Martyrdom and Memory Review

Pattie Crider

Professor Shusko

Christianity 275

Martyrdom and Memory Book Review

            Elizabeth A. Castelli, author of Martyrdom and Memory, clearly stated her thesis in the book’s introduction as, “a systematic means to understand the Early Christian collective memory of historical experiences of persecution and martyrdom as formed by culture.”  (Pg. 4)  Castelli believed it is the memory of Roman acts of persecution toward Christians that developed the legacy of martyrs.  Her novel, comprised of six chapters, began with the collective memories of early Christian martyrs and closed with the exploration of modern day martyrdom.

            Chapter one, titled “Collective Memory and the Meanings of the Past,” urges the reader to move past “what really happened” and focus on the memory of persecuted Christians.  French sociologist, Maurice Halbwach stated, “Memory is a socially constructed function that operates as an ideological ground for the present.” (Pg. 12)  The earliest written recollections were not recorded until long after the events had passed.  Due to this time lapse, scholars question the accuracy of martyr’s legends.  In accepting the documentation as a collection of memories, Castelli leads to the study, not analysis, of martyrdom. (Pg.24)  The question of truth and accuracy put aside, I was able to get a deeper understanding of the persecution of Christians and the development of martyrs.

            Chapter two, titled “Performing Persecution, Theorizing Martyrdom” gave historical accounts of “textual and artifactual traces of martyrdom’s ongoing cultural production.” (Pg. 33)  Roman historical records of law indicated the Christians were persecuted for many reasons.  They were charged with breaking civil laws for refusing to perform the required state sacrifices. (Pg.37)  The Romans also charged the Christians with outlandish crimes such as cannibalism, infanticide, incest, magic, and treason. (Pg. 42)  The false charges by the Romans are what made martyrdom possible because “Martyrdom is not just an action, it requires an audience.”   It also includes violence, suffering, and a meaningless death.  Jesus Christ’s sacrifice is the template for theorizing on Christian martyrdom. (Pgs. 34-35)  I understand this theory because Jesus was the only perfect human on earth, and he was persecuted and crucified despite his innocence.  This chapter also theorized why Christians refused to participate in the sacrificial rituals.  The obvious reason was it broke the commandment to only worship God, but it also removed Christians as the sacrificer to the position of sacrificial victim.  Essentially, the faithful followers of Christ were willing to sacrifice themselves to the one, true God. (Pgs. 51-52) 

            Three faithful followers are introduced in chapter three titled “The Martyr’s Memory.”  This chapter covered the self-writings of Ignatius, Perpetua, and Pionius.  All three of these martyrs practiced the ascetic act of renunciation.  I have learned about renunciation through-out two terms of religion and was able to fully grasp what these Christians gave up in their lives to live for Christ.  Ignatius basically wrote himself out of material existence in his Letters to the Romans. (Pg. 78)  He documented his sense of humiliation, submission, and lowliness but still felt he was unworthy of the torture and suffering which would ultimately lift him to the hands of God.  Ignatius persuaded others not to intervene on his behalf because through this self-sacrifice he was imitating Christ’s sacrifice for all mankind. (Pg. 84) 

            Perpetua’s diary is the earliest text by a woman.  The Diary of Perpetua shared her desire to be more than just called a Christian but to really be a Christian.  Perpetua was a well-born Roman wife, mother, and a Christian visionary.  Her renunciation of worldly roles enabled her to receive visions from God.  Her diary accounted a frightening experience in prison and also shared the emotional and physical pain of separation from her newborn.  God intervened on her behalf to wean the baby and dry up her milk supply so she could give full attention to her spiritual journey. (Pgs. 85-9)  I have no doubt that Perpetua was receiving visions from God, because I have suffered from separation of an infant.  The only thing that would have continued to keep me from my child would have had to be visions from God, because the bond between mother and infant is so incredibly tight. 

            Pionius’ texts are the most theatrical, and he portrayed himself as a master orator.  His commentary is witty and he purposely provoked a temple warden by “chaining” himself to other prisoners with woven cord.  This was done to show they were prepared to be sacrificed for refusing to participate in the Roman sacrificial rituals.  (Pg. 99) His words to the warden were “Light a fire and we will climb up to it ourselves.”  (Pg. 101)  The three Christians’ attempt to share their stories during their execution is written proof of their love and dedication to God. 

            Chapter four, titled “Martyrdom and The Spectacle of Suffering,” outlined the two vastly different views of Christian suffering.  The Romans were thrill-seekers and viewed executions as a functioning spectacle.  (Pg. 105)  They gathered in arenas to watch Christians be mauled by dogs, set on fire, or ripped piece by piece.  There were no limits to what the Romans could do, and these spectacles were promoted as religious, political, social, and civic functions in society.  (Pg. 107)  The Romans promoted the spectacles as special events that all citizens should attend.  Sharply contrasting this ideology was the Christian view.  I previously believed that Christians would view this as horrific acts of murder but learned in studying 1Corinthians 4:9 that Paul had proudly proclaimed, “We have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to human beings.”  The Christians did not fear death at the hands of the Romans, but instead embraced it as their “completeness of faith” to God.  (Pg. 105)  Interestingly, the term martyr is derived from the courtroom meaning “witness.”  In this context, it is not what the “witness” has seen but the performance of the witness that transforms the seer into the seen, the testifier into the testimony. (Pg. 133)  I understand this as a martyr (witness of God) who willingly came forth and proclaimed their faith knowing they would die but hoped that those witnessing would see and understand their decision to accept death in the name of God.

            The fifth chapter, titled “Layers of Verbal and Visual Memory-Commemorating Thecla the Protomartyr” focused on the author of the Life and Miracles of Saint Thecla.  He claimed he did not write them out of concern that Thecla’s acts would become lost in oblivion or obscurity.  Instead, his goal was to assure that no one was ignorant of the words and acts of the Apostle Paul and the Saint Thecla.  This anonymous writer declared the acts of Thecla as “guarded by God in the service of his own perpetual fame.”  (Pgs. 134-5)  The story of Thecla is the earliest in literature concerning a Christian woman’s piety (Pg. 138) and Castelli found her to be the prototype for women martyrs.  Castelli noted in her book “The Acts of Paul and Thecla are well known and require only a brief, not detailed, exposition here.”  (Pg. 140)  Her focus is on the need for asceticism and described Thecla as “a Christian athlete and the virgin (who) is taken captive.”  Her renunciation of her wealth, family, lineage and all worldly goods to fully dedicate herself to God caused her family to declare her dead to them.  I found irony in this as I continued to read, because while her family considered her dead, her memory has lived on.  In fact, the earliest artistic artifact found was a fresco painting in a burial chamber dated in the mid-4th century depicting Daniel and Noah, Thecla and Jesus, Abraham and Isaac, Adam and Eve. (Pg. 157) Not bad for a woman whose family disowned her.

            The sixth and final chapter of Castelli’s book took me to the 21st century.  Titled “Religion as a Chain of Memory” she studied the story of Cassie Bernall of Columbine High School and compared it to the legacy of early Christian martyrdom. (Pg. 172)  The story of Cassie entering martyrdom was short and easy to understand.  She was asked if she believed in God, and when she replied “yes” she was executed.  When survivors shared what they had witnessed, Cassie was at first persecuted because of her reckless past.  As the media learned she had recently been saved during a youth ministry, Cassie was immediately presented as a martyr.  Initially her parents objected to her martyrdom (Pg. 182) but came to accept this title.  The memory of their daughter inspired cults, (as did Thecla) websites, CD’s, haunted house themes, plays, hats, key chains, t-shirts, necklaces and more. (Pg. 187)  Castelli found there was a negative view of this marketing and it had been labeled “the latest splash in American self-help.”  Her question to those with this view: “Were there critics in antiquity who called into question the tastefulness of pilgrim flasks bearing images of a half-naked Thecla…?” (Pg. 189)

I applaud Castelli for raising this point.

            In conclusion, Castelli’s book was a pleasure to read.  Her ability to write about the early Christian memories of martyrs and carry the understanding of their suffering from centuries ago to modern time was very effective.  I have a broader understanding of how martyrdom was developed by Roman authority.  Had the Romans not persecuted the Christians, martyrdom may never have come to exist.  It is collective memories of martyrs from the past that are now used to establish martyrdom in our modern times. 

Castelli, Elizabeth A.  Martyrdom and Memory.  New York. Columbia University Press.  2004. Print.

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