Featured Reviews, VOLUME 3

Featured: THE OTHER CHRISTS by Candida Moss [Vol. 3, #31]

“The Fundamentally Local Nature of Theology?

A Review of
The Other Christs:

Imitating Jesus in Ancient Christian Ideologies of Martyrdom
By Candida Moss

Reviewed by Chris Smith.

The Other Christs:
Imitating Jesus in Ancient Christian Ideologies of Martyrdom
Candida Moss
Hardback: Oxford UP, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

THE OTHER CHRISTS - Candida MossFor many years now, I have been intrigued by the martyrs of the Early Church era, their faith that did not waiver amidst threats of death and their significance in the life of the Church.  Thus, I was excited when I heard about Oxford University Press’s release of the new book The Other Christs: Imitating Jesus in Ancient Christian Ideologies of Martyrdom by Candida Moss, a professor of theology at Notre Dame.  This new work is a study of the “Acts of the Martyrs,” the mostly extra-canonical accounts of the deaths of the martyrs, and seeks to understand “the presentation of the martyrs in the early church, both the ways that the martyr acts interpret the person and death of Jesus and the manner in which this interpretation can inform our understanding of martyrdom in early Christianity” (vii).  Acknowledging that the act of martyrdom is generally accepted as following in the footsteps of Jesus, she notes that this sort of imitation has yet to be explored in depth, and undertakes to do so in this volume.

The structure of the book follows roughly the life of Jesus, which Moss has divided into four stages: suffering, death, ascension into heaven and presence at the throne of God.  In the middle of these four stages, each a chapter in the book, she inserts a chapter (Chapter 3: “The Savior Martyr”) that reflects upon the theological significance of the death of Christ and its implications for how we understand the deaths of the martyrs.  The first chapter on the suffering of the martyrs examines the context of the early church era in which suffering was to be expected and was understood as a having a “redemptive and transformative function,” ideas which Moss admits come across as quite foreign to us amidst the many freedoms and comforts of Western culture today.  She examines the development of the idea of following in the sufferings of Christ in the canonical New Testament writings and in other key writings of the early church era.  She concludes:

The pervasive theme of suffering like, in participation with, or imitation of Christ resonates beneath the surface of almost all the earliest Christian writings. … The preponderance of this theme in the literature of the early church created an environment in which the suffering, persecution, and death of an individual were understood Christologically, in terms of the sufferings of the savior.  Identification with the sufferings of Christ was a commonplace even in the embryonic communities of the Jesus movement and even before official or widespread persecution began.  The prevalence of this idea formed part of the intellectual climate out of which the practices, literature, and theologies of martyrdom emerged (44).

In the book’s second chapter on the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus, Moss examines how the martyrdom narratives echo the accounts in the Gospel narratives of Jesus’s own trial and death.  She focuses on particular aspects of the Gospel accounts (crucifixion, the flow of blood and water, the conversion of the centurion, etc.) that have parallels in the way that stories of Christian martyrs would later be told.  In the third chapter, Moss examines the theological significance of the martyrs’ deaths in light of the significance of the death and atonement of Jesus. She observes that the martyrdom accounts of the early church reflect “considerable disagreement about the core values that the martyrs embody,” but that regardless the martyr’s death is understood as functioning in the same way as the death of Jesus.

The fourth and fifth chapters, which focuses on “The Martyr’s Heaven” and the throne of God respectively, address an undoubtedly significant aspect of the Early Christian martyrdoms and the narratives through which their deaths were transmitted.  However, these chapters, by nature of their subjects, and by no fault of Moss’s, seem particularly speculative, and as such did not seem as theologically relevant as the first three chapters, at least to this reader.  The book concludes with a helpful appendix that catalogues most of the martyrdom literature that Moss has referenced throughout the book, briefly described each work, the context in which it was written and providing bibliographic information for further research.

The conclusions at which Moss arrives at the book’s end is that although the martyrdom accounts universally understand the martyrs as imitating Christ, there is a broad diversity of the meaning that the early Christians attributed to the act of martyrdom.  Moss says in her conclusion:  “Contrasting views about salvation, heaven, and the martyr’s death and status demonstrate the way in which ideas about martyrdom were shaped differently by their particular communities.”  This conclusion is particularly refreshing, as it reminds us of the fundamentally local nature of theology and although we understand ourselves as following in the way of Christ, whether we do so as literally as the martyrs did or not, we are coming to grips with the meaning of Christian discipleship in specific communities located in particular places and within particular historic traditions of theology and praxis.  The Other Christs is clearly intended for academic audiences, and as such may not be read widely, but the research that Moss has presented here and the conclusions at which she arrives are of rich value for all of us who seek to follow in the way of Jesus and of those faithful ones who have gone before us.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
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  4. Anti-Christian