A hagiography is a biography of a saint or ecclesiastical leader focusing on his or her life, deeds, accomplishments, miracles, and, when appropriate, martyrdom. Hagiographies are common among all religious traditions; in Christendom, hagiographies typically tell of saints canonized by the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, and Anglican Church. The term hagiography is sometimes used as a pejorative or slur intended to demean any biographical writing, religious or secular, that unrealistically idealizes its subject with folklore or embellished tradition.
Hagiography could be considered a literary form of iconography. Iconography uses images and symbols to convey particular meanings or concepts pertaining to the faith: a dove representing the Holy Spirit, for example, or a lamb symbolizing Jesus. The Catholic Encyclopedia lists three categories of hagiographies: historical memoirs, literary compositions, and liturgical texts. Hagiographies often commemorate important anniversaries such as a feast day or the martyrdom of a venerated saint.
Examples of hagiography include History of the Martyrs in Palestine by Eusebius; Life of St. Martin of Tours by Severus; and Dialogues, a collection of stories about Saint Benedict and other sixth-century monks by Pope Gregory I.
As writers of hagiographical works tend to be uncritical of their subjects, readers are often left with an “idealized” version of the individual’s life. Such unidimensional, unrealistic accounts may be a blending of truth and legend; hence, the accuracy of these portrayals is compromised. Ultimately, good scholarship is based on fact rather than fancy.
While hagiographies may be a source of hope and edification, no saint should be esteemed on the same level as the Lord Jesus Christ (Hebrews 12:2). Readers enamored by lofty recollections of a seemingly unblemished, larger-than-life saint may fall into the trap of hero worship. Hero worship may lead to idolatry, a sin that is repeatedly condemned in Scripture. In a warning to God’s people, the Lord spoke to Moses saying, “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exodus 20:3–6, ESV). A hagiography is a literary image or likeness that may become a source of idolatry.
A true “hero of the faith” would never crave honor or glory that belongs to God. This truth was evidenced by Paul and Barnabas in an account recorded in the book of Acts: “Now at Lystra there was a man sitting who could not use his feet. He was crippled from birth and had never walked. He listened to Paul speaking. And Paul, looking intently at him and seeing that he had faith to be made well, said in a loud voice, ‘Stand upright on your feet.’ And he sprang up and began walking. And when the crowds saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in Lycaonian, ‘The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!’ Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. And the priest of Zeus, whose temple was at the entrance to the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates and wanted to offer sacrifice with the crowds. But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their garments and rushed out into the crowd, crying out, ‘Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.’ Even with these words they scarcely restrained the people from offering sacrifice to them” (Acts 14:8–18, ESV).
Again, biographies of notable Christians can be a source of inspiration and encouragement, but readers should always give glory to God. Apart from Jesus, the renowned saints could have accomplished nothing, and, apart from Him, neither can we (John 15:5).