Perfect Martyr: The Stoning of Stephen and the Construction of Christian Identity (Hardback)
  • Perfect Martyr: The Stoning of Stephen and the Construction of Christian Identity (Hardback)

Perfect Martyr: The Stoning of Stephen and the Construction of Christian Identity (Hardback)

Hardback 240 Pages / Published: 28/10/2010
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A number of recent studies have examined martyrdom as a means of identity construction. Shelly Matthews argues that the story of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, should be brought into this scholarly conversation. Stephen's story is told in the biblical book of Acts. He has, with near unanimity, been classified as unquestionably a real historical figure, probably because of the narrative coherence and canonical status of the book in which he appears. Matthews points to multiple signals that Stephen functions for Luke (the author of Acts) as a symbolic character. She suggests reframing the Stephen story not in terms of the impossible task of ascertaining "what really happened," but in terms of rhetoric and ethics. All aspects of the Stephen story, she argues, from his name to the manner in which he is killed, are perfectly suited to the rhetorical aims of Luke-Acts. The story undergirds Acts' hostile depiction of the Jews; conforms largely to Roman imperial aims; and introduces radical identity claims of a "marcionite" character. Stephen's role as a typological martyr also explains this 2nd-century text's otherwise eccentric treatment of Christian martyrdom. Matthews juxtaposes the Stephen story with related extra-canonical narratives of the martyrdom of James, thus undercutting the perfect coherence and singularity of the canonical narrative and evoking a more complex historical narrative of violence, solidarity, and resistance among Jews and Christians under empire. Finally, she looks at the traditional reason Stephen is considered the perfect martyr: his dying prayer for the forgiveness of his persecutors. Noting that this prayer was frequently read as idealizing Stephen, while having no effect on those for whom he prayed, she discovers a parallel the Roman discourse of clemency. Any other reading, she says, poses a potentially radical challenge to the cosmic framework of talionic justice, which explains the prayer's complicated reception history.

Publisher: Oxford University Press Inc
ISBN: 9780195393323
Number of pages: 240
Weight: 490 g
Dimensions: 243 x 163 x 22 mm

The big circle of her argument takes up the problems of normatively seeing ourselves as innocent victims, of sanctifying violence, and, specifically, of narrating violent deeds of others as justification for violence. Any who are not uncomfortable about one or more of these issues are not listening. . . . Perfect Martyr is a scholarly book that also faces pressing contemporary issues. * Review of Biblical Literature (reviewed by Richard Pervo, author ACTS: A Commentary) *
Seldom have I learned so much from a book and simultaneously dissented so much. The book is a pearl of research, thoroughly and astutely annotated. Matthews makes the best case I have read for a second-century anti-Marcionite setting for Acts. * Review of Biblical Literature (reviewed by Robert Brawley of McCormick Theological Seminary) *
Theoretically sophisticated and historically grounded, Shelly Matthews' Perfect Martyr is the most compelling study ever produced of Stephen, Christianity's first martyr. More than that, it exposes the ideological investments of the author Luke" who establishes his Christian self-identity at the expense of the fictitious Other, the fabricated figure of the violent Jew. * Bart D. Ehrman, James A. Gray Distinguished Professor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill *
Building upon her earlier ground-breaking study of women in the Lukan narrative, here Shelly Matthews pushes the envelope even further. Through a detailed study of the texts and traditions related to Stephen, she shows how early Christian self-definition is predicated on the disfiguration of the other. One will not think about early Christian constructions of and interactions with Judaism in the same way after encountering such thoughtful and engaging analysis. * Todd Penner, author of In Praise of Christian Origins: Stephen and the Hellenists in Lukan Apologetic Historiography *
Perfect Martyr is an innovative and utterly persuasive reading of the account of the death of Stephen in the New Testament. Matthews shows how the narrative insulation of Roman authorities from culpability produces Jewish guilt and Christian innocent victimhood simultaneously and asks trenchant questions about the theological reverberations of this troubling rhetorical move across time. A must read for scholars and non-specialists alike. * Elizabeth A. Castelli, author of Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making *

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