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Martyrs/Martyrdom in Early Christianity: Paul Middleton’s Contributions

January 16, 2019

It’s always a pleasure to see one’s former PhD students making their own contributions to scholarship, and one of my most productive former students is Paul Middleton, now Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity in the University of Chester.  From his PhD thesis completed here in Edinburgh onward (published as Radical Martyrdom and Cosmic Conflict in Early Christianity, T & T Clark, 2006), Middleton has steadily solidified his place as one of the leading scholars on the subject of early Christian martyrdom.  He has produced a string of publications, the most recent of which is this volume:  The Violence of the Lamb:  Martyrs as Agents of Divine Judgement in the Book of Revelation (London:  T&T Clark, 2018).  The publisher’s online catalog description is here.

The particular emphasis and contribution that Middleton has pushed over these publications is that early Christian martyrdom wasn’t simply a passive or unfortunate tragic act, with martyrs simply victims.  Instead, they saw themselves as actively engaged in the struggle against evil, acting as agents of God, even soldiers in a cosmic struggle.  The Roman authorities weren’t really so keen on killing Christians as they were to lead Christians back into the social fold from what the authorities regarded as a bizarre and socially disruptive stance.  In short, when Christians were on trial, the aim of the authorities was to get them to recant.  This is evident in all the reports of interrogations, from Pliny’s famous letter to Trajan on through the early Christian accounts of martyrdom.

Christians understood this well, and so refusing to recant was their only option. This meant death.  But in their eyes it also meant a victory over the efforts of the Roman authorities (whom Christians regarded as tools of Satan).  In short, refusing to recant, effectively forcing the authorities to kill them, meant that the martyrs had succeeded in maintaining their faith, and thereby in defeating the aims of the devil.

In his latest book, Middleton argues that Revelation pictures a looming situation in which the only option for Christians will be such a martyr’s death.  In taking this stance, Middleton disagrees with scholars of Revelation who contend that the author didn’t actually expect that every Christian would be a martyr. It’s now accepted that at whatever time Revelation was written there wasn’t actually a widespread incidence of Christian martyrdom.  So the author of Revelation is portraying what he sees as the looming future situation in which Christians will have to choose between “the Beast” (which Middleton takes as the Emperor cult) and Christ “the Lamb”.

This book also focuses commendably on the portrayal of Jesus in Revelation.  He argues that the dual imagery of Lion and Lamb is not contradictory but complementary expressions of the author’s view of Christ.  And Middleton shows how in Revelation the death of Christ functions as the model and inspiration for believers facing the prospect of arraignment and execution.

 

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13 Comments
  1. I’m curious if there are reflections of the death of Christ in both the imagery portrayal of Christ as Lion and Lamb in Revelation. There may be more to C.S. Lewis’ episode of The Lion dying on the stone table. I doubt that he took his inspiration from Revelation, though I’m sure he was thinking of Philippians 2.

  2. john permalink

    My favorite go to book on Revelation since the 1980’s is still “Crisis and Catharsis: The Power of the Apocalypse”, by Adela Yarbro Collins. I was just wondering if Middleton has any comments to make about Collins’ book, in this new work of his?

    • Yarbro Collins is one of the most frequently cited authors in Middleton’s new book.

      • john permalink

        Thanks Larry. That’s wonderful to know. Because of the way my psychoanalytical background merges with my fascination with all 2nd Temple writings, I find her section on “Psychological Dynamics” (p. 154-161 in “Crisis and Catharsis”) especially compelling, but I also love the way she addresses the issues of martyrdom and wealth in that same book (p. 127-133). Thanks for recommending Middleton. That he has deep admiration and respect for Yarbro Collins is extremely intriguing and makes me excited to read his work!

  3. Erich von Abele permalink

    “The particular emphasis and contribution that Middleton has pushed over these publications is that early Christian martyrdom wasn’t simply a passive or unfortunate passive act, with martyrs simply victims. Instead, they saw themselves as actively engaged in the struggle against evil, acting as agents of God, even soldiers in a cosmic struggle. ”

    Interesting; and of course still light years away from Islamic “martyrdom” (Istishhad) which necessarily entails killing along with dying.

    • Erich: Islamic use of “martyr” doesn’t “necessarily” involve killing. Let’s not stereotype a whole religion on the basis of its extremists.

  4. Tom Hennell permalink

    Pliny doesn’t say that he has let former Christians go; only those who denied ever having been Christians in the first place, By implication, those who admitted having been Christians in the past, but had now satisfied Pliny’s demands, are still in custody; waiting for Trajan’s response. Pliny, it seems, faced two rounds of denunciations; the first one appears to have identified a small number of current Christians, though some never-Christians; the second rush of denunciations (as the first was so successful) brought in a number of never-Christians, and a larger number of ex-Christians. Maybe the second round also netted some current Christians too, although Pliny only specifically mentions discovering two female ‘deacons’; who, being slaves, would scarcely have featured on anyone’s denunciation list.

    It may possibly be that those making the second denunciations had not known whether their adversaries were still Christian or not, but more likely they did not think it mattered. Pliny would not have freed an ex-smuggler, or ex-pirate; why should an ex-Christian be different? The fact of not longer being Christian should have been apparent from whether the accused had returned to being active in the established public religious rites, but it seems that frequency of religious observances generally had dropped off. Nevertheless, it is clear that the accusers did not back down when their adversaries passed Pliny’s tests; they remain insistent that ex-Christians should not escape punishment for their past crimes.

    Hence the need for the exchange of letters; which has a strong element of performance to it. Pliny describes at length what he has done on his own initiative; and Trajan replies briefly, backing Pliny’s discretion (as he almost always does). But Pliny would not have needed to write, if he did not have a queue of angry petitioners to satisfy, that Christians who recanted could be let free without further penalty. Which in turn can be read as implying that this was not then the commonly recognised practice.

    • Tom, I think that you’re reading into Pliny’s letter inferences that are crucial to your case but debatable. Those who said they were no longer Christians were required to demonstrate their religious and social conformity in the same manner as those who claimed never to have been Christians, in the cultic actions that Pliny relates. I take it that both groups were released. Those making the denunciations likely did so for various reasons, including economic ones, and personal rivalries, and business conflicts, as is the case often in Pakistan, where Christians are denounced as blasphemers for such reasons. There is no indication that there was continuing complaints about Pliny letting repentant or no longer Christians go free. The primary purpose and focus of Pliny’s letter is to claim credit for acting decisively.

      • Tom Hennell permalink

        Pliny says of the ex-Christians pending Trajan’s response; “many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered”, It does not sound to me that they have been released; nor that their accusers have yet withdrawn their denunciations.

      • Tom, However you may take that statement of Pliny, Trajan’s reply seems to confirm that “whoso denies himself to be a Christian . . . shall obtain pardon,” which I take to mean that they were released or should be released.

  5. Tom Hennell permalink

    Fascinating Larry.

    I can see that Middleton’s thesis could well be a very helpful simplification of narratives of Christian martyrdom from the mid second century onward; but does it also work for the later first century (assuming that as the date of composition of the Book of Revelation?). Specifically, I am not sure that we can read any indication that Nero offered Christian martyrs the opportunity of recanting their errors – or that he would have spared them if they had done so. Which assumes that Nero’s persecution is an identifiable historic context for Revelation – maybe Middleton disagrees.

    Moreover, I do not read Pliny’s letter to Trajan as stating that he was aiming to persuade Christians to recant; his pressing issue was not with the obstinate Christians (who deserved death, and got it); but with those who had denounced them – expecting to obtain some personal advantage in doing so. Persons engaged in a legal disputes in Roman provinces appear routinely to have petitioned the authorities, denouncing their adversaries for any and every offence that might stick; so a major part of a governor’s activities was responding to these accusations, sorting those where some official investigation was needed from the bulk that could safely be ignored. In this case then, Pliny’s particular dilemma was not the cases of persistent Christians, but the cases where those denounced admitted to having been Christian, but claimed to have ceased to be so. Could he simply release them – disappointing the expectations of advantage for those who had denounced them; or should he assume that anyone who had been a Christian must necessarily have been caught up into their secret criminal deeds ?

    Which implies that, at least in Pontus at the beginning of of the second century, it was not recognised that those who recanted Christianity thereby escaped punishment – else why would Pliny be facing a flood of petitioners; denouncing ex-Christians?

    • I’m not sure that we’re reading the same letter, Tom! Pliny says that he made certain demands on those accused, and if they complied he let them go. That included those who said that they’d desisted from Christian profession years earlier. Those making denunciations weren’t accusing them of being former Christians but of being Christians.

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