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