Book Note | Divine Deliverance: Pain and Painlessness in Early Christian Martyr Texts

by Tracy L. Russell in

L. Stephanie Cobb. Divine Deliverance: Pain and Painlessness in Early Christian Martyr Texts. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2017.


In Divine Deliverance, L. Stephanie Cobb makes the surprising claim that early Christian martyr texts do not attribute the experience of pain to martyrs in the narrative depictions of their torture and death. Recent scholarship on identity construction within early Christian communities has tended towards identifying and analyzing pain as a locus of theological meaning in martyrdom accounts. In contrast to this approach, Cobb argues that the texts should be read as miracle stories, downplaying not only the historical veracity of the events narrated but even the claim of historical verisimilitude in the accounts of the martyrs’ executions. In this way, the texts are able to present the martyrs as individuals so shielded by divine protection that the experiences most naturally associated with excruciating pain—torture and violent death—are unexpectedly free from pain. From the outset Cobb is clear about her intentions: she is not making claims about the historical experiences of real martyrs regarding bodily pain. Her interest lies in the literary construction of martyrs’ bodies and the ways the issue of pain is addressed with respect to the textual bodies of the martyrs.

To advance her thesis, Cobb begins in the first chapter by identifying the horizons of expectation about pain among modern audiences. Two factors have particularly shaped the modern assumption that narratives depicting torture and death would necessitate pain. First, the standard canon of martyr texts has been molded by figures such as the Bollandists and Herbert Musurillo, who aimed to retrieve “historically accurate accounts from pious embellishment” (p. 19), and whose focus on the historical reliability of the martyrdom accounts has contributed to the present assumptions of historical verisimilitude in the narratives. Second, Cobb traces the shift to identifying pain as a locus of theological meaning in medieval depictions of the crucifixion. Due to an increased attention to Jesus’ humanity in the theological reflection of the Middle Ages, the notion of imitatio Christi came to understand the endurance of pain and suffering in a martyr’s death as theologically significant. The medieval emphasis on pain as a locus of meaning has contributed, Cobb argues, to modern assumptions about the meaning of pain in early Christian martyr texts.

In challenging this modern assumption of pain, Cobb proceeds over the next three chapters to construct her argument about painlessness in early martyr texts. In chapter 2, she examines the ancient martyrdom genres of commentarius and epistle to show how they set up audience expectations of empathy for the sufferings experienced by martyrs. Cobb then goes on to provide examples of how the narratives themselves upend these expectations by not following through on depictions of pain: the martyrs do not evidence feelings of pain, as they do not respond in ways the audience would expect of someone being tortured; the actual implements of torture are rendered ineffective, or even conspire to preserve the martyr; and the final moment of death is often passed over in cursory or anti-climactic fashion, bypassing the depiction of pain in death altogether. In the next chapter, Cobb moves to examine examples of the language of painlessness (analgesia) in martyr texts, and surveys the narrative techniques used to assert that the martyrs did not actually feel pain during their experiences of torture and death due to divine presence and provision. Chapter 4 builds on the argument by examining the places that pain does appear in martyr texts, which in most instances support her claim through counter-example: while martyrs are depicted as experiencing pain when it is unrelated to their martyrdom, both apostates and persecutors are figures fully capable of feeling the agony associated with the activities of torture and death.  Perpetua’s experience of pain on behalf of her father and Felicity’s pangs in childbirth illustrate how early martyrs typically suffered only during events incidental to their immediate punishments. Cobb further concedes that some ancient martyr texts do in fact describe pain during martyrs’ tortures and executions; by drawing attention to these passages she illustrates the diverse ways pain appears in late ancient Christian literature, demonstrating that the meaning of pain is not constant in theological discourses of the period. In these chapters, Cobb surveys an impressive number of martyr texts, drawing on nearly two dozen accounts from the second to the fifth centuries, across multiple genres and originating in both Greek East and Latin West.

In the final chapter, Cobb switches gears to attend to the ways early Christian martyr texts—and particularly, the claims of impassability in the martyrs’ narrative bodies—contribute to identity formation for early Christian communities through engaging in various counter-discourses that formed part of the late ancient world. In particular, Christian martyr texts participate in changing theological discourses among Christian groups regarding eschatological expectations, contemporary Stoic discourses regarding the value of enduring pain, and discourses surrounding the pagan constructions of Christianity through judicial accounts of the execution of Christians. Through engaging these various discourses, Cobb demonstrates the significance of the narrative claims to painlessness in the martyrs’ experience,  highlighting the theological significance of what was at stake for early Christian communities in making their assertions of divine deliverance from pain.

Divine Deliverance contributes to the rich variety of scholarship that examines ancient texts not for historical detail but for rhetorical effect. Narrative analysis of texts can uncover their transformative power within their earliest contexts and among their earliest audiences, and this Cobb does skillfully. Her attention to detail in the texts and her reassessment of evidence contribute powerfully to the area of early Christian martyrological literature, as her argument about painlessness in these narratives requires modern audiences to examine afresh the assumptions they bring to their reading of ancient texts. This work compels a renewed inquiry into the ways ancient audiences—not subject to modern assumptions regarding historicity—would have initially heard and received these texts. 

Tracy L. Russell is a Ph.D. student in Early Christianity at Saint Louis University.
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