Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Benjamin Hansen: The Martyrs and Their Master: Martyrdom and the Figure of Christ in the Divine Institutes

The Diocletian Persecution was formative for Lactantius. His De mortibus was a vigorous account of the vindication of God’s persecuted elect. His De ira treated divine wrath in a manner which pulsed implicitly with the memory of a singular historical event. For a proper understanding of Lactantius, therefore, we must understand him as an author whose mind was saturated with the implication of his contemporary crisis. This was no doubt true for the writing of his Institutiones as well, a work which sought to defend a faith whose critics denounced it as both dangerous and stupid. Thus to read the Institutiones with this “hermeneutic of persecution” serves to tease out Lactantius’ sense of divine history, a history which is always bound up with the suffering of a righteous minority. In reading the Institutiones in this manner, moreover, the figure of Christ takes on a remarkable new significance – and one that has largely been overlooked. For Lactantius, I will argue, reads contemporary persecution in light of a series of biblical precedents leading up to the persecution of Christ. This understanding allows him to emphasize the divine patterning of history and to place the martyrs of the fourth century into a sacred chronology which, linked to the figure of Christ, repeats itself at three key points: the cause of persecution, the effect of persecution, and the fate of the persecutors.

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