Review: Candida Moss’ The Myth of Persecution

Last week, I offered readers a deal of blogging about books if someone is willing to buy them for me off my Amazon wishlist. Here is the first post stemming from that offer: a review of Candida Moss’ The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom.

I have to admit, I was a bit dissatisfied with the book, though I think this is probably a result of not really being the book’s target audience. This book caught my eye, and probably caught the eye of other atheists, because martyrdom–particularly the alleged martyrdom of Paul and the Twelve Disciples–plays a huge role in Christian apologetics. This seems to have been part of the reason for Moss’ interest in the subject as well. At the beginning of chapter 1, she writes:

WHEN I WAS GROWING UP IN England we had a religious studies class— rather piously called “divinity class”— in my school. It was something of a throwaway class that involved drawing illustrations of biblical concepts as much as it did learning about the Bible or anything that could strictly speaking be called “divine.” I was, then as now, a history nerd, and my enthusiasm for the subject irritated both my teacher, who preferred not to answer tough questions, and my classmates, who preferred that class end on time. One day I asked the teacher how we knew that Christianity was true, given that the Bible contradicts itself and there are all these other religions that also claim to be true. She thought for a minute and responded, “Why would Jesus’s followers have been prepared to suffer and die for him, if he had not, in fact, risen from the dead and if Christianity was not, in fact, true?”

That stumped me, I must confess. This was before the advent of suicide bombers, and we had skipped over martyrdom in other religions altogether. So instead of pointing out that lots of religions have martyrs, I found myself convinced, enamored with these early Christians, and greatly admiring the dedication and courage of the early church. How could I question a religion founded and fed by such heroes? Everyone breathed a sigh of relief and filed out of class (p. 23).

In spite of introducing the topic this way, Moss has very little to say about the supposed martyrdoms of Jesus’ earliest followers. There’s a good justification for this, namely that we have very little evidence to go on here. For example, Moss explains that while their is an early second century reference to the supposed killing of Peter for “jealousy” (whatever that means) in the Epistle of Clement, Clement offers little in the way of historical detail and our earliest account of Peter’s death doesn’t come until the late second century apocryphal Acts of Peter.

Moss offers a few other comments about why we can’t trust the stories of the apostles’ deaths, but doesn’t go into any great detail and her only real conclusion is that we don’t know how any of them died or whether they were martyred. Which may be true, but I felt a little cheated. I expected there to be more in the way detail here: Just how implausible are the stories in the apocryphal acts? Even if we can’t know for sure, how likely is it that Paul was actually martyred? Etc.

Moss has more to say about persecution in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. We know that Christians weren’t persecuted empire-wide until the middle of the 3rd century. Until then, persecution was “sporadic and local,” and Christians greatly exaggerated the extent of the persecution. In fact, it seems that the myth of a constantly persecuted early church didn’t fully develop until after Constantine converted the empire to Christianity. The myth was also driven in part by competing Christian factions who would use stories of martyrs to bolster their authority, by claiming the martyrs had supported their side.

This part of the discussion has a fair amount of memorable details. As an example of how implausible some of the stories are, Moss retells the story of a persecuted Christian couple in which, among other things, the young woman of the couple is sent to a brothel to be raped, but an escaped lion appears on the scene to defend her virtue! Then there’s this story, as an example of how uninterested some roman officials were in persecuting Christians:

In a famous episode in Asia Minor around 185, a mob of Christians marched to the home of C. Arrius Antoninus, the governor of Asia, and demanded to be executed. The governor, no doubt irritated by the interruption, sent the Christians away, telling them that if they wanted to die, they had cliffs to leap off and ropes with which to hang themselves (p. 144).

Speaking of jumping off cliffs, one of the things I learned from the book that most surprised me is that according to Moss, Christian opposition to suicide wasn’t really solidified until the time of Augustine. Before that, there were cases of “martyrs” whose behavior would strike us today as clearly suicidal–including the case of Saint Agathonike, who threw herself onto a stake where two Christian leaders were being burned, died, and is still regarded as a saint to this day.

In spite of having these memorable details included in the book, there was still far to little of it. Only a couple chapters were really devoted to sorting out fact from fiction in the myth of the martyrs. Other chapters were devoted to explaining the social and historical context for martyrdom stories and, what annoyed me most, talking about the the role of “persecution” of Christians in the rhetoric of conservatives of the US. When reading those last parts, I thought, “gimme a break! I already know the claim that Christians are being persecuted in the US today is ridiculous, I don’t need a historian to tell me that!”

But this is where I think I’m not Moss’ target audience. Moss is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. One of her major goals in writing this book seems to have been to let her Catholic student down gently on the absurdity of some of the political rhetoric they consume. So it isn’t necessarily a book I’d recommend to atheists looking for a rebuttal to modern-day Christian apologists, but I do hope the book has as much success as possible with its intended goal.

Note: The link to my Amazon wishlist is here. I’ve added cheap Kindle version of Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals to the list, because people keep telling me I need to read Nietzsche but I never do. You’re welcome to suggest other books for the list in the comments of this post.

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