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Did It Hurt to Be Martyred? The Surprising Answer. Guest Post by Stephanie Cobb.

One of my most accomplished former students is Stephanie Cobb, now the George and Sallie Cutchin Camp Professor of Bible in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Richmond.   While doing her PhD at UNC, Stephanie became deeply interested in the accounts of martyrdom in early Christianity, leading to a dissertation with one of the best titles ever (it really does describe the book but it’s unusually clever): Dying to be Men: Gender and Language in Early Christian Martyr Texts.

Stephanie has become one of the leading experts in this field, backed up now with an intriguing and important second book on the martyr texts.  It will be of particular interest to members of the blog and so I’ve asked Stephanie to make some guest posts about it.  Here is the first.




Bart recently asked if I would be interested in writing a few posts about my latest book, Divine Deliverance: Pain and Painlessness in Early Christian Martyr Texts. But before diving into Divine Deliverance itself, I want to back up for a moment to talk a bit about what I love so much about early Christian martyr texts. I became fascinated by these (mostly 2nd and 3rd cen. ce) accounts in grad school. My first sustained study of them—Dying to be Men: Gender and Language in Early Christian Martyr Texts—looked at the ways martyr texts utilized gendered language to make arguments about Christian superiority over against pagans and Jews, on the one hand, and to dictate a normative gendered hierarchy within the Christian community, on the other hand. As I worked on this book, scouring the Greek and Latin texts carefully for gendered language and allusions, I stumbled upon another sort of language that I wasn’t expecting and that, to be honest, confounded me: over and over again, in a variety of different ways, these texts claimed that the martyrs did not feel pain when they were tortured!

And so, Divine Deliverance, at its core, asks a rather simple question: “Does martyrdom hurt?” The answer may seem so obvious as to make the question ridiculous. These texts talk about Christians being burned alive, thrown into the amphitheater to face gladiators or beasts, being hanged by their thumbs, and a wide assortment of other kinds of tortures that I’m fairly certain hurt a lot. The point of torture was to entice Christians to deny their faith and return to the traditional religions of the Roman empire. Pain was a judicial tool used by the Roman government. Pain not only worked to push individuals to deny their faith, since it was typically publicly inflicted, it served as a deterrent for others. Every tool in the prosecutors’ tool bag inflicted some sort of pain—whether psychological, physiological, or emotional. So, martyrdom must hurt.

Theologically speaking, moreover, the point of these narratives must surely be—right?—to communicate to audiences the details of the torture and execution of these exceptional Christians. For most of us, I think, the martyrs stand as exemplary individuals who withstood excruciating pain in order to faithfully witness to Jesus. (The term “martyr,” by the way means “to witness” in Greek; it is judicial language that Christians appropriated and eventually applied to those who testified in court and were executed for doing so.) When we hear about their travails, we might wince and wonder whether we have what it takes to do what they did. They are the superheroes of Christianity: they have powers that we can’t imagine having ourselves, and they use them to build up the faith. As the third-century North African Christian, Tertullian, famously said: “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

Indeed, it is precisely the detailed descriptions of the dissolution of bodies that has led scholars to the consensus that Christian authors of this period specifically focused on Christian suffering. This interest was part and parcel of a larger social movement—as Judith Perkins argues in her wonderful analysis of Christianity of this period in The Suffering Self: Pain and Narrative Representation in the Early Christian Era—that acknowledged, for the first time, bodies that feel pain and experience suffering. She calls this new cultural representation the “suffering self.” Authors of this period—Roman, Jewish, and Christian—began discussing in some detail the experiences of the suffering body: twisted ankles, intestinal distresses, fevers, disembowelment. Christian writings of the period, it could be argued, are all concerned—at some level—about persecution/prosecution, suffering, and their effects on the faith. Perkins rightly notes that stories of individuals in Christian literature have a social function much larger than communicating one person’s experience: they simultaneously describe the individual and social body. If the second century bishop, Ignatius, anticipated he would face “fire and cross, packs of beasts, dissections, divisions, scattering of bones, chopping up of limbs, grinding up of the entire body,” he was also describing what Christianity at large should expect. To be a Christian, Perkins argues, is to suffer.

Didn’t Jesus and Paul, after all, teach that their followers should expect rejection and suffering? In Matthew 5, Jesus tells his followers to pray for those who persecute them. They should expect, that is, to suffer. In Luke 14, Jesus teaches that only those who “take up the cross” are his disciples. In Mark 13, Jesus followers are told they will be hated by everyone. In Matthew 23, Jesus predicts that some of those listening to him will be crucified. Paul speaks often of his own imprisonment and torture. (2 Cor 11; 1 Thess 2; Rom 8; Gal 6). He recites this history as a way of authenticating his faith. As heirs of these texts and traditions, then, surely the martyr texts anticipate and value bodily suffering. It fulfills Jesus’ prophecies and, like Paul’s, differentiates true from false Christians. This understanding of Christian pain is not only biblical, though. Pope Benedict XVI taught that true Christian love entails suffering. “The cross,” he explained, “reminds us that there is no true love without suffering, there is no gift without pain.” (https://zenit.org/articles/benedict-xvi-no-suffering-no-love/) Christian identity—both individually and corporately—seems inextricably connected with bodily pain.

Does martyrdom hurt? Despite all that I’ve said above. Despite the sensibleness of these arguments and the obviousness of the answer “yes,” in Divine Deliverance I argue that the martyr texts reflect a very different approach to the question. These ancient discussions of Christian martyrdom reveal an abiding interest in the insensitivity of the Christian body during torture and martyrdom. Claims to painlessness are crucial to the texts’ work of (re-)defining Christianity in the ancient world: while Christians could not deny the reality that they were subject to state violence, they could argue that they were not ultimately vulnerable to its painful effects. Thus early Christian texts distinguish categories that modern readers tend to collapse: torture and suffering, injury and pain. The martyrs are tortured and injured but they do not experience suffering and pain. Texts produced between the second and fourth centuries reflect Christian communities’ interactions with their contemporaries—pagans, Jews, and other Christians—and the development of their belief systems. The martyr texts’ claims to impassibility (the martyrs’ inability to feel pain) and/or impassivity (the martyrs’ lack of response to pain) have repercussions not only for the power structures undergirding Roman violence but also for the development of Christology, ecclesiology, and eschatology. And that will be the subject of my next post.

This particular post is available to everyone with Internet and Interest.  But most posts aren’t on the blog aren’t.   There are five posts a week.  Wanna read them?  Join!  It won’t cost much and all the proceeds go to charity.



How Could Torture Not Hurt?? Guest Post by Stephanie Cobb
Heightened Opposition to Jews in Early Christianity



  1. Avatar
    The Agnostic Christian  July 16, 2019

    The Anabaptists in the 16th century have bery similar accounts as they were brutally tortured and killed by Protestants and Catholics who forever cursed the Romans for brutally torturing and killing the early Christians. I’ve often wondered about a person’s ability to suffer pain. As Neitzche says “A person with a why can endure almost any how”.

  2. Avatar
    rburos  July 16, 2019

    Another home run for the blog. So, if I read you correctly, you are saying that yes martyrs felt pain but not enough to be swayed from their purpose? I would think that to mean that I couldn’t be a martyr because one look at a crucifixion and I’d be very happy to sacrifice to the emperor.

    That does raise some interesting questions about Jesus. . .

    • scobb
      scobb  July 19, 2019

      In some cases, authors make exactly that claim (for example, Augustine says this at times in his sermons on the martyrs). As I’ll talk about in the upcoming post, though, there are a wide range of ways early Christian authors dealt with the issue. (And yes: the Jesus comparison is important!)

    • Avatar
      Bewilderbeast  July 23, 2019

      * big grin * – “one look at a crucifixion” – Yep, all you have to do is point a finger prick needle at me and I’ll capitulate! My definition of mild torture would be “torturing someone else . . “. And even then – bigger wimp – I wouldn’t want to watch!

  3. Avatar
    jrhislb  July 16, 2019

    What about Jesus in this period? Was he portrayed as suffering? I have reflected before that the story of Jesus is more compelling than a lot of stories of Christian saints because the depiction of Jesus’ agony feels more real, as compared to the unrealistic fantasy presented in stories of saints. But it would be curious if saints were depicted as going to their death more cheerfully than Jesus himself, since Jesus should have the greatest faith.

    • scobb
      scobb  July 19, 2019

      This is a tricky question! It depends on how you parse the issue of suffering. The Gospel texts don’t explicitly use pain language. Certainly Mark and Matthew portray Jesus as feeling abandoned and frustrated–we might certainly understand that as emotional suffering. Greg Sterling has a brilliant article on Luke’s passion narrative (“Mors philosophi: The Death of Jesus in Luke” Harvard Theological Review 94 [2001] 383-402), in which he shows how Luke edits Mark’s account to show Jesus as a Stoic wise man who doesn’t suffer.

      Whether or not the martyrs’ deaths were similar to Jesus’ became a concern in slightly later Christian theology: was Jesus’ death a singular event that brought salvation? or are the martrys’ deaths also to be understood as salvific? One way to differentiate the two is to say that Jesus suffered and the martyrs did not. This, though, leads to a different problem: can God feel pain? Does Jesus’ suffering compromise his divinity?

      • Avatar
        Silver  July 30, 2019

        “This, though, leads to a different problem: can God feel pain? Does Jesus’ suffering compromise his divinity?”
        Is this really a problem if one recalls that Jesus had TWO natures? It is claimed that he was fully human AND fully divine. Thus it was Jesus THE MAN who suffered and died; Jesus AS GOD did not and cannot experience pain. There is, therefore, no difficulty for his divinity. The heresies of Theopassianism and Patripassianism were long ago laid to rest.

  4. Avatar
    godspell  July 16, 2019

    While it’s possible some were able to put themselves in a trancelike state (one thinks of the Buddhists who burned themselves to death in Vietnam to protest the government’s actions), I doubt this was an ability common to most Christians. We know Joan of Arc suffered in the fire. St. Francis had a truly awful lingering death (through illness, another form of martyrdom), that was so horrible it even made him speak ill of his fellow monks at times (which would have made him feel even worse when clarity returned). Jesus cried out in agony on the cross. It hurts.

    But for most Christians, I could see the attraction in believing they’d be spared the pain if they died for their faith. People who die for any cause (as people with little or no religion have done) often espouse similar sentiments. It doesn’t matter. You won’t feel it, because you did it for a greater purpose.

    Since we all know suffering and death is our common lot in life, sometimes we prefer to meet the enemy head-on.

  5. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  July 16, 2019

    This is going to be very fascinating. In parochial school we heard a lot about martyrs. Martyrs were a very big deal, and the stories began in the first grade and became more lurid as we progressed through to the eighth grade. I’m convinced that at least one of my classmates developed a fascination with gory monster movies as a result of this indoctrination, and I rather suspect he grew up to be a sadomasochist. Catholicism in the fifties probably warped a lot of minds! For my part, today, I see martyrdom as the Christian equivalent of “drinking the Kool-Aide”. Sick. VERY Sick.

  6. Avatar
    jmmarine1  July 16, 2019

    Fascinating. I cannot help but think of the famous passage from the Gospel of Peter regarding Jesus as he is being crucified, ‘but he (Jesus) was silent as if he felt no pain…(verse 10)’. As well as the passage from Luke’s gospel, 22:44, where Jesus is noted to be in great anguish and ‘his sweat became like great drops of blood…’ (Bart has posted on this passage). The GoP seems to uphold your basic argument, because no attempt was made to counter this claim of painlessness. The verse in Luke, as argued by Bart, was a late addition, breaking the chiastic structure of the passage, and seems to be there as a defense against the notion that Jesus felt no pain; he really did physically suffer, greatly. The passages in both gospels appear to be from the same general timeframe (2nd to 3rd century; if Luke’s is indeed a late addition), but seem to be going in opposite directions. If, as you argue, contemporary reports of Christian martyrdom do state that brutalized individuals did not endure pain (as they underwent torture), but this very notion seems to be argued against (by the addition in Luke) with regard to Jesus. Was there one standard for persecuted Christians (painless) and another one for reports of Jesus’ painful torture and death?

    • scobb
      scobb  July 19, 2019

      Great question. I would first say that I’d be hesitant to suggest that there was much consensus on any Christian doctrine this early on. How authors frame martyrs’ or Jesus’ death would be highly contextualized. But in general, I’d suggest that Jesus’ bodily experiences carry a lot of theological weight, particularly in the pre-Nicaea era: if Jesus felt pain, does that compromise his divinity? If Jesus didn’t feel pain, does that compromise his humanity? And then the martyrs’ experiences map onto that: are the martyrs’ experiences equal to or different from Jesus’? How?

  7. Avatar
    fishician  July 16, 2019

    I would think that if you are trying to encourage people to remain faithful even in the face of torture and death, that you would NOT advertise that it is really going to hurt! You’re going to tell stories of how the martyrs did not suffer but rather had a glorious pain-free entry into heaven. So, I’m going to take these martyr stories with a grain of salt.

  8. Avatar
    Bernice Templeman  July 16, 2019

    Genesis 1 is a reminder that we are all (men and women, Jews and gentiles) created equal and good. If you chose to hate and discriminate, you will suffer and not go to heaven. People cause their own suffering. We each have to take responsibility to remind ourselves and others of the truth. You won’t change the world and make it better by keeping quiet.
    Judaism and Christianity both have Genesis 1 and the rest of the Jewish Bible (Old Testament). The OT may be in a different order and have extra books in it than the original.
    Both the OT and the NT were written by Jews (at least originally). They may have used stories and books from other cultures in the area. They were between Ancient Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, which had conflicting belief systems. Ancient Mesopotamia had eliminated the female goddess while Ancient Egypt evolved and was the most equal at the time. Even non-royal people could have their own books and go to heaven (not just for the elite).
    The definitions of the messiah may differ between the OT and the NT. From jewfaq.org: the messiah will be human (not holy), a descendant of King David, rebuild the temple, bring Jews back to Israel, rule (govern) the world (Jews and gentiles) from Israel, establish Jewish law over everyone.
    It also says in the Bible that this is a sin, people who believe this are not with God and will suffer.

    Added to this in the NT is the beliefs that gentiles are born sinners instead of good, unlike Jews. Gentiles are not capable of changing their beliefs and suffer. They needed someone else to die for their sins.

    Not all Jews believe this. Just as not all gentiles believe this.

    We have to remember Genesis 1.
    I currently think it is a good ideat to learn history and Judaism to understand what was being said and believed. Can we understand the NT without knowing History and the Jewish Bible and commentary? There is also more commentary written after the destruction of the Second Temple.
    Did Apostles go to Israel’s enemies and start Christian churches?

    Can Jews, Catholics, and Christian all change because they all have Genesis 1?
    We would probably all be happier and wealthier if we were created equal and good vs not equals and suffering sinners.
    We all can go to heaven.

    • Avatar
      Bernice Templeman  July 16, 2019

      Lead people to the light with their own Bibles. End inequality, discrimination, unequal pay, non-living wages, violence, abuse, etc.

      • Avatar
        RICHWEN90  July 17, 2019

        I think a lot of us share your ideals. We are all in the same boat, in the sense that life places us in a world of questions and mysteries and we are trying to make sense of it. Complicating the issue: all the things we can imagine– are they real too? I have sometimes thought that what “original sin” really means, is the transition from unthinking animal, simply living life and being whatever you are, with no issue of good and evil, to the thinking human, obsessed with good and evil, complicated, with no clear sense of who and what we are, or of what good and evil actually are! That was the fall from grace. And it was a biological fall rather than a moral fall. I like to think that animals live always in the presence of God. When some animals became complex enough, and became “humanoid” we lost that innate ability to live in the presence of God. But who really knows???? Another stone tossed into the bottomless pit…

  9. Avatar
    AstaKask  July 16, 2019

    Even the Swedish church – not known for its fanaticism – has a psalm that starts with “Christ’s Church is built on blood”.

  10. Avatar
    nichael  July 16, 2019

    Prof Cobb, thank you for your post.

    Just to be clear about the discussion:
    I understand the argument that the writers of the martyrologies may have _reported_ that those who were tortured and killed for their faith didn’t feel normal pain, and the reasons why those writers may have made such claims (please feel free to correct me if I’ve misunderstood).

    But do we have any independent evidence to believe that this is what _actually_ happened (that is, that those who underwent torture or execution did so without pain)?

    • Avatar
      Leovigild  July 17, 2019

      It’s rather difficult to interview someone after they’ve been martyred.

    • scobb
      scobb  July 23, 2019

      It’s an important question: no. We don’t have any independent evidence. It’s precisely for this reason that I choose to interpret the narratives from rhetorical/theological perspectives rather than from physiological ones.

      • Avatar
        nichael  July 23, 2019

        Thank you Prof. Cobb.

        I’m sure I speak for many on this ‘blog in saying how much we are enjoying (and are learning from). these posts. And how much we appreciate your taking the time to do this.

  11. Avatar
    Neurotheologian  July 17, 2019

    Very interesting indeed, Stephanie. Pain and suffering are very fundamental properties of consciousness and thus of the human condition – the fullest form of consciousness that we know of in the universe. There is indeed suffering in the anticipation of bodily injury as well as in the expereincing of it. This issue doesn’t only apply to Martyrs, but also to any suffering. The issue for me is whether faith and turning to God in the midst of suffering can have analgesic effects! I sense there is an Aristotelean middle way here: maybe in times of great suffering both in the anticipation and the exeperincing of the injury, the turning of one’s consciousness to God can act as a salve, so that the pain is both felt and then not felt so long as the suffferer’s focus of conscious attention is turned to God.

    • scobb
      scobb  July 23, 2019

      There’s evidence that pain is managed/experienced differently when one sees it as having meaning.

  12. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  July 17, 2019

    Are any of the martyrdoms based on eyewitness accounts?

    • Avatar
      Pattycake1974  July 17, 2019

      I should probably be more specific. Do we have any written accounts by people who witnessed Christian martyrdoms? What accounts do we have by non-Christians?

      • scobb
        scobb  July 23, 2019

        Many _claim_ to be eyewitness reports, but there are good reasons to question/reject those authorial claims.

  13. Avatar
    anvikshiki  July 17, 2019

    Wonderful contribution and I am looking forward to further ones. Those who are willing to undergo intense suffering and even self-sacfiece because they firmly believe in a transcendental ground–eternal life–are capable of extraordinary things. The martyr texts seem obviously designed in many ways to fortify those convictions among practitioners, as well as to attest to the community’s convictions.

  14. Avatar
    fedcarroll77  July 18, 2019

    Very interesting and thought provoking post! I’m intrigued and have a few questions…

    What is the origin of these writings? They must of had an influential person(s) who inspired them to write like this.

    Was these writings a literary tool used to influence “believers” to continue to faith? And why would they knowing what awaits them? Something I truly can’t fathom.

    Lastly… are these “true” accounts? Or some historical mixed with fables? Like the Hebrew Bible and Christian New Testament.

    • scobb
      scobb  July 23, 2019

      The texts originate all over the Empire, but they seem to be related to Stoic literature (and, relating to that, the Jewish martyr narratives in the Maccabean literature). They are, in my reading, “insider literature”–that is, they were written to and for Christians rather than non-believers. And, so, yes: they fortify faith (and do so in different ways at different times). Are they “true”? I suppose that depends on how you define the term. I would not, myself, claim them as historical facts but as claims to theological truths about God’s work in the world in and among faithful believers.

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