Martyred for the Church

Memorializations of the Effective Deaths of Bishop Martyrs in the Second Century CE

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Justin Buol
  • Tübingen, Germany: 
    Mohr Siebeckhr Siebeck GmbH & Company
    , September
     334 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Martyred for the Church, Justin Buol looks at the traditions and reception surrounding a small group of 2nd-century martyred Christian bishops: Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, and Pothinus of Lyons. The author sees these deaths as being on behalf of others, a concept to which Buol refers as “effective death.” The study looks backward in the sense that Buol spends significant time on noble death and martyrdom traditions that predate the 2nd century, while it looks forward in the sense that the author concludes with a brief consideration of the impact of these martyr traditions for the development of episcopal authority.

Chapter 1 introduces the scope and goals of the study. Chapters 2-4 present earlier examples of noble death/martyrdom traditions. Chapter 2 describes Roman military leaders sacrificing themselves in order to guarantee victory, the Greek “scapegoat” tradition, Roman philosophers exiled or killed, Alexandrian gymnasiarchs, and the Maccabean martyrs. Buol suggests that all these examples show leaders dying for the sake of some group, and this provides background for later martyr texts.

Chapter 3 focuses on the Jesus tradition as model martyrdom. Jesus dies as a ransom for others, and his death, according to Buol, is stylized to recall Greco-Roman noble death traditions, including Socrates. In dying an “effective death,” Jesus also provided a model for others.

Buol focuses on Paul as a receiver and further proponent of this idea in chapter 4. Because Ignatius intentionally modeled himself on Paul, the apostle is of particular significance. Buol examines a number of Pauline texts, including passages in disputed Pauline epistles. Paul/“Paul” picks up military imagery from earlier noble deaths, and he is ultimately the victor over not a military foe but false teaching. Paul exhorts his readers to follow him in his manner of life and death, and the presentation of 2nd-century episcopal martyrs would take up this theme.

Chapter 5 examines the self-presentation of Ignatius of Antioch, who shaped the interpretation and reception of himself as a martyr through his own letters. His “effective death” is on behalf of those who recognize the authority of the bishops and the deacons. By writing letters, Ignatius controls the narrative about his own impending death and passes on his authority as a martyr to the hierarchy of the “Catholic Church” (a term used throughout the volume but never defined).

Polycarp is the subject of Chapter 6. The Martyrdom in his reading recalls the Binding of Isaac (Akedah) and the deaths of Jesus and Socrates. Polycarp dies on behalf of the true believers in Smyrna—not false believers like Quintus, who falls away in the face of death. Polycarp’s authority as a martyr goes to the next generation of leadership in the “Catholic Church” of Smyrna, and they use it to combat false teaching.

In chapter 7, the author highlights the story of Pothinus, the Bishop of Lyons before Irenaeus, whose death is described in the Letter of the Churches of Vienne and Lyons preserved by Eusebius. Buol recognizes that Pothinus is not the most famous martyr in the story, and indeed there is nothing about his death that distinguishes it from others in the account. However, Buol singles it out because of Pothinus’ ecclesiastical position. Ultimately, the death of Pothinus is “effective” in the authority it gives to Irenaeus in his battle against heresies.

The eighth chapter serves as the conclusion to the volume. Here Buol restates the primary findings: earlier noble death traditions influenced all three of the episcopal martyrdom accounts discussed, and these “effective deaths” empowered the church hierarchy of the 2nd century in the battle against heterodoxy. Irenaeus is the key figure in Buol’s argument, for the Lyonnais bishop refers to all three of these martyred bishops as warriors against false teaching. Their deaths, through the lens of Irenaeus, contributed to the growth of the power of the bishops (including Irenaeus himself), who are portrayed as the guarantors of orthodoxy. The author concludes with an appendix summarizing several lesser known episcopal martyrdom stories from the 2nd century and a substantial bibliography.

There is much to commend in this volume. Buol provides a number of comparative examples to keep in mind when reading these martyrdom accounts, and the consideration of the impact of these stories for ecclesiastical hierarchy is an important issue to explore.

I wished this latter point were developed more fully, for it is here that Buol has a significant opportunity to move the scholarly conversation forward. The book leaves open some questions relevant to the thesis that episcopal authority in the “Catholic Church,” as embodied by Irenaeus, grew as a result of these martyrdoms. First, did the fact that Ignatius wanted bishops to have more power guarantee that any bishop actually had more power? This remains a topic of dispute in scholarship on Ignatius.

Second, if, as some have suggested, the Martyrdom of Polycarp was not composed until the time of Irenaeus or even later, then how would the text’s rhetoric against the cowardly Quintus be relevant in establishing Irenaeus’ authority against false believers? It is this specific negative example in the Martyrdom, not a general awareness of Polycarp’s death, that does the most work in Buol’s interpretation. Does Buol’s thesis require the rejection of later dating?

Third, Irenaeus never mentions Pothinus, so how might we demonstrate that Irenaeus employed his predecessor’s authority as a martyr to establish his own right to combat heresy? Irenaeus’ silence would seem counterproductive.

Fourth, control of spaces and practices was an important component of episcopal authority, so how do issues of praxis contribute to the thesis? Indeed, both Ignatius and the Martyrdom of Polycarp seem at least as concerned about heteropraxy as heterodoxy.

This book presents some promising lines of inquiry, and I hope we may look forward to Buol’s continued reflections on issues related to martyrdom and ecclesiastical leadership.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David L. Eastman is Sherill Chair of the Bible at the McCallie School and a Visiting Scholar in the Program in Classical and Mediterranean Studies at Vanderbilt University.

Date of Review: 
May 27, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Justin Buol is Adjunct Professor at Bethel University.


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