Dying to Be Men

Dying to Be Men: Gender and Language in Early Christian Martyr Texts

L. STEPHANIE COBB
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 224
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/cobb14498
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Dying to Be Men
    Book Description:

    At once brave and athletic, virtuous and modest, female martyrs in the second and third centuries were depicted as self-possessed gladiators who at the same time exhibited the quintessentially "womanly" qualities of modesty, fertility, and beauty. L. Stephanie Cobb explores the double embodiment of "male" and "female" gender ideals in these figures, connecting them to Greco-Roman virtues and the construction of Christian group identities.

    Both male and female martyrs conducted their battles in the amphitheater, a masculine environment that enabled the divine combatants to showcase their strength, virility, and volition. These Christian martyr accounts also illustrated masculinity through the language of justice, resistance to persuasion, and-more subtly but most effectively-the juxtaposition of "unmanly" individuals (usually slaves, the old, or the young) with those at the height of male maturity and accomplishment (such as the governor or the proconsul).

    Imbuing female martyrs with the same strengths as their male counterparts served a vital function in Christian communities. Faced with the possibility of persecution, Christians sought to inspire both men and women to be braver than pagan and Jewish men. Yet within the community itself, traditional gender roles had to be maintained, and despite the call to be manly, Christian women were expected to remain womanly in relation to the men of their faith. Complicating our understanding of the social freedoms enjoyed by early Christian women, Cobb's investigation reveals the dual function of gendered language in martyr texts and its importance in laying claim to social power.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51820-8
    Subjects: Religion, Sociology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-VIII)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. IX-X)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. XI-XVI)
  5. Introduction: CONSTRUCTING IDENTITY THROUGH CULTURAL APPROPRIATION
    (pp. 1-17)

    “Are you a Christian?” This was one of the most commonly asked questions at the university I attended in central Texas. One’s response to the question was simple—yes or no—but extraordinarily important: it provided a way to categorize fifteen hundred rather homogeneous entering students into discrete groups in the university at large. Those whose answer was “no” were clearly in one group, a group that remained undifferentiated. They were “other” and highly stereotyped: they wore black, had body piercings (this was before piercings were mainstreamed), and hung out at “the fountain” on campus, smoking cigarettes. The yesses, however,...

  6. 1 What Is a Christian? CONSTRUCTING A CHRISTIAN IDENTITY
    (pp. 18-32)

    In the 1960s and 1970s social psychologists began generating new hypotheses about the relationship between identity and group formation.¹ In particular, these theorists focused on group categorization and its effect on cognitive biases (e.g., bias in favor of one’s in-group). In his work on racism and discrimination, for example, Henri Tajfel sought to determine the minimal requirements necessary for discrimination in favor of an in-group and against an out-group.² His experiments showed that discrimination is related to categorization: individuals categorize objects and people in order to make the world meaningful, but the very act of categorizing involves discrimination. Tajfel’s work...

  7. 2 Noble Athletes: GLADIATORIAL, ATHLETIC, AND MARTIAL IMAGERY IN THE MARTYR ACTS
    (pp. 33-59)

    Since claims to masculinity in the ancient world were claims not only to strength but also to power and authority over others, Christians could hardly claim for themselves a masculine status: second- and third-century Christians lived at the mercy of the Roman ruler and died by his caprice. As the locus of attack, moreover, the martyrs’ battered bodies should have been proof of their lack of masculinity. The textually masculinized martyr, however, challenged the perception of domination. The literary tool of masculinization inscribed resistance to pagan hegemony onto the body of the martyr.

    One way the martyrologies demonstrated Christian masculinity...

  8. 3 Be a Man: NARRATIVE TOOLS OF MASCULINIZATION IN EARLY CHRISTIAN MARTYR ACTS
    (pp. 60-91)

    In their provocative article on 4 Maccabees, Stephen Moore and Janice Capel Anderson show that virtue and masculinity—as constructed and associated in antiquity—are central concerns for the author of this Jewish martyrology: the stories about the Jewish martyrs and their persecutors are told primarily to illuminate the Jews’ possession of masculinity. In fact, they argue that 4 Maccabees is ultimately about “what it means to be a true man.”¹ “The physical torture of the youths and the psychological torture of their mother,” Moore and Anderson write, “will prove their remarkable self-control, and hence their ‘manliness.’ But the torture...

  9. 4 Putting Women in Their Place: MASCULINIZING AND FEMINIZING THE FEMALE MARTYR
    (pp. 92-123)

    The previous chapters have shown how textual masculinization of martyrs helped Christian communities gain ground in power struggles against their pagan persecutors and Jewish rivals. Narratives concerning female martyrs participate in these same efforts, and Christian women are masculinized by the same means as their male counterparts: through a narrative emphasis on athletic and gladiatorial imagery and on masculine virtues. The masculinization of female Christians, in fact, presents an even stronger case for the superiority of Christianity, because the narratives often depict Christian women defeating pagan men. The authors of the martyrologies do not portray the female martyrs as unambiguously...

  10. Conclusion: GENDER AND LANGUAGE IN EARLY CHRISTIAN MARTYR TEXTS
    (pp. 124-128)

    At the university I attended, being a Christian meant that a person said she was one. Although church attendance was expected and subtle signals of faith—a cross pendant or a “What Would Jesus Do?” bracelet—were acceptable accessories, social identity remained more assertion than action. So we were all made uncomfortable by the student who conveniently modified Jesus’ charge in Mark 8:34 and wheeled around a cross so large that it would not fit through the classroom doors and thus had to be left in the halls. He did not simply state his faith: he towed it around campus...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 129-184)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 185-202)
  13. Index
    (pp. 203-208)