Divine Deliverance should be required reading for anyone interested in ancient Christian martyr texts. It demands that we jettison our widely held assumptions that the martyrs were depicted as suffering and that the audience is expected to identify with their pain. Most scholarship holds that early Christian communities, reflecting the ancient cultural turn (identified by Judith Perkins) toward configuring the subject as “sufferer,” saw martyrs as sufferers whose endurance should be imitated and whose pain should, if possible, be replicated. Instead, drawing on a historically sensitive audience-response theory that provides a framework for understanding how ancient audiences engaged with texts, Cobb persuasively argues that these texts did not view suffering as something to be imitated, but as something to be overcome—“a problem to be solved” (157).
After situating her intervention within current discourse and laying the methodological foundations for her readings (“Introduction”), Cobb reminds us (“Chapter 1: Bodies in Pain: Ancient and Modern Horizons of Expectation”) that pain has a complex relationship to physical injury, and that “discourses of pain are culturally situated” (27). Consequently, depictions of physical harm must be distinguished from depictions of pain and suffering: the narrative description of bodily injury does not entail a protagonist suffering or signal that a reader should empathize. Narrative depictions of violence may not even be concerned with pain; they may have ideological aims to which pain is unrelated, incidental, or subordinate. On this point, Cobb brings a host of ancient, medieval, and modern perspectives to bear. For example, the works of Seneca and Lucan describe physical dissolution at great length but, Cobb notes, with no concern for victims' physical pain (15–16). Cobb pushes us to suspend our modern impulse “to supply the experience of pain” when we read (30).
Cobb then turns fully to the ancient world (“Chapter 2: Text and Audience: Activating and Obstructing Expectations”), exploring how these texts worked within and against the expectations of ancient audiences to teach them that pain and suffering are not truly features of martyrdom. Sensitive to the vagaries of reception, Cobb focuses on the ways that martyr texts invite engagement (whether or not the invitation is accepted), attempting to uncover what lessons appear when we attend to these invitations. Genre, for example, conditions audience expectations and signals what sort of engagement is needed to create meaning; Cobb here treats the genres of commentarius and epistula. On the other hand, we can see how these narratives defy expectations if we recall our audience's familiarity with everyday violence and Roman judicial practices: violence without screams of agony, for example, or implements of torture failing to do damage, would have struck ancient readers more profoundly than modern ones accustomed to anesthetized injury. The martyrs' deaths likewise confound ancient expectations: they are often anticlimactic, either obscured from view or reported as an afterthought. Cobb guides her readers to attend to the ways that martyr texts manipulate accepted discursive expectations to push audiences to accept a new narrative about pain.
Chapter 3 (“Divine Analgesia: Painlessness in a Pain-Filled World”) offers a compelling sampling of ways that early Christian martyr texts reject pain. Sometimes these rejections are explicit, as when Pamfilus testifies that he feels no pain or when a narrator insists that Blandina could not feel a bull's attack (65); sometimes pain is sidelined by the text's insistence on a spirit/body dualism that, variously negotiated, allows the martyrs to avoid pain—the Martyrdom of Polycarp, for instance, describes martyrs as “absent from the flesh” (68); and sometimes texts describe God's comforting or co-suffering presence as mitigating martyrial pain. Often, Cobb notes, narrative elements in the martyr texts amplify these rejections of pain. Instruments of torture may fail, for instance, or the martyrs might laugh while being beaten. The overall effect is that God emerges as the central character whose greatness the martyrs' painlessness glorifies. These texts, it turns out, are deeply theological.
Despite their emphasis on painlessness, the martyr texts nonetheless used depictions of pain to promote their ideology. In Chapter 4 (“Whose Pain? Pain as a Locus of Meaning in Christian Martyr Texts”), Cobb addresses the various uses of pain in martyr texts and in early Christian literature more broadly. In the former, martyrs suffer pain when they are not actively embroiled in their contests—as we see with Felicitas's painful parturition (98). Apostates, too, feel pain—the failed martyrs of Viennes and Lyons found their earthly punishments doubled (99–101). Persecutors and other narrative villains suffer pain—persecutors find their punishments transferred back on themselves, while non-Christian spectators suffer misplaced empathy. The ideological messages are clear: God uses painlessness to signal favor and reward faithfulness.
Nonetheless, there are texts where the martyrs' own pain is a locus of meaning. For example, one particularly delightful section of this chapter addresses Perpetua's cry of pain in her Passio (109–11). Cobb suggests several intriguing hypotheses for the episode's ideological function in a text otherwise so clearly committed to martyrial analgesia.
Moving beyond the martyr texts, Cobb examines the work of Tertullian, Chrysostom, Origen, Basil, Prudentius, Augustine, and Gregory of Nyssa, establishing that the variety of valuations of pain in martyrdom ranged from insignificant to foundational.
Chapter 5 (“Narratives and Counternarratives: Discourse and Early Christian Martyr Texts”) situates the martyr-texts' arguments about painlessness within broader contemporary conversations about eschatology, Stoic virtues, and Roman judicial paradigms. In each of these cases, martyrial analgesia has an identifiable and compelling potential social function. The texts illustrated the resurrected body for early Christians, and presented a realized eschatology complete with here-and-now victories and judgments. They evince affinity with (rather than opposition to) Stoic understandings of pain and virtue, and could clearly have been deployed to claim some of Stoicism's social status. And the martyrs' painlessness in judicial settings would have challenged Roman judicial and political power. In a setting where the demonstration of pain was linked to truthfulness, analgesia defies the standard mechanism of verifying testimony; in a setting where state power was conveyed through public exertions of force on the bodies of criminals, depictions of martyrs emerging healed and whole from judicial punishment are “politically subversive and socially empowering” (143).
In her conclusion, Cobb illustrates with one excellent final example the discursive nature of Christian articulations of martyrial analgesia and impassibility, comparing depictions by Seneca and Prudentius of the gruesome deaths of characters named Hippolytus. The differences are instructive, underscoring that these texts were meant to convey ideology: while Seneca depicts his Hippolytus as disintegrated beyond all recognition, Prudentius, clearly in response, writes that his own Hippolytus was able to be put back together—or, at least, all parts of him collected by his followers—to form, as Cobb translates it, an “unhurt” body (151). By galvanizing the boundaries of formerly fluid communities, using affective responses to depictions of violence to “promote communal solidarity” (152), and helping Christians visualize the possibility of painlessness through Christ, such portrayals of divine deliverance for Christian bodies, Cobb argues, helped construct identities and communities.
This is a rich book replete with nuanced readings beautifully woven into broader discussions. While Cobb's argument is itself fairly streamlined, her bibliographical interlocutors reflect a world of fascinating, staunchly interdisciplinary inquiry. Her writing is clear, acute, and fresh, and while she is always opening avenues of conversation and reminding us of both the uncertainties about and multivocality of our sources, these enrichments do not crowd her argument. There are moments of confusion: Cobb is not always clear, for instance, about what type of escape from pain she is discussing: actual analgesia or anesthetized pain, unsuffered injury or healed injury, impassible bodies or invulnerable bodies, etc. Some of this seems to be occasioned by ambiguity within the texts themselves, which Cobb emphasizes, but elsewhere it seems to be a byproduct of Cobb stating her thesis starkly. For example, writing that early martyr texts “describe martyrs' deaths without betraying any interest in pain whatsoever” (23) is a far cry from the more nuanced: “The authors of these texts, in other words, utilize a variety of narrative techniques to distance the martyr's body from the physical sensation of torture” (29). This is not “no interest” in pain; it is, as Cobb herself argues, a deep engagement with the discourse of martyrial pain that seeks to revolutionize how Christians understand God's operation on earth.
Cobb's corrective is important: any reading of early Christian martyr texts that assumes that audiences were meant to empathize with sufferers is fundamentally misguided and ahistorical. Even when the narratives are unclear and we have cause to argue—did Blandina feel any pain or just minimal pain?—we are still acknowledging Cobb's central claim: martyrdom narratives offered early Christians the promise of divine deliverance from pain and bodily disintegration. I, for one, look forward to re-reading the texts I work with in light of Cobb's arguments, and anticipate having to rethink many of my own.