Sunday, December 2, 2007

Jewish Martyrdom

Jewish Martyrdom and the Death of Jesusby Ioanes RakhmatThe term “martyrdom” is used for an account of the final suffering and death of a martyr, as the result of the actions of powerful enemies; the account was purportedly written by a contemporary, often an eyewitness, of those events, and it usually included a section consisting of courtroom discourses between magistrates, even the tyrannical ruler, and the martyr in which the latter expressed his or her allegiance solely to the laws of the forefathers.

Jan Willem van Henten has studied in detail the widespread notion and belief of politically patriotic martyrdom and its atoning effect upon the martyr’s land and people, in the biblical and post-biblical eras, according to both Jewish and Greco-Roman traditions. In this study, entitled The Maccabean Martyrs as Saviours of the Jewish People, Van Henten argues that the Jewish tradition concerning such martyrdom, such as that seen in 2 and 4 Maccabees, was developed not only on the basis of the Torah but also on the basis of a Greek philosophical framework. With this dual basis, the authors of 2 and 4 Maccabees portrayed the Maccabean martyrs as Jewish philosophers, and contrasted the philosophy of the martyrs with the Greek philosophy of the tyrannical king.

In the description of the martyrdoms in 2 Maccabees 6:18-7:42, one of the martyrs, the priestly sage Eleazar, presents an impressive explanation of his decision to accept death because of his opposition to the will of the tyrant (6:23-28). In those verses, Eleazar’s decision is termed a logismos asteios or “noble reasoning” (6:23); in 4 Maccabees (1:1; 6:31; 7:4, 16, 21; 13:1; 16:1; 18:1) it is termed eusebēs logismos or “devout reason”, and it is claimed that this reason must govern both the emotions and physical suffering and agony, for, as 4 Maccabees 13:3 states, it is this reason which is praised before God.

The author of 2 Maccabees declares that he is offering a symposion, a pleasant and instructive banquet, for the benefit of others (2:27). This declaration links 2 Maccabees with the so-called deipnon or sumposion literature, of which Plato’s Symposium is the most famous example.
[2] Indeed, as has been pointed out by Jonathan A. Goldstein and others,[3] in 2 Maccabees 6:18-31, clear parallels are intended between Socrates and the Eleazar of 2 Maccabees; as Goldstein expresses it, “No educated Greek could miss the resemblance of Eleazar to Socrates.” [4]The two heroes, Socrates and Eleazar, were well advanced in years (respectively, seventy years and ninety years), and they regarded the few remaining years of life as something with which it is easy to part (2 Maccabees 6:18, 23-25; Apology 38c). Because of this, fear of death could not make them surrender their opinions and actions (2 Maccabees 6:22-29; Apology 28b-d). This attitude was consonant with each one’s earlier life, so that any yielding to opposition would have seemed a self-betrayal (2 Maccabees 6:22; Apology 28d-30c, 34b-35b). Both, therefore, rejected “easier”alternative in the face of the threatening penalty (2 Maccabees 6:21-28; Apology 36b-38b, and Crito); both held that it is better to go to the underworld in defense of the laws (2 Maccabees 6:23; Crito 54b-d); both maintained that, though one may escape human punishment, one cannot escape divine punishment for injustice and wickedness (2 Maccabees 6:26; Apology 39a-b); and both put their trust in supernatural judges (2 Maccabees 6:26; Apology 41a). The tyrants who controlled their fate were offended by their speeches and condemned both of them to death (2 Maccabees 6:29; Apology 38c), and their deaths were intended as warnings and superlative examples to others, both at that time and in subsequent generations (2 Maccabees 6:31; Phaedo 118).
The Martyrs in 2 Maccabees 6:18-7:42 (cf. 4 Maccabees 5-18)
The focus of 2 Maccabees 7:1-42 is the slaying of seven brothers together with their aged mother on the order of king Antiochus; this was in the context of the king’s efforts to compel Jews to eat pork and foods sacrificed to idols in disregard of prohibitions in the Torah. In the courtroom discourses related in 4 Maccabees 8:7-8, the king tried to move the accused to accept his commands by offering rewards and threatening execution: “Trust me, then, and you will have positions of authority in my government if you will renounce the ancestral tradition of your national life. Enjoy your youth by adopting the Greek way of life and by changing your manner of living. But if by disobedience you arise my anger, you will compel me to destroy each and every one of you with dreadful punishments through tortures.” According to this text, the response of the brothers was: “But when they had heard the inducements and saw the dreadful devices, not only were they not afraid, but they also opposed the tyrant with their own philosophy, and by their right reasoning nullified his tyranny” (8:15).

These martyrs understood their sufferings as the punishment of their sin against God (2 Maccabees 7:18, 32); but they were also convinced that, after God’s anger had been expressed, God would again be reconciled with them (v. 33). Because of her courage, steadfastness, and hope in the Lord, even while being forced to watch her sons tortured and put to death, all in the course of a single day, the text insists that the mother of these seven sons deserves to be held in glorious memory (v. 20). In the text, in verses 9 and 14, the belief is expressed that, for one who dies for the sake of the law, there will be resurrection and eternal life. Thus, when the youngest of the brothers is about to be slain, he insists that his brothers “now have inherited eternal life under the terms of God’s covenant, whereas you shall suffer through the judgment of God the just punishment for your arrogance” (v. 36), and his last words even display the conviction that their martyrdom will put an end to the rightful anger which God has inflicted on all God’s people (v. 38).

The religious and philosophical ideas found in 2 Maccabees 6:18-31 and 7:1-42 were later elaborated in 4 Maccabees 5-18. Noting that only in a few cases does the author of 4 Maccabees deviate from 2 Maccabees, Van Henten concludes that it is likely that that author of the former derived the basic material of chs. 5-18 from the latter; and, Van Henten suggests that the author of 4 Maccabees was inspired to use martyrdom as evidence for his thesis of the autonomy of the logismos (“reason”) by the occurence of this term in 2 Maccabees 6:23; 7:21.

The Historical Context of the Maccabean Martyrs

The historical context of the martyrdoms in 2 Maccabees 6-7 is found in the aftermath of the second invasion of Egypt by the Syrian king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes (2 Maccabees 5:1). Antiochus’ visits to Jerusalem following his military meassures against Egypt (on two occasions in the period of 170-168 BCE), and his drastic actions against the Jews (in the period of 175-164 BCE),
[6] have been the hotly debated issues in historians’ research.[7] In Goldstein’s judgment, the narratives could reflect not only the events, ideas, and literary patterns of the 160s BCE, but also those of both earlier and later times.[8] The gruesome martyrdoms, as pointed out by Goldstein, could well have occurred during Antiochus’ persecution of the Jews. Antiochus viewed the Jews’ rebellion as a result of their obedience to the Torah.[9]

In the opinion of Van Henten, 2 Maccabees may have been composed around the year 125 or 124 BCE,
[10] a time which fits with the data found in 1:9; and Van Henten also opines that the work may have received its present form in Judea (Jerusalem). While other scholars, e.g., Sam K. Williams, David Seeley, and Crossan, date 4 Maccabees to the middle of the first century CE,[11] in Van Henten’s judgement it was composed around 100 CE, at least two hundred years after the persecution of the Jews by Antiochus IV which preceeded the successful Maccabean war of liberation.[12] In 2 Maccabees and 4 Maccabees, Van Henten maintains, the issues are Jewish self-definition and identity in both the religious-cultural and the political spheres.

In the analysis of Sam K. Williams, the authors of 2 Maccabees operated, on the one hand, with the theological categories of sin and estrangement on the part of the Jews, and of wrath, discipline and mercy on the part of God (e.g., 2 Maccabees 4:16-17; 5:17-20; 6:12-17; 7:18; 7:32-33). On the other hand, those authors intermingled these categories with historical causes rooted in the hellenizing program of Antiochus together with his allies within the Jerusalem priesthood, a program which was uncompromisingly opposed by the righteous Jews who followed Judas Maccabaeus as the central hero. The “speeches” of the dying martyrs, in which they express their defiance, their motivation and their hope, are one of the vehicles which bear the theologizing motifs of 2 Maccabees concerning the reasons for the suffering of innocent Jews.
[13] Thus, the narrative in 2 Maccabees can best be characterized as apologetic historiography, the focus of which is the significance of the crucial events of the past for contemporary Jewish politics, religion, morality and self-understanding.[14] The accounts of 2 Maccabees (3:1-15:39) themselves are referred to by the epitomist (2:23-26) as both history, hē historia (2:32; cf. 2:24, 30), and story, ho logos (15:37-39).

The Common Narrative Pattern

According to Van Henten, the common narrative pattern of a number of “martyr texts” consists of the following elements: 1) in a situation of oppression, the (pagan) civil authorities issue enactments the disobedience of which is punished with the death penalty; 2) the contents of the decrees are so offensive to the Jews because their faithfulness to God, the Law and their Jewish way of life are thereby threatened; 3) when Jews are forced, for instance after their arrest, to decide between complying with the decrees or remaining faithful to their religion and its practices, they choose bravely to die rather than obey; 4) their decision to do so becomes obvious during the courtroom processes in which torture is often used; 5) finally, an extremely cruel execution is described.

Drawing especially on the accounts of 2 Maccabees 6:18-31 and ch. 7, Goldstein describes what transpires in the courtroom as the martyr is interrogated and tortured: 1) the martyr cheerfully accepts terrible pain rather than commit an act of eating pork, something viewed as trivial by the non-Jews; 2) the martyr, the persecutors and tormentors are involved in dialogue in which each maintains the rightness of his or her respective conduct; 3) the torture is vividly described; 4) the martyr demonstrates his or her persistent faith to the death; 5) there is noted both the anger and the admiration of the non-Jews when the torture proves of no avail; 6) the martyr is presented as a model to be imitated by the rest of the faithful.

In 2 Maccabees 6-7 as well as in 4 Maccabees 6:28-29, the effect of martyrdom is stated. Eleazar’s death is understood by himself as a noble example of a beautiful death in defense of the revered and sacred laws, and as a precedent of valor to be remembered not only by the young but by all his fellow Jews (2 Maccabees 6:28, 31). Eleazar’s death is seen as vicarious (i.e., as done on behalf of others) in terms of its benefit as a model or paradigm for others; it has a mimetic function with regard to his contemporaries, the larger body of his nation. Seeley finds the four aspects of Eleazar’s death as being: vicariousness, obedience, the overcoming of physical vulnerability, together with a military nuance.
[16] In 2 Maccabees 7, the brothers’ deaths are not seen as vicarious or expiatory (= canceling the effects of sin), but simply as instrumental in putting an end to the suffering of God’s people.

Jewish Martyrdom and the Passion of Jesus

In view of the fact that the gospel writings about Jesus’ passion and trials lack most of the narrative pattern which is usually found in the “martyr texts,” equating Jesus with the Maccabean martyrs seems to be inadequately buttressed. In his two-volume work The Death of the Messiah, Raymond E. Brown has noted that the gospel passion narratives “are singularly lacking in important features of the Maccabean martyr stories, e.g., gruesome descriptions of the tortures, and defiant speeches calling down punishment on the ruler.”
[17] Brown remarks, for example, that “[U]nlike some roughly contemporary Jewish martyrs, Jesus does not cry out in defiance of his persecutors or call God’s vengeance down on them,...”[18] Acknowledging “[T]hat Jesus’ seeing himself as martyr-prophet may supply the key to understanding Jesus’ foreknowledge of his fate,”[19] Brown concludes that “I see no way of determining the extent to which his relation to God in heaven moved Jesus beyond foresight to foreknowledge [of a violent death], and it may well be that Jesus himself could not have answered that question. Subtlety does far more justice to the likelihood than a negative vote that Jesus did not make (and perhaps could not have made) any of the predictions attributed to him.”[20] Similar to this is De Jonge’s remark that “it is certainly possible or even probable that during his preaching in Galilee and Jerusalem, when his death had become a possibility to be reckoned with very seriously, Jesus, or Jesus’ followers, considered this to be the death of a martyr, but decisive proof cannot be given.”[21] After observing that the Jewish martyrdoms related in 2 & 4 Maccabees took place when the martyrs’ religion was being threatened with destruction, David Seeley makes the sharply-worded conclusion that “[I]t is preposterous, in the literal sense of the word, to try to place the historical Jesus in that kind of position.”[22]

But these three scholars (and a number of others) have also argued for the presence of a martyrological coloring in some of the NT materials. Seeley is of the opinion that, in three of the earliest strata of the NT (Q 14:26-27; pre-Pauline traditions in Romans 3:24-26 and Philippians 2:6-11; Mark 10:45 and 12:24), there are martyrological motifs which became attached to the interpretation of Jesus’ death which was in keeping with the Greco-Roman viewpoint of the noble death of a philosopher to be imitated by his students. As a result, writes Seeley, “[T]he historical Jesus was someone easily seen as a martyr.”
[23] And, while Raymond Brown concludes that the gospel passion narratives do not contain “important features” found in the Maccabean martyr-texts, he agrees that the martyr image seems clear and intentional in Luke-Acts, and can be seen, for example, from: the way martyrdom is envisioned in Luke 12:49-53; the repeated Lukan emphasis on Jesus’ innocence, with the implication that he died in God’s cause as the suffering just and holy one (also Acts 7:52; 13:35);[24] the angelic help given to the suffering Jesus and the mockery scene (Luke 22:43-44, 63-65);[25] the clear parallel between the death of Jesus and the death of Stephen related in Acts. In this, however, De Jonge warns that “[T]he model of interpretation reflected in these accounts of the Maccabean martyrs elucidates only certain aspects of Jesus’ mission culminating in his death and resurrection. In his solidarity with others, Jesus died for their sins, and not for his own. He was not just a martyr bringing about reconciliation with God and peace for Israel on earth. He appeared as a unique servant of God, God’s final envoy.”[26]

In an article entitled Jesus and Martyrdom, John Downing asserts that “formal characteristics of martyria are all to be found in the passion-narratives,” and concludes that Jesus “finally came to understand his death not only as a martyrdom against his nation, but also for the true faithful Israel whom he had gathered around him...” and that “Jesus was not just a martyr but the martyr.”
[27] J. C. O’ Neill contends that the Maccabean martyrdom tradition was an important part of the literary background for the gospel “cross sayings” (Matthew 10:38; Luke 14:27; Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23 in the Codex Vaticanus), for the gospel sayings about those who will not taste death before the coming of the Kingdom (Matthew 16:28; Mark 9:1; Luke 9:27), for the gospel servant sayings (Matthew 20:20-27; Mark 10:35-44; Luke 22:24-27), and for the gospel ransom sayings (Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45).[28] It is worth noting that recently Harry T. Fleddermann has argued that the cross saying of Mark 8:34b (“Let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”) was created by the author of Q and therefore possibly reflects the view of the historical Jesus himself.[29] And finally, Van Henten’s study of Maccabean martyrdom is important for pointing to a sacred meal as the ritual context in which the Maccabean martyrs made manifest their resistance to Seleucid rule; this made the meal subversive in character.[30] Obviously, this suggestion of Van Henten may well justify the interpretation of Jesus’ meal, set against the background of the Jewish martyrdom tradition, as a substitute for the rites of sacrifice in the Temple.[31]

Whether one argues for or against a direct literary and theological relationship between the stories of Jewish martyrs and the gospel passion narratives, the Jewish martyrological materials―materials such as those in 2 Maccabees 6-7 and 4 Maccabees 5-18 in which historical facts are embedded in theological and philosophical narratives of an apologetic character―certainly lie in the background of the gospel passion and trial narratives and must be considered when judging the literary and historical character of the passion and trial accounts in the gospels.

[1] Jan Willem van Henten, The Maccabean Martyrs as Saviours of the Jewish People: A Study of 2 and 4 Maccabees (Leiden: Brill, 1997) 270-294.
[2] Van Henten, Maccabean Martyrs, 22.
[3] Jonathan A. Goldstein, II Maccabees. A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB 41A; Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1983); Collins, “The Genre”, 5-11; Van Henten, Maccabean Martyrs, 270-294, esp. 272-278, 301; see the literature cited on p. 272 n. 11.
[4] Goldstein, II Maccabees, 285.
[5] Van Henten, Maccabean Martyrs, 70-73.
[6] In F. Millar’s judgment, concerning Antiochus’ drastic measures against the Jews, all that we can be certain of is the dedication of the Temple to Zeus Olympus, the favoured god of Antiochus, and the sacrifices of pigs which were carried out on a pagan altar constructed over the altar of burnt offering. See his “The Background to the Maccabean Revolution. Reflections on Martin Hengel’s ‘Judaism and Hellenism,’” Journal of Jewish Studies 29 (1978) 19 [1-21].
[7] See among others E. Schürer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (175 B.C. - A.D. 135): A New English Version (rev. and eds. G. Vermes, F. Millar & M. Goodman; 3 vols.; Edinburgh: 1973-1987); F. Millar, “The Background to the Maccabean Revolution”, 1-21; Goldstein, II Maccabees, 84-112 (ch. 5); Van Henten, Maccabean Martyrs, 86-95.
[8] Goldstein, II Maccabees, 291.
[9] Goldstein, II Maccabees, 292.
[10] Van Henten, Maccabean Martyrs, 4, 57 (see pp. 51 ff. for Henten’s discussion on the date and provenance of 2 Maccabees).
[11] Sam K. Williams, Jesus’ Death as Saving Event: The Background and Origin of a Concept (HDR 2; Missoula: Scholar Press, 1975) 202 , dates the composition of 4 Maccabees to “a time antedating the period of Paul’s literary activity by at least a decade.” According to David Seeley, The Noble Death: Graeco-Roman Martyrology and Paul’s Concept of Salvation (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1990) 83, it was composed between 20-54 CE. Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed, Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts (New York: HarperCollins, 2001) 256, dates it to the middle of the first century CE.
[12] Van Henten, Maccabean Martyrs, 4f., 73-82.
[13] Williams, Jesus’ Death as Saving Event, 76-90.
[14] Van Henten, Maccabean Martyrs, 20, 25. Some scholars call it also “tragic history” or “military history” (pp. 21, 21n.14).
[15] Van Henten, Maccabean Martyrs, 8; cf. Goldstein, II Maccabees, 282.
[16] David Seeley, Noble Death, 88-91.
[17] Brown, Death of Messiah, 2.1448.
[18] Brown, Death of Messiah, 1.32, 772, 2. 978, cf. 2. 951 n.36.
[19]Brown, Death of Messiah, 2.1487 n 42.
[20]Brown, Death of Messiah, 2.1489 (emphasis added).
[21] M. de Jonge, God’s Final Envoy: Early Christology and Jesus’ Own View of His Mission (Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge:U.K.: Eerdmans, 1998) 30; cf. Dodd, History and the Gospel (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1938) 83.
[22]David Seeley, “Was Jesus a Philosopher? The Evidence of Martyrological and Wisdom Motifs in Q, Pre-Pauline Traditions, and Mark” in Society of Biblical Literature Seminar Papers 1989, 548 [540-549]; idem, Noble Death, ch. 5.
[23] Seeley, “Was Jesus a Philosopher?,” 548.
[24] Brown, Death of Messiah, 1.32.
[25] Brown, Death of Messiah, 1. 162, 187ff., 584, 612 n.45, 2.1027 n.102. See also p. 212 (the gospel picture of Jesus’ being given over, besides shaped by the Isaian and Psalmic portrait of the suffering just one, has a martyrological coloring).
[26] De Jonge, “Jesus’ Death for Others and the Death of the Maccabean Martyrs” in T. Baarda, A. Hilhorst, G.P. Luttikhuizen, A.S. van der Woude (eds.), Text and Testimony: Essays on New Testament and Apocryphal Literature in Honour of A.F.J. Klijn (Kampen: Kok, 1988) 151 [142-151] (emphasis original). This article has been republished in De Jonge’s collected essays, Jewish Eschatology, Early Christian Christology and the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs (Leiden, etc.: Brill, 1991) 125-134.
[27] John Downing, “Jesus and Martyrdom”, Journal of Theological Studies 14.2 (1963) 289, 292, 293 [279-293].
[28] O’ Neill, “Did Jesus Teach that His Death Would be Vicarious?” in William Horbury and Brian McNeill, eds., Suffering and Martyrdom in the New Testament (Studies presented to G. M. Styler by the Cambridge New Testament Seminar; Cambridge, etc.: Cambridge University Press, 1981) 9-27.
[29] Harry T. Fleddermann, “Mark’s Use of Q: The Beelzebul Controversy and the Cross Saying” in Michael Labahn & Andreas Schmidt (eds.), Jesus, Mark and the Teaching of Jesus and Its Earliest Records (JSNTSup. 214; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001) 27-33 [17-33]. See also Peter Balla, “What did Jesus Think about his Approaching Death?” in Labahn and Schmidt, Ibid., 239-258.
[30] Van Henten, Maccabean Martyrs, 122.
[31] For such an interpretation, see Bruce Chilton, A Feast of Meanings. Eucharistic Theologies from Jesus Through Johannine Circles (Leiden, etc.:Brill, 1994) 63ff. (p. 74: “... Jesus’ practice at meals after the [failed] occupation of the Temple [is] an attempt to establish a surrogate for the sacrifice of thanksgiving.”); idem, “Ideological Diets in a Feast of Meanings” in Jesus in Context. Temple, Purity, and Restoration (eds. Bruce Chilton and Craig A. Evans; AGJU 39; Leiden, etc.: 1997) 59-89; idem, The Temple of Jesus. His Sacrificial Program within a Cultural History of Sacrifice (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992); idem, “Trial of Jesus Reconsidered” in Chilton and Evans, Jesus in Context (republished also under the title “The So-Called Trial before the Sanhedrin” in Forum, New Series 1,1: On the Passion Narratives [Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 1998] 163-180) 481-500 (pp. 494f.: “But why did they finally arrest Jesus? The last supper provides the key: something about Jesus’ meals after his occupation of the Temple caused Judas to inform on Jesus”; “In essence, Jesus made his meals into a rival altar”, “an alternative cultus.”)