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But WHY Doesn’t Torture Hurt?? Guest Post by Stephanie Cobb

This now is the final of Stephanie Cobb’s posts on the painlessness of martyrdom, as explained more fully in her recent book.  And now we get to the heart of the matter: if it doesn’t hurt, uh, why is that???

Again, Stephanie has graciously agreed to answer your questions — so ask away.

Stephanie Cobb has written Dying to Be Men and Divine Deliverance.

If you were a member of the blog, you would get access to all the posts, five times a week, instead of just one occasionally.  It’s terrific value for your money, and every penny goes to charity.  So join already….


In my first two posts, I asked “Does martyrdom hurt?” and explored reasons why early Christian martyr texts might reasonably answer “yes!” but then detailed the ways in which these texts actually make the counterintuitive argument: “No! Martyrdom doesn’t hurt.” In this—my last—post on Divine Deliverance: Pain and Painlessness in Early Christian Martyr Texts, I want to explore a slightly different question: “Why doesn’t martyrdom hurt?”

To read a text and note the language it uses is the easy part of research. To explain why certain language is preferred by a particular author or across time and space—especially when it’s unexpected language—is not only the hard part of research, it’s also the part that makes it meaningful. In other words, not many people will care that martyr texts used language of analgesia and anesthesia; they may (I hope) care why. And so the rest of this post offers a few ways of contextualizing the claims I originally found so confounding.

  1. Eschatological hopes. The discourse of painlessness would have been easily understood in terms of eschatological expectations. The martyr texts are apocalyptic texts in that they posit a dualistic worldview, anticipate the coming end of time, final judgment, and the eternal rewards of the faithful. But, at least for some of these authors, Christians enduring torture do not have to wait until the end of time to receive the benefits of their salvation. Rather, the texts suggest that the martyrs attain these rewards—at least in part—even before their deaths. That is, we may find in some of these narratives an assertion of a realized eschatology: for the martyrs, the benefits of future glory are translated into the present world.

Of particular import in this case are the beliefs about the resurrected and glorified body. The third century North African author, Tertullian, asserts that the resurrected flesh will be “impassible, inasmuch as it has been liberated by the Lord so that it is no longer possible for it to suffer” (Res. 57.13). The medieval historian Caroline Walker Bynum uses a beautiful phrase to explain this expectation: she suggests that a “sort of anesthesia of glory” might spill over from the “promised resurrection into the ravaged flesh of the arena” (The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity 200-1336, 45). Relevant to this promise is Revelation 21:4, which describes the New Jerusalem: in this glorified place, “death will be no more, morning and crying and distress/pain will be no more.” In the bodies of the martyrs, Satan has been defeated and through the martyrs’ impassibility, the kingdom of God has been realized.

  1. Stoic discourses. Martyr texts—like so many other Christian texts in antiquity—draw on Stoic philosophy. Assertions of Christian disinterestedness in pain correspond with certain understandings of Stoic teachings. For Stoic philosophy, pain must be understood within the larger goal of living in accordance with nature. One must accept what one cannot change. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus, for instance, taught that we cannot change whether or not we are executed, but we can control how we react to execution: I can stop myself from groaning or crying out or wailing. Generally speaking, Stoics did not claim that the philosopher could overcome the sensation of pain altogether; rather, they argued for self-control in the face of pain. But there is evidence of certain misunderstandings of Stoic teachings on this exact point.

The Jewish Stoic author of 4 Maccabees is one case in point: he argues that “devout reason” masters the passions that stand in the way of manliness, namely: anger, fear, and pain (1.4). In relating the story of the elderly Jewish man Eleazar, the narrator explains that reason “masters external pain” (6.34). Similarly, a group of brothers who successfully resist the tyrant’s demands demonstrate that they were “complete masters of pain” (8.28). 4 Maccabees was known and used by early Christians, and so it would not be surprising for Christians, too, to associate reason with the ability to rise above the experience of bodily pain.

  1. Judicial discourses. I mentioned in my last post that inflicting pain was central to the judicial system of the Roman empire. One way of understanding claims to Christian painlessness is to see it as a response to pagan claims to the efficacy of judicial torture. That is to say, both pagans and Christians used existing discourses to claim cultural capital for themselves and to deny that capital to their opponents.

Pagan authors cast Christians as stubborn members of politically threatening groups who, as such, were justly tortured and executed. These authors narrate the triumph of Roman power over lawless individuals who threaten the empire. Since, as we have already seen, judicial pain was inflicted publicly in order to serve as a deterrent to others, Christian rejection of the experience of pain was especially subversive. In their claims to Christian insensitivity to pain, the martyr texts upend the entire logic of the Roman judicial system: through these narratives, Christian audiences are taught that what appears to be happening is not what, in fact, happens. Christian martyr texts reject the premise that Rome can harm the bodies of the faithful.

By undermining the judicial theory of pain, the early Christian martyr texts destabilize the entire system that supports the social, political, and religious life of imperial Rome. The Roman persecutors are found to be wholly inept at achieving their two related goals: first, they cannot hurt the Christian body—no matter how much torture they apply—and second, their attempts to dissuade others from joining the Christian faith inevitably backfire. Far from being a deterrent, the martyr texts assert that public torture brings more people into the fold.

Even more important than what the texts teach us about the individual body, however, is the lesson this counter-discourse teaches about the social body. The martyr’s body is simultaneously individual and social: it illustrates the strengths and (potential) weaknesses of Christianity as a social phenomenon as much as it does those of any particular individual. As such the Christian body’s resistance to the power of Rome takes on even more meaning. If the persecution of Christianity had as its aim the destruction of the movement, the impenetrability of the individual body demonstrates the impenetrability of the social body. Rome can no more destroy Christianity as a whole than it can harm any one of its members.

Before ending my stint as guest blogger, I’d like to make one final point about the discourse of painlessness in early Christian martyr texts. I have come to believe that we misread these texts if we insist on their historicity or that they must have at least a veneer of historicity to them. In the contexts in which they were written—when Christians feared (rightly or not) that they might be caught up in Roman persecutions—these texts have much loftier aims than merely reciting the “facts” of a particular event. Rather, I now read these texts as nothing less than miracle stories. It is not the individual Christian martyr whose story is front and center. These narratives focus primarily on the work of God. In the moments when an individual would feel most alone, these authors insist that nothing could be further from the truth. Bodies that should be in pain are not because they have been divinely delivered from that experience. God is not absent when Christians are standing in the arena; God is there, suffering for them, protecting their bodies from the pain that inevitably results from physical torture. The Christian martyr texts are not interested in “real” bodies. They are telling the story of God’s interaction in and with his people. These texts teach us not to be deceived by what we see with our eyes. Rather, we must look with the eyes of faith to see that the Lord is standing by, strengthening the martyrs, comforting them, healing them, protecting them, and rewarding them. In the end, the martyr texts narrate the miracle of divine deliverance.

A Christian Forger Caught in the Act
How Could Torture Not Hurt?? Guest Post by Stephanie Cobb



  1. Avatar
    flshrP  July 30, 2019

    To the extent that these martyrdom stories are miracle stories, they are the author’s fantasies. As Bart has pointed out repeatedly, miracles are the least probable explanation for historical events, like the existence of Christian martyrs in the 200 years or so prior to Constantine I. These martyrologies as miracle stores are a continuation of nearly 2000 years of Jewish and Christian religious history prior to the early martyrs in which Yahweh of the OT and God the Father and Jesus the Son in the NT allow and require innocent blood to flow in order to demonstrate their own glory. The blood of the martyrs as re-enactment of Calvary. This obscene nonsense evidently has no end in sight since it extends into this century nearly 2000 years later.

    • scobb
      scobb  August 1, 2019

      As I mentioned in a comment on the last post, I suggest we differentiate subsequent Christian history from these early texts (which, of course, predate that history). I am certainly no apologist for theologies that argue for self-sacrifice. I also, though, don’t think that’s what these texts do. (In fact, one text–the Martyrdom of Polycarp–makes an extended argument against self-sacrifice!)

      When Bart talks about miracles as the “least probable explanation for historical events,” he is not talking about the function of miracle as a genre. He’s talking about whether or not historians can consider miracles as evidence for historical events. I wholly agree with him, but that’s quite different from what I’m arguing here. I don’t think the martyrs were immune to pain. If I did, then you would rightly ask me how miracles could provide evidence for a historical phenomenon. But I’m suggesting that these texts are not at all about history but about theology. As a group that was powerless and in the throes of persecution (or perceived persecution or feared persecution), they very much needed to affirm that God was not absent in these moments. The rhetoric of painlessness seems to have served this purpose for them. That is to say, miracle serves a literary purpose apart from the historian’s quest.

      It may well be that this rhetoric was used differently (perhaps in unfortunate ways) in later periods, but I think we do well to read these texts–first–as products of their own times to try to determine, to the best of our abilities, what they were communicating to their original audiences. After that, we can certainly try to determine how they were appropriated similarly or differently in other times and places.

  2. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  July 30, 2019

    All of your posts have been excellent. I especially like what you say at the end of this one. Very insightful, thank you!

    • scobb
      scobb  August 1, 2019

      Thank you, very much. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the posts!

  3. Avatar
    balivi  July 30, 2019

    Thanx this very interesting post series:-)

    “These texts teach us not to be deceived by what we see with our eyes. Rather, we must look with the eyes of faith…”

    Indeed. And that, also points to something strange. It shows the nature of the early Christian faith, what I research, for a long time. As Paul says: “from faith for faith” in Rom1:17. In other words: without faith, “the eyes of faith”, one cannot get to faith, to the unseen. There is not one without the other. Because the early Christians also had eyes, they were not blind 🙂 They had to see something, which forwarded them to the faith, to the painlessness.

    But what did they see? Obviously not the Lord Jesus Chris, the resurrected Jesus, since he is already in a ruler position, he is sitting at the right hand of God. They see, whom they “received from God”, and whom they accepted in baptism: they saw the Christ. That is, not, as themselves. Because, they, as sons and daughters of God, are not visible. They didn’t hurt anymore, because they were already dead in the Christ. And a dead man does not feel pain 🙂

    Thanx for your guest posts!

    • Avatar
      balivi  July 30, 2019

      Let me tell something (only apparently off topic:-).
      I pay a beer for who tells me, what the Son’s name is (in the pauline letters: Rom8:3; Fil2:6-7 etc 🙂

    • scobb
      scobb  August 1, 2019

      Thanks! I’m so glad you’ve enjoyed the posts!

  4. epicurus
    epicurus  July 30, 2019

    Very good. I really enjoyed reading this series of posts. It’s something I’d never thought of.

  5. Avatar
    RRomanchek  July 31, 2019

    I have better understanding of Tertullian‘s “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church” phrase. Subversive indeed! Thanks Professor Cobb.

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    RICHWEN90  July 31, 2019

    I get the impression then that the martyr stories were largely a matter of propaganda. You don’t want people dropping out because they might suffer in a terrible way so you convince them that they won’t suffer. Or you convince them that if they drop out to avoid horrible suffering, they’ll suffer even more and forever in the afterlife. And if that’s the case, it’s diabolical. I have read of one case in which a few protestants were boiled in oil by another group of protestants, in the middle ages, over some insane theological hair-splitting fantasy, and the victims really did seem to be in no pain! The explanation offered was that the boiling temperature of the mixture in the vat was actually well below the boiling point of water, and after initial discomfort the pain nerves in the skin would have been too damaged to transmit any information about pain to the brain. They would probably have died then of heat exhaustion. Wild beast attacks in the arena would have been like such attacks in the wild– predators typically shake their catch violently, snapping the necks of their prey. You would have an initial shock of pain but accompanied by a numbing violent impact, rattling the brain in effect, and a snapped neck. All over. I have also read that severe burns, if quick in onset, are not particularly painful. Pain develops later, during treatment and recovery. If someone knows better, please correct me.

  7. Avatar
    Forrest  August 1, 2019

    As for me, facing torture in the arena or burning the required incense to Caesar. I’’d burn the incense. 😎

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    HawksJ  August 1, 2019

    Thank you these posts. It is a fascinating topic and I appreciate your sharing your expertise!

    It seems to me – and this may simply be an amateur’s oversimplification – that the primary purpose of such a narrative is encouragement to those who might fear that their faith will put them in danger too. Basically, the message is: “Be loud & proud in your faith and fear not, if worse comes to worst, God will make it not hurt anyway.”

    • scobb
      scobb  August 4, 2019

      Yes, or maybe a slightly different way to phrase it is: God won’t abandon you in the amphitheater, no matter how alone you may feel.

  9. Avatar
    Bewilderbeast  August 2, 2019

    Thank you – this was fascinating. The perception of pain is also a fascinating topic. Two people can react very differently to the same pain.
    My own perception of pain has changed in time through reading! Some of it is here: https://bewilderbeast.org/2015/01/17/why-do-chillies-make-us-sweat/

  10. Avatar
    Thespologian  August 2, 2019

    What were the Roman rebuttals against the supposed “anesthesia of glory” or did these miracle stories appear conveniently much later? I may be wrong in assuming there were sufficient accounts of Christians agonizing under torture.

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    Austrokiwi  August 4, 2019

    NO one seems to have considered biology in this discussion. It is highly likely that some martyrs did not perceive pain. Under extreme stress, the body is flooded by internally produced analgesics( endorphins Enkepahlyns and others). Survivors of large predator attacks often recount the “absence” of pain while the attack is occurring.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 5, 2019

      Interesting idea, and maybe so. But that’s not what is generally reported by victims of extreme torture.

    • scobb
      scobb  August 12, 2019

      In one of my earlier posts, I discuss this and why I think it’s not the most useful interpretation in the case of these martyr texts. In short: relying on biological/physiological responses to painful stimuli requires reading the texts as historically factual accounts. Since they are not first-hand accounts of torture and are often written sometime after the events described, I think it’s problematic to assume they are recounting fact. Instead, I am interested in the ways the rhetoric works apart from “real” bodies and their experiences.

  12. Avatar
    cristianp  September 6, 2019

    Torture for theological, doctrinal, social, or political causes, continues to always be torture, being vile, painful, humiliating, stripping you of all your human rights. I live in Chile and I have been able to know closely what it really means to be tortured, not because I suffered it myself, but very close friends of my parents suffered. The difference is that there was no divinity on duty that somehow absorbed your pain. Even so, I met people who were encouraged to endure the “political cause” and “honor,” in some “strange” cases they claimed to block the pain their torturers wanted to cause them, which is why they were killed. So I do not believe that we cannot speak with certainty that the causes of the stories of Christian martyrs were only theological.

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