Candida Moss and The Myth of Persecution

Candida Moss is a Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the University of Notre Dame. She’s an award winning author with two works out that focus on early Christian martydom: Ancient Christian Martyrdom and The Other Christs. From what I’ve read, I’d say that she’s eminently qualified to talk on the subject of ancient martyrdom, so I’m excited to see that she’s got a new book out for more general audiences: The Myth of Persecution.

I’ve just picked up the book (virtually speaking) and I’m really loving it. Moss’ central thesis is that the myth of early Christianity arising amidst intense persecution is not backed up by the evidence. But that myth has become a major part of popular Christianity, and it has become the cause of a great deal of strife and defensiveness. Moss is starting to dismantle the myth and show how it became overblown:

… the history of Christianity is steeped in the blood of the martyrs and set as a battle between good and evil. How would we think about ourselves if that history were not true? the language of martyrdom and persecution is often the language of war. It forces a rupture between “us” and “them” and perpetuates and legitimizes an aggressive posture toward “the other” and “our enemies,” so that we can “defend the faith.” Without this posture and the polarized view of the world upon which it relies, we might without compromising our religious or political convictions be able to reach common ground and engage in productive government, and we might focus on real examples of actual suffering and actual oppression.

As we will se, the traditional history of Christian martyrdom is mistaken. Christians were not constantly persecuted, hounded, or targeted by the Romans. Very few Christians died, and when they did, they were often executed for what we in the modern world would call political reasons. There is a difference between persecution and prosecution.

I’ll probably give the book a more thorough review later, or perhaps blog through it. For now I’ll just give it a thumbs up. If any of the Patheos Overlords are listening, it might be a good book to add to the reading list and pass around through the Christian blogs. (if it hasn’t already and no one told me.)

  • Troutbane

    Interesting. This actually does partially answer a thought Ive had for quite some time now; the Romans were fairly tolerant of other religions, so I always wondered why they would pick on one group to persecute.

    • Katherine Lorraine, Tortue du Désert avec un Coupe-Boulon

      Yea, that’s what’s always bothered me too. The Romans were pretty much like “oh you worship seven gods? That’s fine, we’ll worship them too.

      I’ve heard apologists say that it’s because they were trying to buck the status quo – no there’s only one god, not forty-two! – and that’s what got them persecuted.

    • kessy_athena

      Because early christians were every bit as obnoxious to their neighbors as modern ones are?

    • Erp

      Early Christians refused to do the equivalent of pledging allegiance to the flag (which is admittedly a peculiar custom of the the US). It probably didn’t help that their founder had been executed by Roman authority (one of the few things Pliny knew about them). However prosecution was sporadic and sometimes sought out by the Christians themselves. For the latter I do find it of potential interest that monasticism with its self-mortification did not really start until after Constantine removed the threat of imperial prosecution and mortification by the state in 313 (there seems to be some backdating with St. Anthony, first of the well attested hermits, supposedly going off into the desert in the 270s but given that he probably died in 356 at the alleged age of 105 I suspect some hyperbole).

    • Mick

      Oh dear, how easy it is to be taken in by the hype used to sell a book. Is there not anyone with some knowledge of the subject available to give a review?

  • Len

    …the myth of early Christianity arising amidst intense persecution is not backed up by the evidence.

    Wow – imagine Christianity promoting something that’s not backed up by evidence. I’m shocked [/sarc]

    By the way – typo in the heading :-) (Perseuction)

  • Barry

    Looking forward to reading the book. I’d like to see how she deals with the Tacitus history of nero’s dealings with Christians or Pliny’s letters to trajan about punishing Christians. It also seems funny that Tertullian wrote specifically in defense of Christians against various charges and against unjust mistreatment. Those few Christians that were persecuted must have been very powerful to draw such attention.

    “There is a difference between persecution and prosecution. ” Though i’m sure sure that in certain instances this is a valid point, there also has to be recognistion that persecution happens under the guise of “legal” prosecution. Jim Crow was more than lynchings and rapes and Christians in China prosecuted under the charge of “undermining state authority” are facing more than political oppression.

    • kessy_athena

      The Romans didn’t care if you wanted to worship Isis, Mithras, Jesus, Yahweh, or your neighbor’s dog. They cared about political authority and people trying to undermine it. Remember “Give unto Ceaser”? Why would a leader of new religious movement go out of his way to chide the members not to defy the government and ignore the law of the land unless lots of them were doing exactly that? What the early christians were doing was a bit more significant then refusing to say the pledge of allegiance would be today. Despite how bent out of shape some people get whenever the subject comes up, I don’t think anyone today sees the pledge as anything other then symbolic. What the christians were doing was basically declaring that the Roman government was not legitimate and they did not recognize its authority, full stop. I think the better analogy would be to the Sovereign Citizen types who’ve been known to shoot and kill police for daring to perform a traffic stop.


    I have felt for a long time that, at least up to a point, religion thrives on persecution. That’s why, in spite of having more religious freedom than anywhere else on earth, conservative Christians so often portray themselves as the victims of opression.

    • Len

      Because Christians like to think that they’re living in the end times (ie, guess who’ll be back – soon. And no, it’s not Arny) and they’ve been told that they will be persecuted for their beliefs (especially in the end times). So they see persecution as a badge of honour. If they don’t actually suffer persecution, then they’ll find some way to interpret anything else as persecution (eg, having to follow the same laws as everyone else), to show what good Christians they are.

  • Chris

    Sounds downright Nietzschean – she’s basically articulated the main theme of On the Geneaology of Morality.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Who would name their daughter after a yeast infrection?

    • Michael

      Candida is Latin for “white.” It’s not a terribly rare name.

    • Noelle

      It’s better than Chlamydia.

  • Joe Rooney

    Ah, when Romans kill Christians there are mitigating circumstances beyond persecution, why isn’t this same logic applied to the Old Testament Story about Phineas? Free Thinkers are free to think anything they like, but why not at least be intellectually honest enough to admit when you are anti-Christian? Cheers, Joe Rooney

    • PsiCop

      Re: “Free Thinkers are free to think anything they like, but why not at least be intellectually honest enough to admit when you are anti-Christian?”

      So wishing to correct the historical record so it more closely aligns with verifiable fact, is “anti-Christian”? Really? Are you sure you want to go with that?

    • Greg G.

      If you read more closely, the point is that the Romans didn’t kill as many Christians as Christians would have us believe. When they did kill Christians, it was not because they were Christians, it was for capital offenses, just like they did to people of any other group.

      The Romans executed people after giving them a trial. Phineas murdered two people without a trial.

      As ruthless as the Romans were, they throttled back the Jews in Jerusalem from all their executions. The Sanhedrin had to have permission from the Prefect before they could exercise their death penalties. That ruled out the stoning of children, stoning for work on the Sabbath, and most of the other OT laws. The early Christians would have been wiped out by the Jews if not for the rule of the Romans.

  • PsiCop

    In his seminal The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon pointed out that Christianity’s legends about Roman persecution were … to be generous … somewhat embellished. He also took some heat for having written this. He also took more heat for his assertion that Christianity itself and its popularity in late imperial times helped usher in its demise.

    In any event, it’s nice to see this particular aspect of Christianity’s legend-making getting the serious examination it deserves. At its core, Christianity encourages its followers to wish to be persecuted for Jesus … to the point where they weave fictional tales of being persecuted when it’s not happening. This inevitably leads to delusional thinking, which harms both Christians (since it robs them of clarity) and non-Christians (since it poisons their relations with Christians).