Martyr and sacrifice in Jesus' day
The martyr’s death is ultimately an act of freedom: freedom from fear. Once one has learned to face death without fear, there really is nothing to be feared. The power of the martyr’s death enables one to live faithfully to God, free from fear of the consequences. The martyr’s death is an act that conquers the power of death itself.As I translate the New Testament, it is important to understand the culture of Jesus’ day so I can convey the relevant meaning of key concepts such as death and sacrifice.
The life and death of a martyr are meaningless if those who witness them remain unmoved. Martyrdom is not about death. It is about living life meaningfully, fully devoted to the things one believes in most deeply, free from the various fears that would usually dissuade one from such a course. To speak of Jesus as a martyr is to consider the values, ideas, and principles he lived and died for, and the God who comes to life in them, and to ask what it would take to bring that God to life once again in lives we might lead.
We have no common cultural understanding of what sacrifice means. Virtually all red meat consumed in a Hellenistic city was sacrificial meat. Sacrifice was at the center of every ancient Greek city. The sacrifice indicates one’s membership in a group. This basic picture held true for most of the people of the Mediterranean basin throughout the period of Christian origins.
A person’s voluntary sacrifice on behalf of his people was ennobling. Generals gave themselves in battle as an offering to the gods to save the Roman people. This was how Cato’s death was viewed in Lucan’s epic poem on the Roman Civil War: Let my blood redeem the nations, and my death pay the whole penalty incurred by the corruption of Rome. My blood will bring peace to the people of Italy. Jews had their own martyrs, whose deaths they came to see in just this way.
To speak of Jesus as a sacrifice is to recognize that it is in him that a new community finds its existence. Like a sacrifice, Jesus’ death created a community who would be devoted to the same things to which Jesus devoted himself.
Categories: Biblical studies, Bible translation, Better Life Bible