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.)