A cultural history of how Christianity was born from its martyrs.
Though it promises eternal life, Christianity was forged in death. Christianity is built upon the legacies of the apostles and martyrs who chose to die rather than renounce the name of their lord. In this innovative cultural history, Kyle Smith shows how a devotion to death has shaped Christianity for two thousand years.
Kyle Smith is Associate Professor and Director of the History of Religions Program at the University of Toronto. An award-winning teacher, he is the author or coauthor of four other books about Christian saints and martyrs.
Why is Christianity a “cult of the dead”?
To say that Christianity is a cult of the dead isn’t to suggest that it’s something strange or sinister. Just as agriculture means care for the fields and culture indicates the arts and customs that people care most about, the Christian cult of the dead refers to the care of the dead—specifically, the veneration of saints and martyrs.
As Christians have historically understood it, Jesus’s resurrection opened a bridge between the land of the living and that of the dead. In this way, all the apostles, saints, and martyrs who are said to have followed Jesus in death could continue to intervene in the world. This book tells the history of Christianity through them, arguing that all the practices by which the saints and martyrs have been venerated is the cultural centerpiece through which Christianity itself is best understood.
What inspired you to write this book? How did your idea for Cult of the Dead take shape?
My research focuses on early Christianity, and all of my other books examine the history of Christian monks and martyrs from the late ancient Roman and Persian empires. What I wanted to do with this book, though, is tell a much longer story to a much wider audience. When I say longer story, I’m referring not to page numbers but to time, far beyond late antiquity.
There are many great histories of Christianity in print, but in the rush to cover 2,000 years, a lot of them tend to treat early Christian martyrdom as if it were a brief and sporadic phenomenon prior to the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire. While that may be true, the martyrs themselves persisted for centuries, and the ritual memory of their names, their stories, and the dates of their deaths is the backbone of both Christian worship and Christian history. The idea behind Cult of the Dead was to show how all these practices of ritual memory—all the relics, shrines, feast days, miracles, and pilgrimages associated with the saints—kept them ever present for centuries, long after the supposed era of persecution was over.
Can you say a bit about the structure of the book and why you chose to structure it as
The book is thematically structured. Though it does proceed roughly chronologically over its eight chapters—beginning with Jesus and the first Christian martyr, Saint Stephen, and then eventually ending after the Protestant Reformation and the scientific skepticism of the early modern age—it’s not a linear tale. There’s quite a bit of bobbing in and out of different time periods in order to tie them together in ways that draw out the persistence of Christian devotion to martyrs. The same sorts of ideas about martyrdom, and the saints and martyrs themselves, keep showing up again and again in very different periods of Christian history.
One chapter looks at the stories of early Christian martyrs, another discusses their relics (and objects like the crown of thorns), while others follow pilgrims to miracle shrines and English manuscript hunters to the Egyptian desert. In the chapter on the calendar of the saints, I discuss everything from a Caribbean hurricane to the date of Christmas, the phases of the moon, and Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting, The Wine of Saint Martin’s Day, now in the Prado Museum in Madrid. Ultimately, my goal is to offer readers an entertaining guide instead of a comprehensive survey.
What is one of the most unexpected things you learned while writing Cult of the Dead?
Going into this project, even in the earliest phases of my research, I knew that martyrs were important for Christians beyond late antiquity, but what was really surprising to me was the extent to which they continued to dominate the consciousness of other eras, usually in ways that reflected the anxieties of these later eras—rather than the periods when the saints themselves are believed to have lived.
Saint Sebastian is a good example. He was first upheld as a Roman military martyr, and for a long time his cult remained localized mostly in Rome, around the site in the catacombs where he is said to have been buried. But a thousand years after Sebastian’s death, several older stories about him fused into a wildly popular new one. In the aftermath of the Black Death, he became the most important saint that Christians would invoke against the plague. It’s a fascinating story, how this happened—how Sebastian became a plague saint and kept assuming new lives so many centuries after his death. To adapt a famous line from William Faulkner, the most notable thing to me about the history of Christianity is that the martyrs are never dead and never confined to the past.
What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
More than anything, I hope that readers of Cult of the Dead will come to appreciate just how bloody the history of Christianity is and how that history continues to surround us in our day-to-day lives in ways that most of us are totally unaware.
There is, for instance, a park in Toronto near where I live called Saint Alban’s Square. I walk through it every day, and there’s a sign at one end of it that tells you it’s named for Saint Alban. I haven’t done any surveys, but I’d be shocked if more than one person in every hundred who walk past that sign could tell you that Alban was beheaded in Roman Britain, or that his executioner’s eyes supposedly sprang from their sockets as punishment for killing a saint. Maybe if the parks department in Toronto included a picture of Alban being beheaded on the sign, rather than just his name, there’d be some greater recognition that, historically speaking, the word saint in the Christian tradition most likely refers to a martyr—not a smiling Mother Teresa or garden gnome Francis with a bird on his shoulder.