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Book Review – Ancient Christian Martyrdom

Candida Moss, Ancient Christian Martyrdom, (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 2012)

Modern histories of martyrdom have tended to take one of two approaches:  1) they attempt to reconstruct the history of martyrdom genealogically, tracing it from its modern definition backward into antiquity in an attempt to find the origin of the idea and practice; 2)  they attempt to explain the existence of martyrdom in spite of the seeming irrationality of the act, flying in the face of the assumption that human beings naturally seek a long, healthy life, and will generally do anything to avoid death.

Both approaches have tended to find the origin of martyrdom somewhere in the second century, when, it is argued, the meaning of the Greek term μάρτυς (martys, “a witness”) shifted from its sense of a courtroom witness to the idea of a person who died for Christ.  Similarly, the corresponding term μαρτύριον (martyrion, “testimony”) shifted from the legal testimony provided by a witness to referring to martyrdom, the act of dying rather than recanting the Christian faith.

In her book Ancient Christian Martyrdom:  Diverse Practices, Theologies, and Traditions, Candida Moss (Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity, Notre Dame University) questions and problematizes both of these approaches, arguing that they both rely on the presupposition of a single, monolithic notion of martyrdom that can be tracked back to a single origin.  She argues that attempts to reconstruct the linguistic evolution of the term μαρτύς have been weighted too heavily, and give a false sense of uniformity of thought on the practice.  On the contrary, the idea of martyrdom is not synonymous with any specific linguistic term.  Furthermore, identification of the origin of martyrdom with the birth of the linguistic term privileges Christianity, and assumes martyrs could not have existed before the existence of the term for martyr—this would exclude classic examples such as the Maccabees, Daniel, and Socrates.

Moss MartyrdomInstead, Moss treats martyrdom as a discursive formation by which early Christians shaped their own identities, interpreted experience, and defined community boundaries.  Rejecting the presupposition of a single definition of martyrdom, she instead examines the ways that ideologies of martyrdom varied in different places and cultural settings in the ancient world.  She furthermore finds precursors to Christian martyrdom in ancient Greek and Jewish ideologies of honor, a noble death, and commitment to one’s values.

In the first chapter, Moss surveys the intellectual, cultural, religious, and literary traditions that might have influenced the Christian construction of martyrdom, providing a “reservoir that sustained the early Christian imagination” (19).  This chapter identifies Greek ideas concerning the importance of a noble death exemplified by Socrates, sacrificial death exemplified by Jesus, and commitment to religious law exemplified by Daniel and the Maccabees as important influences on the construction of Christian martyrdom ideology.

The following chapters examine attitudes toward martyrdom in specific literary and geographical contexts.  Chapter 2 begins with Asia Minor and the infamous letters of Ignatius and the Martyrdom of Polycarp, which many have considered to be some of the earliest evidence for a developed theology of martyrdom.  Moss complicates this evidence by noting the complex textual history and the impossibility of dating these works.  She nevertheless finds them informative in identifying a martyrological tradition in Asia Minor, because they both focus on the death of the martyr as a sacrificial death mimicking that of Christ.  Furthermore, Polycarp’s stoic strength and self-control throughout his execution casts him as a Christian Socrates.  Thus, “Polycarp is a fusion of Christ figure and Greco-Roman heroic male…” (76).

The third chapter addresses the martyrdom literature that is associated with Rome, most notably that of Justin Martyr.  Justin’s writings, the Dialogue with Trypho and his Apologies, construct an ideology of martyrdom as suffering as a way to define the boundaries of Christianity.  For Justin, Christians suffer unjustly “for the name only,” at the hands of the Romans, and this suffering (and endurance) becomes a way to distinguish Christians from other groups.  Romans and Jews are both cast as persecutors, and those who claim to be Christians but who reject martyrdom are labeled heretics.  Justin is thus able to stake out the boundaries of Christian orthodoxy by constructing martyrdom and its accompanying suffering as identifying markers of Christianity.

Chapter 4 takes up martyrdom in Gaul, a problematic region because of its traditional association with Asian Christianity through Irenaeus.  Still, Moss finds sufficient evidence in the Letter of the Churches of Vienne and Lyons, as well as Irenaeus’ writings, to argue for a distinct theology of martyrdom in Gaul.  Noting that these writings are the only second-century accounts to focus on Stephen as protomartyr, Moss sees the martyrs in the Letter as imitators of Christ.  In addition, and distinguishing them from Polycarp, Irenaus and the Letter show an interest in the cosmic battle with Satan as described in Revelation and the Gospel of John.  Thus, the bodies of the martyrs simultaneously imitate the death of Christ and house the battle with Satan.

In chapter 5, Moss examines martyrdom in North Africa, focusing on the Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs and the Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas.  Although some have portrayed North African martyrdom material as apocalyptic based on the violence, suffering, and death in Perpetua’s visions and in her physical existence, Moss cautions that such apocalyptic elements should not eclipse the rest of the account.  She sees Perpetua as another example of the virtuous death, especially due to her execution in the amphitheater as part of the gladiatorial spectacle.  The text intentionally masculinizes Perpetua in body and character by making her courageous and strong, but maintains her femininity by having her modestly rearrange her dress and adjusting her hairpin.  Perpetua hovers between masculine and feminine until she finally guides the gladiator’s sword to her own throat.

Finally, chapter 6 examines Alexandria and the way that Clement of Alexandria rhetorically carves out a “middle ground” in martyrdom theology between “zealously pro-martyrdom” groups and “anti-martyrdom” groups as a way of claiming authority for the “orthodox middle.”  Moss questions the scholarly tendency to reify the binary between the orthodox and the heterodox attitudes toward martyrdom, arguing that these are instead constructions of later church leaders.  According to Moss, “The discourse of martyrdom was a valuable tool in ancient claims to authority” (20).

This book makes significant contributions to our understanding of early Christian thought about martyrdom.  Far from the homogenous ideological history that many scholars have attempted to narrate, Moss demonstrates conclusively that there existed a wide variety of practices and beliefs surrounding martyrdom in antiquity, which varied from region to region and even from one text to another.


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