I am proud to have been involved in the very first pilot sessions for this group in 2002 and 2003, which resulted in a small book edited by Shelly Matthews and Leigh Gibson, Violence in the New Testament. The papers at that time tended to focus on the issue of persecution of Jesus believers in the first century and its representation in gospel literature and Revelation. The papers tended to be extremely skeptical of these stories, which was a welcome development after years of New Testament scholars simply assuming that “Jews” were persecuting “Christians.” There was some push-back from people who felt that any skepticism about first- and second-century persecution and martyrdom accounts amounted to a general denial of atrocities. But these fears simply showed how deeply engrained persecution and martyrdom mythology lies in modern culture, as Elizabeth Castelli has shown. Moreover, as I mentioned in one of these early sessions, fears that any historical skepticism about persecution stories should deny real atrocities fail to recognize that most historical atrocities – lynchings, pogroms, genocidal massacres – begin with accusations that the “other” has committed evils against “us,” whether raping our women, killing our children, or conspiring to destroy our way of life. Real atrocities, that is, occur precisely out of preemptive violence against people feared as evil. 
One development we did see in the early papers was an evolution in “blame”: the old model of Jewish persecution of Christians shifting to Roman oppression of everybody. The Roman empire, of course, functions in this new narrative as a cypher for modern racist capitalist imperialism, a usefully amorphous antagonist for the bourgeois New Testament exegete to repudiate, though perhaps not as useful as an historical model.
At the same time in the study of early Christianity, there was increasing discussion of violence and martyrdom accounts from the third century on – important contributions by Castelli (2004) Martyrdom and Memory and Moss (2012) Ancient Christian Martyrdom – and increasing discussion of violence by Christians after Constantine: the 2003 “Shifting Frontiers” conference Violence in Late Antiquity, followed by monographs by Gaddis (2005) There Is No Crime for Those Who Have Christ, Sizgorich (2009) Violence and Belief in Late Antiquity, Watts (2010) Riot in Alexandria, and Shaw (2011) Sacred Violence. And it is in this latter area where, I think, the topics of “violence” and of “representations of violence” have been methodologically in some tension.
So, for example, the violence of martyrdom accounts, from 2 Maccabees through gospel literature and then late antique martyrologies, tends now to be discussed – post-Castelli – as a literary theme, creating memories, reconfiguring bodies, and grounding cults. In addition, I argued in my 2009 article “Martyrology and the Prurient Gaze,” graphic images of sexualized and gendered violence invited sado-erotic voyeurism as well, although repudiated as the perpetrations of monstrous Jews or Romans.  In general, I think this shift in scholarship away from historicizing “the violence of the Jews” or the violence against Christians in a general sense is a welcome and profitable development.
Yet the perspective on violence in the Christianization of the late antique world may be shifting too much to a model of irenic religion as some historians reject any utility for primary literature. Since Gibbon, of course, the historicity of the often violent tactics that Christian forces employed in eliminating traditional religion and “converting” the Mediterranean world had been accepted. Our sources include hagiography, of course, as well as the Theodosian code 16, historians Socrates and Sozomen, and the sermons of local demagogues Shenoute of Atripe and Ambrose of Milan. With these sources, most of us have taken seriously that violence governed many Christian groups’ treatment of their non-Christian neighbors, even if this violence was sporadic, regional, and had multiple political contexts as well.
But over the past decade many historians have been entirely dismissing the violent episodes in hagiography as pure literary constructions. In some cases this critique is really well-taken: the stories don’t match what we can derive from archaeology of the same places, and the stories cleave to obvious hagiographical tropes, such as the Life of Porphyry of Gaza and the Life of Martin of Tours. The problem is, the focus on “representation” can end up preempting any discussion of violence itself as a component in the mobilization against other religions. I mean the kind of exorcistic, purgative destruction and rioting, often picking out particular things or places to destroy, that we get in Shenoute and in Zachariah of Mytilene. In many cases the skepticism about the value of all testimonies to Christian violence follows from a general view that post-Constantinian Christianity was on the whole peaceful – that the “heathen order” was dead from other causes, and monks and bishops simply moved into the void of dilapidated temples and popular religious need. For others, like Jitse Dijkstra, proving complex local causes basically prevents any generalization, any analysis of ritual destruction; patterns disappear within particularities. For Dijkstra “religious violence” per se cannot exist.  Such academic skepticism toward any patterns of action thus leads to the rejection even of testimonies like Eunapius and Libanius about the violent iconoclastic acts of monks – as simply rhetorical flourishes.  And so a whole theoretically-informed discussion of violence and Christianization is preempted. The violence of Christians becomes merely authors’ fantasies on every side.
There have been other objections to the study of violence and Christianization as well, such as the idea that “violence” is too vague or subjective a category: why not include tattooing, asceticism, the disciplining of children, or even circumcision as violent? That the whole empire was so permeated with violence, how are we to pick out and analyze some particular feature as “violent”? Is “violence” simply too much our own ethical category that it doesn’t really describe anything? I have to say, I don’t find these to be helpful ways of shifting the topic of violence and representations of violence. If there was not some sense of violent acts being extraordinary and stimulating to imagine, you wouldn’t have martyrology. If there was not some ideology current among late antique Christians that obliteration was the proper way for Christians to respond to the demonic heathen order, why is it hailed with such consistency in hagiographical works and sermons?  And what of the archaeology of Christian iconoclasm, which Troels Kristensen (2014) Making and Breaking the Gods has so usefully analyzed?
So for the next installment of VRV, I’d love to see a greater interest in what people actually do to other people in the context of “religion,” broadly defined. I do not mean this as a call to naive positivism. Rather, what I’m talking about is a kind of phenomenology of religious violence in antiquity that would complement the rest of the patterns we customarily invoke and inevitably rectify in religious studies: sacrifice, procession, meal, domestic cult, temple, etc. I believe our sources, critically deployed, will also justify the thematic study of violence in relationship to – say – (1) the role of charismatic leadership – bishop’s or monk’s – in instigating violent action; or (2) the enclave mentality cultivated in certain monastic environments, as Ed Watts has described (Riot in Alexandria); or (3) the ways that millennialism in general, as Norman Cohn pointed out, can instigate violence ; or (4) the ways that processions, or even songs, can instigate violence, as Brent Shaw showed for North Africa (Sacred Violence). Johannes Hahn has recently differentiated exorcistic acts of destruction from subsequent efforts to resanctify spaces for Christians, although the evidence of the Denderah precinct might invert this sequence.  And of course there is a communicative element, either to an observing audience, as in Alexandria, or to the saints or demons. It seems to me that the study of religious violence has to involve unpacking those forms of social action that should “count” as “religious” as well as “violent.”
Mere representations of violence also have a function in instigating real acts of aggression. Martyrologies, legends of persecution, can inflame groups – monks, villagers, militias – with the idea that mythic threats are at hand, that our enemies are again threatening us with persecution, or our children with ritual slaughter, that we must act immediately and forcefully to eliminate what threatens us. All these phenomena have to be studied in terms of particular places and times, particular situations, but patterns do emerge that can produce useful comparative models. 
In principle, the confidence and methodology we need for studying, comparatively, real historical religious violence might come from more cooperation with the corresponding AAR group “Theorizing Religion and Violence,” which grew out of the New Religious Movements consortium in which I’ve participated for many years. However, I have to say, having served as the respondent to the opening session of this AAR group, that the “Theorizing Religion and Violence” group has its own predilections: on the one hand, the denunciation of modern state violence; on the other, a return to individual psychology as the principal context of violent acts. And many who come to this group are more interested in the ethics of violence in Judaism or Hinduism or Christianity – what religions do or don’t sanction – than the actual ways in which (for example) Jewish settlers in Palestine or anti-Muslim mobs in India act violently – treat bodies.
What even the AAR group is losing is a phenomenology of religion and violence – what is “religious violence”? How are particular violent acts a rational expression of what we might call “religion”? What are the patterns of destruction of bodies, statues, or buildings deemed impure?  And – to bring in “representations of violence” – what kinds of graphic martyrdom and victim-legends circulate to instigate mobs to violence? Sudhir Kakar (1996) The Colors of Violence touched on this pattern in his analysis of anti-Muslim violence in India and Michael Sells (1996) The Bridge Betrayed on Bosnian Serbs. But we need the broader comparative perspective. And there is no reason why we in the SBL, trained thoroughly in social and anthropological theory, should not be able to do comparative or thematic religious studies.
So this is a call, not just to interpret “representations of violence” in our familiar canon of 2 Maccabees and Josephus, Luke-Acts and Perpetua, Tertullian and the Book of Judges, but to move out into the historical world in which representations inspired pogroms and people were actually burned or dismembered out of some mob’s religious conviction.
David Frankfurter, Boston University
1. See my Evil Incarnate: Rumors of Demonic Conspiracy and Satanic Abuse in History (Princeton 2006).
2. David Frankfurter, “Martyrology and the Purient Gaze,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 17, 2 (2009): 215-45, presented to this group at the 2006 SBL conference.
3. See, e.g., Dijkstra, “Religious Violence in Late Antique Egypt,” Egypt: Faith After the Pharaohs (London: British Museum Press, 2015), 78-81.
4. Libanius, Or. 30.8-9; Eunapius, v. Phil. 472 (Antoninus).
5. See David Frankfurter, “Iconoclasm and Christianization in Late Antique Egypt: Christian Treatments of Space and Image,” in From Temple to Church, RGRW 163, ed. Johannes Hahn, Stephen Emmel, and Ulrich Gotter (Leiden: Brill, 2008), 135-59, and “‘Things Unbefitting Christians’: Violence and Christianization in Fifth-Century Panopolis,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 8,2 (2000): 273-95.
6. Pursuit of the Millennium (2nd ed.; London: Temple Smith, 1970).
7. Hahn, “Public Rituals of Depaganization in Late Antiquity,” Religious Practices and Chrisianization of the Late Antique City (4th - 7th centuries), ed. Aude Busine, RGRW 182 (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 115-40; on Denderah see David Frankfurter, “The Vitality of Egyptian Images in Late Antique Egypt: Christian Memory and Response,” in The Sculptural Environment of the Roman Near East, Interdisciplinary Studies in Ancient Culture and Religion 9, ed. Yaron Z. Eliav, Elise A. Friedland, and Sharon Herbert (Leuven: Peeters, 2008), 659-78.
8. See Conybeare in Journal of Late Antiquity 6, 2 (2013): 204.
9. See, e.g., my comparative essay “On Sacrifice and Residues: Processing the Potent Body,” in Religion in Cultural Discourse, Religionsgeschichtliche Versuche und Vorarbeiten 52, ed. by Brigitte Luchesi & Kocku von Stuckrad (Berlin & New York: De Gruyter, 2004), 511-33.