Tuesday, August 3, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Timothy D. Barnes, Early Christian Hagiography and Roman History. Tria Corda 5. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010. Pp. xx, 437. ISBN 9783161502262. €29.00.
Reviewed by Pieter W. van der Horst, Utrecht University

In this book Barnes wants to demonstrate how 'critical hagiography' (in the Bollandist tradition) combined with modern historical approaches (e.g., prosopography) can reach important results for the history of Christianity in the Roman Empire.

In ch. 1, Barnes argues that the apostle Peter was burned to death as part of Nero's entertainments after the fire of Rome in 64 and that the construction of a shrine of Peter on the Vatican hill ca. 160 presupposes his veneration as a martyr. Here Barnes much too easily dismisses the strong arguments to the contrary in Otto Zwierlein's recent Petrus in Rom.1 Barnes' thesis that the expression allos se zôsei in John 21.18 refers to the fact mentioned by Tacitus (Ann. 15.44) that Nero's Christian victims were covered in hides of wild beasts seems to me far-fetched. And his remark that there is 'no valid obstacle' (40) to identifying the author of John's Gospel with the John who wrote the book of Revelation is bewildering: the differences in their use of Greek are way too great to make this even remotely probable. An important insight is that the Greek terms martys and martyrein receive the new meaning of martyrdom only by the middle of the second century CE. ('Both the new vocabulary of martyrdom and the cult of the saints are indubitably attested for the first time in the letter of the church of Smyrna, commonly known as the Martyrdom of Polycarp, which was almost certainly written in 157' (19).) By this time, the status of the apostles as authority figures came to depend in large part on whether or not they had suffered martyrdom. This insight should have made Barnes more skeptical towards the traditions about the martyrdom of Peter.

Ch. 2 deals with the documents from the period of persecution (to 260). Here the reader finds a valuable analysis of a wide range of early martyr documents. As Barnes clearly shows, Christian hagiography presupposes the idea of martyrdom, and that is why from the middle of the second to the middle of the third century the genre of 'Acts of the Martyrs' flourished. It is only after the period of the persecutions that hagiography begins to focus upon hermits, monks, desert fathers, and stylites, the self-styled 'new martyrs.'

In ch. 3 Barnes argues that the legalisation of Christianity in the Roman Empire was realized in 260 by the emperor Gallienus, not only in 313 (the misnomer 'Edict of Milan' encapsulates 'an entirely false historical perspective,' 98). As Barnes shows, 'there is no reliable evidence that any Christian civilians were condemned to death for their beliefs between 260 and 303' (106). The few 'military martyrs' were in fact 'conscientious objectors' and that was the crime for which they were convicted. Here we find Barnes at his best with his keen eye for details. The 'Great Persecution' initiated by Diocletian in 303 was different from those in the period before 260 in that Christianity had won much more standing in the meantime, and that is why the documents concerning this final persecution nowhere describe open manifestations of popular hostility to the Christians. Moreover, in the West this last persecution was relatively brief and it claimed few martyrs; in the East it lasted much longer and there were many more victims.

Ch. 4 deals with fictitious hagiography. Contrary to the materials from the second and third centuries, which often yield reliable historical information, in the fourth through sixth centuries we meet saints and martyrs who have never existed. 'After persecution ceased, Christian hagiography took one of two different directions. On the one hand, martyrs were replaced by monks, bishops and the holy men and women as the heroes of hagiography, while hagiographers were often more eager to instil explicit moral and theological improvement in their readers than accurately to record the actions of their heroes and heroines. On the other hand, since nothing that was both new and true could any longer be said about martyrs who were receding rapidly into the past, hagiographers who wrote about the age of persecution were compelled either to rewrite and embroider a genuine old text or resort to wholesale invention' (154). Jerome's Life of Paul is the prime example of a hagiographic text that is almost certainly complete fiction. It seems that Jerome's aim was 'to win literary renown by outdoing [Athanasius'] Life of Anthony' (183). The same was the case in his Life of Hilarion, although that was a historical person whose existence is also attested elsewhere, but it is impossible to segregate fact from fiction in this Vita.

Ch. 5 is wholly dedicated to Sulpicius Severus' Life of Martin of Tours. Here Barnes demonstrates why this Life cannot be used as a fundamentally accurate account of how north-western Gaul became Christian in the later fourth century, as is so often done, and he argues convincingly that, not unlike the contemporary author(s) of the Historia Augusta, Sulpicius Severus wrote a largely fictitious biography and was surely aware of the fact that this Life contained deliberate invention.

In ch. 6, Barnes reviews quite a number of Christian 'biographies' of the fifth and sixth centuries (such as Mark the Deacon's Life of Porphyry, dealt with at length on pp. 260-283) and assesses their historical accuracy and veracity. This chapter has 'the modest aim of illustrating the problems of analysis and interpretation which a series of hagiographical texts of particular interest pose for the historian of the fifth and sixth century' (241). Prosopography plays a large role here (much Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire) and Barnes has a keen eye for institutional anachronisms. This is a very informative discussion, but it is disappointing that Barnes devotes only one page to the important Life of Daniel the Stylite, since that is one of the very few hagiographical documents from Christian antiquity with a high degree of historical reliability, as Robin Lane Fox has so ably demonstrated.2

The final chapter sketches the history of modern historical scholarship on early Christian hagiography, with special attention to the work of the Bollandists. Then follow some eighty pages with nine appendices dealing with a variety of subjects that had been mentioned only in passing in the main text, if at all, and that ranges from the question of whether early Christians were crucified during the persecutions to a critical review of modern collections of early hagiographical documents or the theft of 'the bones of St. Peter' from the excavations under St. Peter's Church in Rome by Ludwig Kaas and the highly curious role played by the famous epigraphist Margherita Guarducci in this matter. The book concludes with indices of persons, places, and modern authors (incomplete). There is no cumulative bibliography. It is regrettable that Barnes, when referring to an article, does give the title of the journal but never the title of the article. Why not? Apart from this and the above mentioned points of criticism, however, this book deserves recommendation because of its originality, the freshness of its style, and the high level of its scholarship.


1.   See my review of Zwierlein's book in BMCR 2010.03.25.
2.   R. Lane Fox, "The Life of Daniel," in: M.J. Edwards & S. Swain (eds.), Portraits: Biographical Representation in the Greek and Latin Literature of the Roman Empire, Oxford: OUP, 1997, 175-225.

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