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Paradisus in carcere: The Vocabulary of Imprisonment and the Theology of Martyrdom in the Passio Sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis

From: Journal of Early Christian Studies
Volume 14, Number 2, Summer 2006
pp. 217-223 | 10.1353/earl.2006.0035

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Paradisus in carcere: The Vocabulary of Imprisonment and the Theology of Martyrdom in the Passio Sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis THOMAS J. HEFFERNAN AND JAMES E. SHELTON Christian martyrdom, a complex amalgam of late Jewish fidelity to the law and aspects of Greco-Roman thought embodied in the exitus illustrium virorum tradition, fashioned an eschatological ideology of sacrifice founded on a Pauline paradox: to live outside of Christ is to die, and to die in Christ is to live (Phil 1.21–23; 1 Cor 9.15; 2 Cor 6.9 and Col 2.20).1 Origen, in his Exhortatio ad Martyrium, illustrates such an understanding in a remark to the imprisoned Ambrosius and Protoctetus. Here he reverses the classical understanding of death as annihilation and life as animation, as he makes clear by the phrase, “When you are at the gates of death or rather of freedom.”2 The Christian Latin tradition 1. The outstanding example of such martyrs is that of Eleazar and the Maccabean mother and her seven sons (2 Macc 6–7.42); see R. J. Zwi Werblowsky and G. Wigoder, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion (Oxford University Press: New York, 1997) and J. W. van Henten, The Maccabean Martyrs as Saviours of the Jewish People: A Study of 2 and 4 Maccabees (Leiden & New York: Brill, 1997). An indication of the popularity of tales of heroic suffering in the early years of the first century ce (ca.19–54) is clear from 4 Macc devoting three-fourths of its narrative to the story of Eleazar and the Maccabeean mother from 2 Macc 6–7. 4 Macc, a blend of Platonism and Stoicism, was widely known in the North African Christian community, and there is a Latin paraphrase, the Passio sanctorum Machabeorum (c. 4th century). L. Martin, Hellenistic Religions: An Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 11, 119; D. Seeley, “The Noble Death: Graeco-Roman Martyrology and Paul’s Conception of Salvation” in JSNTSupp 28 (1990): 83–112; R. Bell, “Sacrifice and Christology in Paul,” JTS 53 (2002): 1–27; and see Seneca, ep. 24. 2. Origen, mart. (PG. 11.592): EÎxomai d¢ Ímçw, parå ta›s YÊraiw toË Yanãtou. Journal of Early Christian Studies 14:2, 217–223 © 2006 The Johns Hopkins University Press 218 JOURNAL OF EARLY CHRISTIAN STUDIES shared a similar rhetorical point of view. Flavian, the Carthaginian deacon who was martyred following Valerian’s second edict (c. 258), said in response to friends who tried to persuade him to save himself and sacrifice to the Emperor, “We live though we die; and we are not conquered by death but conquer it.”3 The act of Christian self-sacrifice had to be volitional. The more volitional, the more efficacious the sacrifice. And the more efficacious, the more likely that God would honor the actions of the martyr.4 Such sacrificial voluntarism sees its earliest and most dramatic post-canonical New Testament expression in Ignatius’ Epistula ad Romanos.5 While there is little rhetorically as stirring as Ignatius’ desire for the martyr’s death until we reach Tertullian, Tertullian does nonetheless embrace the Ignatian idea that to desire to die as a martyr is to respond positively to providence and is the highest good. Tertullian moreover extends such a choice to all Christians, male and female.6 In Ad Martyras 7 Tertullian very explicitly acknowledges that martyrs have not only endured persecution, but even “eagerly desired it” (et ultro appetita, 4.3). He counsels those in prison awaiting persecution that soon they will pass through a noble struggle, in which they will gain “an eternal crown of angelic essence, citizenship in the heavens, glory everlasting” (3.3).8 His zealous exhortation “the leg does not feel the chain when the mind is in the heavens” underscores the change which the mind of the martyr undergoes when he or she longs to join Christ (2.10).9 No text associated with the circle of Tertullian better illustrates such a passionate attachment to an ecstatic celebration of martyrdom than does the Passio Sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis. The first subtle suggestion of such desire (hitherto unnoticed) in that text is in the...

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