THE MYTH OF PERSECUTION: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom. By Candida Moss. San Francisco: Harper One, 2013. 308 pages.
Charges fly on a regular basis that President Obama is leading a war on religion, especially Christianity. Religious groups complain that ObamaCare is a threat to religious liberty. There is also that annual “War on Christmas,” which involves rules requiring employees to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” The idea that the religious sympathies of the majority culture are being threatened seems, to many including me, to be a rather ridiculous idea, but it’s a popular sentiment among many. Much of this persecution complex reflects the fear and disappointment among those who mourn the loss of a Christian hegemony in the West. They find it difficult to adapt to the new pluralist realities and so lash out at perceived slights. Many who make these complaints believe that from the beginning Christians have been a persecuted minority, and they take solace and encouragement from the stories of earlier martyrs. After all, they see themselves imitating Christ, who died on a cross and warned his followers that they too would suffer as a result of their faith.
Candida Moss, a professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Notre Dame, seeks to disabuse us of the idea that Christians have been from the very beginning uniquely oppressed by their opponents. An expert in martyrdom – she has devoted her academic study to this question, she argues rather vociferously that Christians invented the idea of martyrdom to substantiate their own claims to be the purveyors of truth. She seeks to respond to those who believe that only Christians can be martyrs and suggest that the deaths in support of causes that aren’t Christian don’t qualify as true martyrdom.
In response to these claims, Moss sets out to show how that Christian martyr stories often fall short of the truth and in many cases are merely recasting of earlier Jewish and even pagan stories of noble deaths. In support of her quest she seeks to point out the any parallels to Christian martyr stories and those of persons like Socrates or the Maccabean martyrs. In the interest of disproving the claim that persecution of Christians wasn’t constant, but only intermittent, she offers a very narrow definition of persecution. For her it must be empire-wide and Christian specific. Thus, she discounts the Decian persecution, suggesting that since Decius didn’t target Christians specifically, that the deaths of those who refused to offer signs of allegiance that they perceived to be in conflict with their faith didn’t qualify as martyrdom. If one accepts her definition of persecution, the only true examples came later in the third century under Valerian, and then under Diocletian, during the early fourth century. The Romans might have been hostile to Christianity, but Christians had proven themselves to be secretive and obstinate – something that the Romans didn’t like. Still, prior to Decius, she finds no active persecution. Instead of persecution, Christians faced prosecution, and that was sporadic and local. She doesn’t dispute the fact that Christians may have died, but she is hesitant to accord them martyr status, since it’s not clear they were prosecuted for their religion, but rather on political terms. The Romans, she suggests, were relatively tolerant of religions, but they expected people to assimilate into the broader society, and Christians tended not to go along and get along, and thus they posed a threat to the empire’s security.
Moss disputes the reliability of most of the early martyrdom stories. She suggests with an almost fundamentalist zeal that since many of the early stories are edited and embellished we can’t be sure they reflect the actual words of the martyrs. Therefore, since we can’t be sure of their veracity, they have little value. In reading through her exposition of the martyr stories, you get the sense that this is in part an intra-Catholic debate, since the cult of the saints is not part of the Protestant experience. Even more important is the all or nothing interpretation. Either we have the exact records of their words, or we must throw out the entire story. But, if we take her standard and apply to the gospels, then we’re left with little of value. For those who follow the Jesus Seminar, this may seem viable, but for those of us who seek to hear a word from God even if we don’t have the whole story, this becomes problematic.
At the same time, it is helpful to be reminded that there are considerable problems with the efforts of Constantinian era writers such as Eusebius, who created many stories to bolster his vision of orthodoxy and to ground the authority of the church of his day in those stories. That many, if not most, of the martyr stories appeared after Constantine embraced Christianity, and were used for the aggrandizement of the majority position, and the seeming morbid enjoyment of watching the martyrs get revenge on their opponents needs to be acknowledged and addressed. In addition, it is good to be reminded that Christian martyrs placed as much hope in the promise of eternal rewards as any other tradition – including modern fundamentalist Muslims. Expositions like this demonstrate that there is great value in Moss’s work. She has done us a tremendous service in revealing the inconsistency with which some Christians read and use these stories for their own benefit. She is correct, it’s not helpful to use them to divide and conquer – that is, dividing humanity into two camps -- the good and the evil.
I want to like this book. I think that much of what Moss tries to do can be helpful. If we think that Christians have been uniquely targeted for their faith, then we must recognize that many have died for causes other than the Christian faith. I agree too that we must be careful about assigning demonic motives to those who disagree, especially if this leads to suppressing other groups. It is tragic that in the post-Constantinian era those who were considered heretics or failed to embrace the new faith were treated in the same manner as experienced by Christians during the reign of Diocletian.
While agreeing with her outing of the “us versus them” mentality that these stories can engender, the problem is that she treats everything in monolithic terms. It seems that Christians believe these things and are engaging in dangerous behavior. This may be true of some Christians, but is this true of all? Besides this, as I noted earlier, her concern about the veracity of the stories that supported the development of the cult of the saints, is something that might be of concern to Roman Catholics, and maybe Orthodox Christians, but likely few Protestants would be caught up in this. In fact, most Protestants find the reverencing of relics to be distracting from the biblical story. And while she does acknowledge that some martyr stories can inspire Christians to positive actions, such as standing against slavery, resisting tyranny, serving others, she sees this as a more the exception than the rule.
In the end, I found this to be a rather frustrating book. Moss writes with too broad a brush, and in the end, I’m not sure how successful her venture will be. Since her goal is to encourage us to abandon the persecution narrative so that we can pursue a common good, she might have been better served by writing in a more nuanced fashion. In her near polemical rejection of martyrdom, she cuts off from our consideration those modern martyrs, people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Romero, and Martin Luther King. In each case death came not just for “religious” reasons, but because they stood for justice as Christians. Can we not honor them, even as we reject the persecution narrative that is used by some to marginalize those whom one disagrees with? Indeed, is there nothing in their own life, or the example of Jesus for that matter that we shouldn't emulate? Even if we should not pursue suffering, is there no value in suffering for that which one believes is right? For a faith that holds the cross to be of sacred value, to say otherwise seems to deem the message of Christianity to be of no value. So, while I find much here that is of value, I also feel as if it is marred by its tone. I say this in all due respect to those who have praised the book, including some who are friends and are historians I greatly admire.