Candida Moss, a Professor in the Theology Department of Notre Dame, no surprise there, has a political tract disguised as a work of history entitled The Myth of Persecution in which she contends that the early Christians greatly exaggerated their persecution at the hands of the Romans. The book really isn’t about history, which Ms. Moss mangles, but is rather aimed at current political battles which can clearly be seen in the promo video at the beginning of this post.
The blog Seeing the Sword has a first rate response to this waste of wood pulp:
What’s most problematic is that she is engaging in special pleading to make her case appear solid. However, she’s finagling her definition of “persecution” in order to suit a preconceived verdict. Miller continues by saying,
This is not to deny that some Christians were executed in horrible ways under conditions we’d consider grotesquely unjust. But it’s important, Moss explains, to distinguish between “persecution” and “prosecution.” The Romans had no desire to support a prison population, so capital punishment was common for many seemingly minor offenses; you could be sentenced to be beaten to death for writing a slanderous song. Moss distinguishes between those cases in which Christians were prosecuted simply for being Christians and those in which they were condemned for engaging in what the Romans considered subversive or treasonous activity. Given the ‘everyday ideals and social structures’ the Romans regarded as essential to the empire, such transgressions might include publicly denying the divine status of the emperor, rejecting military service or refusing to accept the authority of a court. In one of her most fascinating chapters, Moss tries to explain how baffling and annoying the Romans (for whom ‘pacifism didn’t exist as a concept’) found the Christians — when the Romans thought about them at all.
The word “persecute” is derived from the Latin persecut- meaning ‘followed with hostility’. Persecution, or the subjection of someone to harassment or ill treatment, does not, by definition, require the use of physical violence or imprisonment. But according to Dr. Moss’s arbitrary standard, anything less than being burned at the stake or imprisoned does not count as real persecution in her book. This would include having one’s property confiscated or being the object of mockery and derision. To deny as much would be tantamount to suggesting to blacks that racial slurs don’t really count. According to Moss’s standard, in the days of the Jim Crow laws, only lynchings, rapes, and violent beatings would qualify, but being subjected to thinly veiled threats, hateful looks, and demeaning slurs should be treated as if they are inconsequential or irrelevant.
Likewise, just because Christians didn’t spend three hundred uninterrupted years in catacombs doesn’t mean that they didn’t often feel threatened or worried that the calm would dissipate and, once again, give way to another round of merciless bloodshed. It’s true that Christians were able to flourish at times, but that isn’t proof that Christian persecution was predominantly a fanciful fabrication of the early church. Again, it would be like pointing to Booker Washington, who had an illustrious career that even included advising Presidents Roosevelt and Taft, or George Washington Carver and his celebrated scientific accomplishments that, likewise, won the affection of President Teddy Roosevelt, and then deducing that blacks must making much ado about nothing
Miller continues a bit further:
Christians wound up in Roman courts for any number of reasons, but when they got there, they were prone to announcing, as a believer named Liberian once did, ‘that he cannot be respectful to the emperor, that he can be respectful only to Christ.’ Moss compares this to ‘modern defendants who say that they will not recognize the authority of the court or of the government, but recognize only the authority of God. For modern Americans, as for ancient Romans, this sounds either sinister or vaguely insane.’
I particularly liked that last bit. It’s always been the case, says Dr. Moss, that Christians who refuse to heed the sinful demands of government are “either sinister or vaguely insane.” She would have made a good Roman. This further displays her contempt toward the immutable holy nature of God (Mal. 3:6) which is exactly what the law of God reflects. Was Paul wicked or psychologically disturbed to uphold the holiness, righteousness, and goodness of God’s commandments (Rom.7:12, Rom. 3:31)? Even more importantly, given that Christ actively obeyed the entire law of God, that idolatry is a sin He never committed (Ex. 20:4, 1 Cor. 10:14), and that Christians are to be conformed to His likeness, then how is refusing to worship Roman idols a sign of wickedness or insanity?
Lack of Evidence?
However, it’s not just her arbitrary definitions that I find vexing; her insistence of there being scant evidence also seems to smack of special pleading.
The greatest evidence is that all of the apostles save Judas and John were martyred. However, even John was banished to Patmos during the rule of Domitian as punishment for his Christian convictions. Therefore, eleven of the twelve apostles were persecuted.
Then there are the numerous accounts from the Church Fathers.
For example, there’s Clement of Rome‘s first letter to the Corinthians from the late 1st or early 2nd century, where he speaks of Peter and Paul having died honorably at the hand of Nero and encourages other Christians to look to their example:
Unto these men of holy lives was gathered a vast multitude of the elect, who through many indignities and tortures, being the victims of jealousy, set a brave example among ourselves.
And there’s Marcus Minucius Felix’s remembrance from the 2nd or 3rd century of his fellow Christian, Octavius, debating the Roman pagan Caecilius. Caecilius, speaking in terms that were likely commonplace among pagan Romans, said of this nascent Christian faith,
And now, as wickeder things advance more fruitfully, and abandoned manners creep on day by day, those abominable shrines of an impious assembly are maturing themselves throughout the whole world. Assuredly this confederacy ought to be rooted out and execrated. They know one another by secret marks and insignia, and they love one another almost before they know one another. Everywhere also there is mingled among them a certain religion of lust, and they call one another promiscuously brothers and sisters, that even a not unusual debauchery may by the intervention of that sacred name become incestuous: it is thus that their vain and senseless superstition glories in crimes.
Tertullian presciently wrote in 203/204 AD in Scorpiace, as if in anticipation of the likes of Dr. Moss, ”And if a heretic wishes his confidence to rest upon a public record, the archives of the empire will speak, as would the stones of Jerusalem. We read the lives of the Cæsars: At Rome Nero was the first who stained with blood the rising faith.”
Go here to read the rest. Everyone is entitled to their political beliefs, no matter how inane, jejune and predictable they may be, but the next time that Ms. Moss wishes to bash her favorite bogeyman, the “Religious Right”, I hope that she will leave history out of her vendetta. No doubt even the Emperor Trajan would wish that she keep hands off a historical record she willfully distorts:
You observed proper procedure, my dear Pliny, in sifting the cases of those who had been denounced to you as Christians. For it is not possible to lay down any general rule to serve as a kind of fixed standard. They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it–that is, by worshiping our gods–even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance. But anonymously posted accusations ought to have no place in any prosecution. For this is both a dangerous kind of precedent and out of keeping with the spirit of our age.