A Medievalist’s Life: Maccabean Martyrs

I’ve been scarce around here the past week. I know that. But, well, I’m in the homestretch of my work on The Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament, and I’m trying hard to finish it up so I can move on to one of the other dozen projects begging for attention.

Just so you know exactly how I’ve been passing my time, it is now 11:44pm on a Wednesday night and I’m locked in my office, writing. And what have I been writing? Well, explanatory notes. Things like this:

The poet’s statement that the Maccabean martyrs were Jews “all way,” though easily passed over, is nonetheless loaded with implications. Their story had captivated Christians from an early date (see note to line 17750), causing the martyrs to shift, as Joslyn-Siemiatkoski puts it, “from being liminal figures in late antiquity, whose Christian authenticity had to be proven, to being standard elements of the medieval Christian narrative of biblical and salvation history” (“Maccabean Martyrs,” p. 10). Indeed, they became central enough to the life of the Church that they were eventually included in the calendar of the saints, with a feast day alongside the Christian martyrs. The fact of their Jewish faith, however, was a lingering concern. Bernard of Clairvaux, for instance, dwells at some length on why, “alone of all the righteous men of the old Law,” these particular Jewish martyrs are so honored, especially given that, as Jews, Christian doctrine dictated that they were denied heavenly reward upon the instant of their martyrdom (Evans, Bernard, p. 73). Bernard, among others, ultimately argues that they were “Christian in spirit from a carnal Israel,” a typological, supersessionist understanding of their tale that ultimately led Christian exegetes, Comestor among them, to argue “that the fullest meaning of their martyrdom is found by the light of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Thus the value of dying for the Law of Moses is superseded by the value of dying for the Gospel. In this way, Christian historical exegesis of II Maccabees 7 presents the Church as the true Israel in contrast to contemporary Judaism” (Joslyn-Siemiatkoski, “Maccabean Martyrs,” pp. 10–11). For more on the Christian cult of the Maccabean martyrs, see also Rouwhorst, “Cult.”

So that’s several hours of my life I’ll never get back.

May posterity thank me.

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