“A Very Fragrant Odor:” Honoring Martyr Bodies in the Second and Third Century

In the second century account of the martyrdom of Polycarp of Smyrna, the writer describes the scents and aromas connected with the burning body of the martyr. Like baking bread or fragrant incense, the martyr and his sacrifice presented an alluring aroma. Other accounts of martyrdom in the second and third centuries attribute high honor to the body and physical sacrifice of Christian men and women. Martyr bodies in subsequent centuries were attributed high status in the church, eventually becoming objects of devotion. Martyr bodies in the second and third centuries were honored based on their imitation and proximity to the passion of Christ. This paper will argue that honoring the martyr body in the second and third centuries was an extension of honoring the body of Christ. This paper will elaborate this thesis by examining three key texts: the martyrdom of Polycarp, the acts of the Scyllitan martyrs, and the passion of Perptua and Felicitas. In these texts, the bodies of martyrs are honored for their sacrifice in light of Christ’s passion. They are seen as a symbol of and window into the sacrifice of Christ. In so doing, the early church provided readers with tangible evidence for Christian faithfulness and verification of the Christian truth.

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