Jan Willem van Henten is Professor of Religion at the University of Amsterdam and Extra-Ordinary Professor of Old and New Testament at the University of Stellenbosch (South-Africa). He studied History and Theology at Leiden University, specializing in Ancient History, Judaism in the Second Temple Period and New Testament. His PhD (Leiden 1986) concerns martyrdom and the construction of Jewish identity in 2 and 4 Maccabees. He taught Judaism and New Testament at the Universities of Amsterdam, Leiden and Utrecht. He is full professor of Religion (Early Judaism and Christianity) at the University of Amsterdam since 1993. His courses concern the introduction to and interpretation of the Bible, the history, religion and literature of Judaism as well as New Testament and Christian origins. He contributes to the Amsterdam MA-programmes in Religious Studies and Ancient Studies & Classics. His research projects concern Jewish literature from antiquity, especially 2 and 4 Maccabees and the Jewish Antiquities by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (preparation of a commentary for the Brill Josephus project), martyrdom among Jews and Christians, as well as the reception of the Bible in contemporary culture.
Martyrs are contested figures these days. Those who are considered martyrs by their in-group may be terrorists for others. Contemporary martyrdom is religious as well as political, in multiple ways, although I acknowledge that there is such a thing as secular martyrdom. A recent example concerns the French priest Père Jacques Hamel, who was slaughtered while he was serving Mass in 2016. The Pope has called Père Hamel a martyr, but Hamel is also commemorated as a “martyr de France”. Moving over to ancient or classical martyrs, the scholarly trend seems to be to concentrate on religious motives. In this article I will argue that for the ancient martyrs religion and politics go hand in hand, as in contemporary martyrdom. I will do so by discussing several case studies including the stories about the Maccabean martyrs, focusing upon the martyrs’ motivations.
Beneficial Death in Jewish Martyrdom Passages
This article offers a survey of notions and vocabulary of beneficial death in Jewish martyr texts in the Greco-Roman context, looking also into contrasts between Jewish and Greco-Roman traditions. I will argue that Jewish sources do express notions of atonement and substitution. Like in some of the Graeco-Roman texts such a beneficial self-sacrifice can be described with sacrificial vocabulary (Dan 3 Old Greek; 4 Maccabees). 2 Maccabees also incorporates the notion of reconciliation between God and the chosen people, while the related non-Jewish passages elaborate reconciliation only in inter-human contexts. The atoning function of the martyrs' death is articulated in different ways in both corpora. The reason why the gods should be appeased by a self-sacrifice, as for example indicated by oracles, often remains unclear in Greek and Roman passages. Jewish passages about self-sacrifice with a beneficiary effect are mostly put in a framework of the sinfulness of the Jewish people. The characteristic element that the intercessory prayer by the martyrs invokes a beneficial effect seems to be unique for the Jewish passages. 4 Maccabees also expresses the idea that the blood of the martyrs has significance as a means to purify their fatherland as well as their fellow-Jews from their sins (4 Macc. 6:29; 17:21). Although a purifying function of blood may not be entirely absent in Greek and Roman passages, 4 Maccabees articulates this in a very specific way, also by connecting the self-sacrifice of the martyrs with the cult in the Jerusalem Temple (cf. Leviticus 16).