BMCR 2021.06.39

The early martyr narratives: neither authentic accounts nor forgeries

, The early martyr narratives: neither authentic accounts nor forgeries. Divinations: rereading late ancient religion. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020. Pp. 192. ISBN 9780812252606 $59.95.

Éric Rebillard is well known as the author of numerous works on religious practices in late antiquity, both Christian and pre-Christian, and published in French and English. Among these, several stand out for having provided considerable nuance and freshness to long-standing scholarly disputes. For example, in The Care of the Dead in Late Antiquity (2010), Rebillard recalibrates our ideas of early Christian burial rites towards greater kin involvement, as opposed to church-related practices. Rebillard achieves some fine-tuning also in Christians and their Many Identities in Late Antiquity, North Africa, 200-450 CE (2012) in helping readers move away from clichéd identity politics. The volume under discussion here similarly aims to plant a Columbus’ egg where progress has been lacking with other commentators (‘impasse’, p. 4), namely on the troublesome question whether early martyr narratives constitute authentic accounts or forgeries, both of which options Rebillard rejects here. He urges greater focus on the self-consciously literary format of such texts and their literary significance, as opposed to their compositional history. The volume is in that sense a monograph in the true sense of the word: very much focused on a single topic, argued tightly, relatively short with 87 pages of referenced discussion and readable in just a few sittings.

Rebillard’s argument relies on examination of a fresh corpus of texts, namely those which can be regarded as the earliest texts (which here means martyrs executed before 260 AD and texts attested before 300 AD) and their context of use. Two of the texts under discussion are in Greek, BHG 1546 on Pionius and BHG 1556-59 on Polycarp; two in Latin, BHL 6633 on Perpetua and BHL 2041 on Cyprian. Even these early texts are shown to have been composed not contemporaneously with the martyrdom of victimised individuals, but subsequently, in a polemical context (ch. 1, pp. 5, 15, 20), with a view to strengthening the already growing authority of the confessors and martyrs in question. In a review of late antique anti-Christian legal protocol (ch. 2), with its charges of conspiracy (the crimes being treason and criminal damage to maiestas), Rebillard highlights the major differences between the surviving court documentation and early hagiographical texts. Early hagiography seems to have been augmented with stylised protocol-type material, rather than containing such material as interpolations. ‘Using court protocols (…) is a very different practice from reproducing them’ (p. 32). The composition of early martyr narratives is also said to be dissociated from conversion measures (p. 20), located as it is in a later environment which had already accepted Christian authority. Rebillard’s sceptical stance (p. 35) towards any links between the literary expressions of martyrdom and the socio-historical origins martyrdom itself, as posited by Glen Bowersock,[1] also seems convincing. ‘We need to retire the early martyr texts from being used by historians of the repression and persecution of Christians and promote their study as textual productions in the larger context of Christian writings’ (p. 87). Rebillard’s approach, then, involves greater attention paid to literary function, which recontextualises the texts with later material focused on the same saints, or the saint’s diachronic ‘dossier’, as it is sometimes called in hagiographical studies. This seems to this reviewer to be a constructive way forward and is likely to appeal particularly to those specialising in later, medieval treatments of saintly traditions. If we agree that later traditions consist of a highly diversified narrative picture, then Rebillard shows that this varied picture arises very early, in fact with the earliest surviving textual witnesses.

The sheer prevalence of stylising features in hagiography of all ages (poetic renderings, translations, augmentations and abridgements, vivid dialogue, use of direct speech, some of which are adduced by Rebillard) all stand in the way of creating an impression of ‘authentic’ legal history on the one hand and forgery intended to deceive on the other. Instead, such stylisation makes the texts useful in devotional contexts and for homiletic recycling. As the author observes (pp. 38 and 40), the observing ‘we’ in hagiographical texts can often be interpreted as representing all Christians, not a specific individual or narrator who witnessed a single historical event.

An important corollary of this plea for fluid, ‘living texts’ (p. 5) is the author’s lack of faith in traditional editing practices, with their focus on the reconstruction of an ‘original’ version of a text (p. 45), often pointless in a hagiographical context. The alternative preference is a larger conspectus of ‘stories without authors and without texts’ (p. 43), potentially in synoptic editions presenting multiple text versions (a sample of which is offered in Appendix B, for the Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs, BHL 7527, 7529, 7531, 7532, 7533, BHG 1645). This seems a fair stance in a genre where some saintly dossiers underwent enormous numbers of contributions, re-writes, and revisions. It will be clear to anyone researching hagiography that the Bollandists’ BHL/BHG classification system,[2] based on the now dated assumption that clear boundaries can always be found between text versions, is imperfect. It could be observed, however, that this system was merely intended as an initial tool for ordering vast amounts of complex material. One could also add that the now dated, rigid system that takes snapshots of individual text versions at fixed points in time does in fact aid discussion and intellectual exchange between modern researchers, who are thus able to converse about specific textual phenomena, a result which would be considerably harder to achieve if highly complex synoptic editions are used to reference a tangle of ‘living text’. But the author’s argumentation deals carefully with these complexities and (often unresolvable) imperfections in our modern academic responses—responses to material which was evidently composed without regard to our modern needs. Whether synoptic editions and digital editions (both briefly discussed by Rebillard, ch. 3, p. 58) can offer better results remains to be seen.

A similar approach can also be found in the publications of some other commentators, although less clearly and less extensively argued out. For example, Walter Berschin’s large-scale genre survey of Latin hagiography (not cited by Rebillard)[3] also comes down firmly on the side of those who like to contextualise the purported Acts as a self-consciously styled literary genre imitating more bureaucratic formats of documentation. Berschin similarly argues for contextualising such texts as ever-changing constellations of a multitude of genre conventions.

If the main goal in this book is ‘to change the conversation about martyr narratives’ (Conclusion, p. 85), then Rebillard’s lucidly argued and methodical investigation stands a good chance of achieving this. The volume’s index helpfully includes not just keywords, but also references to authors of secondary literature, which makes it easy for readers to revisit and re-evaluate earlier contributions to this long-running discussion.


[1] G. W. Bowersock, Martyrdom and Rome (Cambridge, 1995).

[2] BHL = Bibliotheca Hagiographica Latina, ed. Bollandists, 2 vols. (Brussels, 1899–1901) and H. Fros, Novum Supplementum (Brussels, 1986); BHG = Bibliotheca Hagiographica Graeca, ed. Bollandists, 3rd edn F. Halkin, 3 vols. (Brussels, 1957) and F. Halkin, Auctarium (Brussels, 1969).

[3] W. Berschin, Biographie und Epochenstil im lateinischen Mittelalter, Quellen und Untersuchungen zur lateinischen Philologie des Mittelalters, 5 vols (Stuttgart, 1986-2004), I, 37-46 and 94-110.