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How Could Torture Not Hurt?? Guest Post by Stephanie Cobb

Here now is the second of three posts by Stephanie Cobb on her recent book about early Christian accounts of the martyrs.  As you’ll see, she makes some rather astonishing and counter-intuitive claims.  But I think she’s completely right.   This is fascinating material….

Stephanie Cobb’s most popular books are Dying to Be Men and Divine Deliverance.




In the previous post, I detailed the reasons martyr texts ought to focus on the suffering and pain of early Christians experiencing torture and being executed for their faith. I also, though, noted that despite those reasons, the texts exhibit an interest in protecting the Christian body from the experience of pain. In this post, we’ll look at some of the ways Christian authors accomplish their goals of illustrating Christian insensitivity to pain.

But first, a quick caveat: in my work, I focus on rhetoric and narrative—not history per se. That is, I am not arguing that torture does not hurt. In fact, I am certain that torture hurts and to deny that is a dangerous political/theological stance to take in the world in which we live. So I want to be crystal clear that I am not making a claim about historical bodies and their insensitivities to judicial torture. There are ways one could make these arguments (i.e., bodies go into shock, etc.) but those arguments go beyond the evidence given in the narratives themselves: they assume the historicity of the narrative account and then try to explain it physiologically. I think that is a rather backwards approach. Instead, I ask about how the rhetoric of painlessness works within the larger narrative world constructed within the martyr text: what does pain represent in the narrative world? What does rejection of pain mean in the narrative world? Who is acting effectively and whose actions are ineffective? By asking these questions—rather than those of history—I hope to get a sense of how these texts functioned for Christian communities in ways that go far beyond recording the death of an individual Christian.

So, turning to these early Christian texts, when we ask of them “Does martyrdom hurt?”, they answer back unequivocally: “no.” This assertion is ubiquitous: it is found in …

This is a very strange and amazing claim.  To see more about it, you will need to keep reading — which means you need to be a member of the blog.  Join up and see!

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But WHY Doesn’t Torture Hurt?? Guest Post by Stephanie Cobb
Did It Hurt to Be Martyred? The Surprising Answer. Guest Post by Stephanie Cobb.



  1. Avatar
    AstaKask  July 23, 2019

    Weren’t there gnostics who argued that martyrdom was completely pointless since Christ had already suffered? I think I remember something like that.

  2. Avatar
    godspell  July 23, 2019

    Wouldn’t the better question be why should anyone ever have been tortured and killed for believing differently than the majority?

    And why did much later Christians do the same thing, as well as people of other faiths?

    And then people with no religion at all, other than power and greed? (I suppose some believed at one time they were doing it as part of a class struggle, but power corrupts all ideals).

    Underneath all this is a different question–why do some people feel the need to believe and behave in a way that risks such treatment from fellow humans?

    There are Christians in North Korea right now, building networks–and risking torture and death. I don’t see any mention in the limited coverage available of them believing they won’t feel the pain. But they’re still willing to risk it.

  3. Avatar
    Michael Fischer  July 23, 2019

    This is very interesting. Are there any anomalies that say otherwise regarding Christian martyrs?

    Also, is there an anti Rome propaganda aspect to this given their brutality. The historian, Tom Holland has been discussing the leaders of Rome during this time as paranoid, cruel, and freakish..

    • Avatar
      RICHWEN90  July 24, 2019

      I think a case could be made that the so-called apostolic fathers were paranoid, cruel, and freakish. By the way, lead poisoning was common in those days. So neurological effects of that poisoning would have combined with poor diet, chronic illness due to contaminated water, chronic infections due to poor sanitation and rotten teeth, plus high alcohol consumption to alleviate the misery of life in those days, to produce bizarre behavior among the holy and unholy alike. Diseased people produced some diseased ideas to go with their strange behavior. Early Christians and church authorities were as deranged as everyone else, probably.

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    Nichrob  July 23, 2019

    Those who could read and write were probably privileged. Those who confessed Christ and tortured were consistently reported to be lower class. A suggested title for a future book: “The Painful Advice Of The Privileged Apologist: Consequences of Confession”

  5. Avatar
    jwesenbe  July 23, 2019

    It would seem if they experienced no pain and reacted indifferent to the torture and persecution some non-christian authors would have been impressed enough to record the phenomenon. Do you know of any accounts from unbiased authors?

    • scobb
      scobb  July 29, 2019

      No. I don’t argue that this claim about the body’s immunity to pain is factual, though. Rather, the rhetoric works to particular ends that are likely more important to the early Christian community than any one particular body. (See blog contribution 3–coming soon–for more on this.)

  6. epicurus
    epicurus  July 23, 2019

    Very interesting stuff.

  7. Avatar
    fishician  July 23, 2019

    In Mark Jesus seems to be suffering, finally calling out, “My God, my God why have You forsaken me,” whereas in Luke he seems to be more calm and composed, conversing with the two criminals, and finally just turning his spirit over to God. Do you think this represents a transition in how the Christians were viewing or portraying suffering in the name of God?

    • scobb
      scobb  July 29, 2019

      Certainly Luke is influenced by Stoic traditions and portrays Jesus accordingly. Gregory Sterling has written a fantastic article on precisely this issue: “MORS PHILOSOPHI: THE DEATH OF JESUS IN LUKE,” Harvard Theological Review 94.4 (2001): 383-402.

  8. Avatar
    Nathan  July 23, 2019

    Hi Bart, could you do a post or two or three on Theophilus of Antioch’s Apology?

    I just read it and I found it very intriguing:
    -He says Christians are so called because they anoint themselves with oil. No mention of a Christ
    -he does a really good job of showing the logical absurdity of the pagan religions
    -Never mentions JC. Instead, the Word of God is an aspect of God that inhabits Abraham, Moses, prophets etc. which reveals the truth
    -I think he hints that the Word of God is the chief archangel: “He had this Word as a helper in the things that were created by Him, and by Him He made all things. He is called “governing principle” [arkh], because He rules, and is Lord of all things fashioned by Him”
    -He sets up a perfect time to mention an example of a resurrection but doesn’t mention JC. Yet, he knows of GMatthew, and GJohn, which could be used as evidence.

  9. Avatar
    Pattylt  July 23, 2019

    Hmmmm, I’m thinking that these stories are a way of encouraging the believers to not fear the inevitable horror they will be facing. To gear up for a hoped mind over matter. I also think that there was actually a whole lot of blood curdling screams coming from the arena!

    I do hope some were able to go into enough of a religious trance that they really were able to lessen or eliminate the worst of the pain. I just doubt most really did.

  10. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 23, 2019


  11. Avatar
    forthfading  July 23, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    The body seems to be an important part of the Christian understanding of almost all aspects of life (i.e. being reborn, eating the bread to remember the body of Jesus, the raising of the body, etc). To your knowledge, was the body a standard apocryphal theme in Jewish tradition or was it unique among the Christians?

    Thanks, Jay

    • Bart
      Bart  July 24, 2019

      Yup, very important to apocalyptic Judaism (because of the idea that God had created the human as a whole, and would raise the human as a whole — in the body).

  12. Avatar
    flshrP  July 23, 2019

    Thanks for shining light on another dark corner of the fantasyland that is Christianity. Where ridiculous stories and outright lies are justified since the purveyors of this trash are doing the work of the Lord. By telling lies about the very real pain of torture, these fanatics are diminishing the actual pain and suffering of those unfortunates who endure these horrors.

    This portrayal of these victims as comic book superheroes who feel no pain is obscene. Which is what the Christian martyrologies are in fact–comic book stories. I remember in Catholic grade school reading about the saints and martyrs in comic books supplied as part of the curriculum.

    And that’s saying a lot since before the time of the martyrs, Christianity had already undermined its moral ledger by endorsing the obscenity of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament with its parade of genocide, slavery, invasion and land stealing, child abuse, honor killings, ritual murder of various kinds, etc. See “…not one jot or tittle..”.

    • Avatar
      RICHWEN90  July 24, 2019

      I think you are spot on. A lot of fiction in these stories. And the legacy of Christianity is quite ugly. Or maybe we should simply call it “insane”.

  13. Avatar
    doug  July 23, 2019

    Good post. For people to say torture would not hurt would be a self-serving immoral lie. But authoritarians often have no qualms about that.

  14. Avatar
    Bernice Templeman  July 23, 2019

    The Jews wanted a Jewish Messiah to restore Israel and they were willing to sacrifice themselves for their messiah (Israel)?
    Their definition of the messiah is different from the Christian definition, which gives their personal power away to Jesus. The first Christians also may have been leading by example, leading gentiles to suffer and sacrifice themselves?

    They knew what they were doing (Rome had banned Christianity). Some Jews became Jewish Christians while others did not.
    Is there a better reason why they suffered and sacrificed themselves?

    Can Christians stop sinning, suffering, and sacrificing themselves (and therefore triumph over sin and evil)?

  15. Robert
    Robert  July 24, 2019

    Bart: “… she makes some rather astonishing and counter-intuitive claims.  But I think she’s completely right. … a very strange and amazing claim.”

    Stephanie: “But first, a quick caveat: in my work, I focus on rhetoric and narrative—not history per se. That is, I am not arguing that torture does not hurt. In fact, I am certain that torture hurts and to deny that is a dangerous political/theological stance to take in the world in which we live. So I want to be crystal clear that I am not making a claim about historical bodies and their insensitivities to judicial torture physiologically.”

    • Bart
      Bart  July 24, 2019

      I’m not saying that she’s claiming it didn’t really hurt. I’m saying that it’s strange and amazing that, as she shows, the texts *portray* it as not hurting. Most of the other blog members won’t get this, but I was alluding to the ground-breaking and extremely useful book by Judith Perkins, The Suffering Self, which you probably know, which maintains that they entire point of the narratives is to construct a body in pain. That was the standard line we all took for decades, and Stephanie has shown, I think, why it’s a problematic thesis.

      • Robert
        Robert  July 24, 2019

        No, I wasn’t aware of Judith Perkins’ book, but I am now. Thanks.

      • Robert
        Robert  July 26, 2019

        I hope Stephanie will speak to this aspect of her work, ie, hiw it interfaces with Judith Perkins’, The Suffering Self.

        • scobb
          scobb  July 29, 2019

          Hi, I talk about this in the book, but there’s not enough time to do all of it in a blog! In short, it’s a brilliant book that everyone should read. I happen to read the martyr texts differently, but those are only one small part of her overall thesis.

  16. tompicard
    tompicard  July 24, 2019

    I dont recall the martyrs being torn limb from limb in Maccabees being in pain

    didn’t christians just inherit that model ?

    • scobb
      scobb  July 29, 2019

      Yes, though from varied sources. I talk about this some in my final blog contribution.

  17. Avatar
    Scott  July 27, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman/Dr. Cobb,

    This kind of collaboration is raising the bar on an already excellent blog. New voices and new foci of research make the experience very rich indeed.

    Thank you

    • scobb
      scobb  July 29, 2019

      Thanks so much, Scott. It’s fun to share what I do with a larger audience.

  18. Avatar
    chadbeast  July 29, 2019

    To answer the question posed at the end of the piece, my crass conjecture is that the reason the storytellers would posit that the horrible suffering of torture did not really hurt the sufferers was a matter of selling the notion that belief, faith in the “one true” was tantamount to kryptonite. Like a carnival strongman bending fake steel bars, the show of painless pain was sold to give the illusion that there is no actual suffering if you buy what the seller is selling. If persecution was the reality for the “other”, and we tragically still have not grown beyond this cruel childishness, then you had to provide some inducement to, at least emotionally, defend those you were convincing to walk into the lions den, and the jailers cell (“law and order!!!!”). Did they actually experience horror and trauma and pain? The answer seems obvious.

  19. scobb
    scobb  July 29, 2019

    A number of readers have brought up Christianity’s (not-so-stellar) legacy of power and domination. Those interpretations may be absolutely spot-on (I’m not a historian of later periods, so I’m going to avoid pronouncing on that issue).

    My work focuses on the production of texts before Christianity was anything other than a minor nuisance in the empire. I argue that the position about pain emerges precisely because they have _no_ power (the third contribution talks a bit about that). I think it’s important to keep in mind the Jesus movement’s utter powerlessness when we read these texts. In addition, I think we have to attend to how they may have been understood by an ancient audience. To steal my own thunder, you’ll see in the final piece I’ve written that I think the texts are best understood as miracle stories not as (pretending to be) historically factual accounts.

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