Sunday, December 9, 2012


Candida R. Moss, Ancient Christian Martyrdom: Diverse Practices, Theologies, and Traditions. Anchor Yale Bible reference library. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2012. Pp. xiv, 256. ISBN 9780300154658. $40.00.

Reviewed by Diane Fruchtman, Indiana University (

Version at BMCR home site


Ancient Christian martyrdom was not monolithic. We must re-evaluate what we think we know about martyrdom in early Christianity through attention to specific texts, their histories, and the specific ideologies of martyrdom they delineate. So argues Candida Moss in Ancient Christian Martyrdom. This corrective should not be news to scholars of early Christian martyrdom, but it is here presented within a forceful, focused argument that provides a helpful synthesis for scholars already immersed in martyrdom literature and an important introductory foundation for non-specialists. Moss's argument goes further, however: her fresh perspective, her insightful readings, and her willingness to take nothing about these texts for granted enables her to see thematic threads and ideological investments that, she argues, both differentiate martyr texts from one another and link sets of texts together in culturally specific groupings. Moss thus sheds light not only on the diversity of martyrdom ideologies across various regions of the ancient world, but also on the diversity of early Christian thought more generally.

The book begins with a concise, informative introduction not only to Moss's project but also to the considerations that every conscientious reader of martyr texts must keep in mind. How should we define martyrdom? Should the term be our guide, or should we look for the phenomenon avant la lettre? If the latter (as Moss asserts), how are we to know what to look for when even ancient authors disagreed about what constituted martyrdom? Moss settles on an inclusive definition: if a text's protagonists are memorialized as martyrs, they merit consideration by scholars as martyrs, whether or not the term is present. This definition allows Moss to focus on how and why these protagonists are figured and memorialized as martyrs, which consequently helps her identify various approaches to martyrdom within specific cultural settings. Moss remains, all the while, attentive to issues surrounding historicity and her texts' ideological commitments, tackling the literary/historical historiographical binary and its effect on scholarly treatments of martyr stories, while reminding readers that the evidence is shaped by what survives (i.e., Christian sources). Moss's overarching aim, which shines through every segment of this introduction, is to shatter the "rhetoric of uniformity" that surrounds martyrdom and to offer a glimpse into the diversity of ideology and practice.

Chapter One provides a lively and highly accessible account of the cultural influences that helped shape early Christian understandings of martyrdom. Moss argues that there was no single cultural "source" for Christian martyrdom, but rather that the world in which Christianity developed provided multiple models that made martyrdom intelligible. Greek and Roman traditions idealized the "noble death" (in its gendered manifestations) as a prime site for the display of masculine virtus and ambiguous presentations of femininity. Jewish traditions, meanwhile, valorized loyal and obedient suffering, offering several exemplars on whom Christian martyrs later drew (e.g., Daniel in the lions' den and the Maccabees). Moss also attends to the question of genre, and, as she will do throughout this book, finds complexity, multiplicity, and overlap. Instead of attempting to fit martyr-narratives into any single pre- existent genre, scholars should focus on how these texts adopted rhetorical postures and literary tropes in order to understand how they align and engage with contemporary traditions.

Chapter Two initiates the geographic and cultural adventure Moss has promised. After an introduction to the ideology of martyrdom in Asia Minor (reconstructed through New Testament sources and Pliny's correspondence with Trajan, and in which Moss discovers "a demonstrable interest in theologizing violence" [52]), she turns her attention to the letters of Ignatius and the Martyrdom of Polycarp. In both cases, Moss examines the textual history and date of composition, attempts to isolate a coherent literary construction, and then analyzes that construction to establish its ideology of martyrdom—a method repeated in the other chapters. Neither text, she argues, should be accepted unproblematically as first-person or eyewitness accounts: no certainty of integrity can be reached in the case of Ignatius's letters, and the Martyrdom of Polycarp, Moss argues, must be re-dated from the middle of the second century to the first half of the third. At the literary level, both sources evince eucharistic overtones while emphasizing ecclesiology and church unity, ultimately presenting martyrdom as the "mimetic and sacrificial death of a disciple of Christ" (76).

Moss's discussion of Roman martyrdom in Chapter Three includes references to 1 Clement and a brief discussion of the late-second century Martyrdom of Paul, but centers primarily on the figure of Justin Martyr as seen through his own writings, including the Acts of Ptolomaeus and Lucius, and through the later Acts of Justin and His Companions. Moss argues that in the Roman context, there was a prevailing notion of the philosopher-martyr, who sees Christianity as the greatest philosophy and employs the latest apologetic trends to make that case to non-believers. Her readings are convincing, but this is not surprising given her focus on Justin, whose famous self-presentation as a philosopher would have likely been reflected in his selection of exemplary martyrs and echoed by the later encomiastic texts of his students. The philosophy connection is less secure for the Martyrdom of Paul; or rather, Moss's argument for it is less clearly made. She presents the story briefly and notes points of similarity between it and the Justin texts, but leaves it to the reader to make the full connection between Paul and the apologetic philosopher-martyr. Nonetheless, the differences we see between the martyrdom narratives of Rome and those of Asia Minor are substantial and significant. Here, exemplary behavior and philosophical contests replace christomimesis and sacrificial language.

Moss next trains her focus on Gaul, arguing that thematic similarities between Irenaeus's heresiological work and the Letter of the Churches of Vienne and Lyons evidence a shared Gallic cultural context rather than a shared authorship. These texts, she argues, contain "distinctive thematic elements" (102): the martyrs are embodiments, not imitators, of Christ, who serve to promote church unity against the assaults of the Devil and lurking heresy. Moss highlights again the value of regional and thematic comparison as she argues, persuasively, that Gallic Christianity and its corresponding ideology of martyrdom had a tenor quite different from that of Asia Minor, rejecting in the process the current scholarly practice of treating Irenaeus and the community in Lyons simply as representatives of Asiatic Christianity.

North African martyr-texts have often been taken as documentary, and Moss dismantles that notion, arguing convincingly in Chapter Five for the literary production of both the Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs and the Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas. She identifies a reliance on and veneration of Paul, the radical elision of individual marked identity by the essential identity of Christian, the presence of apocalyptic or "enthusiastic" attitudes among the martyrs, and a concern for communal unity and practice. Ending her tour with a visit to Alexandria in Chapter Six, Moss looks to the writings of Clement as well as to two texts from the Tchacos Codex, the First Apocalypse of James and the Gospel of Judas. Rather than seeking out a uniquely Alexandrian concept of martyrdom, Moss makes a different kind of argument, one that demonstrates the impossibility of mapping the diversity of ancient thought on martyrdom onto any orthodox/heterodox binary. She argues that, despite their theological differences, Clement's ideology of martyrdom, which valued flight and ultimate submission to the necessity of martyrdom, is actually quite similar to that of the First Apocalypse of James, where the martyr's journey from fear to acceptance appears to be part of his deliverance. The Gospel of Judas, meanwhile, though found in the same codex as James, argues against martyrdom, or, at least, against seeing it in a sacrificial light. Moss's ultimate point here is that we should not follow Clement's example in aligning doctrinal groups with martyrological practice, but should rather continue to attend to the particularities and nuances of each text without resorting to heresiological shorthand. This is a fitting end-point; Moss's conclusion reiterates her call to scholars to abandon the discourse of singularity.

Ancient Christian Martyrdom is intriguing, fresh, and thought-provoking. Ostensibly about martyrdom, its implications reach all of ancient Christianity. Moss takes every available opportunity to assert correctives that would be of broad significance. For instance, revising Polycarp's date of composition means shifting around our ancient Christian timeline, since Polycarp is the source of so many Christian "firsts." She also cautions against using conjectures as to the importance of child sacrifice in Punic religion to color our understanding of North African martyrdom: there is no reason to suspect that the North African ideology of martyrdom was influenced by "some indigenous predisposition for human sacrifice" (124).1 Moss notes, quite rightly, that sacrificial language is "strikingly absent" (124) from these martyr-texts, and that the tendency to link martyrdom with human sacrifice is indicative of a pathologizing attitude toward martyrdom.

The book does leave a few desiderata. Most stem from a lack of expansion: one wishes Moss would have lingered a little longer on some points, for instance how the Martyrdom of Paul fits the philosopher-martyr trope, her case for the importance of Stephen in the Letter of the Churches of Vienne and Lyons, her explanation of apocalypticism in North Africa, and the communal implications of Perpetua's visions and passio. Moss's investigations of the textual histories are always illuminating but occasionally fail to be fully utilized, due to a lack of expansion and explanation that would have helped the project cohere. For instance, Moss makes clear that Ignatius's Letter to the Romans is not textually related to the other letters in the Ignatian corpus, although some of it is quoted in Eusebius with the others. And yet the letter in its entirety (not just the Eusebian material) provides most of her evidence for her characterization of Ignatius's ideology of martyrdom. Without further explanation, it seems as if her textual history is not incorporated into her evaluation of Ignatian martyrdom. Finally, Moss occasionally enters into scholarly debates without identifying who her interlocutors are, even via footnotes. While this makes for concise reading for scholars, it may be perplexing for the educated non-specialist the Anchor Yale Bible reference library seeks to reach.

The book is also strikingly absent a map. Given Moss's expressed desire to highlight the regional and particular, this is a major oversight by the publisher.

Finally, Moss's argument about the diverse ideologies of martyrdom is more successful (in this reader's opinion) for individual texts than for regional characters of martyrdom. To begin with, if the texts' dates can be called into question, can the same be done for their provenance? Additionally, her argument for regional diversity would be strengthened by the inclusion of a greater number of texts as witnesses for each region and further ideological comparison. She addresses, for instance, the Acts of Paul and Thecla in her discussion of North Africa, but how would placing it beside Polycarp and Ignatius have weakened or strengthened her case for a distinctive ideology in Asia Minor? In the case of Rome, one is also forced to ask whether the philosopher-martyr trope reflects Rome, or primarily Justin. If the latter, how is this a Roman notion when Justin himself seems to source it to his early days in Asia Minor?

These questions should not diminish the value of this book. Ancient Christian Martyrdom, especially in conjunction with Moss's 2010 book, The Other Christs, firmly establishes that martyrdom must be considered on a case-by-case basis, with each text interrogated as to the ideologies it presents. Rather than being a simply deconstructive project that leaves us with nothing but scare quotes and qualifiers, her approach demonstrates the richness of taking each text on its own. Through her innovative analyses of the martyr-texts, considered individually, she enriches our understanding of early Christian martyrological thinking.


1.   See Schwartz JH, Houghton F, Macchiarelli R, Bondioli L (2010) "Skeletal Remains from Punic Carthage Do Not Support Systematic Sacrifice of Infants." PLoS ONE 5(2): e9177.

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