Templeton Award Winner Candida Moss 02 M.A.R., 08 Ph.D. Reexamines Martyrdom

By Timothy Sommer ’13 M.Div.

Have you heard about Candida R. Moss ’02 M.A.R., ’08 Ph.D.? If not, it is likely that you will hear much about this up-and-coming scholar in the future, one of only a dozen young academics honored with the 2011 John Templeton Award for Theological Promise.

MossMoss, who currently serves as assistant professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, spoke to a nearly full Niebuhr Hall on Sept. 13 on the topic "The Discourse of Voluntary Martyrdom: Ancient and Modern” at the invitation of Dean Harold Attridge, who had Moss as a student 14 years ago in the first class he taught at YDS.

Following YDS, Moss plunged into the world of martyrdom and wrote a dissertation that explored how early Christians expanded and developed the imitatio Christi, imitating Christ within the martyr’s context. Her dissertation eventually developed into her first book, for which she received the Templeton Award: The Other Christs: Imitating Jesus in Ancient Christian Ideologies of Martyrdom (Oxford University Press, 2010).

In her lecture, Moss defined the concept of “voluntary martyrdom,” or “provoked martyrdom,” as “the bringing about of martyrdom either by presenting oneself to authorities or by the unsolicited disclosure of one’s Christian identity.” From the nineteenth century onwards, Moss said, scholarship on early Christian martyrdom has unanimously distinguished between “martyrdom” and “voluntary martyrdom” as separate phenomena in the ancient world, and her lecture brought a critical appraisal to this distinction.

Beginning with the concept in modern scholarship and then working back to its appearance in the ancient world, Moss traced when, in what contexts, and for what purposes voluntary martyrdom emerged as a category distinct from “true” or “normative” martyrdom. Insisting that prior to the writings of Clement of Alexandria there is “no evidence to suggest that early Christians distinguished between different forms of martyrdom on the grounds of volunteerism or provocation.” Moss argued that the term “voluntary martyr” itself “obscures the fact that it has no ancient philological counterpart.”

The implications of Moss’s study are relevant to the contemporary world, where martyrdom and suicide are increasingly used as devices to further extreme politics.  Within the popular understanding of faith post-Clement, Christians have maintained that ‘true martyrdom’ necessitates involuntary martyrs who do not intentionally provoke their oppressors and offer themselves up for “voluntary martyrdom.”  Moss’s analysis suggests that much of what passed for martyrdom for early Christians would today actually qualify as suicidal behavior.

In a brief interview following her lecture, Moss said, “I think it’s important for Christians to think about ethically problematic aspects of their own heritage. Martyrdom is something Christians are generally proud of. And I think if we reflect on the complexities of our own traditions then it’s not as easy to demonize other martyrdom traditions as straightforwardly evil. We have to think about why people do this and what types of historical circumstances pose people to do this. And the place to ask these types of questions is certainly divinity school.”

The lecture was well received. Dean Attridge, who is also Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament, called it “a brilliant lecture, calling question into some of the simplest ways in which the category of voluntary martyrdom has been understood in modern literature with profound sensitivity to how early Christians thought about these things.”

Adela Yarbro Collins, Buckingham Professor of New Testament Criticism and Interpretation, who served as Moss’s dissertation advisor,spoke glowingly of her former advisee, “It was beautifully delivered with a good sense of humor, a sense of irony, and very tightly argued. And I thought she handled the Q & A brilliantly.”

Similarly, Moss’s lecture drew the attention of Dale Martin, Woolsey Professor of Religious Studies and Director of Graduate Studies in Yale’s Department of Religious Studies. “It was a very well constructed lecture with a lot of information about a lot of different periods of history,” said Martin. “That was one of the things that made it interesting: you got the ancient world but you also got the use of ancient literature in early modern scholarship.”

Moss is currently at work on a second book on martyrdom, under contract with Yale University Press, entitled Cultures of Death. She is writing a commentary on Second Century Martyr Acts for the Hermeneia Commentary Series, and working on a co-edited collection of essays on disability in the Bible.

The Templeton Award for Theological Promise honors up-and-coming academics based on their doctoral dissertations or first post-doctoral books on the topic of God and spirituality. Other recent recipients of the Templeton Award on the YDS faculty are Christopher Beeley, the Walter H. Gray Associate Professor of Anglican Studies and Patristics, and Willis Jenkins, the Margaret Farley Assistant Professor of Social Ethics.

Posted: 10/03/2011