Review of Candida Moss, The Myth of Persecution

Review of Candida Moss, The Myth of Persecution March 20, 2013

I am delighted to have been given the opportunity to participate in a blog tour organized by TLC, focused on Candida Moss' book The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom. Moss' book begins with modern perspectives on persecution and martyrdom, including examples which have made international news, and then turns to the question of whether and to what extent the earliest stories of Christian martyrdom, which lie in the background and underpin the view that Christians have always been widely persecuted, reflect historical reality. The main motivations for Moss doing so are to accurately reflect the historical and literary evidence, but also in the process to address the way the rhetoric of martyrdom and persecution continues to have a detrimental impact on the present day.

The book is written for a general audience by a scholar who is seeking to address contemporary issues as well as popular beliefs about the past. The historian or other scholar reading the book may wish that there had been even more detailed discussion of precisely what we feel we can know, and with what degree of certainty, in the various accounts and sources. But for the intended audience, painting with broader strokes in most places, with increased detail on occasion when needed, is surely the better choice, and it is precisely what the book offers.

The book begins and ends with a focus on the contemporary relevance of the issue, and so I will address that aspect first, even though some of the examples as well as my favorite quotations come from the conclusion. Moss provides specific examples of claims to be facing persecution, setting familiar examples from an American context alongside actual violence taking place against Christians in other parts of the world at the same time. One impact of the exaggerated rhetoric in the United States is that it desensitizes people, so that genuine atrocities fail to elicit the response of outrage one might expect (p.258). In addition, the rhetoric of persecution closes the door to the possibility of working together, and of reasoning together, in ways that leaders of the Christian church exemplified even in the midst of what was supposedly the “age of the martyrs.” The alternative is a frightening one that we see instances of regularly in our time (p.256):

Heaven help us if this worldview, which pervades political commentary and activism as well as religion, wins the day. The myth of Christian martyrdom and persecution needs to be corrected, because it has left us with a dangerous legacy that poisons the well of public discourse. This affects not just Christians, but everyone. We cannot use the mere fact that we feel persecuted as evidence that our causes is just or as the grounds for rhetorical or actual war…Once we realize that feeling persecuted is not proof of anything, then we have to engage in serious intellectual and moral debate about the issues at hand.

The treatment of the historical evidence in the book starts out by swinging the pendulum far in a counterbalancing direction. At times it may seem as though it is being swung too far the other way. But often when addressing a general audience, it is necessary to emphasize just how little is certain, and how much could possibly be fictional, before seeking to construct a historically plausible portrait of events with carefully chosen evidence. With some taking much later legends about martyrs as “gospel truth,” this challenge is necessarily pointed and emphatic. Even so, Moss is careful to emphasize that there may be a kernel of truth behind some of the later legends. Nevertheless, what we often do not know is what the precise charges were, what those on trial said, and thus whether we are dealing with persecution or prosecution. Moss emphasizes this distinction in numerous places. If Christians were brought to trial and even executed for breaking laws which were not aimed exclusively or even primarily at them, is this “persecution”? (See e.g. pp.150-151).

Moss does a fantastic job of illustrating points about ancient evidence and rhetoric by using modern examples and illustrations – from doubts about a widely-circulated version of the dialogue that allegedly preceded the murder of Cassie Bernall, to baseball as a “religion,” to the function of appealing to the Founding Fathers.

One of the most interesting details highlighted in the book (which is rich in interesting details) is the fact that most of the martyr stories we have, in the forms in which they are famous, stem from the Constantinian era, after the “age of the martyrs” had ended. And so then, rather like now, we see not only the exaggeration of the extent of persecution in some instances, but the use of stories of martyrdom by those not facing it, to leverage them for political advantage and religious power. Some of the prime examples of apocalyptic literature from the early Christian centuries may reflect not the heat of intense persecution, but the identification of more mundane sorts of disagreement as on an equal footing with the violence and execution a relatively small number of people had previously faced (see esp. pp.244-245).

One point at which I felt that there was somewhat of a tension in the work is when Moss points out that, during the time when Acts depicts Saul/Paul involved in persecution, technically Paul could not be said to have persecuted Christians, for the simple reason that the term was not yet used for this movement (pp.133-134). Yet the main point of chapter 1 was precisely that there could have been martyrs even before that term began to be used to denote Christians who bore witness before authorities even at the cost of their lives. While Moss' point that what Paul was involved in was inner-Jewish conflict is a legitimate and accurate one, the way the argument is formulated makes it seem as though the case is being excluded on a technicality, rather than because it was not persecution aimed at individuals who can legitimately be called Christians even if anachronistically. Since Moss is not denying that there were occasionally people who faced persecution, making this somewhat weaker point seemed to me unnecessary. Nevertheless, this point does not significantly detract or distract from the book's case.

One lasting message of the book is that, for the most part, most Christians in the first several centuries of the Common Era did not face the threat of violence or execution because of their faith. An important piece of evidence for this is found in the few instances of martyrdom themselves. Often, when persecution occurred, it was aimed at high ranking Christians and leaders of the church. But they very existence of Christians of high rank and status illustrates the possibility for Christians to live and thrive before and then again after these relatively isolated instances of persecution. Another lasting message of the book is that, for reasons not only of historical accuracy, but also because of the use and abuse of the rhetoric of martyrdom even by those who face no threat of violence and who may even have access to political and social power, there is a need to challenge the ideas that make up the “myth of persecution” that the title talks about. Persecution is not only a myth in the sense that it involes stories which are not entirely true, if at all. It is also a myth in the sense that stories of persecution shape a worldview that thinks in terms of binary opposites, with the assumption always being made that one's own side is right. The specific examples Moss provides in the book, including the Circumcellians who terrorized other Christians and the Christians who actively sought to become martyrs, make clear that the category of martyrs and would-be martyrs included not only people that Christians today would find admirable, but also ones that we would consider to have acted in repugnant ways.

I truly hope that this book will help change the way debates have tended to be framed in our time. The assumption that opposition confirms our rightness is a legacy of Christianity's stories of martyrs and persecution. It is a legacy that has been coopted for the purpose of manipulating others for as far back we can trace. I hope it is a legacy that many Christians and others will work together to make a thing of the past.

I am extremely grateful to Candida Moss for having written this book, and to TLC Book Tours for having provided me with a gratis copy and given me the privilege of participating in this multi-blog discussion of this important volume. I highly recommend it!


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  • John Bassett

    It sounds like she is making the argument that because the vast majority of Christians did not suffer death or imprisonment they should not be regarded as persecuted. On the face of it, this seems sensible enough. But when I think of a modern analogy, I am not sure.

    In the 1950’s and before, most gay people were not sent to prison or stripped of their employment. Yet they knew that at any point one misstep COULD lead to social, economic, or legal disaster. They had to lead double lives for the most part, and the psychological toll was immense. It seems like the early Christians probably were in the same position. The most effective form of persecution can be the threat of persecution.

    • Nick Gotts

      It seems like the early Christians probably were in the same position.

      The existence of high-status Christians who were open about their religion appears to falsify the claim that they were in anything like the same position. In the Roman Empire, any high-status person could fall victim to personally, politically or financially motivated accusations: life near the top was radically insecure. It’s notable that by far the best-attested episode of specifically anti-Christian persecution, under Diocletian, came just decades before Constantine made Christianity the state religion: at this point, Christians must collectively have had sufficient influence that they could be perceived as a dangerous “state within the state”. The third century was a time of internal upheaval and external threat, and there were rival new religions around: Mithraism, and the cult of Sol Invictus, the latter of which Constantine also patronised at one time.

    • VorJack

      It sounds like she is making the argument that because the vast majority of Christians did not suffer death or imprisonment they should not be regarded as persecuted.

      Not exactly. Part of her argument is that for most of the early Christian period, Christians were prosecuted for failing to sacrifice to the emperor, or for resisting the authorities, or for unlawfully congregating, but not for simply being Christian.

      To tweak your analogy, it would be like the US gov. passing a law requiring everyone to enter into a heterosexual marriage. Gays would suffer under the law, but so would people who don’t want to marry or who enter into toxic marriages. The law was not targeting homosexuals so it’s not persecution, but they would definitely suffer under the prosecution.

      Of course, the rest of her argument is that we just don’t know how many Christians were persecuted or prosecuted because the evidence we have is late and literary.

      • Just Sayin’

        For early Christians, simply being Christian *meant* not sacrificing to the emperor!

  • Just Sayin’

    Sounds like the contemporary issues being addressed in this book are the ‘culture wars’ stemming from the political enculturisation of Christianity largely unique to your country.

    People, at least those in educated circles, in Christian traditions that emphasise or venerate martyrs are well aware, in my experience, that the ancient and medieval accounts are heavily mythologised.

    • Nick Gotts

      While (unmerited) cries of persecution from Christians are primarily a US phenomenon, they are certainly echoed in the UK, in similar circumstances, where the real complaint is usually that homophobic Christians are not being allowed to exercise their bigotry in active discrimination against LGBT people, or are seeing laws passed that they don’t approve of, most notably the marriage equality laws now going through both UK and Scottish Parliaments. False claims of legal or political partiality towards Muslims and Islam are also echoed in the UK, although my impression is that here they come perhaps as much from non-believers as from Christians.

    • Dan Ortiz

      My thoughts exactly. But I will wait to read the book before I comment.

  • Jeff

    “Often, when persecution occurred, it was aimed at high ranking Christians and leaders of the church. But they very existence of Christians of high rank and status illustrates the possibility for Christians to live and thrive before and then again after these relatively isolated instances of persecution.”
    So, in other words, it doesn’t count as persecution if they only kill off the pastors? I’m sure you can find copious examples of present-day congregations in China, Africa, and the Middle East, that have experienced this more “benign” form of persecution. I wonder if they would agree that their whining and complaining about being “persecuted” is exaggerated and inappropriate.

    • No, I think you misunderstood the point. The point was to indicate that people clearly had the possibility of not merely living in peace but thriving in the periods when such persecutions were not occurring. It is challenging the myth of constant persecution in which all Christians lived in fear, not saying that it never occurred, nor that when leaders were persecuted that does not count.

      I do think that American Christians today often whine inappropriately about persecution. But neither I nor Candida Moss is saying that there is no such thing as persecution. If you got that impression, I apologize for any part I may have played in the miscommunication.

  • trish

    With each review of this book I read, I glean something new and interesting for me to chew on! This really struck me, “the use of stories of martyrdom by those not facing it…” I’ll be thinking about that a lot today, about how stories of martyrdom could move forward someone’s agenda.

    Thanks for being on this tour!

    • domy

      In the U.S. today there is people comparing themself with those who suffered from slavery and segregation…
      This really strikes me.

  • domy

    It seems that according Candida Moss methodology in today China there is any persecution of Christians but only a prosecution. In China there is no law targeting specifically Christians; in China Christians arrested and sentenced are a minority compared to the millions of faithful and for the most part they are the leaders and not ordinary believers; allegations are of a political nature as betrayal of state and conspiracy if not of ordinary crime…

  • Jim M.

    She writes in her book, “Just because Christians were prosecuted or executed, even unjustly, does not mean that they were persecuted.” In other words, if we redefine persecution, we can say that Christians weren’t persecuted. It’s a great way for an elitist, rich, caucasian American to minimize the real suffering of people past and present.

    • On the contrary, I understood her to be doing the very opposite. If one regards a Kent Hovind as persecuted for his faith rather than prosecuted for tax evasion, it is an insult to those Christians who actually do face prison specifically for their faith.

      Candida Moss may or may not get the nuance of persecution in the early church exactly right – determining that will involve a longer scholarly discussion and interaction over the coming years, as others interact with her research. But she is trying to bring nuance to an area in which many people simply assume a particular state of affairs, based largely on legendary and sensationalist accounts written in a time when what persecution there was had stopped. And the (mis)use of the rhetoric of persecution by rich, caucasian, free American Christians is precisely why she is concerned to offer a corrective.

  • Lalala

    Well, to me saying Christians were not persecuted is just as bad as denying the Holocaust, or claiming Black Slavery wasn’t so bad. That woman is feeding right into the hands of the militant atheists who want to pretty much put an end to all religion in general and Christianity in particular. I’ve even written and told her so. Sure maybe I should read her book, but why when I already know it is a book that will do great harm rather than truly illuminate?

    • Jim Harrison

      What’s indisputable is that whether or not you want to call what the Romans did to the Christians persecution, it was trivial compared to what the Christians would subsequently do to heretics such as the Cathars or sexual deviates such as homosexuals or, for that matter, to one another during the Reformation. I’ve suspected for a long time that Christianity learned to persecute from the empire and then perfected and expanded the practice in the Middle Ages and after, but maybe that’s unfair to the Romans. I’ll have to read the book.