Yonatan Moss. Incorruptible Bodies: Christology, Society, and Authority in Late Antiquity. Oakland: University of California Press, 2016.
Did persecuted sixth-century anti-Chalcedonians want to leave the ecclesial structures of the (Chalcedonian) imperial church? The standard narrative says they did, with Severus of Antioch (d. 538) at the head of the separatist movement. But Yonatan Moss argues that, although many wanted to separate, Severus opposed them. The subject of Moss’s monograph, a revision of his Yale dissertation, is Severus’s theological, political, liturgical, and cultural contestations with fellow anti-Chalcedonians inclined to give up on the imperial church.
Moss does not limit himself to simply demonstrating that there existed a heretofore unrecognized split within the anti-Chalcedonian camp over the proper posture towards the imperial church, with Severus, startlingly, on the side opposing the foundation of the ecclesial structure sometimes called “Severan” in his name. Instead, Moss seeks to show that this disagreement actually correlated with a well-known dispute within the anti-Chalcedonian ranks on the corruptibility of Christ’s body: Severus argued that Christ’s body was incorruptible only after his resurrection, while his fellow anti-Chalcedonian Julian of Halicarnassus (d. after 527) claimed Christ’s body was incorruptible from the incarnation. Both disputes revolved around the corruption of Christ’s body, whether ecclesial or physical. Armed with this correlation, Moss searches for other debates over bodies among anti-Chalcedonians, ranging from disputes over Christ’s eucharistic body to the ecclesial body, and finally to the the “body” of writings from patristic authors.
The introduction justifies studying these disputes over the corruption of bodies together. Moss admits that there are no direct statements in Severus’s extant works linking the question of the corruption of Christ’s physical body with the question of the corruption of Christ’s ecclesial body, but he points to the clear link between the two in Cyril of Alexandria (378-444) and Philoxenus of Mabbug (d. 523) (who were both, of course, drawing on the links forged by Paul). Moss also sees tantalizing resonances between disputes over Christ’s physical, ecclesial, and liturgical bodies in three passages from Severus that treat these disputes side-by-side. He draws on the work of Mary Douglas and John Gager on body symbols to help account for these links, acknowledging critiques of Gager’s use of this theory but suggesting that correlations between views of different bodies can be used “cautiously” to reconstruct views that lack extant witnesses (11).
In chapter 1, “Holy Flesh: The Christological Debate,” Moss attempts to uncover the underlying disagreement in the well-known dispute between Severus and Julian of Halicarnassus over Christ’s physical body. Julian claimed that Christ’s body was always incorruptible, but Severus believed it was only incorruptible after the resurrection. Where did the disagreement lie? Both agreed that Jesus hungered, thirsted, grew tired, and suffered on the cross. For Severus, these experiences demonstrated Jesus’ corporeal corruptibility before his resurrection. Jesus’ body was corruptible not because he was sinful (he was not), but because it was a natural body (following Aristotle). For Julian, by contrast, Jesus experienced these things because he voluntarily accepted passibility and mortality. Corruptibility would involve involuntarily undergoing these experiences as a consequence of sin (which is precisely the plight of those Christ came to save). For Julian, insisting on Christ’s incorruptibility was a way of insisting on his sinlessness. Moss locates the key difference between Severus and Julian in their understanding of the link between the soul and body: Julian espoused an ascetic optimism about the soul’s ability to pull the body back towards an Edenic state of incorruptibility, while Severus saw passibility, mortality, and corruptibility as the Edenic state that can only be overcome by the gift of God. Jesus’ body received that gift at the resurrection.
What view of Christ’s ecclesial body would correlate with Severus’s and Julian’s respective understandings of Christ’s physical body? Moss raises this question at the end of his first chapter and offers a straightforward answer: Julian believed that Christ’s physical body was incorruptible “in its very essence,” and he had a high view of the human will’s influence over the body. Therefore, a corresponding ecclesiology would place great responsibility in human hands for preserving the ecclesial body of Christ from any corrupting influences (such as Chalcedonians). Severus, however, would recognize a difference between the corruptible ecclesial body of the present (corresponding to Christ’s corruptible physical body before the resurrection) and the incorruptible ideal church (corresponding to Christ’s resurrected body). In light of this distinction, Severus would accept that, in the here and now, an ecclesial body containing corrupting Chalcedonians would remain Christ’s body and should be healed rather than escaped.
In chapter 2, “Body Politics: Rethinking the Body of Christ,” Moss finds strong evidence for exactly this ecclesiology in Severus’s writings composed during both his patriarchate and exile. Severus never suggested that the imperial church ceased to be the body of Christ when infected by Chalcedonians, he opposed those who wanted to waive canonical requirements for ordinations as emergency measures during Chalcedonian persecutions, and he rejected calls for rebaptizing or rechrismating Chalcedonians who wanted to join the anti-Chalcedonian side. Moss concludes that “Severus’s position on the social body of Christ neatly corresponds to his position on Christ’s physical body” because “he welcomed the existence of corruptibility” in both (73).
Chapter 3, “Food of In/corruption: Liturgical Aspects of the Debate,” turns to two disputes connected to the celebration of the liturgy. The first concerns the corruptibility of Christ’s eucharistic body. Julian accused Severus of teaching that the eucharistic body is corruptible. Severus responded that it is incorruptible, but only because it is Christ’s resurrected body. As with Christ’s physical body (first corruptible, then incorruptible after the resurrection), Severus seems to have distinguished between two aspects of Christ’s liturgical body: a present, corruptible aspect experienced by our senses, and a future, incorruptible aspect that will be manifested in the resurrection. Moss then speculatively reconstructs Julian’s correspondingly opposite view (which finds parallels in Gregory of Nyssa and Cyril of Alexandria): Christ’s eucharistic body, no less than his pre-resurrection physical body, is incorruptible and communicates incorruption--including physical incorruption--to the recipient. The second dispute concerns the diptychs, lists read out during the liturgy of the names of those, living and dead, who were important to a particular Christian community. Should they contain names of Chalcedonians? Severus criticized the common practice of editing the diptychs according to changing political and theological allegiances, arguing that even the pollution brought by a heretic’s name cannot defile the whole church.
In the chapter “The Body of the Fathers: Textual Tradition and Exegetical Authority,” Moss turns from the various aspects of the body of Christ to the textual corpus of the church fathers’ writings. In an era of increasing reliance on patristic citations in theological arguments, how did each writer go about resolving the inevitable discrepancies and inconsistencies within this patristic body? Julian followed the established practice of reading his predecessors’ writings as authoritative but historically situated. Inconsistencies could be explained through appeals to historical context or rhetorical aim, and he had no qualms conjecturally emending texts that he judged to have been corrupted. Severus broke with this tradition. Although he had adopted similar reading strategies early in his career and even into the early years of his exile, in his dispute with Julian over the corruptibility of Christ’s body he insisted on a “casuistic” approach that resolved problems through careful distinctions between subject matter rather than appeals to context, rhetoric, or textual corruption. The established pattern is here reversed--Julian admits corruptibility and Severus denies it--but this is unsurprising for Moss because the fathers’ writings form a “completely different” body from that of Christ’s (109).
Moss concludes by showing how Severus’s opponents’ positions have become associated with him. John of Tella was supposedly allied with Severus against Julian, yet his positions on Christ’s ecclesial and even physical body were closer to the latter than the former. Severus’s biographer, John of Beth Aphthonia, gives a fundamentally Julianist account of the miraculous, healing powers of Severus’s body before his death! Perhaps it is no wonder, then, that Severus is remembered as the leader of the movement to leave the imperial church and to found, here and now, a pure, incorruptible, non-Chalcedonian ecclesial body of Christ. The burden of Moss’s argument, of course, has been to argue that this memory of Severus is completely wrong.
One of the great strengths of Moss’s approach is that he asks the question, “Why this controversy now?” Why did Severus and Julian, who had apparently disagreed amicably over the corruptibility of Christ’s pre-resurrection body before imperial persecution set in, end up in such an acrimonious controversy on this same question while suffering in exile? Ultimately, Moss’s answer is that both Julian and Severus were trying to find a new foundation for their authority, and both men sought a perfect foundation. Julian found it in an incorruptible body of Christ accessible here and now, whether as Christ’s eucharistic body or as Christ’s incorruptible ecclesial body, free from all Chalcedonians. Both of these incorruptible bodies made Christ’s salvific incorruptibility present to the faithful in the same way that it had been available to those healed by Christ’s mere touch during his earthly ministry. Leaders like Julian could be at the head of this incorruptible ecclesial body, here and now. But Severus never abandoned the more inclusive ecclesiology he had adopted during his patriarchate. If Christ’s ecclesial body in the here and now is not free from the corruption of Chalcedonians, just as his eucharistic body remains corruptible to the senses and his pre-resurrection body was susceptible to hunger and pain--imperfections that will all be transcended in the end--where could Severus’s authority find its perfect foundation? On the incorruptible body of the church fathers, as interpreted by Severus.
Moss’s argument will of course be historically provocative, since it overturns the common portrait of Severus as an anti-Chalcedonian separatist. I want to close, though, by drawing out some of the questions raised by the form his argument takes--the analysis and comparison of arguments over the corruptibility of various bodies. My first question concerns incorruptibility itself. What exactly does this term mean? Moss occasionally uses “incorruptibility” in parallel with “incorruption” and “perfect” (42, 134), yet these English terms can mean significantly different things. “Incorruptibility” does dominate, but it often remains unclear in what sense Christ’s body is or is not capable of being corrupted (rather than simply free from corruption). It might seem unlikely, for example, that those who think Christ’s ecclesial body is incapable of corruption would worry that it might become corrupted. Yet this separatist ecclesiology is exactly the position Moss correlates with belief in the absolute incorruptibility of Christ’s physical body.
My second question concerns the correlation of positions. Moss builds much of his argument on parallels between Severus’s and his opponents’ respective positions on Christ’s physical, liturgical, and ecclesial bodies. These parallels are indeed significant, yet there are also discontinuities. Consider corruption in Christ’s physical and ecclesial bodies. For Severus, the corruption experienced by Christ’s physical body is emphatically not tied to sin. The corruption in Christ’s ecclesial body, by contrast, does seem to be tied to sin, at least insofar as it is the presence of heretical Chalcedonians. Moss consistently highlights continuities, but he does not point out ways in which the parallels break down. It is these discontinuities, however, that raise the question of how deep the correlations are and whether (or how) they can be used cautiously and responsibly to reconstruct lost positions.
My final question builds on Moss’s fascinating identification of the quest for a perfect (incorruptible) foundation for authority as the driving force behind Julian’s insistence on the incorruptibility of Christ’s body and Severus’s on the incorruptibility of the patristic corpus. Does Moss’s argument assume, however, that all authority must rest on a foundation that is perceived as perfect? Where would this assumption have arisen, and might it play an important role in future analyses of authority? Perhaps Moss’s detailed analysis of exiled anti-Chalcedonians has furnished us with a new key to the late antique understanding of authority.
Thomas D. McGlothlin (PhD, Duke University) teaches at the Christian Academy in Japan. His first book, Resurrection as Salvation: Development and Conflict in Pre-Nicene Paulinism, will be released by Cambridge University Press in 2018.