SORAAAD BookNotes with the Bulletin: Elizabeth A. Castelli, Martyrdom and Memory

By Shaily Shashikant Patel

Castelli, Elizabeth A. 2004. Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making. New York: Columbia University Press.

Since its publication in 2004, Elizabeth A. Castelli’s Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Meaning Making has been recognized as one of a handful of monographs contributing to a larger analytical turn in the study of Christian origins. Castelli (Professor and Chair of the Religion Department at Barnard College) deftly uses theories of historical memory, particularly that of Maurice Halbwachs, to demonstrate how formative Christians generated enduring martyrological discourses through a mutually-sustaining relationship with their collective memories. These discourses in turn contributed to a larger negotiation of Christian religious identity. Because such negotiations are not bound by the temporal and geographical constraints of the Roman Empire, Martyrdom and Memory has continued relevance, both inside and outside the study of Christian origins.

Castelli’s first chapter articulates the processes by which collective memories are generated. Halbwachs argued that individual memories can only be rendered intelligible when placed within their respective social matrices (11). Such socially-constructed collective memories of the past are the “tradition” upon which subsequent negotiations of identity are carried out (12). Chapter two traces the ways in which Christian collective memories of persecution and martyrdom were employed against competing notions of Roman power in service of crafting a Christian religious identity.

In her third chapter, Castelli challenges Michel Foucault’s assertion that autobiographical writing in late antiquity followed a straightforward trajectory from public performances and readings to more personal, interiorized reflections (78). She provides three martyrological accounts—Ignatius of Antioch, Perpetua of Carthage, and Pionius of Smyrna—wherein such self-writing was undertaken with the explicit intention of leaving a written record which would later be incorporated into the collective Christian memory. Castelli continues this discussion of ‘public’ in her fourth chapter by foregrounding the inherent tension between Christian polemic against the spectacle of violence carried out in Roman arenas, and the spectacular nature of Christian martyrdom itself (117).

Chapter five provides a case study of the figure of Saint Thecla, including an analysis of how visual representations and narratives about the martyr-saint have been re-appropriated and disseminated in Christian history. Martyrdom and Memory’s final chapter bridges the ancient and contemporary. Here, the enduring legacy of martyrdom in Christian collective memory is considered in light of the Columbine High School shooting of 1999. Castelli leaves the reader with the uneasy conclusion that memories of human suffering are inextricably linked to Christians’ articulation of self-identity, reminding us that “it remains an urgent task to continue to engage the complex and multifaceted effects by which meaning is generated out of suffering” (196).

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