Sunday, May 17, 2009

Acta Martyrum

The term “acts” (Latin: acta) is used synonymously with the Greek word hypomnēmatismoi (recollections) for which the more precise equivalent in Latin is commentarius (-i). Used as a legal term, it is given to the official records of Roman trials, as taken down by offical scribes. Commentarii (“trial records”, “minutes”, “memoranda”, “records of proceedings” or “protocols”) consist primarily of discourses between magistrates and defendants (or martyrs) in a courtroom.

Acta Martyrum

In his work Pre-Decian Acts of Martyrs and Commentarii, Gary A. Bisbee, employing historical methods together with source-, text-, and form-criticism, has shown that several acta paganorum (acts of the pagan martyrs) and acta Christianorum (acts of the Christian martyrs) drew upon commentarii or were actually copies of commentarii. In their extant form, acta martyrum (the inclusive term used for both types of acta just noted) divulge stages of development beginning with commentarii, official records of historical proceedings in a courtroom. A Commentarius purports to be an “historical account,” recording “the ipsissima verba of martyrs’ trials.”[1] Although the framework of a commentarius could be fictional and while the content usually shows some reworking at various stages from the primitive copies (such as the adding of overt political propaganda), fundamentally the work is an historical document. As such, some of its details can be also found in other sources, for example, in the writings of the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo Judaeus (fl. 20 BCE - 40 CE).[2]

In his work on acta paganorum entitled The Acts of the Pagan Martyrs: Acta Alexandrinorum, Herbert A. Musurillo presents an analysis of the Roman martyrologies in which the historical famous protagonists, the martyrs, are portrayed as nobly defending themselves during their trials and then in facing execution.[3] The Acta Alexandrinorum, studied by Musurillo, come from the period of the first century (the reign of the emperor Claudius, 41-54 CE) to the third-century; the Acts of the Christian Martyrs (postdating the NT gospels), of the same genre as the Acta Alexandrinorum, have also been edited and commented upon by Musurillo.[4] Musurillo has chosen twenty-eight of the acts of the Christian martyrs from the second to the fourth century CE which he judges to be historically the most important and reliable, even if there are fictional elements in some of them.[5] Opposed to this judgment is that of Timothy D. Barnes who considers only nine of the acts of the Christian martyrs as authentic.[6]

From his form-critical analysis of different documents of the Acts of the Christian Martyrs, Musurillo lists the following elements as being common to the genre. First, a judicial proceeding against the martyr is carried out in a court in which witty judges do their job, bystanders show their reactions, the martyr expresses his or her faith and urges the judges to perform their duty. Second, the martyr is then imprisoned or executed, with the soldiers and gaolers treating him or her harshly. Before execution, the martyr utters a special prayer and makes some apologetic remarks, with the crowds or bystanders expressing their reactions. In this part of the work, a first-person narrative-technique is employed. Third, just before dying, the martyr claims to see a vision or some kind of miracle occurs. After the martyr’s death, it is noted that some people experienced an apparition, as if the martyr had been restored to life. Any propagandistic elements in these acts may have an anti-Roman quality[7] and/or an anti-Semitic one.[8]

Musurillo points to what he considers as obvious similarities between pagan and Christian martyr-acts: a) the use of the dramatic “protocol” style; b) the emphasis on lively verbal exchanges and aphorisms; c) the display of heroic contempt for death; d) rather long, irrelevant speeches delivered by the martyrs; and, lastly, e) the caricature of Roman officialdom. The last two elements stand out in the later and admittedly fictional Christian passiones. However, Musurillo does not postulate any interdependence; rather, he contends that “it is a fact of common experience that similar stimuli operating upon somewhat similar environments can be expected to produce somewhat similar effects.”[9]

Indeed, all the literary evidence points to the broad literary and general historical environment in which these works were produced, an environment which was also that of the authors of the NT gospels. And so Bisbee contends that the matter has to be expressed rather dialectically: “The historian cannot assume...that the genre acta Christianorum was not influenced by pagan genres, but neither should one assume... that it was.”[10] It also follows, states Bisbee, that, with regard to the gospel trial narratives, one must be open to “the possible formal influence that they may have exerted upon later acta Christianorum,” or the other way round, “...the possibility that commentarius-form exerted an influence upon the forms given to traditions regarding Jesus’ trial.”[11] In other words, authentic commentarii produced in Roman courtrooms in which actual trials had been conducted were the seedbed for any martyr-acts.

The Formal Elements of A Commentarius

As a result of form-critical analysis, a commentarius may be divided into four sections:[12]

1) Caput or kephalaion (introductory elements/formulae), comprising:
* “extract-phrase”, indicating that the record is a copy or extract from an archival original;
* name and title of the presiding magistrate;
* date formula;
* location;
* “presence-phrase”, referring to the plaintiff;
* “participants-formulae”, stating the parties involved in the case;
* “delegation-phrase”, used in two senses: first, to denote that a magistrate with imperium and iurisdictio has “delegated” a case to a subordinate magistrate; second, to refer to a delegation to a magistrate, as, e.g., a delegation from a city to a governor;
* and “ellipsis-phrase” or “phrases of the meth’ hetera type”, indicating that the copyist omitted portions of the longer account;

2) Body of the judicial proceedings containing a record of the speeches between magistrates and participants, given either in oratio recta or in oratio obliqua and/or “narrative abstract” or “summarized discourse” as a means of shortening the copy;

3) Krisis or the magistrate’s judgment which in most cases is recorded in oratio recta, direct speech, and occasionally in a summarized form or narrative abstract;

4) Concluding matters in which a certificate of accuracy is the statement most frequently found.

The Commentarius of Jesus’ Trial?

On the basis of form-critical analysis, Bisbee concludes that, in the gospel trial accounts there are no formal elements that exactly match those of the Roman commentarii or Roman official trial records. Of course this is the case, since what is contained in the Christian gospels are not Roman official records but rather Christian theological narratives.[13] If, however, it is accepted that the historical Jesus was tried by the historical Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate, then, in Bisbee’s opinion, one must assume that, “ other trials before Roman magistrates, there would have existed a commentarius of Jesus’ trial before Pilate. Such a commentarius...would have resembled P.Oxy. 37 (49 CE), which is representative of first-century commentarius-form.”[14] Drawing on the formal elements of P.Oxy 37, and apparently following the formal elements and general sequence, as well as the main characters of the gospel trial narratives, Bisbee offers his conjecture of what the commentarius of Jesus’ trial might have been, when he writes that “The form of the commentarius of Jesus’ trial perhaps resembled the following”:[15]

From the commentarii of Pontius Pilate, governor.
The [year] of Tiberius Caesar Augustus, [month and day].
Caiaphas, high priest of the Jewish religion having accused Jesus,
a Jew, of treason, Jesus appeared before the tribunal.
Pilate: “Do you call yourself king of the Jews?”
Jesus: “As you say.”
Pilate: “Don’t you understand the severity of the charges that have been
brought against you? Do you have anything to say in your defense?”
When Jesus made no reply,
Pilate: “Since Jesus has been charged with and
found guilty of treason, he is to be scourged and taken outside the city to be crucified.”

Again, this commentarius of Jesus’ trial is only Bisbee’s speculative reconstruction; (and I find it interesting that his reconstruction seems like a slightly expanded form of the “trial record” of Jesus which is found in the original Testimonium Flavianum). It is possible of course to believe that such a commentarius never existed. On the other hand, if one believes that it can be proved that Jesus was tried before historical Roman and Jewish authorities, then a conjecture such as Bisbee’s is worthy of consideration. The extra-biblical evidence, such as P.Oxy 37 and P.Oxy 3464 (dated to ca. 54-60 CE), the judicial processes of epikrisis or eiskrisis already carried out in Roman Egypt from the time of Augustus, as well as the historicity of the original Testimonium Flavianum, make it plausible to assume that a commentarius of Jesus’ trial did once exist, even though, until now, decisive proof of this has not been found. Nevertheless, the degree of plausibility for such an assumption becomes even greater when one takes into account the situation in Judea where “...the prefect had authority to try and execute provincials and probably also citizens within his area of jurisdiction. He would presumably have a system of assizes [a meeting or meetings of a special court held by an important judge travelling from one country town to another] to which cases could be brought and receive a hearing.”[16] Finally, Musurillo has made an important point in writing that “ may not be too rash to suppose that the Christians were inspired in their attempts to obtain and adapt the copies of the commentarii by the knowledge that this had been successfully done before." [17]

by Ioanes Rakhmat


[1] Gary A. Bisbee, Pre-Decian Acts of Martyrs and Commentarii (HDR 22; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988) 16. The word “pre-Decian” contains a reference to the name Decius (Gaius Messius Quintus), the Roman emperor who ruled only two years (249-251). He assumed the additional surname Trajan to express strongly his case of promoting an aggressive frontier policy. In order to preserve the empire, he restored the state cults and persecuted Christians. However, his approach was outdated, and his reign initiated the worst period of the third century crisis. He was the one and only Roman emperor who was slain by his enemy; and this incident marked a very low point in the history of the Roman empire. See Michael Grant, The Collapse and Recovery of the Roman Empire (London/New York: Routledge, 1999) 9-10.

[2] Herbert A. Musurillo, The Acts of the Pagan Martyrs: Acta Alexandrinorum (New York: Arno Press, 1979) 259–260 (see the literature cited there).

[3] Musurillo, Acts of Pagan Martyrs.

[4] The Acts of the Christian Martyrs. Introduction, texts and translation by Herbert A. Musurillo (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972).

[5] Musurillo, Acts of Christian Martyrs, xiii-l.

[6] Timothy D. Barnes, “Pre-Decian Acta Martyrum”, Journal of Theological Studies 19 (1968).

[7] Musurillo, Acts of Pagan Martyrs, 256f.

[8] Musurillo, Acts of Christian Martyrs, lii -liii.

[9] Musurillo, Acts of Pagan Martyrs, 262, 247.

[10] Bisbee, Pre-Decian Acts, 13-14; Musurillo, Acts of Pagan Martyrs, 260ff.

[11] Bisbee, Pre-Decian Acts, 91.

[12] Bisbee, Pre-Decian Acts, 33-64, 171-172; Musurillo, Acts of Pagan Martyrs, 249-252.

[13] However, Bisbee (Pre-Decian Acts, 92-94) notes some remote resemblances between the commentarius-form and certain elements in the gospel trial narratives: John 18:28 resembles a caput; John 19:13-34 gives location and time; Mark 15:4 shows remote resemblance to oratio recta; the element of krisis is found in Pilate’s judgment in Mark 15:15 (pars. Matthew 27:26; Luke 23:24-25; John 19:16) though “none of these sentences is in commentarius-form.”

[14] Bisbee, Pre-Decian Acts, 91 (see p. 163 for the Greek text of P.Oxy 37).

[15] Bisbee, Pre-Decian Acts, 92 n.28.

[16] A. Lintott, Imperium Romanum: Politics and Administration (London: Routledge, 1993) 55-56.

[17] Musurillo, Acts of Pagan Martyrs, 262, 252 n.1.