Evangelical leader Chuck Colson famously defended the resurrection of Christ by claiming that “all but one” of the apostles were tortured, persecuted, and martyred for their beliefs. The apostles, Colson asserted, would not have died for a lie. Yet the historical evidence about the apostles’ post-biblical lives—as found in the 2nd century Apocryphal Acts and subsequent texts—is shaky at best and spurious at worst. Does historicity matter when it comes to contemporary use of hagiography?
The paper will first survey Christian approaches to hagiography, starting with the earliest examples such as the martyrdom of Stephen in Acts 6-7. The general contours of patristic and medieval historiography will then be traced, including The Golden Legend, a work begun by the Italian archbishop Yacobus deVoragine in 1260. The famous Actes and Monuments of These Latter and Perilous Dayes by John Foxe (d. 1587) also stands in this pious, yet often fabulous, hagiographic tradition.
In the Enlightenment era, the Jesuit priest Jean Bolland set out to produce a critical edition of all hagiographic texts pertaining to every saint in the church’s liturgical calendar. In 1643, the first two volumes of the Acta Sanctorum were published, launching the epic project that the Bollandist Society continues in Brussels to the present day. In his 1921 book The Passions of the Martyrs and Literary Genres, Bollandist scholar Hippolyte Delehaye made a fundamental distinction between “historical passions,” which have a high degree of veracity, and other kinds of hagiographical material which are more dubious. Eventually endorsing this scholarly approach, the Catholic Church declared in 1963 that, “The accounts of martyrdom, or the lives of the saints, are to accord with the facts of history.” More recently, scholars such as Candida Moss have taken their skepticism further, dismissing as late forgeries even the “historical passions” that previous scholars had been inclined to accept, such as The Martyrdom of Polycarp. In The Myth of Persecution (2013), Moss concludes about Polycarp, “[T]he earliest martyrdom account, the document that scholars believe began and fed interest in martyrdom, is a pious fraud.”
Having laid out the history of various approaches to Christian hagiography, the paper will then explore some ways that contemporary Christians can profitably retrieve such texts. A strict approach to historical-critical “accuracy” or “historicity” would reduce the church’s usable library of hagiographical texts to virtually nil—a most unfortunate result. Yet neither ought we indulge in credulity and gullibility. Instead, when texts are retrieved not as sources for “what happened” but for “what inspired previous generations,” a fruitful way forward is opened up. With proper caveats, hagiographical texts can be received and used by modern Christians in sermons and speeches, devotional literature, music, and popular-level writing for their story quality, not their historical reporting. The very existence of these texts proves that previous generations found the shape of such narratives powerful and transformative. That same spiritual power is available today, even if the events themselves are no longer accessible to us in precise historical detail.