Bible Review 10:4, August 1994

Bible Books

A Lively Book About Voluntary Death

A Noble Death: Suicide and Martyrdom Among Christians and Jews in Antiquity

Arthur J. Droge and James D. Tabor (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1992) 215 pp., $25.00

Reviewed by A. Katherine Grieb

This provocative and timely book challenges the prevailing opinion that suicide has been consistently prohibited by Jewish and Christian authors since biblical times. Arthur Droge and James Tabor show instead that the distinction between suicide and martyrdom is a polemical one dating back to Augustine in the fifth century (anticipated somewhat by Clement of Alexandria). Even the term “suicide” is unattested before the mid-17th century.

In ancient times there was no term analogous to our word “suicide,” but rather a variety of expressions in Greek, Latin and Hebrew for what Droge and Tabor prefer to call “voluntary death.” Their study traces the discussion of voluntary death from Socrates to Augustine (roughly 400 B.C. to 400 A.D.). Only since what they describe as “the Augustinian reversal” has there been a rigidly drawn distinction between suicide and martyrdom.

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