Death Rituals (Douglas Davies, video)

I need to save this for later. And I want to share.

Professor Douglas Davies, Department of Theology and Religion, discusses the development of rituals in crematoria, and woodland and natural burials.

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what if Jesus died for God’s honor?

I realize this thesis has never been proposed before so bear with me…

In reading through what Jarvis Williams calls “martyrdom theology” I come across Eleazar of 2 Maccabees:

Eleazar, one of the foremost scribes, a man advanced in age and of noble appearance, was being forced to open his mouth to eat pork. 19 But preferring a glorious death to a life of defilement, he went forward of his own accord to the instrument of torture, 20 spitting out the meat as they should do who have the courage to reject food unlawful to taste even for love of life.

21 Those in charge of that unlawful sacrifice took the man aside, because of their long acquaintance with him, and privately urged him to bring his own provisions that he could legitimately eat, and only to pretend to eat the sacrificial meat prescribed by the king. 22 Thus he would escape death, and be treated kindly because of his old friendship with them. 23 But he made up his mind in a noble manner, worthy of his years, the dignity of his advanced age, the merited distinction of his gray hair, and of the admirable life he had lived from childhood. Above all loyal to the holy laws given by God, he swiftly declared, “Send me to Hades!”

Persephone and Hades. Tondo of an Attic red-fi...
Persephone and Hades. Tondo of an Attic red-figured kylix, ca. 440-430 BC. Said to be from Vulci. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

24 “At our age it would be unbecoming to make such a pretense; many of the young would think the ninety-year-old Eleazar had gone over to an alien religion. 25 If I dissemble to gain a brief moment of life, they would be led astray by me, while I would bring defilement and dishonor on my old age. 26 Even if, for the time being, I avoid human punishment, I shall never, whether alive or dead, escape the hand of the Almighty. 27 Therefore, by bravely giving up life now, I will prove myself worthy of my old age, 28 and I will leave to the young a noble example of how to die willingly and nobly for the revered and holy laws.”

He spoke thus, and went immediately to the instrument of torture. 29 Those who shortly before had been kindly disposed, now became hostile toward him because what he had said seemed to them utter madness. 30 When he was about to die under the blows, he groaned, saying: “The Lord in his holy knowledge knows full well that, although I could have escaped death, I am not only enduring terrible pain in my body from this scourging, but also suffering it with joy in my soul because of my devotion to him.” 31 This is how he died, leaving in his death a model of nobility and an unforgettable example of virtue not only for the young but for the whole nation.

Note specifically v.26-28. There is a connection between honor and blasphemy. If Jesus died as martyr, or with the theology of martyrdom on his side, then he died in response to the honor of God.

I don’t necessarily believe that is the case, as you should know by now; however, the story does give us a sense that there exists a connection, just as in suicide, for a chosen death and a sense of honor. Eleazar dies devoted to God — as a devotion to God — to avoid dishonoring God.

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Moving to Martyrdom

English: "Martyrdom of St. Paul", fr...
English: “Martyrdom of St. Paul”, from an 1887 copy of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs illustrated by Kronheim. Français : Le martyr de Saint Paul. Illustration par du Livre des martyrs (Book of Martyrs) de Foxe. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

thoughts, unedited. Many of my commentators are helping me so thank you. 


Self-inflicted death is not the only sort of chosen death mentioned in Scripture. Likewise, there is the death chosen in lieu of violating God’s law or as a witness to one’s system of belief. It is too neat a dichotomy to suggest the suicides above occur because of internal motives but the martyrdoms below are easily external. While the suicides are clearly a result of the choice of the individual based usually on some sense of honor, we cannot too easily separate the notion of blasphemy of a deity from that of personal honor. Indeed, to dishonor one’s parents (Leviticus 24.15–16) was conflated with blasphemy against God. While this development is not easily seen in the Mosaic Law, it becomes apparent with later writings, such as Ben Sira who writes, “ὁ δοξάζων πατέρα μακροημερεύσει, καὶ ὁ εἰσακούων Κυρίου ἀναπαύσει μητέρα αὐτοῦ. (3.6)” In verse 3, honor is equated to an atonement. By the time we get to Rabbinical Judaism, the connection is fully developed so that Rabbis could say that God worked with parents to create the child. 1 Clement treats the mutiny of the Corinthians as a dishonor to the Apostles and a blasphemy to God (1 Clement 47). However, what may separate suicide from martyrdom is the perception that suicide is for self-regarding reasons (internal) while martyrdom is for God or another good besides themselves (external). Even then, we have those who cross the gray area such as the case of Ahithophel who may have died to preserve his estate rather than his honor. Regardless, even in martyrdom, a choice is often present even though it is not self-inflicted.

The use of martyr to describe death because of religious persecution is not found in Jewish thought until the beginning of Christianity. However, there are stories of those who suffered and died because of their religious beliefs. During the Second Temple period, suicide and martyrdom become somewhat mingled. For instance, the Jewish threat to Emperor Gaius includes not only promise of a slaughter of the innocents but so too suicide in protest of the proposed statue. “,Aποθανόντων τὸ ἐπίταγμα γενέσθω μέμψαιτʼ ἂν οὐδὲ θεὸς ἡμᾶς ἀμφοτέρων στοχαζομένους καὶ τῆς πρὸς τὸν αὐτοκράτορα εὐλαβείας καὶ τῆς πρὸς τοὺς καθωσιωμένους νόμους ἀποδοχῆς· γενήσεται δὲ τοῦτο ἐὰν ὑπεκστῶμεν ἀβιώτου βίου καταφρονήσαντες.” This has a recognizable history as part of the New Testament canon (specifically Hebrews 11). There is, of course, the religious death of the figure mentioned in Isaiah 52–53. Daniel records a possible massacre (11.29–34) with the promise of resurrection (12.1–3). In the latter author’s case, it is probable he is referring to the time of the Maccabees. The same series of casualties is recorded in the Testament of Moses. Perhaps the best-known execution tales escaping Second Temple Judaism is the story of the mother with seven sons (2 Maccabees 7, cf 4 Maccabees 8; perhaps referenced in Hebrews 11.35–36) and Eleazar (2 Maccabees 6.18–31). Likewise, there is the death of John the Baptizer, Stephen, and even Paul — all considered martyred. Josephus (BJ 7.320–406) records the suicidal martyrs at Masada, although in tones barely above that of his previous speech condemning those who take their own life.


In this section, I will examine briefly the Maccabean martyr tradition followed by the death of the Jews as Masada. Rather than delving into canonical examples of martyrdom, I believe it is better to focus on that which has already been identified as aiding the developing notion of an atoning death. “…The concept of Jesus’ death as saving event had as its creative source a tradition of beneficial, effective human death for others…this concept originated among Christians who not only spoke Greek but were also thoroughly at home in the Greek-Hellenistic thought world.

Blidstein, Honor Thy Father and Mother: Filial Responsibility in Jewish Law and Ethics, 2–5.

F.F. Bruce suggests Abel is the first known martyr, a tradition in the Old Testament culminating with Zachariah. “In particular, it appears that Chronicles came at the end of the Bible which they used: when our Lord sums up all the martyrs of Old Testament times He does so by mentioning the first martyr in Genesis (Abel) and the last martyr in Chronicles (Zechariah). (See Lk. xi. 51 with 2 Ch. xxiv. 21).” F.F. Bruce, “The Canon of Scripture,” Inter-Varsity (Autumn 1954): 19-22.

Philo, Legatio ad Gaium, 236.

The Book of Daniel contains two more stories of martyrdom, albeit unsuccessful martyrdoms (Daniel 3 and 6).

See Sam K. Williams, Jesus’ Death as Saving Event: The Background and Origin of a Concept,” 230. Further, I will rely on Jarvis Williams’ recent work (Maccabean Martyr Traditions in Paul’s Theology of Atonement) in developing some of the allowance that martyrdom could be an atoning death — while maintaining the devotio (contra to Williams) is not a type of martyrdom.

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Suicide – A Defence by Simon Critchley

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Samson Captured by the Philistines
Samson Captured by the Philistines (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

notes. not edited. notes. 

In attempting to decide whether or not to place him and his self-inflicted death as a devotio, I examined his status before death (explained in chapter ____ below) as well as the intent. The story of Samson, I maintain, does not fit easily into our already too-gray categories. Because of that, I will place Samson first in the category of self-inflicted death and examine him as such, but will use him in a later chapter as a type of devotio. Before Samson’s life begins, it is announced via the angelical proclamation (Judges 13.2–20); however, there is nothing divine about him as a person. He does have great strength and a great mind, but this is due more to his vows than to a seminal merger of human and divine. After years of success against the Philistines, he succumbs to a trick by Delilah. Sometime later:

וְסַרְנֵ֣י פְלִשְׁתִּ֗ים נֶֽאֱסְפוּ֙ לִזְבֹּ֧חַ זֶֽבַח־גָּד֛וֹל לְדָג֥וֹן אֱלֹהֵיהֶ֖ם וּלְשִׂמְחָ֑ה וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ נָתַ֤ן אֱלֹהֵ֨ינוּ֙ בְּיָדֵ֔נוּ אֵ֖ת שִׁמְשׁ֥וֹן אוֹיְבֵֽינוּ׃

This is another event in Judges where a Jew dies in a contest between God and some foreign but cosmic adversary. In this case, the point is made clear when the mocking of the God of the Israelites precedes the death of Samson (Judges 16.23–24). If we compare this to the other suicides presented herein, it is the only one bearing the marks of a narrow definition of suicide. It is pre-mediated and planned. He is led out and is placed between two pillars, feigning weakness – which should lead us against the notion of a noble death. After imploring God’s help for vengeance against those who had blinded him, he says begs that his death be counted amount the Philistines:

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר שִׁמְשׁ֗וֹן תָּמ֣וֹת נַפְשִׁי֮ עִם־פְּלִשְׁתִּים֒ וַיֵּ֣ט בְּכֹ֔חַ וַיִּפֹּ֤ל הַבַּ֨יִת֙ עַל־הַסְּרָנִ֔ים וְעַל־כָּל־הָעָ֖ם אֲשֶׁר־בּוֹ֑ וַיִּהְי֤וּ הַמֵּתִים֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר הֵמִ֣ית בְּמוֹתֹ֔ו רַבִּ֕ים מֵאֲשֶׁ֥ר הֵמִ֖ית בְּחַיָּֽיו׃

While the blindness may be symbolic here, it should be noted the revenge motive is rather personal. He dies not to save Israel or as an action devoted to God, but as a way to kill others for the wrong that had been enacted against him. The whole of Samson’s story is rather important because it not only summarizes the history of Israel’s judges, but so too the cyclical formation of the Book of Judges. Ironically, it is God’s help allowing Samson to commit suicide, another cycle since it is God’s assistance that brings Samson into the world.

I have to agree with Mays, et al., that “Samson’s death is not, strictly speaking, a suicide, since God grants his prayer for death, accepting him as an instrument through which to carry out the divine plan, (Harper’s Bible, 258);” however, with a broad definition of self-inflicted death is employed, then it does.

Compare this to 1 Kings 18.40.

Because of this statement, Samson’s death could be seen as a type of noble death. The Homeric Hecktor cries out just before his death, “Μὴ μὰν ἀσπουδί γε καὶ ἀκλειῶς ἀπολοίμην, Ἀλλὰ μέγα ῥέξας τι καὶ ἐσσομένοισι πυθέσθαι” (Illiad 23.304) while Arrians says of Alexander, “Μεγάλα ἔργα, καὶ τοῖς ἔπειτα πυθέσθαι ἄξια ἐργασάμενος οὐκ ἀσπουδεὶ ἀποθανεῖται” (De Exped. Alexand., 6.9).

It should be noted that chapter 16 begins with a different situation for Samson. In previous chapters, the Spirit of God was present yet here, it is made clear that the Spirit of God had abandoned Samson, if not Israel as a whole.

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Mexico City hanging of Judas (see Burning of J...
Mexico City hanging of Judas (see Burning of Judas) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve written about Judas before, a while ago. These are more notes, however. I think we give Judas a bum rap. 

Notably, there is the suicide of Judas (in Matthew’s account, at least), which must be — because of the nature of the story in the Gospels and the close parallel to Jesus — examined more closely, even nothing else as a way to measure the literary reception of suicide. Daube does not see in the story of Judas a crime but almost an atonement. Judas kills himself exactly because of remorse and, perhaps, in light of the Mosaic legal requirement found in Numbers 35.33 and Leviticus 24.17. Augustine would disagree with that sentiment, causing something of a disruption in his own theology of suicide and sin. Jerome sees two crimes, with only one (suicide) necessary. What was the remorse for? Several scholars have suggested παραδίδωμι is directly related to the idea of a sacrifice. If this is the case, that Judas is sacrificing Jesus, then we are meant to see the kiss as part of that sacrifice as well. Perhaps this explains Judas’s remorse, that he had sacrificed Jesus — meaning, that Judas’s death is at least in some way connected to a cosmic struggle.

It should be noted that that account in Acts 1.18 of Judas’ self-inflicted death is reminiscent of Razis’ final end. The tradition of Judas’ death is contrary to Paul’s view (1 Corinthians 15.5) and apocryphal sources (The Gospel of Peter). For Papias, Judas did not die immediately but lingered on, eventually succumbing to death because of disease.

The fate of Judas has been preserved in Christian memory via several apocryphal gospels, one of which is the Coptic “Book of the resurrection of Jesus Christ,” a work sometimes paired with the Gospel of Bartholomew. According to Hans-Josef Klauck, the harrowing story, of which Judas figures as one of the three remaining souls in Hades, predates the Gospel of Nicodemus, perhaps even to the second century. This is important given that it was not the suicide of Judas that prevented his escape, but his betrayal. See, Apocryphal Gospels: An Introduction (T&T Clark, 2003), 99.

Daube, “Death as a Release in the Bible,” 88–89.

Augustine, De civ. Dei 1.17.

See Wolfhart Pannenberg, Anthropology in Theological Perspective (T&T Clark, 1985), 153. He writes, “But the reasons he gives—that suicide is a form of murder; that (as in the case of Judas) suicide expresses a despair of divine mercy; and that the suicide allows himself no chance to repent—do not connect suicide with the psychological analysis of sin as egoism and concupiscence.”

Jerome, Commentary on Matthew, 4.27. Jerome sees suicide as necessary to fulfill the biblical commandment against sinning against a fellow believer.

Inhee C. Berg, Irony in the Matthean Passion Narrative, 167–68; H. J. Koch, “Suicides and Suicide Ideation in the Bible: An Empirical Survey,” Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica 112, no. 3 (2005), 169. Παραδίδωμι was used by Herodotus to suggest a type of atoning sacrifice. “Κῦρος μὲν δοκέων οἱ Δαρεῖον ἐπιβουλεύειν ἔλεγε τάδε· τῷ δὲ ὁ δαίμων προέφαινε ὡς αὐτὸς μὲν τελευτήσειν αὐτοῦ ταύτῃ μέλλοι, ἡ δὲ βασιληίη αὐτοῦ περιχωρέοι ἐς Δαρεῖον. ἀμείβεται δὴ ὦν ὁ Ὑστάσπης τοῖσιδε. «ὦ βασιλεῦ, μὴ εἴη ἀνὴρ Πέρσης γεγονὼς ὅστις τοὶ ἐπιβουλεύσειε, εἰ δ᾽ ἐστί, ἀπόλοιτο ὡς τάχιστα· ὃς ἀντὶ μὲν δούλων ἐποίησας ἐλευθέρους Πέρσας εἶναι, ἀντὶ δὲ ἄρχεσθαι ὑπ᾽ ἄλλων ἄρχειν ἁπάντων. εἰ δέ τις τοὶ ὄψις ἀπαγγέλλει παῖδα τὸν ἐμὸν νεώτερα βουλεύειν περὶ σέο, ἐγώ τοι παραδίδωμι χρᾶσθαι αὐτῷ τοῦτο ὅ τι σὺ βούλεαι.» Ὑστάσπης μὲν τούτοισι ἀμειψάμενος καὶ διαβὰς τὸν Ἀράξεα ἤιε ἐς Πέρσας φυλάξων Κύρῳ τὸν παῖδα Δαρεῖον.” (Histories, I.210.) Closer to Judas’s context, the 3rd aorist passive of παραδίδωμι is used in Greek Isaiah 53.12, διὰ τοῦτο αὐτὸς κληρονομήσει πολλούς, καὶ τῶν ἰσχυρῶν μεριεῖ σκῦλα· ἀνθʼ ὧν παρεδόθη εἰς θάνατον ἡ ψυχὴ αὐτοῦ, καὶ ἐν τοῖς ἀνόμοις ἐλογίσθη, καὶ αὐτὸς ἁμαρτίας πολλῶν ἀνήνεγκεν, καὶ διὰ τὰς ἀνομίας αὐτῶν παρεδόθη.” See 1. Alberdina Houtman et al., eds., The Actuality of Sacrifice: Past and Present, 195, 195.n7). If we take the kiss in light of Hosea 13.2, then we can see the connected between the kiss and the sacrifice.

Compare the kiss between Jesus and Judas to the one by Joseph to Jacob (Friedrich Schwally, Das Leben Nach Dem Tode, 8) and 1 Kings 19.8 where Elijah attempts to find Israelites who had not “kissed” Baal.

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Eleazar Avaran

Antonio Ciseri's Martyrdom of the Seven Maccab...
Antonio Ciseri’s Martyrdom of the Seven Maccabees (1863), depicting the woman with her dead sons. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not done. Just notes. And notes make good blog posts.

As we will see below, the Maccabean books provides the early Christians with a great wealth of material for theological reflection as well as understanding the role of martyrdom. The first self-inflicted death in this series of books occurs when Eleazar rushes into a crowd of elephants to assassinate king Antiochus V (1 Maccabees 6.43–44): “καὶ εἶδεν Ἐλεαζὰρ ὁ Σαυαρὰν ἓν τῶν θηρίων τεθωρακισμένον θώραξιν βασιλικοῖς, καὶ ἦν ὑπεράγον πάντα τὰ θηρία, καὶ ὤφθη ὅτι ἐν αὐτῷ ἐστιν ὁ βασιλεύς. καὶ ἔδωκεν ἑαυτὸν τοῦ σῶσαι τὸν λαὸν αὐτοῦ, καὶ περιποιῆσαι αὑτῷ ὄνομα αἰώνιον.” In a less-than-ironic twist, the rather short episode accomplishes exactly what Eleazar meant to do, which is to preserve his name although we know that the sacrifice did nothing for his people. But, the story does not end there. In 4 Maccabees 1.7–10, Eleazar is held up as the example of a virtuous martyr. This may be in response to 3 Maccabees wherein the author recounts the story of Eleazar, but in a gander cosmic sense. In 3 Maccabees 6.16–19, Eleazar is pictured as piously recounting God’s promises — specifically the promise to never abandon Israel — just before the attack. Only instead of the quick dash by the Jew, the battled is enjoined by God and the heavenly host (3 Macc. 6.18). The story moves from a suicide for an unsuccessful but valiant reason (something like a noble death) to part of a rather dramatic cosmic battle of the gods (a martyrdom) (see figure 3.1 below).


καὶ εἶδεν Ἐλεαζὰρ ὁ Σαυαρὰν ἓν τῶν θηρίων τεθωρακισμένον θώραξιν βασιλικοῖς, καὶ ἦν ὑπεράγον πάντα τὰ θηρία, καὶ ὤφθη ὅτι ἐν αὐτῷ ἐστιν ὁ βασιλεύς. καὶ ἔδωκεν ἑαυτὸν τοῦ σῶσαι τὸν λαὸν αὐτοῦ, καὶ περιποιῆσαι αὑτῷ ὄνομα αἰώνιον. (1 Maccabees 6.43–44)
Τοῦ δὲ Ελεαζαρου λήγοντος ἄρτι τῆς προσευχῆς ὁ βασιλεὺς σὺν τοῖς θηρίοις καὶ παντὶ τῷ τῆς δυνάμεως φρυάγματι κατὰ τὸν ἱππόδρομον παρῆγεν. καὶ θεωρήσαντες οἱ Ιουδαῖοι μέγα εἰς οὐρανὸν ἀνέκραξαν ὥστε καὶ τοὺς παρακειμένους αὐλῶνας συνηχήσαντας ἀκατάσχετον πτόην ποιῆσαι παντὶ τῷ στρατοπέδῳ. τότε ὁ μεγαλόδοξος παντοκράτωρ καὶ ἀληθινὸς θεὸς ἐπιφάνας τὸ ἅγιον αὐτοῦ πρόσωπον ἠνέῳξεν τὰς οὐρανίους πύλας, ἐξ ὧν δεδοξασμένοι δύο φοβεροειδεῖς ἄγγελοι κατέβησαν φανεροὶ πᾶσιν πλὴν τοῖς Ιουδαίοις καὶ ἀντέστησαν καὶ τὴν δύναμιν τῶν ὑπεναντίων ἐπλήρωσαν ταραχῆς καὶ δειλίας καὶ ἀκινήτοις ἔδησαν πέδαις. (3 Maccabees 6.16–19)
πολλαχόθεν μὲν οὖν καὶ ἀλλαχόθεν ἔχοιμ ἂν ὑμῖν ἐπιδεῖξαι ὅτι αὐτοκράτωρ ἐστὶν τῶν παθῶν ὁ λογισμός, πολὺ δὲ πλέον τοῦτο ἀποδείξαιμι ἀπὸ τῆς ἀνδραγαθίας τῶν ὑπὲρ ἀρετῆς ἀποθανόντων, Ελεαζαρου τε καὶ τῶν ἑπτὰ ἀδελφῶν καὶ τῆς τούτων μητρός. ἅπαντες γὰρ οὗτοι τοὺς ἕως θανάτου πόνους ὑπεριδόντες ἐπεδείξαντο ὅτι περικρατεῖ τῶν παθῶν ὁ λογισμός. τῶν μὲν οὖν ἀρετῶν ἔπεστί μοι ἐπαινεῖν τοὺς κατὰ τοῦτον τὸν καιρὸν ὑπὲρ τῆς καλοκἀγαθίας ἀποθανόντας μετὰ τῆς μητρὸς ἄνδρας, τῶν δὲ τιμῶν μακαρίσαιμ ἄν. (4 Maccabees 1.7–10)


The phrase “ἔδωκεν ἑαυτὸν” used in here is similar to Galatians 1.4 (“δόντος ἑαυτὸν”) and Titus 2.14 (“ἔδωκεν ἑαυτὸν”), but used where Jesus is the object.

He is mentioned in Greg. Great, Mor. 19.21.34, in regards to the morality of historical figures. Gregory sees his example as a positive one.

δειχθήτω πᾶσιν ἔθνεσιν ὅτι μεθ’ ἡμῶν εἶ, κύριε, καὶ οὐκ ἀπέστρεψας τὸ πρόσωπόν σου ἀφ’ ἡμῶν, ἀλλὰ καθὼς εἶπας ὅτι Οὐδὲ ἐν τῇ γῇ τῶν ἐχθρῶν αὐτῶν ὄντων ὑπερεῖδον αὐτούς, οὕτως ἐπιτέλεσον, κύριε.(3 Macc. 6.15)

Eleazar’s death can passively be seen in 3 Maccabees 6.23.

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Suicide in Jewish and Roman Thought (brief working draft)

English: Chart showing he circumstances for su...
English: Chart showing he circumstances for suicide in 16 states in the United States (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am working through some academic things, dissertation and the what not, and for the next few weeks, I am working on all things voluntary death. This includes suicide. Before you go off and suggest suicide is a moral crime and start citing bible verses, see here. What follows is a brief draft that I will amend, emend, and expand during the coming weeks. 

The concept of suicide (strictly defined as taking one’s life seemingly without external cause) is found in various Jewish texts, although, save in one case, it is usually condemned. Perhaps most notably is the suicide of Judas (Matthew 27.5, although the accounts of success differ between the Matthew, Luke, and Papias); however, there are suicides in the Hebrew canon including Abimelech (Judges 9.53–5), Achitophel (2 Sam 17.23), Zimri (1 Kings 16.15–20) and Saul (1 Chronicles 10.3–13). In other Second Temple literature, suicide is passively addressed as in the case of Tobit 3.10. The only heroic suicide is found in 2 Maccabees 14.37–46, in which Razis, a loyal Jew who was soon to be arrested, killed himself because, “εὐγενῶς θέλων ἀποθανεῖν, ἤπερ τοῖς ἀλιτηρίοις ὑποχείριος γενέσθαι, καὶ τῆς ἰδίας εὐγενείας ἀναξίως ὑβρισθῆναι.” Compare this to the death of Antiochus Eupator who ended his life in 2 Maccabees 10.13, where the author states, “μήτʼ εὐγενῆ τὴν ἐξουσίαν ἔχων, ὑπʼ ἀθυμίας φαρμακεύσας ἑαυτὸν ἐξέλιπε τὸν βίον.Suicide was common enough, at least in the time of Josephus, to have ritualistic responses. Because the mentions of self-homicide were not accompanied with mentions of either condemnation or penalty, David Daube has suggested suicide is best seen as either natural or perhaps even heroic.

Rabbinic Judaism, however, quickly forbade suicide. Rabbi Eleazar interpreted Genesis 9.5 to stand as an opposition to the taking of one’s life. Suicide became the same as murder and as such, later rabbis turned to deal with the intentionality and culpability. According to Sidney Goldstein, not all suicide was considered suicide. Indeed, if the motivation was repentance, then the crime is overlooked by the intention. Suicide was also allowed to avoid suffering, such as in the case of Rabbi Hanina ben Teradion.

The Romans had a long tradition of suicide. As E.R. Dodds states, “in these centuries a good many persons were consciously or unconsciously in love with death.” Roman suicide, like most things Roman, found its genesis among the Greeks. Plato’s work, Phaedo, contributed greatly the Stoic view, among other schools as well, of suicide as the final mastery of fate. Plato borrows Socrates’ words to suggest that death, because of the promise of a reward on the other side, is preferred and urged his students to follow him quickly. Granted, he refused to offer a chance for his disciples to take their own life, as this was strictly forbidden. After arguing over his moral clause, Socrates proposes a solution. Rather than taking one’s life freely and simply to join ranks with the living who have died, he demands a necessity. If a necessity to take one’s life is found, then it is no longer immoral. Perhaps this is why so many Stoics would find themselves with such a great necessity, even to the point of interpreting the breaking of a finger or the stubbing of a toe as the call of a god to die.

More important to our present study is Seneca’s Epistle 70. Here, he writes to laud suicide if it entails political freedom. He ends the epistle with the solemn, almost horrific announcement, “Eadem illa ratio monet, ut, si licet, moriaris quemadmodum placet; si minus, quemadmodum potes, et quicquid obvenerit ad vim adferendam tibi invadas. Iniuriosum est rapto vivere, at contra pulcherrimum mori rapto. Vale.” Seneca would go on to commit suicide after the failure of a conspiracy to kill Nero.

Suicide was such a commonplace sight in Rome it gave rise to a concept, Romana mors, complete with images of dramatic suicides serving as the evening’s entertainment. The act of taking one’s own life became almost a standard norm but it was not associated with depression. Rather that the stark contrast offered by depression or a joy to die, the reality was more often an overreaction to events. Romans took their own life due to certain “signs,” losses in war, even criminal charges. Added to this is the developed ritual and even stylistic etiquette Romans used. At one point, suicides become a public event, a transformation prompting parodies at Nero’s court.

It must be stressed that a canyon of cultural context separates the connection between the Roman suicide and Jewish suicide. Yet, it suffices us to simply point out that in both cultures relevant to the authors of the New Testament, suicide was allowed at least for particular instances, especially to avoid loss and to prevent humiliation. Neither of these instances sufficiently describes the death of Jesus, for reasons I will detail later in this study.


Note that in the cases of Abimelech and Saul, both were mortally wounded and only after acknowledging such a state either asked for a quick dispatch (Abimelech) or fell on their own sword (Saul).

See BJ 3.372–77 where Josephus notes that the bodies of suicide victims were left out in the sun and simply buried because of the great crime they had committed against God. Their souls were sent to divine punishment.

David Daube, “Death as a Release in the Bible.” Novum Testamentum, 1962, vol. 5, 82–104.

See b,Baba Kamma 91b

Sidney Goldstein, Suicide in Rabbinic Literature (KTAV, 1989), 26–29.

For a fuller discussion on suicide and the development of moral restrictions in both Christian and Judaism, see F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, “Suicide”, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford University Press, 2005) and A. J. Droge, “Suicide,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Doubleday, 1992).

E. R. Dodds, Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety, (Cambridge, 1965), 135.

Plato, Phaedo, 61bc, 64.

Plato, Phaedo, 62c.

Thus is the story of Zeno, the founder of Stoicism. See Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers, 7.28.

Seneca, Ep 70.28, Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales, Vol 2. trans. by Richard M. Gummere, (Loeb Classical Library, 1920), 73.

For more on the suicide cult at Rome, see Timothy Hill, Ambitiosa Mors: Suicide and the Self in Roman Thought and Literature (Routledge, 2004).

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