Early Christian Generic Hybridity: The Martyrdom of Pionius and Tragedy
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CitationGriffis, Sarah. 2020. Early Christian Generic Hybridity: The Martyrdom of Pionius and Tragedy. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
AbstractEarly Christian martyr literature was composed in an ancient Mediterranean world in which a variety of literary and performance genres abounded across porous group boundaries. Noting this cultural vibrancy, a number of scholars have emphasized that martyr texts exhibit generic hybridity. This dissertation proposes that the genre of tragedy is a previously overlooked but prominent cultural element that contributed to this generic hybridity, and is thus an important key to understanding martyr texts’ narrative features.
This dissertation begins to substantiate the hypothesis that appreciating tragedy’s role in the generic hybridity of martyrdom literature can open up new directions of literary analysis for this corpus through a case study of a third-century CE Christian martyr text from Asia Minor, the Martyrdom of Pionius. Building on previous scholarship that explores themes and rhetoric in this text, the dissertation employs literary analysis to illustrate that certain features of the literary genre of tragedy operate also in MPionius. First, I demonstrate that it is plausible that early Christians would have been acquainted with the features of tragedies by showing tragedy’s cultural prominence throughout the early Christian period and Christian thinkers’ familiarity with the genre. Second, I show that three features identified by Aristotle as the core of tragedy—suffering, recognition, and reversal—also structure MPionius. Finally, I show that, like Aeschylus’s tragic trilogy the Oresteia, popular throughout antiquity and the only extant tragedy which stages a trial, MPionius brings its action to a denouement with the tragic device of a deus ex machina.
In revealing the importance of tragic generic features to understanding Christian martyr literature, this research shows that, far from being incompatible with Christianity, generic features of tragedy actually helped to structure some of Christianity’s stories. This case study of MPionius shows that authors of martyr stories could draw on audience familiarity with tragic plot structural features in order to make their own distinctively Christian claims. MPionius draws on suffering, recognition, and reversal in order to define a specifically Christian model of piety and to persuade its audience that death leads to life, rather than the audience expectation that life ends in death. Similarly, in its denouement, the author of MPionius draws on conventions of the genre of tragedy by dramatizing the intervention of divine authority in the events of the narrative. Specifically, through a deus ex machina, MPionius stages the triumph of a Christian vision of justice over the Roman judicial procedure that condemns Pionius to death.
In its redeployment of generic features from the prominent genre of tragedy, the Martyrdom of Pionius showcases early Christian participation in broader Greco-Roman literary practices. While future research will be required to establish that this insight holds for other martyr texts, the operation of generic features of tragedy in MPionius provides suggestive evidence that tragedy is a critical part of the cultural context that informs this distinctively Christian yet ultimately hybrid genre of martyr literature. As such, the case study presented in this dissertation opens up a fruitful new direction for the literary analysis of martyr texts.
Citable link to this pagehttps://nrs.harvard.edu/URN-3:HUL.INSTREPOS:37368952
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