really appen­dices or minor bibliographical essays—and redolent with the author’s enthusiasm for conceiving of Jewish and Christian origins in new, less mutually exclusive ways. The thesis about those origins with which Professor Boyarin begins is a fascinating one, and the project of testing it in ancient accounts of Jewish and Christian martyrs is promising. Yet the book fails to hold together, perhaps most of all because Boyarin largely avoids any serious discussion of the reasons of faith that motivated ancient martyrs, and instead focuses his analysis on what martyrologies might reveal to contemporary readers about textuality, sexuality, and the construction of the self.

In the end, the question the book raises about early Judaism and early Christianity gets half-buried in the coquettish, self-conscious language of all-too-clever literary theory, and we learn much less of substance than we had hoped. Perhaps future stages of Boyarin’s planned voyage of investigation will lead us into deeper waters.

Brian E. Daley, S.J., is a patristic scholar and the Catherine F. Huisking Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.

Image by Sam Valadi licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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