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Christian Martyrdom and the "Dialect of the Holy Scriptures": The Literal, the Allegorical, the Martyrological

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image of Biblical Interpretation

This paper seeks to test a venerable scholarly and popular commonplace: that the ideology of religious martyrdom is based upon and further reflects a literal or even hyper-literal interpretation of Scriptures. Through two test-cases from late antique Christian writings, Tertullian's scorpiace and Origen's exhortatio ad martyrium, I seek to demonstrate the inadequacy of the literal/allegorical dichotomy to comprise and comprehend the complex, ingenious ways in which "the dialect of the holy Scriptures" (Origen's phrase) is claimed to speak in one unambiguous voice that instructs the Christian to accept martyrdom under persecution through confession. Self- and other-characterizations using the labels of "literal" and "allegorical" readings abound in these writings, but are not confined to one side or another. Via such "fighting words," the lexicon of hermeneutical claims of fidelity to or apostasy from the Scriptures is pressed into service by authors who, like Tertullian in Carthage and Origen in Caesarea, craft careful apologetic and protreptic arguments to support the claim that for Christians "it is better to prefer a religious death to an irreligious life."

Affiliations: 1: University of Chicago


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