A Moss on a Roll Gathers no Stones—- ‘The Myth of Persecution’

Harper One is especially good at publishing books that can be called ‘provocations’ or ‘pot-stirrers’, or ‘debunkers’. Candida Moss’ recent volume with the deliberately provocative title ‘The Myth of Persecution’ is such a book. At heart, the root of her concern is exaggeration, hyperbole in the accounts of martyrdoms, and perhaps the possible ‘persecution’ complex of various of the earliest Christian writers. In response to this she has trotted out what has become a somewhat standard lament, to wit— ‘yes there were some persecutions, yes there were some martyrs, but the whole thing has been greatly exaggerated (in some cases to promote a sort of ‘cult of the martyrs’), the persecutions were not systematic, were with rare exception not Imperially instigated, were in fact sporadic and regional, and so on, and so on…’

While I am certainly prepared to admit that there is some hyperbole, and even some careless reporting in some early Christian accounts about martyrdom, this certainly cannot be said of all of them, and it especially cannot be said of eyewitness reports, to take one example, the reports of Eusebius of what happened in Palestine, including in his own town, Caesarea Maritima, during his lifetime.

I would have thought that if Moss was going to try and hoist Eusebius on his own petard, that she would have bothered to adequately do her homework on Eusebius, for instance that she would have read the very thorough, very detailed article J.B. Lightfoot wrote on this church father, which is definitely critical in its analysis of Eusebius, in both senses of the word critical. A 40 page hommage to Eusebius it is not.

It first appeared in the Dictionary of Christian Biography (Vol. 2, London: Murray, 1880 ed. William Smith, pp. 308-48) and was much remarked on thereafter by careful historians of the period. Indeed, it became a benchmark for fair and balanced treatments of Eusebius’ work thereafter. The following is a quotation from this article:
“Eusebius was now in middle life when the last and fiercest persecution broke out. For nearly a half century–a longer period than at any other time since its foundation—the Church had enjoyed uninterrupted peace, so far as regards attacks from without. Suddenly, and unexpectedly all was changed. The city of Caesarea became a chief centre of persecution, Eusebius tells us how he saw with his own eyes the houses of prayer razed to the ground, the holy Scriptures committed to the flames in the midst of the marketplaces, the pastors of the churches hiding themselves as they were hunted here and there, and shamefully jeered at when they were caught by their persecutors (H.E. 8.2). For seven years the attacks continued. They were fitful and intermittent. But the suspense and the uncertainty must have increased the horror. No governor stayed his hands; no year was without its sufferers. Almost at any moment, a devout and zealous Christian might be required to do that which his faith forbade him to do even at the cost of his life. Of some of the terrible scenes which ensured, Eusebius was himself an eyewitness; of all he had the full and exact knowledge which is derived from immediate local and personal contact with the incidents. His written account shows how deeply he was impressed with the constancy and the triumphs of the sufferers; of Procopius of Scythopolis, the proto-martyr of this glorious band, who had scarcely passed the gates of Caesarea when he was ordered to sacrifice to the gods, and was beheaded for his refusal (Marty. Poly. ed. Cureton p. 3 sq.)….” and on and on it goes (see pp. 310-12).

In fact it goes on to make clear that Eusebius personally witnessed martyrdoms in Syria, Egypt, and Palestine, not to mention what he knew about the Decian persecutions before the time of Diocletian. This did not happen without precedent, or because Diocletian was a particularly cranky and vicious Emperor. Indeed, it is easy enough to document historical martyrdoms in a wide variety of places in the Empire during the 1rst-4th centuries, starting of course with Jesus, and his brother James, and James Zebedee, and Paul, and Peter……and Antipas (in Revelation)… and… and…and…

Moss’ work is symptomatic of the larger attempt to reinvent and rewrite early Christian history, in short to do revisionist history, at both the scholarly and popular level (remember the Da Vinci Code?). It can be seen in the recent documentary on the life of Nero on the BBC which entirely failed to mention either: 1) Nero’s well-documented scapegoating, persecution, and execution of Christians after the fire in Rome in A.D. 64, and 2) or the persecution of Jews—the show being also entirely silent about the Jewish War which began in Judaea before Nero died.

There are several factors that seem to be consistently underplayed or minimized by Moss’ book: 1) the fact that once Christianity emerged from Judaism it no longer had the protection of being consider a licit or legitimate religion. Indeed, it was dubbed an eastern superstition and as such could be subject to all sorts of abuse in one province after another. For the record, the facts suggest this happened in several provinces in what today we call Turkey, as well as in Africa, and in Palestine, Syria, Egypt etc. It was not merely local, and yes it involved Roman officials all too frequently; 2) the rise and spread of the Emperor cult beginning in the first century A.D. made matters all the worse, when Emperors began insisting on at least token worship as a pledge of allegiance (see Pliny’s famous letter to Trajan).

Anyone who wants to get a fairer estimation of the degree of persecutions in early Christian history should read Lightfoot’s Apostolic Fathers, as well as the aforementioned article. The fact that persecution was not systematic in the Empire nor continual in no way nullifies the facts that it was all too frequent, all too widespread, and all too government or governor sanctioned.

In the case of Candida Moss’s recent book, it’s certainly very engaging and interesting and well written. But at the end of the day, she is guilty of the very sin she accuses the early church fathers of—- exaggeration, in some cases, probably gross exaggeration when it comes to downplaying the persecution and martyring of early Christians.

There was more than enough persecution of Christians in the first four centuries of Christian history for them to be well and truly concerned about the matter, even if sometimes they were prone to coloring outside the lines of the strict facts about what happened.

Thus, there can be no justification for entitling a whole book about this subject ‘The Myth of Persecution’. It would be in fact easier to write a response book using the same data and entitle it ‘The Myth of Non-Persecution’. As it is, Moss’ book reads like special pleading, like a deliberately tendentious under-reading of the data.

The problem with having a bee in one’s bonnet about something, is that the owner of the bonnet is the one most likely to be stung by one’s own bee! I fear this will be the case with Moss’ latest offering.

  • Jack Benson

    I’m sorry, Dr Witherington, but I think it is you who has not done YOUR homework. Lightfoot was published over one hundred years ago and is hardly considered authoritative by patristic scholars today, especially not for persecution as very scholars believe in pre-Decian persecution! There have been numerous studies since then supporting Dr. Moss’s claims. She is very much in the majority. Dr. Moss has written two books and published numerous articles on martyrdom. Have you read her detailed study on the Martyrdom of Polycarp? Or her award winning book on the theology of martyrdom? As to your actual argument. A piece was just recently published on the “Martyrs of Palestine” showing its dependence on the Martyrs of Lyon. But even if that piece is wrong Dr. Moss would not disagree with you about the Martyrs of Palestine as she believes that there WAS persecution during the reign of Diocletian. So what exactly is your point here? You cite evidence with which she would not disagree and you haven’t read her careful work on martyrdom elsewhere. You recommend the Apostolic Fathers, but it covers the early second century. How could anyone who wanted to learn about the persecution by Decius of Diocletian learn about persecution from that multi-volume work? Perhaps before you cast stones at a brilliant scholar (is that an ad hominem attack on her youth in your title I spy?) you should do some research.

  • BenW3

    Hi Jack: No ad hominems from me, just a little wry humor. I’m not questioning whether Candida knows the literature. What I am questioning is whether she correctly interprets it. The evidence for the Decian persecution is clear enough, but then so is the evidence of persecution in all four of the first four Christian centuries on any fair reading of the evidence. As I say in the post ‘ The fact that persecution was not systematic in the Empire nor
    continual in no way nullifies the facts that it was all too frequent,
    all too widespread, and all too government or governor sanctioned.’ I don’t know who you had do the head count to produce a ‘majority’ that agrees with Moss, but apparently you haven’t done your homework: 1) classics scholars do not agree in the majority; 2) ancient history scholars in the majority do not agree; 3) patristics scholars in the majority do not agree, and finally 4) so far as I can tell, the majority of NT scholars do not agree. Lightfoot knew more of the literature of the first four centuries of Christians, including the Greco-Roman literature than any scholar then or since then. He could cite much of it from memory. I am currently working on a project to publish several of the lost works of Lightfoot which I found in manuscript in Durham cathedral library. When a good deal of this is published, there will have to be another reassessment of the sort of minimalist arguments offered by Professor Moss. Ben W.

  • Patrick

    It’s more likely the persecutions were worse rather than better than we currently think. How many surviving witnesses published their thoughts and we still have them? How many of the dead do we hear their voices?

    If it were not for the US Army, how much of the holocaust proof would already be gone? That close in history, if we had not documented what we saw, the claims of survivors would not be accepted even today except by Jews.

    Seems to me the fact that worship of the Caesar was the glue that inspired the Roman empire, it was THE patriotic duty, to refuse to do so would have made the believers deadly foes of the average Roman.

    Were the Roman pagans benevolent towards people they viewed as traitors who they believed would help destroy their lives?

    Refusal to worship the Caesar demanded you be persecuted and Ethelbert Stauffer wrote of the very document(some are in a German museum I believe) the empire had where you both worshipped and sacrificed to the Caesar and had a witness to verify the act, so it’s clear to me anyway that the NEED for that demonstrated the deadly purposes of the Caesars towards God’s people.

    As late as 400 AD Augustine felt impelled still to defend our faith from the charges of the pagans that our refusal to worship their Caesars had brought on the destruction of the empire.

    Just these 2 facts demonstrate deadly pagan thinking relating to Christians.

    Those of us who are older remember persecution against JWs because they refused to salute the flag, imagine a pagan in 150 AD who believed a Christian was the enemy who was destroying your nation?

    Largely they could not own property, they could not hold a job and this was the good times. Even the trade guilds established “worship Caesar” provisions early on so we believers had to either compromise our faith or not work.

  • Jason Dykstra

    Perhaps Candida Moss could benefit from a trip to Cairo and watch both Christians and her myth die in front of her own eyes. What an insensitive and revolting attempt to gain popularity through controversy while Christians continue to be slaughtered yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
    Jason @ http://www.jasondykstrawrites.com

  • ounbbl

    Candida may be suffering from candidiasis in the brain ;-<. She stands one of the long train of people who are alongside the 'Quest for Historical Jesus', and 'Reinventing Jesus who never lived' live', etc. in the similar vein of 'Denying holocaust', 'Rewriting histories for one's agenda and ideology', etc. Life is precious, each hour is gift from God. Do I have a minute to go through the book? Nay. May she come with a treatise 'those who invented the Scripture'. That would settle it all.

  • David

    Ben, I actually heard a guest preacher (who teaches at Toronto School of Theology, btw) spout this same revisionist drivel a few weeks ago at our church. I couldn’t believe my ears when he said there were no state-sponsored persecutions of Christians in the first 200 years of the church’s existence. Not sure when he would date the “beginning” of the church, but, if memory serves me correctly, from the end of the first century and going through the third there is evidence of persecutions by Nero, Domitian, Trajan, Antonius Pius (if one dates Mart. Polycarp to 155/6), Marcus Aurelius, Decius, Valerian, and Diocletian, not to mention the numerous regional persecutions. Not sure what the motive is behind such revisionism, but to deny that a group of people who suffered ever did seems a rather insidious way to deny their present suffering as a people–akin to denial of the holocaust. Thank you for this review.

  • Marcin

    Dr. Witherington, other scholars also have given negative opinions about the above mentioned book. One of them is a professor of ancient history Paul L. Maier who thinks that Dr. Moss did not do a good job.

  • Jack Benson

    Well Moss shows in her book that most scholars (the Bollandists, Ste. Croix, Dutch , German, British and American scholars say no state wide persecution until Decius). If people have been saying this since the seventeenth century surely this is standard?

  • Jack Benson

    And some scholars were extremely complimentary about her work. the book was endorsed by Harvey Cox, Diarmaid MacCulloch and Archbishop Desmond Tutu

  • Jack Benson

    Dr. Moss has repeatedly stated in her book and in interviews that misinterpretations about persecution in the past and in modern America take the focus off of persecution around the world.

  • BenW3

    Well ‘Jack’ or should I say Maddy Usher, the comment about world-wide persecutions of other sorts is totally irrelevant to deciding the historical issue about what was the case with early Christians. I certainly agree it deserves to be highlighted and opposed as well, but it is irrelevant. As I have said in the post, the fact that there was not an Empire wide continuously on-going persecution of Christians, except later under Decian and Diocletian is also NOT TO THE POINT. The point is that under Tiberius (in the case of Jesus), and under Nero, and Domitian, and Hadrian, and Trajan etc there was regular persecution of Christians and it is easy to demonstrate this on the basis of the historical evidence, even when critically evaluated. If Professor is tired of hearing about Christians being persecuted during the early church, and wants us to discuss the broader and very real issue of others being persecuted, then she should stop writing about early Christian persecution and get on with the other! BW3

  • David

    Jack, the reference I was making was not to constant, universal persecution. Nobody is arguing for that, so this completely misses the point. My point is that to deny that persecution of the early Church was frequent and often times at the behest of either emperors or governors is just lunacy and is akin to denial of things like the holocaust or the moon landing. And I’m sorry, but your earlier comments re: Lightfoot are just flat incorrect. The man was a brilliant scholar of the New Testament and Early Christianity, and his work on second-century Christianity set a standard for scholarship in that area that few, if any, have matched.

  • BenW3

    None of whom are either patristics scholar or Biblical scholars at all. BW3