What Truth Do Martyrs Tell?

Stories of Violence, Vulnerability, and Compassion

Crucifixion, by Jacopo Tintoretto, oil on canvas, 16.9’ x 39.9’ (1565). Wikimedia Commons, CC-PD

By Karen L. King

Stories and images of martyrs’ torture and execution can provoke, console, conceal, inspire—even titillate or delight. But do they tell the truth? What truth? Whose truth?

Scholars have examined the truth of ancient Christian martyr narratives largely with regard to their reliability for reconstructing the historical events of the first centuries of Christians living in the Roman Empire. Since the seventeenth century, when the enterprise of collecting such texts began, the number considered to be useful for this task has dropped from about 100 to as few as a dozen, although most collections have between 20 and 30 texts.1 Analysis focuses on locating sources and establishing dates, as well as identifying authors—but evidence of all these is difficult to obtain and assess. The project is complicated, for example, by the fact that the existing manuscripts are dated much later than the purported events; there are significant variants among those that have survived; and sometimes only versions in translation are extant. The history of the manuscript tradition also provides clear evidence of emendations, whether additions or deletions, and practices of attribution that do not necessarily meet modern expectations. In addition, the martyr narratives are not burdened by impartiality, a fact which leads to considerable skepticism and dis-ease among those historians who do feel bound by such a standard. And last, of course, many in the modern era are uncomfortable with the elements of the miraculous and the fabulous, not infrequently deeming incredible the depictions of prophecy or heroic endurance under torture, not to mention talking lions.

Yet historians are not ready to reject these works entirely, for they do teach us something about violence against Christians in the second and third centuries CE. Some seek to parse the line between fact and fiction. Traces of memory or use of official Roman documents are thought to guarantee some reliable information, even if much is fabrication. Controversy rages, for example, over whether the martyr Perpetua kept a so-called prison diary, parts of which may have been incorporated into the fuller narrative, The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas. Beyond recognition of the gaps and partiality of the surviving evidence, recent studies have illuminated many aspects of Roman law and practice relevant to understanding the persecutions. Collectively, these studies have modified the dominant narrative in several respects, notably by showing that the violence was most often local and sporadic, tied to local sentiment rather than to the kind of more systematic aggression against Christians seen later under the emperor Diocletian.2 Even the earlier Decian persecution is now considered unlikely to have been aimed against Christians per se.3 In any case, in these discussions the question of truth is one of historical factuality.

I, too, am interested in what happened. I would ask, however, not only “Is the evidence accurate?” but “What is the evidence evidence of?” I start, as do many of my colleagues, with the assumption that a crucial part of “what happened” was the writing and dissemination of passion narratives, martyr acts, revelations, treatises exhorting believers to die for God, apologetics toward rulers, and polemics against fellow Christians who thought otherwise. Whatever else may be substantiated, colleagues (Elizabeth Castelli prominent among them) have shown that these writings are evidence of Christians at work in forming collective memory, that is, of forging a usable past for their own day and for future readers.4 To a large degree, it is this literature that constitutes the greatest impact on the legacy bequeathed to those who followed.

But for a tradition like that of Christian persecution and martyrdom—which includes such an immense literature, extensive art in multiple media, liturgies, ritual practices, amulets, and shrines; which has provided powerful models of the ideal Christian, an ethics of love as self-sacrifice, and supported consoling teaching of resurrection and eternal life; which has promoted a variety of attitudes toward suffering, violence, and revenge; which has provoked violence against unbelievers and heretics, and so much more—might we not ask: Is historical factuality a sufficient index of truth?

In her essay “The Site of Memory,” Toni Morrison wrote:

The work that I do frequently falls, in the minds of most people, into that realm of fiction called fantastic, or mythic, or magical, or unbelievable. I’m not comfortable with these labels. I consider that my single gravest responsibility (in spite of that magic) is not to lie. . . . [T]he crucial distinction for me is not the difference between fact and fiction, but the distinction between fact and truth. Because facts can exist without human intelligence, but truth cannot.5

Surely the truth that these martyrs tell is the vulnerability of the human body. To pain, to suffering, to death. To the cruelty and savagery of fellow humans, their desire for power and sadistic pleasure. That vulnerability that we share, that we may feel viscerally when we see the wounds of another’s pain, the suffering in their tears or cries, or the implements of torture, is a kind of knowing. But is that the truth martyr bodies tell?

Pain can, however, be objectified through public spectacle, especially through seeing the weapon and the wound.

Elaine Scarry has put the question to us otherwise in her examination of torture: Whose truth does the body in pain tell? “What is quite literally at stake in the body in pain,” she writes, “is the making and unmaking of the world.” The dead do not speak. Who, then, gets to say what truth the martyr’s tortured body tells? The subtitle of her chapter on torture can be taken as a key to what was happening in the trials and executions of Christians: “The conversion of real pain into the fiction of power.” How is this done? She argues that the conversion of pain to power is enabled by the fact that pain is “usually private and incommunicable, contained within the boundaries of the sufferer’s body.”6 We all know pain, without question. Tying our uncontested knowledge of pain to this incommunicability of another’s pain, she argues, means that “pain comes unsharably into our midst as at once that which cannot be denied and that which cannot be confirmed.”7 Pain can, however, be objectified through public spectacle, especially through seeing the weapon and the wound. Scarry writes:

As an actual physical fact, a weapon is an object that goes into the body and produces pain. As a perceptual fact, it lifts the pain out of the body and makes it visible or, more precisely, it acts as a bridge or mechanism across which some of pain’s attributes—its incontestable reality, its totality, its ability to eclipse all else, its power of dramatic alteration and world dissolution—can be lifted away from their source, can be separated from the sufferer and referred to power, broken off from the body and attached instead to the regime. Now, at least for the duration of this obscene and pathetic drama, it is not the pain but the regime that is incontestably real, not the pain but the regime that is total, not the pain but the regime that is able to eclipse all else, not the pain but the regime that is able to dissolve the world.8

But why would a regime go through all the effort of this spectacle? Not only the inquisitional torture, but the public execution? Scarry argues that “[t]he body tends to be brought forward in its most extreme and absolute form only on behalf of a cultural artifact or symbolic fragment or made thing (a sentence) that is without any other basis in material reality: that is, it is only brought forward when there is a crisis of substantiation.”9

As many scholars have shown, in Christian narratives the representation of the martyrs has been turned into a contest.10 Maud Gleason has pointedly noted:

At issue between the two contestants is this: whose model of the unseen force behind everyday reality is more powerful—that is, more true? The Christian god had, in effect, the same problem as the emperor: how to authenticate himself long-distance as the one and the only. . . . The judge upon his dias, the witness on the rack—this tableau was a potent symbol of the government’s authority over truth. In the absence of mass communication the public judicial torture of the bodies of selected deviants, slaves, and humiliores functioned as a way of making the illusion of all-powerful authority concrete, incarnate.11

The contest is over who gets to say what truth these tortured bodies tell. We should note that, for both Romans and Christians, both political and religious issues are at stake. As Erik Gunderson summarizes: “Nearly every major theme of the Roman power structure was deployed in the spectacles: social stratification; political theatre; crime and punishment; representations of civilization and the empire; repression of women and exaltation of bellicose masculinity.”12 In the “optics of the arena,” those in the stands represented the Roman social-political order by seating arrangements and dress. The emperor or his representative had the best seat; those closest to him were being accorded high honor and rank. Others were arrayed according to higher or lower positions. On the sands below, surrounded by the seating, was the space of the non-Roman, whose complete subjection was displayed through the execution of criminals.13

These “object lessons” of the Roman arena are precisely those which the Christians seek to oppose, but at the same time, the structure of the spectacles also structures the “vocabulary and syntax” of their refusal. Resistance requires appropriation in order to negotiate and reform the Christians’ allotted status as criminals, foreigners, slaves, femininzed victims, and beasts. The Roman system, as much as it tried, could never be completely foolproof. In any social practice, there are always contestations. The space afforded for negotiation, refusal, and resistance, however, is structured by the “game” itself. It is indeed the very rules of the game that allow resistance not merely to be effective, but even to be intelligible as resistance. Christians are often treated as resistors, but they, too, are actors in the ritualized drama. As Catherine Bell puts it, “ritual systems do not function to regulate or control the systems of social relations, they are the system.”14 From this kind of practice theory perspective, Christians are not outside the Roman system opposing it; rather, they are actively appropriating its “rules” and strategies—but for their own ends. The Romans may torture them and put them to death, but they cannot (fully) determine the behavior of Christians within those (extreme) limits.15 For example, the condemned were expected to play the role of terrified victims, but Christian literature instead emphasized a fearless, indeed, joyful acceptance of death. Because ancients held that such courage had to be based upon true beliefs and reasoned judgments, such public (literary) demonstrations were intended to prove the truth of Christian teaching and way of life.

Within this restricted scope of action, Christians sought to rewrite the system of ancient social relations through their own narratives of ritualized embodiment in torture and execution. The martyrdom narratives reorganize the optics, the panopticon: It is God in heaven who is the judge, the editor (manager in charge), and the main viewer of the events. It is God’s justice that matters. It is not only those in the stands (who are turned into possible objects of conversion) but the Christians themselves who are called “witnesses” (martyrs). Castelli writes:

The discourse of martyrdom is predicated on the inversion of conventional meanings, which is precisely why it fails to achieve its perpetrators’ goals: to die in the conventional sense is to attain life in the martyr’s discourse. Visually, martyrdom for the martyr is also an inversion: the martyr is literally a witness, the person who testifies in a court to what they have seen; in the visual economy of martyrdom, the martyr becomes a witness through the display of the self, through becoming that which others see. . . . So, the economy of martyrdom depends upon the looking of the crowd and the looked-at-ness of the martyr.16

The practice of Christian storytelling gives a voice to those who tell the martyrs’ stories, in the name of the martyrs. In Scarry’s words, “the translation of pain into power is ultimately a transformation of body into voice.”17

For the Roman script, the voice is supposed to be that of the tortured criminals confessing their wrongdoings. Torture is supposed to elicit truth, thus justifying the harm imposed by the regime. But in the Christian script, it is the martyr who wins. Gleason writes: “Every martyrdom was a truth contest in which Roman government officials sought to demonstrate state power and Christian believers, through their preternatural endurance, sought to demonstrate its futility.” This rescripting illustrates Scarry’s point about the fiction of power, as Gleason puts it: “Christians did not deny the name [that is, they did not deny they were guilty of the Roman accusations] but freely confessed it, thus undercutting the pretense of the authorities that they were torturing to seek truth and highlighting what of course had been true all along, that the Roman state used torture not in order to learn truth but to teach terror.”18

One truth these martyr narratives told, then, was a new imagination of the social-political world, a “remaking of the world.”

Precisely because the Romans made the arena a display of social relations, Christian rescripting could potentially reshape the structure of social relations that were at stake. Certainly the martyr literature required Christian (or prospective Christian) readers to remap their own social relations, not only in terms of their membership in the Christian group but to reorient their entire social network, including relations to imperial and civic authorities, local communities (neighbors, patrons, participation in public festivals), and families (domestic relations, including gender and master-slave relations).19 One truth these martyr narratives told, then, was a new imagination of the social-political world, a “remaking of the world.”

As Kimberly Stratton shows, however, this world could include fantasies of eschatological revenge, imagining Christians as those who, in the final judgment of the world, would take their seats in the stands of the arena, with God in charge of the games.20It is now God, not the emperor, who provokes terror. It is God who will inflict eternal tortures upon unbelievers, and the Christians who will fill the heavenly arena, where the martyrs will have the best seats, near to the throne. There they will enjoy the torments of persecutors and non-Christians, as enemies of God, excluded abject bodies subject to the power of eternal punishment. Stratton quotes here the early third-century theologian, Tertullian, who discourages Christians from attending the Roman spectacles, encouraging them to wait instead for Christ’s second coming, which would feature its own violent judgment:

But what a spectacle is at hand—the return of the Lord, at last undeniable, at last exultant, at last triumphant! . . . In fact, there remain other spectacles: that last and eternal Day of Judgment which the nations do not expect, which they once mocked, when the aged of this world along with all its youth will be consumed in one fire. How great the size of the spectacle that day! How I will admire! How I will laugh! At that moment I will rejoice, I will gloat, watching all those emperors who, we were told, had been received in heaven, groaning in the deepest darkness along with Jove, himself, and their witnesses. (Tertullian, De spectaculis 30.1–3)21

Here, Stratton observes, “Tertullian reflects a tension in early Christian thought that appears already in the New Testament: on the one hand, Jesus is portrayed advocating nonviolence, even in the face of assault and humiliation (Matt. 5:12, 38–42; 26:53; Luke 6:35–36; 9:23–25); on the other hand, minor infractions are met with divine punishment (Matt. 13:41–42, 49–50; 18:23–35, 41; 22:13; Acts 5:1–20).”22

David Frankfurter has argued that in such texts, “Prurience becomes morally safe, since it is clear that the perpetrators are ethnically and morally suspect.” Through the vivid detail not only of the damned, but of martyrs’ torture, the narratives “maintain the prurient gaze and invite its complex passions”23 in which sado-eroticism is made morally appropriate. Moreover, he argues:

Those obscene images that persist in our imagination as the perpetration of the Other, that overwhelm us with perversity and transgression, that stick in our minds and invite our prurience despite all our efforts to deny their erotic appeal, have invariably demanded action to punish the sources of those images—as a final act of obliterating what we cannot admit lies within. Revenge becomes the result of excitement repudiated and projected.24

In later times—when it was safer—such stories are said to have provoked Christians to violence against Jews and pagans. Frankfurter points to the letter of Bishop Severus of Minorca, who relates that, in 418 CE, the public reading of the story of St. Stephen’s stoning to death by Jews of Jerusalem led Christians in Minorca to rise up in a violent pogrom aimed at forcing their Jewish community to convert.25

Some Christians, however, resisted this desire for revenge and its pleasures, as we see in The First Apocalypse of James, one of several ancient Christian accounts of the death of James, the brother of Jesus.26 Probably composed in the second to third centuries CE, the account shows a number of remarkable oddities. The arrest of James appears to be a case of mistaken identity. Someone with the same name has escaped prison and fled, and James is put on trial in his stead. The majority of the judges find him innocent and attempt to set him free, but a few others, along with a crowd of the people, object, saying: “Make him leave the earth; he is not [worthy of] life.” Most of the judges are frightened of the crowd and apparently get up to leave, declaring that they’ll “have no part in this blood, for a just man will perish through injustice.” The people proceed to stone him anyway, and the story ends with the last words of James: “My Father [in the] heavens, forgive them for they know <not> what they do” (Tchacos Codex 30.12–13, 24–26; Nag Hammadi Codex 43:16–21).

We may well ask if this account is meant as a satire or joke. Certainly the ironies abound: mistaken identity, no charge of being a Christian, no interrogation or confession, and indeed no conviction—the stoning is the extrajudicial act of a mob, perhaps led by renegade judges. What are we to make of this? What do we, posing as the ideal readers for the time being, learn from the death of James? Is this even a martyrdom? If so, to what truth does James give witness?

In a set of encounters between James and Jesus set before and after Jesus’s death, James learns to prepare for his violent death, moving from ignorance, forgetting, grief, fear, and the desire to condemn violent oppressors toward knowledge, memory, belief, courage, and compassion. Central to Jesus’s instruction is the admonition that aggression and blame should not be met with vengeance, but with teaching. The goal is not to punish but to instruct and remind. Jesus tells James not to be concerned about the perpetrators’ violence. They did not do any evil, and he did not in fact suffer or die. James’s real concern should be for his own confrontation after death with the cosmic rulers who attempt to carry off souls as they rise to God. To escape them, James needs to understand that his essential nature is impassible—that is, it is not subject to mortal suffering and death—and that although the ignorant powers who oppose him will arrest and interrogate him, ultimately they are powerless.

By the end, James has understood. He responds to those who stone him to death, not with the desire for vengeance but with an appeal to divine clemency for them. James knows too—as does the reader—that the real drama will only now begin as James leaves behind the weak flesh to its own assigned end, and ascends to confront the actual powers behind the violence.27 Throughout, I Apocalypse of James advocates a position of quietism (silence, nonresistance, nonviolence) and clemency even toward persecutors.

I Apocalypse of James opposes the hypermasculinity so evident in the public humiliation and bodily brutality that attempt to “feminize” the victims in . . . so many martyr acts.

Moreover, in my view, I Apocalypse of James opposes the hypermasculinity so evident in the public humiliation and bodily brutality that attempt to “feminize” the victims in the scenes of torture and execution in so many martyr acts. Some martyr texts, for example that of The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas, do masculinize women as model martyrs, attributing to them virile characteristics like courage and endurance.28 In I Apocalypse of James, however, Jesus instructs James to take seven women as his models. These are identified with the prophetic spirits of scripture (“a spirit of wisdom and insight, a spirit of counsel and strength, a spirit of understanding and knowledge, a spirit of fear”). Six actual women are also named: Salome, Mary, Arsinoe, Saphhira, Susanna, and Joanna. These women are distinguished not by masculinity, but by their wisdom and knowledge. Three of them are said to have been persecuted, but they did not perish—even as James will not be extinguished but will ascend after his body is stoned. It may be then that I Apocalypse of James offers a model for responding to persecution that rejects violent hypermasculinity in favor of quietism: Do not resist. Remain silent. Form your interior spirituality following the model of Jesus, the female prophetic virtues, and women martyrs who derive from divine Sophia-Wisdom. Make your public confession before the powers who attempt to ensnare all souls, not just those who die violently as martyrs.

So the truth the martyr tells is the true nature of God, the self, and the world: The ignorance and violence of its rulers is unable to touch the true self, the knowing soul who overcomes the lower cosmic powers by confessing the truth. It teaches that every death destroys death. Martyrdom is special only in showing up the ignorant and impotent nature of those who rule the world. To participate in their economy of punishment and revenge would be to remain in the thrall of such wicked powers. In truth, revenge and violence have no place in God’s realm and should have no place in the life of the believer.

The Letter of Peter to Philip takes a position similar to 1 Apocalypse of James, affirming that the worldly and cosmic powers are ultimately impotent to cause suffering or to kill. It argues, however, that dying for God is a consequence of the public mission to preach the gospel and heal. The wicked powers that rule the world do not want the truth to be told, and so they attack the apostles, even as they killed Jesus.29

The position that martyrs do not suffer has usually been assumed to be promoted only by Christians who rejected the resurrection of the fleshly body, affirming instead the immortality of the soul. Stephanie Cobb has argued persuasively, to me at least, that early Christian martyr narratives actually “reject pain as a locus of meaning for martyrdom.” Rather, they repeatedly insist that martyrs do not experience pain; that pain is of no concern to those “whose spirit is in heaven”; or that the divine presence comforts martyrs, miraculously protecting them or even suffering in their stead. The texts can even use humor as a strategy of resistance. Only non-Christians and apostates are described as suffering pain.30

One of the texts Cobb refers to frequently is The Letter of the Churches of Vienne and Lyon, preserved in Eusebius’s fourth-century Church History 5.1, which recounts a persecution in 177 CE.31 One of the martyrs, Sanctus, is badly burned, but he remains

firm in his confession of faith, cooled and strengthened by the heavenly fountain of the water of life that flows from the side of Christ. But his body bore witness to his sufferings, being all one bruise and one wound, stretched and distorted out of any recognizably human shape; but Christ suffering in him achieved a great glory, overwhelming the Adversary, and showing as an example to all the others that nothing is to be feared where the Father’s love is, nothing painful where we find Christ’s glory.

For him, torture is “a cure” (M. Lyons 1.22–24). So, too, the confession of the enslaved woman, Blandina, “brought her refreshment, rest, and insensibility to her present pain” (M. Lyons 1.19). Readers are told that at her death, after all the brutality in the arena, “she no longer perceived what was happening because of the hope and possession of all she believed in and because of her intimacy with Christ” (M. Lyons 1.56).

In Scarry’s terms, this narrative is opposing attempts to conflate the martyr’s pain with the regime’s power and is instead appropriating the logic of the arena to conflate the martyr’s impassibility with God’s power. Cobb argues that these brutalized but impassible bodies function variously as an encouragement to other Christians (to stand fast, to confess, and to be comforted); a response to charges that God is unable or unwilling to protect his followers; and a political statement to affirm and provoke resistance against a regime depicted as unjust, impious, and diabolically violent. The truth these mangled bodies convey is God’s ability to protect believers from experiencing pain, the impotence of worldly power to harm them, and the strength of God’s compassion in the face of violence.

Jacopo Tintoretto painting of the Crucifixion (1565)

Detail of Jacopo Tintoretto’s Crucifixion (1565).


One of my favorite paintings is a depiction of just such violence and compassion: The Crucifixion by the sixteenth-century Venetian artist Tintoretto, which covers a huge wall in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice. In most paintings of Jesus’s execution, he is the central figure, painted large, while those being executed along with him are often entirely absent. In the New Testament narratives, certainly, their presence is minimal. The Gospels according to Mark and Matthew give only one line each to an unspecified number being crucified, presenting them solely as persons who join the leaders and soldiers in mocking Jesus. The Gospel according to John says that two others were with him. The Gospel according to Luke, however, expands the scene:

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:39–43 NRSV)

It is precisely this moment that Tintoretto depicts. Jesus is looking toward the upturned face of a man being raised on a cross, his hand turned upward toward Jesus in a gesture, a plea.

What I find so arresting is how hard this moment is to see, positioned as it is in the midst of a much larger scene crowded with people going about their business, whether chatting casually with each other or overseeing the executions, preoccupied with playing dice or setting up crosses and digging holes in workmanlike fashion. A woman rides a camel, the town crier performs his duties, travelers pass by unawares, friends comfort Mary, an old man evinces shocked surprise.

Jacopo Tintoretto painting of the Crucifixion (1565)

Detail of Jacopo Tintoretto’s Crucifixion (1565).


Antonio Manno has identified many of the figures as contemporaries of Tintoretto, patrons or members of the confraternity of Saint Rocco, Moors and Jews, or known aristocrats in the roles of the biblical figures. It is, says Franco Posocco, “a virtual Venice.” That the leaders in charge of convicting and executing the innocent Jesus resemble, perhaps too closely, the Venetians of their own day is a clear message in this public place. Looming hugely in the room where the leaders of the Scuola would make decisions about assisting those in need, the painting uses the comparison of everyday life with the Gospel story to admonish them to compassion and, as Posocco notes, not them alone.32

So, in the end, what truth do martyrs tell? Does the factuality of history or its lack give us the truth? Are the narratives and exhortations themselves evidence, not, perhaps, of the martyrs but of what truth other Christians want their bodies to tell? The truth that: The whole social order of the (Roman) world is in serious malady. Their God is more powerful and more just than the emperor. The confession of believers can defeat not only earthly rulers but cosmic powers of injustice and violence. Women as well as men, old and young, slave and free can be fearless and bold, enduring and victorious. Believers suffer no pain; Satan’s minions and surrogates cannot harm them, no matter what their lengths of cruelty and depravity. Violent revenge is morally justified, divinely sanctioned—or not: revenge and violence, cynicism and despair are always the tools only of unjust powers. Every story is a story of God’s compassion. Death is life.

Such stories and images of violence and compassion write human desire onto tortured and executed bodies. In scripts that secure or reverse relations of power, humans in pain or painlessness provide material surety of precisely what is unsure, what is fabricated or at issue. Desire for remaking the world, the imagination of a new social order, and the work to make it real; for winning power and prestige; for safety and painlessness; for pleasures of many kinds; for revenge, the guilty pleasure of sadistic viewing, the permission to harm the other with impunity while claiming righteousness in the name of justice, truth, or God. The desire to be heroic, to save others, to have a death (and a life) that will be remembered. Desire enough so that one would throw oneself on the flames. Desire enough to witness to divine goodness, in the everyday, day after day.

Surely, there are incitements of hope. Definitely, occasions for critical reflection and self-reflection on the work these stories do, the sometimes provocations and false consolations they proffer. But I think, perhaps most importantly, the truth they tell, the truth we may need most to hear, is the reality of compassion in the midst of all the lies, the body’s pain, the agony of human cruelty, our complicity and complacency, death itself. The reality of compassion.

The best I can do in concluding, however, is to leave you with the words of Toni Morrison. In her 2012 Ingersoll lecture, “Goodness: Altruism and the Literary Imagination,” she wrote:

I have never been interested or impressed by evil itself, but I have been confounded by how attractive it is to others. I am stunned by the attention given to its every whisper and shout. Which is not to deny its existence and ravage, nor to suggest evil does not demand confrontation, but simply to wonder why it is so worshiped. . . . The formula in which evil reigns is bad versus good, but the deck is stacked because goodness in contemporary literature seems to be equated with weakness, as pitiful. . . .

Evil has a blockbuster audience; Goodness lurks backstage. Evil has vivid speech; Goodness bites its tongue. . . .

Allowing goodness its own speech does not annihilate evil, but it does allow me to signify my own understanding of goodness: the acquisition of self-knowledge. A satisfactory or good ending for me is when the protagonist learns something vital and morally insightful that she or he did not know at the beginning. . . .

Such insight has nothing to do with winning, and everything to do with the acquisition of knowledge. Knowledge on display in the language of moral clarity—of goodness.33


  1. See Éric Rebillard, Greek and Latin Narratives about the Ancient Martyrs, Oxford Early Christian Texts (Oxford University Press, 2017), 1–27.
  2. See Geoffrey E. M. de Ste. Croix, Christian Persecution, Martyrdom, and Orthodoxy (Oxford University Press, 2006), 35–78; Paul Keretzes, “The Imperial Roman Government and the Christian Church. I. From Nero to the Severi. II. From Gallienus to the Great Persecution,” in Aufsteig und Niedergang der römischen Welt 2 (de Gruyter, 1980), 23.2: 247–315, 375–86.
  3. See James B. Rives, “The Decree of Decius and the Religion of Empire,” Journal of Roman Studies 89 (1999): 135–54.
  4. Elizabeth Castelli, Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making (Columbia University Press, 2004).
  5. Toni Morrison, “The Site of Memory,” in Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, ed. William Zinsser, 2nd ed. (Houghton Mifflin, 1995), 83–102, at 93.
  6. Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (Oxford University Press, 1985), 23, 27.
  7. Ibid., 4.
  8. Ibid., 56.
  9. Ibid., 127.
  10. See, e.g., David Potter, “Martyrdom as Spectacle,” in Theater and Society in the Classical World, ed. Ruth Scodel (University of Michigan Press, 1993), 53–88.
  11. Maud W. Gleason, “Truth Contests and Talking Corpses,” in Constructions of the Classical Body, ed. James I. Porter (University of Michigan Press, 1999), 287–313, at 299.
  12. Erik Gunderson, “The Ideology of the Arena,” Classical Antiquity 15, no. 1 (1996): 131–51, at 149.
  13. See ibid., 123–26, 133–36.
  14. Catherine Bell, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice (Oxford University Press, 1992), 130.
  15. On indeterminacy, see Gavin Brown, “Theorizing Ritual as Performance: Explorations of Ritual Indeterminacy,” Journal of Ritual Studies 17, no. 1 (2003): 3–18.
  16. Elizabeth Castelli, Visions and Voyeurism: Holy Women and the Politics of Sight in Early Christianity (Center for Hermeneutical Studies, 1995), 12.
  17. Scarry, The Body in Pain, 45 (see also 35, 49, 51).
  18. Gleason, “Truth Contests and Talking Corpses,” 305.
  19. See Karen L. King, “Willing to Die for God: Individualization and Instrumental Agency in Ancient Christian Martyr Literature,” in The Individual in the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean, ed. Jörg Rüpke (Oxford University Press, 2013), 342–84.
  20. Kimberly B. Stratton, “The Eschatological Arena: Reinscribing Roman Violence in Fantasies of the End Times,” Biblical Interpretation 17, no. 12 (2009): 45–76.
  21. Ibid., 47.
  22. Ibid.
  23. David Frankfurter, “Martyrology and the Prurient Gaze,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 17, no. 2 (Summer 2009): 244–45, at 238, 233.
  24. Ibid., 245.
  25. Ibid., 244, n. 94.
  26. Material in the section on 1 Apoc. James has been taken from Karen L. King, “1 Apocalypse of James and Valentinians on Martyrdom,” in Valentinianism: New Studies, ed. Einar Thomassen and Christoph Markschies (Brill, 2019), 252–71.
  27. See Mikael Haxby, “The First Apocalypse of James: Martyrdom and Sexual Difference” (PhD diss., Committee on the Study of Religion, Harvard University, 2013), 58–67.
  28. See Brent D. Shaw, “Body/Power/Identity: Passions of the Martyrs,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 4, no. 3 (Fall 1996): 269–312.
  29. See Karen L. King, “Rethinking the Diversity of Ancient Christianity: Responding to Suffering and Persecution,” in Beyond the Gnostic Gospels: Studies Building on the Work of Elaine H. Pagels, ed. Eduard Iricinschi, Lance Jenott, Nicola Denzey Lewis, and Philippa Townsend, Texts and Studies in Antiquity and Christianity (Mohr Siebeck, 2013), 60–78, at 68–70.
  30. Stephanie Cobb, Divine Deliverance: Pain and Painlessness in Early Christian Martyr Texts (University of California Press, 2016), esp. 64, 93–121.
  31. See ibid., 48–49, 51, 66, 74–76, 81–82; text and translation in Herbert Murusillo, Acts of the Christian Martyrs: Introduction, Texts, and Translations (Clarendon Press, 1972), 62–85.
  32. See Franco Posocco, preface to Antonio Manno, Tintoretto: The Crucifixion in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice (Marcilio Editio, 2013), 3.
  33. Toni Morrison, “Goodness: Altruism and the Literary Imagination” in Toni Morrison: Goodness and the Literary Imagination, ed. Davíd Carrasco, Stephanie Paulsell, and Mara Willard (University of Virginia Press, 2019), 13–19, at 15, 19.

Karen L. King is Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School. Her theoretical interests are in discourses of normativity, gender studies, and religion and violence. Her books include The Secret Revelation of John, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle, What Is Gnosticism? and Revelation of the Unknowable God. This is an edited version of “What Truth Do Martyrs Tell? Stories of Love and Violence,” the Boston University Department of Religion Annual Lecture that King delivered on February 6, 2020. The interdisciplinary Program in Scripture and the Arts at BU cosponsored the lecture.

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