Divine Deliverance

Pain and Painlessness in Early Christian Martyr Texts

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
L. Stephanie Cobb
  • Oakland, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , November
     264 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Divine Deliverance: Pain and Painlessness in Early Christian Martyr Texts is the second book by L. Stephanie Cobb, and an impressive piece of work. It is well-written, well-structured, and well-argued. From the first sentence, which refers to the seeds she planted in her previous work Dying to Be Men: Gender and Language in Early Christianity (Columbia University Press, 2008) (ix), to the conclusion which states that martyrs serve as promises of another world where there is no pain (157), the reader is filled with suspense. Numerous passages referring to a wide variety of martyrs and ancient texts, including church fathers and Greek philosophers, are presented in great detail. Our imagination is constantly stimulated by the graphic imagery that accompanies the quotes in the book—which always appear at the right time. However, sometimes the sheer volume of images feels redundant and weighs down the text. This small flaw does not distract from the author’s objectives, as demonstrated by the rhetorical mechanisms of the 2nd and 3rd century martyr texts which testify to the freedom from pain attained by divine deliverance (12). 

Indeed, before diving into her corpus, Cobb presents the divergent expectations on pain and text of Ancients and Moderns. These two chapters are fascinating, the arguments admirably presented, and set the scene for subsequent ones. First, Cobb reminds us that experiences and interpretations of these kinds of texts differ considerably over time. Also, some consider the acts and the passios, commentaries, or epistles historical while others, such as Cobb, think that the body, especially in a literary product, is a textual construct (18) that serves the author’s ideological and theological aims (20). She observes and demonstrates how authors often construct death without pain, a subversive assumption that begs the questions: what is pain? and what is suffering?, and the corollary answers from yesterday and today. Second, she questions the genres of these texts and their impact on the construction of meanings which serve to polarize and build community by envisioning the world in dualistic terms (37). Preferring to refer to the experiential effects on hearers, Cobb focuses on the fact that they were witnesses—“martus” (thosewho responded to stories on an emotional level)—and on the radical shift in meaning. When the expectations raised about the martyr’s body are discomfirmed, she refers to a “gotcha moment” (50). The subversive experiences of no pain not only ridicule the persecutors (52), but also show that appearance is not reality (53), permitting a new vision (57), or scenes that transform trauma into victory (60). In other words, “there is no pain produced by the torture because there is no power standing behind the torture” (62).

The ensuing chapters provide many examples of narrative techniques for rejecting pain, claims to analgesia/anastesia, impassibility and/or impassivity, and going from the dualism between body and spirit to the simple presence of the divine (God, Jesus, or even the trinity) with or within the martyrs. Pain as an illusion for new Christians is confirmed, even if it can be a marker of faithfulness—persecutors can experience it rather than those who submit to excruciating torture. Nevertheless, the martyrs are delivered, with their bodies preserved, healed or whole. This is clearly at odds with the “description of pagan judicial triumph,” and subverts discourses on Christianity (13). God prevents or preserves the faithful who endure more than they suffer. In this way, He often regains a central role in these eclipsed or forgotten times. This type of description also goes against the supposed devaluation of corporeal existence by the divine, which, contrary to certain expectations, takes care of its creation, “rewarding the souls and protecting the bodies” (83). The last part of this chapter, which touches on the humor contained in martyr texts, is a pure delight, and I sincerely hope that Cobb will further investigate this topic in a future work. 

The final chapters allow Cobb to explore texts that contradict her principal assumption—the exception that confirms the rule. Obviously, texts where martyrs experienced pain exist and Cobb cannot neglect them, even if they are only The Passion of Perpetua and FelicitasThe Letter of the Churches of Vienne and Lyons, and some patristic writing (Eusebius, Tertullian, John Chrysostom, Origen, Basil, Prudentius, Augustine, and Gregory of Nyssa). If pain is not associated with martyrdom, it is felt by the apostates or persecutors. Prudently, Cobb shows that she has studied them all and prefers not to leave blind spots for others to criticize the immense task she has just undertaken. The “reversal of suffering” (103), or the “ironic transfer of pain" (104), as she writes, veers in the same direction as her principal argument, antagonizing enduring Christians and suffering Pagans. To complete the picture, she includes eschatological, stoic, and pagan discourses about the martyrs, which never “destabilize the entire system that supports social, political, and religious life in imperial Rome as do martyrs texts” (144). There, the insensitivity of the body, individual and/or social (as one reflects the other), is a sign of total resistance, the proof that Christianity as a whole cannot be destroyed, penetrated, or harmed. The book’s conclusion includes sentences that are so amazing that they feel like intellectual fireworks. As such, I do not want to say more. 

Finally, the important endnote section, the index, and the huge bibliography—which presents texts in English, French, Italian, Spanish, Greek, and German—are great tools for researchers wanting to know more about the ancient sources used, and to dig deeper into some of the subjects addressed such as humor, resurrection, collective emotion, or even literary response. Thanks to the University of California Press for making this new reference available! It is a must-read for any scholar interested in the beginnings of Christianity and martyrdom, ancient and current.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Isabelle Lemelin is Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Centre d’expertise et de formation sur les intégrismes religieux et la radicalisation and Lecturer in Religious Studies at Université du Québec à Montréal.

Date of Review: 
March 15, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

L. Stephanie Cobb is the George and Sallie Cutchin Camp Professor of Bible in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Richmond. She is also author of Dying to Be Men: Gender and Language in Early Christian Martyr Texts.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.