The rhetoric and the ritual practices associated with sacrifice filled the ancient world. They were potent tools that maintained a balance between the powers of heaven and earth. They were also impressive vehicles used politically for establishing and maintaining social control. In short, the idea of sacrifice was itself a form of social discourse - a rhetorical means that generated and constituted social identity through the exercise of power. In this work, George Heyman offers a fresh perspective on the similarities between pagan Roman and Christian thinking about the public role of sacrifice in the first two and a half centuries of the Christian era. He shows that both imperial Rome and early Christianity capitalized on the rhetoric of sacrifice as a discursive means to craft their location, their identity, and their social power within the cosmos. Early Christian authors, like those responsible for the "New Testament" and other Christian literature, adopted this sacrificial discourse in order first to understand the death of Jesus and then later to valorize the deaths of the early martyrs. Heyman shows that such a discourse, however, was not unique to early Christianity.
The sacrificial practices associated with the Roman imperial cult also established civic and national pride throughout the Empire. Because of their refusal to participate in the normal Roman civic sacrifices, Christians were perceived as a threat to the complex and fragile balance of power that existed between the gods and the state. The earliest Christians responded by crafting the death of Jesus in sacrificial rhetoric and exalting the spectacle of the martyr in imitation of the biblical Christ. Even though they refused to participate in Roman sacrifices, Christianity created its own social order through a novel formulation of sacrificial discourse. While many scholars have researched the discourse of the Roman imperial cult, none has included a comprehensive analysis of the impact of this discourse on early Christianity. This book offers a synthesis of contemporary theory and historical data, a novel approach to the power of sacrifice and conflict between Rome and early Christianity.
George Heyman teaches biblical studies at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. He is the author of Martyrdom and Sacrifice: Roman and Christian Representations of Power.