• Noble death or death cult: Pagan criticism of early Christian martyrdom

      Middleton, Paul; University of Chester (Amsterdam University Press, 2015-07-09)
      Suffering and persecution forms an almost ubiquitous backdrop to most of the documents which make up the New Testament. From St Paul onwards, suffering was regarded not as an unfortunate necessity, but as a mark of true discipleship.
    • The Scarecrow Christ: The Murder of Matthew Shepard and the Making of an American Culture Wars Martyr

      Middleton, Paul; University of Chester (Amsterdam University Press, 2019)
      In this essay, I examine the popular martyr-making process in respect of Matthew Shepard, arguing that both the making of the martyr and the reaction it provoked reflects American ‘culture wars’. Martyrology is conflict literature. However, as I have argued before, the most significant conflict in a martyrdom story is not necessarily between the martyr and the agents of execution, but the story-tellers and their opponents.9 Yet, martyrological narratives are difficult to control, as I will demonstrate from the contested nature of Shepard’s secular canonisation process. For at least some in the LGBT community, the dominant hagiography of Matthew Shepard, the gay martyr, is seen as unhelpful. Ironically, both LGBT activists and right-wing religious groups have in some ways sought to undermine Shepard’s martyr status, by focusing on his life rather than his death. Nonetheless, I argue, such efforts continue to have limited effect because in martyrologies any interest in the lives of their heroes is incidental, merely setting the scene for a significant death.
    • Were the Early Christians Really Persecuted

      Middleton, Paul; University of Chester (Amsterdam University Press, 2019)
      In their writings, the Early Christians presented themselves as a suffering community, facing intolerance and misunderstanding from Jew and Gentile alike, to the extent that in Acts, the Jewish community in Rome are made to declare of early Christianity, ‘we know that people everywhere are talking against this sect’ (Acts 28.22). However, historians generally recognise that while members of the early Church undoubtedly did face some harassment, there was no empire-wide policy against Christianity until well into the third century, and even then, these were short lived. Where Christians experienced persecution, it tended to be localised, sporadic, and random, and resulted from pockets of prejudice rather than any official imperial interest in the Church. If we see those who take at face value the deutero-Pauline claim that ‘all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted’ (2 Tim 3.12) as representing a ‘maximalist’ view of persecution, then, in direct contrast, what might be termed a ‘minimalist’ account is gaining popularity among scholars. Minimalists go beyond the view that Christians faced ‘periodic persecution’, and conclude that in all significant respects, the Christian narrative of persecution is a constructed myth. Moreover, they tend to turn Christian charges against their pagan neighbour of intolerance back onto the early Church, arguing that in a Roman environment of general imperial tolerance towards varieties of beliefs and practices, it was Christian intolerance and intransigence that led to their appearances before magistrates. However, this was not persecution in any meaningful sense, but prosecution. Both maximalist and minimalist accounts of early Christian experiences of suffering construct a context in which a generally tolerant group encounter an intolerant ‘other’. Depending on which approach is adopted, either Christians or Romans were the ‘victims’ of intolerance. In light of this apparent scholarly paradigm shift, I return to the basic question: were the early Christians persecuted? First I outline the formerly dominant ‘persecution paradigm’, arguing that this way of presenting Christian experience is already promoted in New Testament texts. Next, I evaluate recent revisionist ‘minimalist’ accounts, noting that the idea Christians invented—or at least exaggerated—the extent of the persecution can be found as far back as the eighteenth century. These re-evaluations offer an important and valuable corrective to the maximalist approach. However, minimalists, I argue, tend to simply replace a one-sided Christian reading of history with an equally skewed Roman perspective. Instead, I offer a reading which might be categorised as ‘modified minimalism’, in which I sidestep the persecution/prosecution dichotomy, and conclude that while it is certainly the case that Romans would have understood their (albeit limited) actions against Christians as prosecutions designed to protect the integrity of the State, Christians experienced those actions, not without reason, as persecution. I argue that Christians and Romans were indeed ‘tolerant’ of the other—just not where it mattered!