BMCR 2019.02.37

Greek and Latin Narratives about the Ancient Martyrs. Oxford early Christian texts

Éric​ Rebillard, Greek and Latin Narratives about the Ancient Martyrs. Oxford early Christian texts. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. viii, 403. ISBN 9780198739579 £120.00​.

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In 1972, Herbert Musurillo (1917-1974) published an edition of accounts of early Christian martyrdoms: The Acts of the Christian Martyrs (Oxford, 1972). Musurillo accepted 28 texts regarding martyrs, ranging from the Martyrdom of Polycarp to the Testament of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste, which he considered ‘the most reliable or indeed, in the case of those with fictional elements … extremely important and instructive’ (xii). Although his edition is not wholly satisfactory and too generous in its selection, it still has the largest collection of texts and is generally the one used by classicists and students of the early church. The next edition (1987), that by Toon Bastiaensen (1926-2009) et al., Atti e passioni dei martiri (Milano, 1987) is philologically much better, but contains only twelve texts, whereas the edition with commentary by Hans Reinhard Seeliger and Wolfgang Wischmeyer, Märtyrerliteratur (Berlin and Boston, 2015) has thirteen texts, but is less useful as it does not include the Martyrdom of Polycarp nor the Passion of Perpetua, arguably the most interesting Acts. For the fullest up-to-date selection today, one has to turn to the French translation of the martyr Acts by Pierre Maraval, Actes et passions des martyrs chrétiens des premiers siècles (Paris, 2010), who, with 27 texts, has incorporated recent discoveries, albeit not all, and also has excellent introductions and bibliographies.1

Rebillard has only eleven texts (in all cases, I have counted the various texts regarding the same martyr(s) as one Act), all dating from before 260, as ‘by 300 there is a genre that both authors and readers identify as martyr narrative’ (21)’, a statement that is not supported by any argument. Unfortunately, his criteria for selection are arbitrary, as he has accepted only ‘isolated, or stand-alone narratives’ about one or several martyrs, whose existence is guaranteed by a mention by Eusebius or Augustine (21-22).2 Consequently, he excludes Ptolemaeus and Lucius and the valuable Acts of Justin, in which oldest version (A) nothing points to a post-Eusebian age. As we know that Eusebius had collected older martyr narratives in a book titled Collection of the Ancient Martyrs, there will have existed a number of martyr narratives not mentioned by Eusebius in his surviving texts.3 And why would Augustine and Eusebius have mentioned all martyr Acts? But not only the selection is arbitrary; the order of publication too makes no sense. Rebillard first publishes the ones mentioned by Eusebius ( Apollonius, Carpus and companions, Pionius, Polycarp, Lyons and Vienne) and subsequently those by Augustine ( Marian and James, Cyprian, Fructuosus, Perpetua and Felicitas, Scillitani). The effect of this peculiar order means that the reader cannot see immediately that, for example, Polycarp influenced Pionius or Perpetua Marian and James, Lucius and Montanus and Cyprian. Moreover, one of the very earliest Acts, the Passio Scillitanorum, now appears last in the book.

In his Introduction, after a good historiographical survey, Rebillard discusses the question of, what he calls, authenticity. He disputes that, unlike fourth- and fifth-century Acts, earlier Acts could reflect trial records, but the statement of Pontius that there are acta reporting Cyprian’s responses to the consul surely can be interpreted only by special pleading as meaning: the bishop’s answers during the trial were known, but not the actual proceedings (16-17) – the more so as the recording of the trials is well attested.4 In fact, we now know through the studies of Rudolf Haensch that the legal protocol could be more detailed than just the bare essentials of the trial and more varied depending on the province than was argued in a long-time authoritative study by Revel Coles.5 It seems therefore not helpful to speak of the authenticity of the earlier Acts. Undoubtedly, they are no verbatim records, but they are not necessarily less reliable than records of trials in today’s newspapers, which also always give only an abbreviated account. In each case, only a detailed investigation can tell us if the accounts, or details in them, are historically trustworthy or not. Rebillard concludes his Introduction by introducing the term ‘hagiographical dossier’, meaning ‘all extant narratives associated with the martyr in question and includ[ing] any that were likely composed before the middle of the fifth century’ (27). Yet it is hard to see why we would consider later versions of the early ones and not earlier Acts dating to the time of the Great Persecution.

It would exceed the allotted space to consider all the Acts individually, so I will limit myself to a few observations. Rather oddly, we have only one page on Apollonius (31) with the information that no text is given because the existing accounts postdate Eusebius. I note that sometimes, but not systematically, Rebillard has made use of the invaluable observations by François Dolbeau in the Chronica Tertullianea et Cyprianea, which yearly appears in the second issue of the Revue d’études augustiniennes et patristiques. This is unfortunate, as a systematic use would have improved the quality of his texts. For example, in the case of Perpetua, Rebillard still reprints the text by Van Beek (1936), who misjudged the value of the Greek translation, whereas the working text of J. Farrell and C. Williams in J.N. Bremmer and M. Formisano (eds), Perpetua’s Passions (Oxford, 2012) 22-32 has a number of corrections, which Dolbeau ( Chronica 2012, 413) all considers ‘acceptables et même souhaitables’. Rebillard is so conservative that he even prints in 6.3 Minici (although Van Beek has Minuci) Timiniani, whereas in the corresponding note (311 n. 80) he observes that the name should be corrected as Minici Opimiani, as is indeed suggested by the Greek translation. Rebillard is better in his discussion of the Acta Perpetuae, of which, against me, he persuasively argues the late date of Acta II (299-301). However, he has not taken into account the detailed martyrological and hagiographical analysis of Acta I by H. Hoppenbrouwers, Recherches sur la terminologie du martyre de Tertullien à Lactance (Nijmegen, 1961) 88, which concludes that ‘il semble bien que A (= I R.) est contemporain, ou peu s’en faut, de la Passio et des premiers ouvrages de Tertullien’.

Another conservative case is the edition of the Scillitan martyrs where Rebillard prints as date Praesente bis et Claudiano consulibus (§ 1), whereas Usener had already seen that Claudiano should be emended in Condiano, as Rebillard indeed mentions in a note (357 n. 34), and which is printed by Bastiaensen, Ruggiero (in his 1991 edition) and Seeliger/Wischmeyer.6 Although Rebillard notes that Dolbeau ( Chronica 1988, 287 and 1991, 361-62) has stressed the importance for the text of the Greek translation, which I would date to the Byzantine period in North Africa, Rebillard still prints the text of Robinson (1891), who overrated the manuscript (A) he himself had discovered. One final example of Rebillard’s conservatism: although he knows that Dolbeau has shown that the title of the Acts traditionally called Montanus and Lucius actually is Lucius and Montanus, he still uses the traditional title in his heading.

On the other hand, Rebillard’s conservatism makes him sceptical of the recent editions of Polycarp and Pionius by Otto Zwierlein.8 He rightly argues that Zwierlein’s favoured Armenian version lacks all elements anchoring Pionius in third-century Smyrna (48) and also persuasively rejects Zwierlein’s claim that a fifth-century Armenian text is the translation of a Greek text closer to the original of Polycarp than we have at present (86-87).

If I, then, have expressed reservations about the selection, ordering and, sometimes, textual basis of Rebillard’s book, it should be stressed that the introductions to the selected texts, the bibliographies and the historical notes are, on the whole, excellent. The result is that, in the end, Rebillard’s study leaves an ambiguous impression. It is progress compared with earlier editions but it does not replace them.

​[For a response to this review by Éric Rebillard, please see BMCR 2019.03.12.]


1. Whereas Maraval has generally used the most recent critical editions, the translations of the early martyr Acts in B. Pouderon et al. (eds), Premiers écrits chrétiens (Paris, 2016) are usually taken from the texts of Musurillo.

2. According to this criterion, Rebillard should have included the martyrdom of Guddenis (AD 203), who is mentioned by Augustine (S. 294), cf. H. Quentin, Les martyrologes historiques du Moyen Age (Paris, 1908) 174; T. Barnes, Tertullian (Oxford, 19852) 334.

3. Eus. HE 4.15.47, 5, PE, praef. 2, 5.4.3, 5.21.5, cf. V. Saxer, ‘Les Actes des “Martyrs anciens” chez Eusèbe de Césarée et dans les martyrologes syriaque et hiéronymien’, Analecta Bollandiana 102 (1984) 85-95.

4. Pontius, Vita Cypriani 11.1: et quid sacerdos Dei proconsule interrogante responderit, sunt acta quae referant; W. Ameling, ‘Zwei epigraphische Bemerkungen zum Martyrium Pionii (c. 9, 1; c. 23)’, ZPE 198 (2016) 68-74 at 68-71 (recording).

5. R. Coles, Reports of Proceedings in Papyri (Brussels, 1966), cf. R. Haensch, ‘Das Statthalterarchiv’, Zs. der Savigny-Stiftung für Rechtsgeschichte, Rom. Abt. 100 (1992) 209-317 and ‘Typisch römisch? Die Gerichtsprotokolle der in Aegyptus und den übrigen östlichen Provinzen tätigen Vertreter Roms. Das Zeugnis von Papyri und Inschriften’, in H. Börm et al. (eds), Monumentum et instrumentum inscriptum (Stuttgart, 2008) 117-25.

6. For the consuls, Rebillard refers to Degrassi, but add AE 1953, 79 = 1957, 203 = 2006, +1821; 1979, 422. For Praesens, see PIR 2 B 165; for Condianus, see PIR 2 Q 22, where our passage has to be added.

7. F. Dolbeau, ‘La Passion des saints Lucius et Montanus: histoire et édition du texte’, REAug 29 (1983) 39-81, reprinted with addenda in id., Sanctorum Societas, 2 vols (Brussels, 2005) 1.83-129 (the reprint has been overlooked by Rebillard).

8. O. Zwierlein, Die Urfassungen der Martyria Polycarpi et Pionii und das Corpus Polycarpianum, 2 vols (Berlin and Boston, 2014). For both martyrdoms, see also W. Ameling, ‘Smyrna von der Offenbarung bis zum Martyrium des Pionios – Marktplatz oder Kampfplatz der Religionen?’, in St. Alkier and H. Leppin (eds), Juden – Heiden – Christen? (Tübingen, 2018) 391-432 at 414-19. ​