The Early Martyr Narratives: Neither Authentic Accounts nor Forgeries (Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion)

December 4, 2020
The Early Martyr Narratives: Neither Authentic Accounts nor Forgeries (Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion)

From Eusebius of Caesarea, who first compiled a collection ofmartyr narratives around 300, to Thierry Ruinart, whose Actaprimorum martyrum sincera et selecta was published in 1689,the selection and study of early hagiographic narratives has beenfounded on an assumption that there existed documents written atthe time of martyrdom, or very close to it. As a result, a searchfor authenticity has been and continues to be central, even in thecontext of today's secular scholarship. But, as Éric Rebillardcontends, the alternative approach, to set aside entirely thequestion of the historical reliability of martyr narratives, is notsatisfactory either. Instead, he argues that martyr narrativesshould be consider as fluid "living texts," written anonymously andreceived by audiences not as precise historical reports but asversions of the story. In other words, the form these texts took,between fact and fiction, made it possible for audiences to readilyaccept the historicity of the martyr while at the same time notexpect to hear or read a truthful account.In The Early Martyr Narratives, Rebillard considersonly accounts of Christian martyrs supposed to have been executedbefore 260, and only those whose existence is attested in sourcesthat can be dated to before 300. The resulting small corpuscontains no texts in the form of legal protocols, traditionallyviewed as the earliest, most official and authentic records, nordoes it include any that can be dated to a period during whichpersecution of Christians is known to have taken place. Rather thandeduce from this that they are forgeries written for the sake ofpolemic or apologetic, Rebillard demonstrates how the literarinessof the narratives creates a fictional complicity that challengesand complicates any claims of these narratives to be truthful.