Dying to Be Men: Gender and Language in Early Christian Martyr Texts (Gender, Theory, and Religion)


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Dying to Be Men: Gender and Language in Early Christian Martyr Texts – By L. Stephanie Cobb

The Empire-wide measures taken under Decius in AD required everyone to provide sacrifices and eat sacrificial meat, one of the four things forbidden to Christians by the original Apostles in Acts A report of the martyrdom of Pionius at that time appears in a report from Smyrna based on the original transcript of the governor's hearing. One of the three temple guardians accompanied by policemen went to find Pionius because he had refused to perform sacrifices. He was waiting for them in his house with the Christians Sabina and Asklepiades. The three had already put shackles around their necks to show that they were ready to go to prison.

While efforts were made to persuade them to follow the example of others who had already performed the sacrifice, the three were led through the streets to the agora. The author of the Passio in the mid-third century says the upper galleries of the square were packed with Greeks, Hebrews and women who had the day off because of the Grand Shabbat. Pionius responds to the crowd's taunting by reminding the Greeks that Homer never considered it pious to rejoice at another losing his life.

He reminds the Jews of Moses and Solomon, who preach offering aid to the enemy and not rejoicing at his fate. He accuses them of showing no compassion by the fact of being human beings or the victims of injustice themselves. He follows with a series of rhetorical questions: "To whom have we done wrong? Have we perchance murdered someone? Or, do we persecute anyone? Or have we obliged anyone to venerate idols? Daniel Boyarin describes the historical accuracy of the Martyrdom of Pionius as "highly contested" among scholars, with varying levels of support among scholars for accuracy of its historical details.

Robert, has argued that various details of the text indicate that it was written in the third century AD, not long after the Decian persecution. The account bears all the marks of genuineness, and may be regarded as trustworthy, at least on the main points.

Dying to Be Men: Gender and Language in Early Christian Martyr Texts

McGiffert says: "The Life of Polycarp which purports to have been written by Pionius, is manifestly spurious and entirely untrustworthy, and belongs to the latter part of the fourth century. The true Pionius therefore, who suffered under Decius, and the pseudo-Pionius who wrote that life are to be sharply distinguished. Kleist disagrees and correlates this Pionius with the author of the Vita Pol. Naturally some scholars have equated all three. In the second century, Asia Minor experienced several regional persecutions from varying causes.

Emperor Marcus Aurelius' mandata mandates to the provincial governors to impose severe punishments on the sacrilegious were believed by the Bishop of Sardeis to be triggering manhunts. In the Historia Ecclesiae 4. Pionius, who made some excellent apologies for the Christian faith, were likewise burnt. We learn from a notice in the document by Ruinart that Pionius The Martyrdom of Pionius and his Companions says, "On the second day of the sixth month, on the occasion of a great Sabbath, and on the anniversary of the blessed martyr Polycarp, while the persecution of Decius was still on, there were arrested the presbyter Pionius It was Saturday While the Catholic Encyclopedia says Pionius was arrested on 23 February and killed on 12 March, [19] Monroy says German theologian Willy Rordorf thinks the precision of the description of the date does not indicate a day of the week, but instead indicates the feast of Terminalia , celebrated in the Roman world in honor of the god Terminus as the last day of the year precisely on 23 February.

Cacitti who says the terminology of Grand Shabbat in church literature arose theologically and not chronologically. The Martyrdom of Pionius makes two claims for itself: that it was written by Pionius, and that Pionius "left us this writing for our instruction" Pionius 1. Woolf says the martyrologies "disseminated particular messages and instructions to their readers through commentary and the examples provided by the martyrs. Within the narrative accounts and the literary reconstruction of the martyrs words and experiences, lay the virtues, doctrine and values held by the oppressed group.

Arik Greenberg says "there is an underlying thematic unity between the Hellenistic Noble Death tradition Sociologist and feminist scholar Elizabeth Castelli says it was in the writing of stories such as "The Martyrdom of Pionius" that early Christian culture first formed its cultural identity and was "indelibly marked by the collective memory of the religious suffering of others. Croix , Marxist historian, says, "By around the late first century, the Romans had a clear conception of what Christians were which encompassed most, although by no means all , of the myriad of groups who considered themselves Christian.

This understanding focused on what Christians were not, namely people who would not participate in traditional sacrifices. A Psychic Athletics Chrysostom sketches the martyrs first and foremost as champions of the faith and athletes for Christ. But the use of the image of athletics highlights even more the paradoxical power of the elderly martyrs. The athletes are not vigorous in the flesh, but they are vigorous in their faith. Their constitution is weak, but the grace that sustains them is powerful. Their bodies are disabled by old age, but their thoughts are trained by the desire for piety.

This is also a common theme in the account in 4 Maccabees. Chrysostom essentially undresses the martyrs, psychically at least, as they did with real athletes, to show the quality of their constitution and faith. Their souls are put on display and contrasted with the state of their bodies. Chrysostom advises his audience against being fooled by the external appearance of the bodies of these martyrs. First, we see again that Chrysostom equates the senescence of the body with the strength and especially the health of the soul.


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Those conditions that weaken the body, including physical illness wrought by old age, can serve in the interest of strengthening the soul and making it healthy. The aging of the body actually makes the soul young. So, the souls of the martyrs are healthy, strong, and youthful, everything one would expect in a top- class physical athlete. Second, the physical weakness of the aged martyrs also serves to emphasise the strength and masculinity of Christ. For whenever children and old people exhibit unnatural strength, the grace of God who works through them is brilliantly revealed in every respect.

Chrysostom specifically refers to the type of athletics performed in this context, 63 Macc. These elderly persons are therefore not just any athletes—they are fighting athletes, they are boxers and wrestlers. Spiritual Fertility Another marker of the masculinity of the martyrs emphasised by Chrysostom is their spiritual fertility. Fertility was not associated with old age—the opposite was in fact true.

Old age was considered by many as being synonymous with sterility, especially in the case of women. Yet being fertile, having the ability to produce heirs especially sons , was seen as a prerequisite for Roman manliness. Some saw sterility as a disease Chrysostom included , whilst others even likened it to divine punishment. This is also why it was expected that elderly persons should not have sexual desire. Yet those with venerable old age are described as being spiritually fertile by Chrysostom.

He actually begins his homily Eleaz. Using an example not from human reproduction, but from botany, Chrysostom states: How at its peak is this spiritual olive tree! For the plants of the earth are not of the same kind as the trees of the Church. I mean that, when the former reach old age, they then shed the majority of their leaves and, whatever fruit they bear, they produce out of season and undersized.

But when these trees reach old age, it is then especially that they sink under the weight of their fruit. Just as the athletic souls of the martyrs and venerable elders were depicted as being handsome, strong, healthy, and youthful, Chrysostom now also adds that their souls are fertile.

Mathew Kuefler has shown that spiritual fertility in the faith was a common and effective discourse in early Christian transformations of masculinity. A good old age may be a physically barren age, but it has the capacity to be spiritually fertile. The discourse of fertility is especially present when Chrysostom discusses the martyr-mother. The fact that she loses all of her children in her old age may be seen by some as a terrible curse, especially because of her perceived senescence.

But Chrysostom argues the contrary. These martyrs and monks, as ideal males, procreate without intercourse and without lust—old age is therefore no hindrance. Once again the parallels between senescence, asceticism, and martyrdom are apparent. Although their bodies are cold because of age, Eleazar and the martyr-mother are spiritually fertile because they have a great deal of spiritual heat, according to Chrysostom.

Hunter, trans. It served to make the wedding visible and public, and was present near the bridal chamber before a marriage was consummated. The Maccabean martyrs are eligible to be married to God because they are spiritually fertile in healthy and desirable souls. The elderly martyr-mother is a complex figure in her own right. Her weakness is made up from a combination of her physical frailty and disability Chrysostom says she could have had a walking stick78 due to her age, her feminine nature as a woman, and even more so, the weakness of the love for her children as a mother.

Yet she conquers all of these and emerges more masculine than any other. The inversion of their bodies betrays the nature of their souls. Their bodies are weak but their souls are steely; they appear infertile because of age or the loss of children, but are in fact highly fertile; they may be burdened with illness and disability in body, but their souls are healthy. Conclusion: The Martyrs as Exempla of Masculinity These martyrs are not simply there to awe the audience, but they are teachers and models for imitation in virtue.

All of the homilies end with an exhortation to imitate the martyrs. Being trained in virtue was the epitome of masculinisation for Chrysostom. The fact that they appear, on the outside, so unmanly serves to democratise the process of masculinisation. It is no longer only freeborn elite males who need to strive to be masculine, but everyone in society regardless of gender, age, or social status. Let fathers imitate her, let mothers emulate [her], and women and men living in virginity and clothed in sackcloth and wearing collars.

So then, let no one who has reached a peak of courage and endurance think it beneath their dignity to have the old woman as their teacher. For if Eleazar, an old man, braved fire, and the mother of those blessed [youths] endured so much pain in extreme old age, what defense could you have, what excuse for not even traversing a few stades for the sake of viewing those wrestling matches?

For this reason I ask of your love that you all attend—old women, in order to view a woman of like age, young women to take the old woman as a teacher, men in order to see the woman crowned, old men so that they too might be amazed at Eleazar, and young men at the chorus of youths. For truly for each gender and each age group there are examples of wrestling matches and competitions and victory and trophies and crowns to see.

Christians are therefore admonished to follow the martyrs in the practice of asceticism—to also age their bodies prematurely in order to strengthen and beautify their souls for the heavenly Bridegroom. Aging is not only a correlate for ascetic practice, but it functions as a correlate for Christian masculinisation. The traits of the woman, namely her philosophy her self-discipline , her courage, and her endurance, are some of the most potent terms that signify the masculine state.

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There is now a direct conceptual line between old age, masculinity, martyrdom, and asceticism. Furthermore, old age is used to shame his audience, whether they are younger or also elderly, into taking action. The narrative of the Maccabean martyrs is therefore not only told, by Chrysostom, in such a way as to sketch the characters as masculine. But he strategically fashions and retells the story with a pedagogical and mimetic purpose in mind.

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New York: Columbia University Press, Clark, Gillian. London: Routledge, Cobb, L. Oakland: University of California Press, Cokayne, Karen. Experiencing Old Age in Ancient Rome.

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    Dying to Be Men: Gender and Language in Early Christian Martyr Texts (Gender, Theory, and Religion) Dying to Be Men: Gender and Language in Early Christian Martyr Texts (Gender, Theory, and Religion)
    Dying to Be Men: Gender and Language in Early Christian Martyr Texts (Gender, Theory, and Religion) Dying to Be Men: Gender and Language in Early Christian Martyr Texts (Gender, Theory, and Religion)
    Dying to Be Men: Gender and Language in Early Christian Martyr Texts (Gender, Theory, and Religion) Dying to Be Men: Gender and Language in Early Christian Martyr Texts (Gender, Theory, and Religion)
    Dying to Be Men: Gender and Language in Early Christian Martyr Texts (Gender, Theory, and Religion) Dying to Be Men: Gender and Language in Early Christian Martyr Texts (Gender, Theory, and Religion)
    Dying to Be Men: Gender and Language in Early Christian Martyr Texts (Gender, Theory, and Religion) Dying to Be Men: Gender and Language in Early Christian Martyr Texts (Gender, Theory, and Religion)

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