Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.03.30
Candida R. Moss, The Other Christs: Imitating Jesus in Ancient Christian Ideologies of Martyrdom. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Pp. xviii, 315. ISBN 9780199739875. $74.00.
Reviewed by David G. Hunter, University of Kentucky (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Early Christian experience of persecution and martyrdom at the hands of Roman officials—however sporadic and piecemeal it may have been—generated a considerable body of ancient literature. From the letters of Ignatius of Antioch to the writings of the Greek and Latin apologists of the second and third centuries to the treatises of exhortation addressed to the hesitant rank-and-file by authors such as Tertullian and Origen, Christian writers used the occasion of execution as an opportunity to reflect on the significance of Christian identity in a world that was often hostile to their existence.
In this elegant and engaging study, a revision of her 2008 Yale Ph.D. dissertation, Candida R. Moss, assistant professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, explores a body of literature that is somewhat less well known than the aforementioned texts: the extensive corpus of acta or passiones of martyrs composed between the second and the fourth centuries C.E. While some of these documents have been thoroughly studied (e.g., The Martyrdom of Polycarp or The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity), many others have languished in obscurity. A signal contribution of Moss’s work is its inclusion of no fewer than thirty-five individual acta within its purview; the date, provenance, and textual history of each are discussed briefly in a valuable appendix (pp. 177-201).1
The lens through which Moss examines the texts is the notion of the “martyr” as “imitator” of Christ. The theme is a familiar one to anyone who has encountered the martyrological literature, but Moss’s claim is that “the mimetic relationship between the martyr and Christ remains unexplored in its cadences, nuances, and significance. The relationship is everywhere assumed but nowhere dissected” (p. 3). The result of her exploration is a highly original and compelling account of the manifold (and occasionally contradictory) ways in which ancient Christians construed the martyrs as reproducing the pattern set by their master.
Chapter One (“Suffering Like Christ”) offers a survey of New Testament and other early Christian texts (First Clement and the letters of Ignatius of Antioch) that developed the theme of Christian imitation of the suffering of Christ and served as sources for the later martyr acts. Moss observes that New Testament scholarship has often sought to downplay or deny the existence of such a theme in the earliest Christian literature. The reasons for this, she argues persuasively, are complex: “Imitatio anxiety is grounded in one of three underlying motivations: the almost proprietorial hold that Roman Catholicism has over the term, the Christological convictions threatened by the concept, and the inescapable but repugnant conclusion that dying for Christ may be a central, rather than peripheral, part of the Christian experience” (p. 21). While Moss has only a passing interest in unmasking the anti-Catholic bias in this dimension of New Testament scholarship, the concern with Christology and soteriology persists throughout the book. The presence of the theme of imitatio Christi in the martyr acts, as she demonstrates in subsequent chapters, tended to blur the distinction between Christ and those “other Christs” who died as martyrs. In contrast to later Nicene and Chalcedonian orthodoxy, Moss suggests, the second- and third-century acta employed more fluid Christological categories and displayed a willingness to equate the status of Christ and the martyrs in ways that later Christians would seek to correct.
Chapter Two (“The Martyr as Alter Christus”) introduces the reader to some of the diverse ways in which the early acta portrayed the martyrs as embodying features of the suffering Christ. Moss’s aim is to show not only that the martyrs were often figured as “Christly,” but also that these figurations were part of a tradition of interpretation of the passion of Christ. In this sense she hopes to retrieve the martyr narratives as part of the “reception history” of the gospel traditions. The narrative reworkings of the passion stories that are present in the acta, Moss argues, enable us to see how elements of the biblical story lived on in the imagination of early Christians; in comparison with the formal biblical commentaries of the Fathers, she suggests, the martyrological reading of the gospels may take us closer to common understandings of the passion narratives in so far as the appeal to imitation in the martyr acts relies on these understandings for its effectiveness. As Moss puts it, “the author [of the martyr act] cannot drift too far from his or her audience’s understanding of scripture even as he or she seeks to reimagine and control it” (p. 53).
The core of Moss’s argument, however, is found in chapters three through five, in which she takes the reader through the successive steps found in the acta themselves: the martyr’s death (Chapter Three), the martyr’s exaltation after death (Chapter Four), and the martyr’s enthronement in heaven (Chapter Five). In each case she is driven inexorably to the conclusion that the texts tend to assimilate the martyr to Christ in ways that the later doctrinal tradition of Christianity would find problematic. Along the way Moss also explodes some scholarly myths and demonstrates the usefulness of the martyr literature for the theological history of early Christianity.
For example, Chapter Three (“The Savior Martyr”) explores the question of whether the martyr’s death was understood as achieving something similar to what Christ’s death achieved. Contrary to the dominant scholarly trend, which has stressed the sacrificial element in the martyr’s imitatio Christi, Moss acknowledges the presence of this theme in one strand of the tradition (e.g., the letters of Ignatius and The Martyrdom of Polycarp), but argues that the martyr’s engagement in a cosmic battle (either as soldier or as athlete) and triumph over demons are the more dominant themes in the ancient literature. Furthermore, she notes that martyrs were sometimes proposed as moral examples who followed Christ as their “model of salvation” (p. 105). This chapter is especially helpful for its careful discernment of layers of redaction in the Greek martyr acts: e.g., references to the devil tended to be added in later Greek editions and in Latin versions (pp. 89-90). Similarly, Moss demonstrates that the Latin acta show “an explosion of cosmic battle imagery,” beginning with the passio of Perpetua and Felicity and continuing into the fourth-century Donatist acts. Moss concludes that the martyrological literature is a neglected source for the recovery of both a “Christus victor” Christology and a “moral exemplar” soteriology in the early church.
Chapter Four (“The Martyr’s Heaven”) focuses on the martyr’s function after death. Specifically, Moss addresses the question of whether martyrs tended to be portrayed as more like angels or more like Christ in their post mortem activities. She knows, of course, that the question is a somewhat artificial one, given that an angelomorphic Christology was often employed by second-century Christians. Moss notes, however, that numerous texts portray martyrs as participating in the resurrected life along with Christ (bypassing the waiting period required for the ordinary righteous ones) and that martyrs are sometimes represented as exercising the functions of judgment and intercession. While acknowledging the diversity of the evidence, Moss concludes cautiously that in many respects martyrs appear to be more like Christ than angels in much of the extant literature.
Chapter Five (“The Martyr as Divine Heir”) closes the book with an examination of the status of the martyr in the afterlife. Noting that many texts speak of martyrs as “coheirs” with Christ who share his enthronement in heaven, Moss concludes that despite considerable complexity and ambiguity: “The application of regal imagery and the terminology of inheritance suggest that the martyrs shared the rank and status of the exalted Christ” (p. 163). This conclusion is reinforced by a brief examination of some later patristic writers (Augustine, Victricius of Rouen, and John of Damascus) who took care to distinguish the status of martyrs from that of Christ. Augustine, for example, as Moss observes, was at pains to point out that “the martyr of Christ is far inferior to Christ himself” (cited on p. 167). While acknowledging the anti-Donatist context of many of Augustine’s remarks, Moss plausibly suggests that the quasi-liturgical context of the cult of the saints, which was the Sitz im Leben for the production and performance of most of the acta martyrum, may have fostered the kind of elision of identity between Christ and the martyrs that Augustine found so troubling and sought to revise: “There were groups whose practices—if not their confessional statements—treated the martyrs as though they were Christs” (p. 169).
In a technical work of this sort there are bound to be minor slips. Tertullian is twice misquoted as saying, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” (p. 14 and p. 104). This is a common mistranslation of his words, “Semen est sanguis Christianorum” (Apol. 50), which do not mention the church at all. “Ambrosius” is referred to as Origen’s “bishop”(p. 31); he was, in fact, Origen’s wealthy Alexandrian patron and not a bishop (although, according to Jerome, De viris illustribus 56, Ambrosius became a deacon after following Origen to Caesarea). On p. 169 Victricius of Rouen is cited as an “early sixth-century bishop,” but Victricius lived at the end of the fourth century and composed his famous sermon, De laude sanctorum, around the year 396.2 And in note 45 (p. 275) Cyprian of Carthage is cited as the author of a treatise, On the Glory of Martyrdom, with reference to the English text in ANF 5.583. But De laude martyrii is usually considered a pseudo-Cyprianic work and is printed as such in Hartel’s edition.3
But these errors are minor and take nothing away from the important contributions of Moss’s study. Perhaps most valuable of all is her claim that the acta martyrum represent a genuine and neglected source of theological reflection, one that may have been closer to the perspective of the ordinary Christian believer, who was perhaps more inclined to attend the refrigeria at the tombs and shrines of the martyrs than the Eucharistic liturgies of the Christian bishops (p. 174).4 All in all, this is an original and insightful study that contributes significantly to our understanding of the cult of the saints, its literary representation in the acta martyrum, and the development of early Christian Christology and soteriology. It should become a standard work in the history of early Christian martyrdom and a valuable resource for the study of early Christian theology.
1. In one instance the Appendix contains a very substantive discussion: on pp. 196-198 Moss sums up her reasons for re-dating The Martyrdom of Polycarp to the middle of the third century. She has now given a fuller discussion of the question in “On the Dating of Polycarp: Rethinking the Place of the Martyrdom of Polycarp in the History of Christianity,” Early Christianity 1 (2010): 539-574.
2. For a discussion of the date, see Gillian Clark, “Victricius of Rouen: Praising the Saints,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 7 (1999): 365-366.
3. CSEL 3.3: 26-52. Cf. E. Dekkers, Clavis Patrum Latinorum. 3rd ed. (Turnhout: Brepols, 1995), 17 (#58), where it is listed among the dubia.
4. In this respect Moss’s work coincides with the efforts of Ramsay MacMullen to uncover the lives of ordinary Christians in the Roman Empire. See The Second Church: Popular Christianity A.D. 200-400 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009).