BMCR 2019.03.12

Response: Rebillard on Bremmer on Rebillard, Greek and Latin Narratives about the Ancient Martyrs

Response to 2019.02.37

Though I am grateful to Jan Bremmer for his review, I must point out one erroneous and at least two tendentious statements that misrepresent my work.

The erroneous statement is the following: “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.” I do not contend that the texts that I selected for publication date from before 260. Instead, the statement excerpted by Bremmer from p. 21 explains why I selected only narratives about Christians executed before 260. It says nothing about the date of composition of the narratives themselves.

The tendentious statements are the following:

“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). […] 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.”

I do not use tendentious lightly: the reader of Bremmer’s review cannot from these statements get a fair sense of what I tried to do.

I cannot accept that my “criteria for selection are arbitrary.” One can disagree with them. However, they are carefully defined and explained in the introduction. I dispense with the issue of authenticity and I resist dating the texts on the basis of internal elements. I look, therefore, for an external attestation to the existence of the texts. Bremmer’s rhetorical question “And why would Augustine and Eusebius have mentioned all martyr Acts?” implies that I claim this could be or is the case. However, I explain quite clearly that I only include texts for which Eusebius and Augustine provide a terminus ante quem. This does not assume that no other martyr text had been written beyond those mentioned by Eusebius and Augustine, only that we have no external evidence about those other texts. The Acts of Justin, mentioned by Bremmer, is a good example. Bremmer contends that in version A, which he calls the oldest, “nothing points to a post- Eusebian age.” This is the kind of judgement call with which I try to dispense. No agreement can be settled on such a basis, as is clear from the history of scholarship on the Acts of Justin. On the other hand, Eusebius, who displays an extensive knowledge about Justin, only knows the circumstances of his martyrdom through Tatian and does not mention any narrative. This is not positive evidence that version A is post-Eusebian. It is the absence of positive, external evidence that this version was composed before Eusebius that leads me to exclude it from my collection.

Again, one can disagree with the order in which the texts in my edition are published. I would argue, however, that it makes a lot of sense. The texts are presented in alphabetical order, following the numberings of the Bibliotheca Hagiographica Graeca and the Bibliotheca Hagiographica Latina. All the collections mentioned by Bremmer at the beginning of his review list texts in the chronological order of the executions they report. Such a presentation runs the risk of making the reader believe that the texts were composed at the time of the execution and that they can be used to document the “persecutions.” Few historians would accept that is the case. The intertextual relations between the texts are noted in the notes so that the reader will not miss them. Bremmer writes “ Polycarp influenced Pionius.” I assume he means The Martyrdom of Polycarp influenced The Martyrdom of Pionius. This is inexact or at least debatable: The Martyrdom of Pionius refers to the martyrdom of Polycarp, not necessarily to The Martyrdom of Polycarp. These distinctions are important.

I am not sure to what Bremmer refers when he writes: “It seems therefore not helpful to speak of the authenticity of the earlier Acts.” This is exactly my point: the notion of authenticity should be abandoned. However, authenticity should not be confused with historical reliability. A close reading of my introduction will show that I do not discuss the historical reliability of the narratives.

For the Greek and Latin texts, the decision I made was to use the best available critical editions, and not to provide randomly emendated texts. Bremmer himself repeatedly criticized Musurillo for such a practice in his invaluable Notiunculae martyrologicae. Van Beek (1936) is still the best edition available for the Passion of Perpetua. I indicate in several footnotes how the Greek text can provide interesting readings (305n62, 307n68, 307n74, 309n75313n86, 319n100, 321n106, 321n107). I disagree with Bremmer that we should correct the Latin text by using the Greek one.

I thank Bremmer for noting that my book “is progress compared with earlier editions.” I do not wish to replace them, not even Musurillo. The collection was conceived and commissioned originally as a “new Musurillo.” I quickly realized, however, that if I wanted to bring something new, I needed radically different criteria of selection and organization. I hope that my response will provide a better sense of what these are than Bremmer’s review and allow the reader to agree or disagree with them.