Reviews of

The Other Christs: Imitating Jesus in Ancient Christian Ideologies of Marytyrdom

In Candida R. MOSS, Fiona Kao, Imitatio Christi, Martyrdom, Oxford University Press, Patristics on May 29, 2012 at 8:24 am


2012.05.11 | Candida R. Moss. The Other Christs: Imitating Jesus in Ancient Christian Ideologies of Martyrdom. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. 334 pages. (HB) £50. ISBN: 9780199739875

Reviewed by Fiona Kao, University of Cambridge

RBECS would like to thank OUP for kindly providing us with a review copy.

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Imitatio Christi has been overlooked by scholars since it is so ubiquitous in early Christian and medieval works. This book investigates what this imitatio entails and how the martyrs are similar to and different from Christ. Candida Moss identifies the scholarly gap in the studies of the New Testament which either focuses on the Church Fathers, who were much later than the New Testament era, or on texts that explicitly quote the New Testament. She argues that implicit references to the New Testament should also be examined.

Candida Moss challenges the notion that Christ’s sacrifice is unique and that the martyr’s death is sacrifice. She also examines how imitation of Christ actually worked in early Christian martyr acts, how the imitation of Christ elevated the status of the martyrs, how this elevation sometimes disrupted the hierarchy in heaven, and how Church Fathers dealt with the disruption’s implications. These are all issues usually taken for granted and which have not yet been addressed in scholarship.

In Chapter One, Moss looks at the scriptural sources and other early Christian writings from the first and second centuries to analyse whether early Christians identified with the imitation of Christ and what this imitation entails. She has argued persuasively, quoting from the Gospels, the Pauline Epistles, Hebrews, Revelation, First Clement, and the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, that suffering like Christ and imitating Christ are pervasive themes in early Christian literature. She notes that though the New Testament and early Christian works are replete with references to imitatio Christi, New Testament scholars seem hostile to the concept of reading martyrdom as imitatio Christi. She lists three reasons for this discomfort. First, scholars differentiated between discipleship and imitation. Second, that Christ is un-imitable because he is unique. Moss states that scholars with the first two types of attitude are applying fourth-century canonicity anachronistically. Her third reason–that scholars are uncomfortable with the notion that if imitation of Christ is obligatory, then martyrdom, as part of imitation, is central to Christianity–is not as compelling. As persecution subsided in the third and the fourth centuries, the Church Fathers did not encourage hasty martyrdom. Imitation of Christ and the martyrs also took on the new form of asceticism when martyrdom was no longer readily available.

In Chapter Two, Moss claims that martyrs’ acts are actually better commentaries and closer to the biblical interpretation of Christ’s death of the early Christian period than the works of patristic writers. She has established that martyrdom as part of the imitation of Christ was prevalent in early Christian writings. She then identifies the fact that various authors had different ways of interpreting how martyrdom functions as imitation of Christ: martyrdom was seen as a fulfillment of the Law, Jesus’ commandment to love, or scriptural prophecy of the advent of persecution. Moss then analyses how imitatio Christi functions in actual martyrs’ acts. She first gives an in-depth textual analysis of the martyrological accounts of Stephen and Polycarp. In the former, she argues that Stephen’s forgiving his persecutors actually influenced the portrayal of Christ forgiving his persecutors. In the latter, she states that Polycarp is a conflation of Christ, Isaac, and the Eucharist images. Finally, she looks at tropes found in the passion narrative of Christ including the temple incident, crucifixion, stream of blood and water, committal of the spirit, the conversion of the centurion, and postmortem appearances and how these tropes are re-used in martyr’s acts. She concludes that imitatio Christi was indeed a prevalent theme in martyrs’ acts.

In Chapter Three, Moss looks at the three ways of reading martyrdom: as a sacrifice, as victory over Satan in the cosmic battle, or as a moral exemplar. These ways of reading martyrdom are not fixed. In terms of martyrdom as sacrifice, Moss looks at the sacrifice imageries in biblical, imperial Roman, and liturgical constructions of sacrifice. In Isaiah, the servant is persecuted and killed; in 4 Maccabees, the deaths of the seven brothers can purify the land; in 1 Cor., 2 Cor, the Gospel of John, and Hebrews, Jesus is the new Paschal lamb who expiates the sins of the whole world; communal meals, hymnody, the Eucharist, and other forms of liturgy are saturated with sacrificial rhetoric; sacrifice in imperial Rome had a social and political meaning, and the Christians’ sacrifice was seen to be more than a religious stand. Once Moss has established how sacrifice was perceived in different contexts, she then looks at sacrifice in martyrs’ acts. Martyrs as an expiatory sacrifice is very rare in martyr acts. Indeed it is almost exclusively found in Polycarp and Ignatius and the Jewish 2 and 4 Maccabees. Sacrifice in martyrs’ acts acquired various meanings: as a burnt offering to heaven, as a reenactment of liturgical practice, as condemnation of the cruelty of the martyr’s opponents, and as a response to Roman ideologies of sacrifice. She concludes that we should not read all martyr’s death as a sacrifice and subordinate our reading to the Church Fathers’ views.

In terms of martyrdom as victory in the cosmic battle, the earlier, Greek versions did not see Satan as the main force behind persecutions nor did the authors present their martyrs as entering a cosmic battle between God and Satan. However, in the later translations into Latin or later recensions, the authors inserted references to Satan as the main perpetrator. Instead of the common opinion that the Christus Victor idea stemmed from Gregory of Nyssa, Moss argues that the Latin acts also made use of this imagery and that Gregory of Nyssa and the Latin acts shared common homiletical sources.

In terms of martyrdom as model, martyr acts tend to place the martyrs in either the history of Israel or the history of martyrs. Each generation of martyrs build on previous models, which can be traced back to the model of Christ. Moss states that the presentation of martyrs as models of imitation serve two purposes–first, to prepare Christians for their potential martyrdom; second, to emphasise the virtues that the authors wish to convey on all including those who are not martyred.

The chapter looks at the three ways in which martyrdom was interpreted to have Christ-like functions — as a sacrifice, as victory in the cosmic battle, and as a model. The chapter, up until the conclusion, explores various ways in which to read Christ’s death and the martyrs’ death. However, the conclusion that no matter what functions a martyr’s death has, it functions in the same way as the death of Jesus is quite abrupt and deserves more unpacking.

In Chapter Four, Moss looks into the similarities among martyrs, angels, and Christ. In modern theology, since Christ and God have a different status from that of angels, martyrs are assumed to have the status of angels. Moss states that the hierarchy in heaven in the early Christian period was actually very fluid. Martyrs were compared with Christ in Christian martyr acts: martyrs are assumed to escape from the long wait before resurrection and that his/her death is the time of departure to God, which is similar to Christ; the martyrs will be welcomed by Christ and the other saints when they arrive in heaven; they will attend the heavenly banquet; they become intercessors for humankind just as Christ is also a mediator between God and humans, unlike the angels who are merely messengers and rarely intercessors; they become co-judges with Christ, unlike the angels who are never co-judges. There are also many instances of Christ being described in angelic rhetoric in several second-century writings such as the Shepherd of Hermas, the writings of Justin Martyr, the Gospel of Thomas, the visions of Elchasai, and the Ascension of Isaiah. Moss warns us against assuming that martyrs were either like angels or Christ. Instead, martyrs had different roles in different cases. She concludes that Christ’s exaltation above angels is grounded in his death, suffering, and sonship, which can be applied to the martyrs as well. As in Chapter Three, Moss provides an excellent analysis of primary sources but arrives at a hasty conclusion. She states that martyrs are more often compared with Christ than with angels and that the similarities between the functions of Christ and those of martyrs suggest that the early Christians believed the martyrs and Christ had a similar status and importance.

It is not until Chapter Five that the doubts about the conclusions of Chapters Three and Four are finally addressed fully. Moss asserts that the imitation of Christ in martyrs should not be problematic on first sight. However, it was indeed a problem in the writings of the Church Fathers, who saw the potential that martyrs would be read as having the same status as Christ. The language used to describe martyrs used the imageries of enthronement, inheritance, and sonship. Sometimes martyrs are compared with angels and other times with Christ. The proclamations of Nicea and Chalcedon made sure that Christ was unique and thus distinct from human beings so it was impossible for a martyr to share the status of Christ. “For those in the fourth century and beyond, schooled in and sensitive to Christological debate and Trinitarian theology, language of the martyr’s exaltation is significant but does not suggest shared status. For those unaware of or uninterested in ontological categories, or invested in adoptionist Christology, the exaltation of the martyr may have been understood as indicative of shared status.” (164) Moss is actually not arguing that the early Christians believed that the martyrs had the same functions and status as those of Christ but merely highlighting the fact that this might have been the case, thus in effect pulling back from the direction that the conclusions of Chapters Three and Four were heading towards.

Overall, the book is well-argued, and the analyses of primary sources are detailed and organised. It also sheds new light on the imitatio Christi motif so commonly taken for granted in scholarship.

Fiona Kao
University of Cambridge
jhjs2 [ at ] cam.ac.uk

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