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  • The Power of Sacrifice: Roman and Christian Discourses in Conflict
  • Everett Ferguson
The Power of Sacrifice: Roman and Christian Discourses in Conflict. By George Heyman. (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press. 2007. Pp. xxviii, 256. $69.95. ISBN 978-0-813-21489-4.)

George Heyman’s thesis is that “[t]he conflict between Rome and the early Church was ultimately a collision of sacrificial discourses” (p. xvii). While [End Page 588] early Christians refused to participate in Roman sacrifices, their concept of sacrifice was structurally the same: “[W]hile the ‘content’ of what constituted a sacrifice may have changed, the importance of sacrificial rhetoric did not” (p. 147). The author recurs to the definition of sacrifice as derived from the Latin “to make” (facere) something “sacred” (sacer); hence a sacrifice was the removal or separation of something from the ordinary, to make something valuable “expendable” (p. xv).

Heyman sees the uniqueness of his book in the connection made between martyrdom and the rhetoric of sacrifice (p. xxiv). This is an overstatement, for I and others have pointed to the early Christian view of martyrdom as a sacrificial death, but we have not made it central the way Heyman does. He also claims that other scholars have not made a comprehensive analysis of the impact of the discourse of the Roman imperial cult on early Christianity, but such a presentation fits the increasing attention to the political dimension of the context of early Christianity (as for instance the work of Warren Carter on the New Testament).

Chapter 1 uses discourse theory to present the nature of religion and the organization of religious personnel in Rome. Sacrifice constituted Roman identity: “To be Roman was to be religious. To be religious was to sacrifice in a variety of specified and ritually controlled ways” (p. 43).

Chapter 2 on the imperial cult demonstrates the continuity from Roman state religion to the cult of Caesar. What changed was not “traditional Roman religion, but the direction through which religious discourse was controlled” (p. 54).

Chapter 3 discusses the New Testament texts that employ the rhetoric of sacrifice, especially as applied to the death of Jesus. The New Testament presents no coherent “theology” of sacrifice, but the author argues that a sacrifice can be both expiatory and communion-oriented at the same time. The terminology of “spiritual sacrifice” for various Christian activities can be misleading, for not all sacrifices involved killing animals but might be the offering of grain or the pouring out of a libation, and the Christian “sacrifices” might be material, as in benevolence; but the terminology does point to a valid distinction.

Chapter 4 takes up the rhetoric of martyrdom as one thread in sacrificial discourse in the context of pagan and Jewish examples of “noble death.” Because of the focus on the conflict between Rome and the Church, the author does not treat other activities besides martyrdom that early Christians regarded as sacrifices. The distinctively Christian idea was that the martyr died “like Jesus,” in imitation of him. The martyrs’ deaths were sacrificial like Christ’s; Jesus and the martyrs freely sacrificed their lives. The author argues that emperor worship was at the heart of the persecution of Christians.

There are some problematic interpretations. Martyrs are said to be a creation of those who wrote about them (p. xxii), but the cult of a martyr often [End Page 589] preceded the martyrology. “Ransom” is said to assuage the divine rage (p. 125), but in usage the word pointed to the liberty accomplished. That the allusions to sacrifice in reference to Jesus’ death at the Last Supper mean the re-enactment of the Last Supper was a further means of atonement (p. 130) reads later theological ideas back into the Gospels. Instead of being “perplexing” (p. 147) Paul’s use of logikē in Romans 12:1 accords with philosophical language of the time for worship that proceeds from the reasoning part of a person. Were Clement of Alexandria’s comments on martyrdom a grudging concession? (p. 233). The assertion, “The struggle between the power of Rome and the Church was played out vis-à-vis a clash within sacrificial discourses and...


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