Incorruptible Bodies

Christology, Society, and Authority in Late Antiquity

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Yonatan Moss
Christianity in Late Antiquity
  • Berkeley, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , May
     2016.
     264 pages.
     $95.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780520289994.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Was Christ’s physical body subject to corruption and decay during his earthly ministry? In what way is the Eucharist Christ’s body? And what steps should Christians take when heresies infect Christ’s body, the Church? These questions, debated by Severus of Antioch and Julian of Halicarnassus in the early sixth century, form the subject of Yonatan Moss’s Incorruptible Bodies: Christology, Society, and Authority in Late Antiquity. To these three bodies of Christ is added a fourth: the textual body of the Fathers of the Church, which Severus and Julian imagined, interpreted, constructed, and even rewrote in the course of their struggle. With clarity and nuance Moss demonstrates the interconnections between these bodies—theological, sacramental, social, textual—during a formative period in Christian history. As the inaugural volume in the Christianity in Late Antiquity series from University of California Press, Moss’s work sets a standard of excellence which readers will eagerly hope to see continued.

Moss offers two main contentions as laid out in his introduction. One is a simple, but also a major correction to the received historiography: Severus of Antioch was not in fact a schismatic who led his fellow anti-Chalcedonians (traditionally called Monophysites) in breaking away from the Chalcedonian imperial church (traditionally called Orthodox or Catholic), but rather an ecumenicist who argued consistently against schism. The other connects the question of Christ’s ecclesial body to the theological questions concerning his physical and liturgical bodies which were controverted at the same time: where Severus posited the corruptibility of all these bodies, his opponents on the anti-Chalcedonian side, represented by Julian, saw them as pure and incorruptible. In his analysis Moss proposes what he calls a “stereoscopic” approach, whereby the picture comes into focus through seeing these debates together.

Chapter 1, “Holy Flesh”,” discusses the attitudes of Severus and Julian to the physical body of Christ. Severus held that, just as all created bodies are naturally corruptible, so too was Christ’s prior to his resurrection. Julian, by contrast, asserted that corruption was not natural to humanity but was a result of sin and sexual generation. Thus Christ’s physical body was naturally incorruptible even before his resurrection. Finally, Moss connects Julian’s position with an ascetic context in which a purified soul was expected to yield an incorruptible body.

In chapter 2, “Body Politics,” Moss moves to consider Severus’s view of the ecclesial body of Christ, arguing that Severus valued the unity of the Church while his opponents insisted on the Church’s purity. This led Severus to advocate remaining in the imperial Church, despite theological disagreements, while his opponents urged separation. In contrast with his opponents then, Severus insisted on a strictly proper canonical procedure for ordination, even in times of persecution, and was lenient in receiving Chalcedonians who had reformed their views.

In chapter 3, “The Food of In/corruption,” Moss turns to the liturgical body. On the Eucharist Moss draws out a contrast between Severus and Julian: whereas for Julian the Eucharist physically imparted incorruption to partakers in the same way Jesus’s physical body [CE1] had healed people during his ministry, Severus connected the Eucharist with Jesus’s post-resurrection body and taught that it imparted a spiritual incorruptibility whose reality would only be received in the age to come. Severus thus thinks of both a real or present body of Christ and an ideal or future one, whereas Julian collapses this dichotomy. Moss also treats debate over the liturgical diptychs, where Severus broke with general practice by not removing the names of his Chalcedonian opponents from the diptychs of Antioch (and thus its liturgy).

In chapter 4, “The Body of the Fathers,” Moss turns from the bodies of Christ to the textual body of earlier Christian authors to whom Severus and Julian both appealed. Moss establishes a distinction between Severus’s “perfectionist” attitude toward this textual body and Julian’s “perfectible” one. In practical terms, this means that Severus preferred to interpret subtleties and nuances of meaning in problematic texts from earlier authorities, while Julian appealed to historical and rhetorical circumstance or amended the text. Severus’s “perfectionist” approach to the body of the Fathers, for which a learned and subtle specialist such as himself was necessary, was a way to maintain a position of authority as the anti-Chalcedonian church faced increasing imperial opposition. By contrast, Julian and his compatriots met these conditions with the creation of a parallel ecclesial structure through non-canonical ordinations and the like, a solution which Severus, as we have seen, vehemently rejected.

Moss concludes by reiterating his major claims and offering the reader three examples of the way in which Severus’s legacy was transformed so that, while his name remained venerated, it was with Julian’s positions on Christ’s bodies attached to it. Only in his perfectionist attitude toward the body of the Fathers did Severus’s heirs preserve him faithfully, even as he himself was incorporated into it.

Incorruptible Bodies represents the best aspects of many streams in the study of late ancient Christianity. In one respect, Moss’s volume is a chapter in the history of theology, articulating the views of Severus and Julian in a manner sympathetic to the logic of traditional Christian theology even as it is decidedly non-confessional. In another, it is a philologist’s book: Moss’s attention to the particularities of his texts and his talent for creative but convincing extrapolations from scanty evidence carry on all the best of the philological spirit while leaving behind its customary fussiness. He also leaves behind its instinctual aversion to critical theory: theoretical instincts and sensibilities are fully integrated into the work, and in this Moss exemplifies the approach now regnant in the study of late antiquity, especially in North America.

I commend the book to students of Christian theology in all areas. Although its subject is bounded to a few decades in the early sixth century, it touches the heart of Christianity in the perennial questions of the nature of Christ’s personal body, his body the Church, the Eucharist, and the interpretation of the inherited theological tradition. Historical theologians of all periods and constructive theologians alike would do well to learn from Moss’s detailed, perceptive, and accessible work.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Charles "Austin" Rivera is a Ph.D. student in Religious Studies at Yale University. His research focuses on the intersection of poetry and theology in ancient Christianity.

Date of Review: 
February 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Yonatan Moss is a scholar at the Martin Buber Society of Fellows at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem where he teaches in the Department of Comparative Religion.

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