The Myth of Persecution

I’m a bit slow in my review of Candida Moss’ The Myth of Persecution. It has received positive reviews from James McGrath, Thomas Verenna and Jim West. In my defense, I’m buying a house and finding that it’s killed all my reading (and writing) time.

Since I’m arriving late, I’ll keep things short. Moss makes clear that this is a book with a political point. In the introduction and the last chapter, Moss dwells on the modern problems caused by Christianity’s sense of being persecuted. She’s hoping to strike at the myth that Christianity was brutally persecuted from the time of Christ until Constantine.

Moss is trying to problematize that myth. I’m sorry for the buzzword, but it’s the best way to describe what’s going on. She’s attacking the narrative from all angles and finding all the ways that the history of Christianity is more complicated than the narrative. It’s not a matter of “This is wrong” as “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.”

She begins by showing how the myth of the “good death” goes as far back in western culture as you can go. The heroes in The Iliad face death stoically, die for their country and receive immortality in song and legend. This starts a literary trope that continues through Socrates and the other philosophers, through the Jewish martyrs and into Jesus and the Christian martyrs.

Having established the literary components of this myth, she then goes on to show how our oldest sources for the persecution are not as reliable as we’d like. Martyr stories are literary creations that come much later than the events they appear to describe. Close reading of historical sources show that persecuting figures were generally aiming at broad problems and Christians simply got caught in the blast.

She rounds it out by showing how later Christian writers used the image of the martyr to advance their own agenda. The most important is the church historian Eusebius, who popularized the narrative of the persecuted church. Moss is able to show how Eusebius was using the authority of the martyr figure to enhance the stature of his stream of orthodox tradition over the “heretics” who disagreed with him.

Moss gives us a very convincing argument that the story of the persecuted church is greatly exaggerated. While there are some accurate elements to the stories and there were figures who were likely persecuted, most of the accounts are unreliable and most of the history shows Christians suffering for being a religion minority rather than simply being Christian.

However, there are some bits that feel like semantic arguments. Moss points out that both Paul and Tacitus speak of persecuted Christians before the name and identity of Christianity had existed. That’s a good point, but presumably both Paul and Nero did persecute someone. But if some “proto-Christian” group was persecuted, shouldn’t that count?

Another of Moss’ central argument is that persecution is not prosecution. When Rome demanded that all subjects sacrifice to the genus of the emperor, Christians were not specifically targeted but did suffer when they refused. Technically that works, but emotionally it lacks a bit.

The Myth of Persecution is one of the most neatly written academic works I’ve read. It is short and reads quickly, yet it rarely feels like Moss is skimping. Despite its brevity it is still loaded with interesting data and provocative ideas. I’m going to recommend it highly to everyone interested in Christian history or Christian thought.

  • Michael

    I think the distinction between broad prosecution and persecution is actually very important here. While policies demanding the practice of certain religious rites may be barbaric, it is not persecution, and certainly not specifically Christian persecution. “Persecution” implies that the group is specifically targeted, which is patently not the case. Christians were just more vocal about flouting the law then other affected peoples.

    If the claim was that non-Pagans were persecuted, that would hold a little more weight (though I still think it’s the wrong word), but the claim is that there was specifically Christian persecution, and that myth is easily disposed of.

    • Schaden Freud

      I think it’s important too. Some of the Romans’ laws were barbaric by our standards, but those were the laws at the time and they weren’t enforced on the basis of which god people worshipped. Being prosecuted for breaking the law is very different to being singled out and persecuted because of your religion, which is what Christians often claim the Romans were doing.

  • Bob Jase

    Honestly most of the historically provable evidence for persecution of Christians has been one version of Christianity beating on another version. Oddly modern Christians of all types don’t regard the Arians, Ebionites, Manicheans, Waldensians, etc as martyrs even though they died for their beliefs which they considered Christian.

    I doubt there was any persecution from the authorities of even proto-Christians, there is no contemporary evidence except the untrustworthy testimony of Paul who had his own agenda and certainly persecuted enough Christians who disagreed with his version.

  • Schaden Freud

    Thanks for the review Vorjack, you’ve got me interested. Good luck with the house!

  • MNb

    “Technically that works, but emotionally it lacks a bit.”
    I disagree for a simple reason: christians who identify with the martyrs want to reserve empathy for themselves. They don’t seem to give a d**n about other groups which were/are persecuted. And that blatantly conflicts with the story of the merciful Samaritan. The only christians I can admire are those who actually take sides with the threatened Other, whoever that Other is. Those American christians who stigmatize atheists and want to push them out of the public domain obviously don’t belong to that group; so I find their whining about persecution utterly hypocrite.

  • Mick

    Over the years I’ve got the occasional hint from writers ancient and modern, that some of the early Christians deliberately sought persecution. They would go into pagan temples and disrupt the services until the authorities arrested them.

    And then there were the Circumcellions. They would confront people with the proposition, “If you don’t kill me, I’ll kill you.”

    More recently we’ve had the ratbags at Jonestown and Waco.

  • Mark Temporis

    Funny typo: “the genus of the Emperor.”
    It gives me the mental image of ancient Romans bowing before a Aptenodytes forsteri.

  • C G