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.

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