Bad History: Was the Persecution of Christians a Myth?

Thursday, March 14, AD 2013

Donald McClarey has a well deserved barn-burner of a post up at The American Catholic about a new book entitled The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom out from University of Notre Dame theology professor Candida Moss. I’d seen a couple articles on this book before it came out and more or less passed over them as yet another fluffy work of pop scholarship intent on telling us that “everything we know is wrong” in relation to Christianity. However, the book appears to be getting a certain amount of press and is climbing the Amazon sales ranks, so it’s worth giving it a bit of attention as the politically motivated pop-history that it is.

Dr. Moss talks about her motivations for writing the book in an interview at HuffPo:

I initially became interested in this subject because of a homily I heard that compared the situation facing modern Christians in America to the martyrs of the early church. I was surprised by the comparison because modern Americans aren’t living in fear for their lives and the analogy seemed a little hyperbolic and sensational. After this, I began to notice the language of persecution and victimization being bandied about everywhere from politics, to sermons, to the media, but rarely in regard to situations that involve imprisonment and violence.

She goes on to argue that modern Christians have a view that persecution of the early Church was pervasive when it was in fact not:

[A] lot of weight rests on the idea that Christians were persecuted in the early church because, without the idea of near-continuous persecution, it would be difficult to recast, say, disagreements about the role of prayer in schools as persecution. … But intriguingly, the historical evidence for systematic persecution of Christians by Jews and Romans is actually very slim. There were only a few years before the rise of the emperor Constantine that Christians were sought out by the authorities just for being Christians. The stories about early Christian martyrs have been edited, expanded, and sometimes even invented, giving the impression that Christians were under constant attack. This mistaken impression is important because it fosters a sense of Christian victimhood and that victim mentality continues to rear its head in modern politics and society. It’s difficult to imagine that people could make the same claims about persecution today were it not for the idea that Christians have always been persecuted.

Moss also has a recent piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education summarizing her argument and promoting the book:

For the first three hundred years of its existence, tradition maintains, Christianity was a persecuted and suffering religion. Members were hunted down and executed, their property and books burned by crusading emperors intent on routing out the new religion. Women and children were thrown to the lions and boiled alive in caldrons, as maddened crowds bayed for blood. Jesus, Stephen, and the Apostles were only the beginning.

The history of early Christianity, as we have received it, is a history of victimization and pain. It underwrites the idea that Christians are at odds with their world, engaged in a continuing struggle between good and evil.

But that narrative has very little basis in the documentary record.

There is almost no evidence from the period before Constantine, traditionally called the Age of Martyrs, to support the idea that Christians were continuously persecuted. That idea was cultivated by church historians like Eusebius and Sozomen and by the anonymous hagiographers who edited, reworked, and replicated stories about martyrs. The vast majority of those stories, however, were written during periods of peace, long after the events they purported to describe. Even those that are roughly contemporaneous with the events have been significantly embellished.

Now, it’s pretty common practice in this kind of “de-mythologizing” for the author to discount all early Christian sources as being ideologically motivated, and then announce that by golly we don’t seem to have any early Christian sources left, but when it comes to persecution of Christians there are some obvious pagan references from the early 2nd century, and I was curious to see how Moss dealt with these in order to get a flavor for her work.

Let’s start with Tacitus, who wrote that Nero blamed the Christians for the Great Fire of Rome (in order to shift blame from himself.)  Tacitus says:

Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.

Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed. [Annals, 15]

Moss deals with this as follows:

In Roman biographies of the emperors, Nero is well known for his temper and cruelty, but this does not mean that this story is completely believable. We need to exercise some caution when it comes to dealing with Tacitus. Tacitus’s Annals dates from 115-20, at least fifty years after the events he describes. His use of the term “Christian” is somewhat anachronistic. It’s highly unlikely that, at the time the Great Fire occurred, anyone recognized Jesus followers as a distinct and separate group. Jesus followers themselves do not appear to have begun using the name “Christan” until, at the earliest, the very end of the first century. If followers of Jesus weren’t even identified as Christians, it’s highly improbable that Christians were well known and disliked enough that Nero could single them out as scapegoats. It seems more likely that Tacitus’s discussion of the events in Rome around the time of the fire reflects his own situation around 115. Tacitus is evidence for growing popular animosity toward Christians in the second century, but he does not provide evidence for their persecution in the first.

In popular imagination as well as some scholarly literature the Great Fire of Rome and Nero’s subsequent persecution of ‘Christians’ begins the so-called Age of Martyrs. Our earliest martyrdom stories date to this period, between the Great Fire and the persecution of the emperor Decius. Yet with the exception of Nero’s tempestuous accusations against Christians, there’s no evidence to suggest that Roman emperors themselves were that interested in the Christians during this period. For almost all of the first century, it’s unclear that Roman emperors even knew that Christians existed. (Myth of Persecution, page 138-139)

First, we can see some obvious sleight of hand. She throws doubt on whether the term “Christian” would have been used in 64AD, then argues from that that if the word wasn’t in circulation, then obviously Nero couldn’t have persecuted Christians. This seems like a pretty slim pretext to throwing out one of our key Roman sources for the period. But is Tacitus even the only one? No. Suetonius also talks about persecution of Christians in his lives of Claudius (Nero’s predecessor) and Nero. Here’s from Claudius (ch25):

Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.

There is considerable scholarly dispute as to what this passage means, but one fairly common interpretation is that from the Roman point of view followers of “Chrestus” were troublemakers among the Jews, and that these troubles resulted in the expulsion of all Jews from the city of Rome by Claudius which is mentioned in Acts 18:2.

Later, in his life of Nero (ch16), Suetonius says:

During his reign many abuses were severely punished and put down, and no fewer new laws were made: a limit was set to expenditures; the public banquets were confined to a distribution of food; the sale of any kind of cooked viands in the taverns was forbidden, with the exception of pulse and vegetables, whereas before every sort of dainty was exposed for sale. Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition.

So here we have two of Rome’s premier biographers of the early emperors (both pagans writing in 110-120 AD) saying that Nero persecuted the Christians. That’s pretty seriously good evidence as such things go, but Moss waves them away. (Suetonius she barely mentions.)

Next up Moss addresses one of the best pieces of evidence we have for what motivated persecution of the Christians in the early 2nd century and how it was carried on, the letters exchanged between Pliny the Younger and the Emperor Trajan around 112 AD in which Pliny explains how he’s dealing with Christians in modern-day Turkey. Here’s the letter:

It is my practice, my lord, to refer to you all matters concerning which I am in doubt. For who can better give guidance to my hesitation or inform my ignorance? I have never participated in trials of Christians. I therefore do not know what offenses it is the practice to punish or investigate, and to what extent. And I have been not a little hesitant as to whether there should be any distinction on account of age or no difference between the very young and the more mature; whether pardon is to be granted for repentance, or, if a man has once been a Christian, it does him no good to have ceased to be one; whether the name itself, even without offenses, or only the offenses associated with the name are to be punished.

Meanwhile, in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished. There were others possessed of the same folly; but because they were Roman citizens, I signed an order for them to be transferred to Rome.

Soon accusations spread, as usually happens, because of the proceedings going on, and several incidents occurred. An anonymous document was published containing the names of many persons. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ–none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do–these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.

They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food–but ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.

I therefore postponed the investigation and hastened to consult you. For the matter seemed to me to warrant consulting you, especially because of the number involved. For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms. But it seems possible to check and cure it. It is certainly quite clear that the temples, which had been almost deserted, have begun to be frequented, that the established religious rites, long neglected, are being resumed, and that from everywhere sacrificial animals are coming, for which until now very few purchasers could be found. Hence it is easy to imagine what a multitude of people can be reformed if an opportunity for repentance is afforded.

[Trajan’s response to Pliny]

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.

Moss relates the substance of the exchange, then argues:

The fact that Pliny has to make inquiries about this indicates that, before this point, there were no measures in place for the treatment of Christians. It’s clear, then, that the Christians weren’t the ancient Roman equivalent of enemies of the state. No modern governor would need to write to the Department of Homeland Security to ask what should be done about an admitted al-Qaeda operative in his or her state. Pliny would not have had to write to Trajan if Christians were high on the list of Roman concerns. His letter demonstrates a lack of familiarity with Christians and how to treat them. Pliny was uncertain about whether to sentence all Christians equally regardless of age and maturity and whether Christians should be executed as a matter of course or whether recanting their beliefs could earn them a pardon. (page 140)

But, of course, this shifts the goal posts. The question at hand is not whether Christians were considered to be Enemy Of The State #1 in the Roman mind, but rather whether they were being persecuted. In this case, obviously they were, since Pliny figured that a good minimum was interrogating everyone accused of being a Christian and executing those who would not recant. His only concern is whether he should execute them even if they did recant. Apparently, however, Moss’s claim is that persecution isn’t really persecution if it could have been worse.

She goes on to bolster this with several accounts of instances from the 2nd and 3rd centuries when Christians weren’t persecuted, including one in which a group of Christians approached the house of governor C. Arrius Antoninus and demanded martyrdom, but were turned down by the governor. All this does is reinforce the well known fact that persecution of the early Church was not constant or consistent. Sometimes and in some places Christians were persecuted fiercely, at other times and places they were mostly left alone. This was, obviously, a relief for those not being persecuted. However, at the same time, that doesn’t mean that Christians were wrong to feel under threat.  If the wider society reserves the right to begin killing members of a minority at any time they feel like, this is going to make that minority feel persecuted all the time. Indeed, the very capriciousness of a persecution can end up being part of the suffering it causes in the victims. From the Roman point of view it may be that many governors simply didn’t care about Christians or were in favor of leaving them alone, but from the Christian point of view, the threat continued to lurk in the background even when it wasn’t applied. (To draw on Moss’s modern example: If the US government maintained that it had the right to put people to death at any time for believing in Islam, it wouldn’t necessarily make Muslims feel more secure to know that this right to legally persecute them was only exercised when governors felt like it.)

Moss goes on to talk about the persecutions under the later emperors, which she acknowledges (grudgingly) but continues all the way through to emphasize that they could have been bigger. The following is her conclusion (pages 160-161):

There’s no doubt that Christians thought they were persecuted; they ruminate on it, theologize about it, bewail, lament, protest and complain. Nor should we underestimate the reality of their experiences. There is no doubt that Christians did die, and they were horrifically tortured and executed in ways that would appall people today, however uninterested they are in human rights. We can imagine that for a small community the death of even a single member would have had a devastating effect on the group and left a lasting imprint on the ways in which they thought about themselves. We do not need to conclude that the authors of Revelation and 1 Peter were hysterical when they complain about being persecuted, but their experiences do not line up with either the mythology of Christian persecution or modern definitions of persecution in which persecution is centralized and state-led.

She then takes a very interesting, if somewhat sinister, turn:

If persecution is to be defined as hostility toward a group because of its religious beliefs, then surely it is important that the Romans intended to target Christians. Otherwise this is prosecution, not persecution. The death of a Christian or group of Christians might be unjust, but it is not persecution as it has traditionally been defined. This leads us to the prosecutors. Why did the Romans execute any Christians at all?

This launches her into Chapter 5 “Why Did the Romans Dislike Christians?”. It starts off kind of strangely:

Romans are not known for their cruelty; in contrast to the ancient Assyrians, who gained a reputation for brutality and sadism, they were known for being comparatively beneficent rulers…. In assessments of Roman treatment of Christians, this supposed kindness has been used in two diametrically opposed ways: on the one hand, it is used to highlight the extraordinary quality of their prosecution of the Christians and to amplify the sense of injustice. The Romans were usually so kind, the argument goes, that their treatment of Christians was out of character and cruel. On the other, it is used as evidence of Roman innocence; the Romans were so kind that we must conclude that the Christians deserved it.

Honestly, I have no idea where she’s getting this from. Sure, the Romans may not have been seen as rivaling the Assyrians in cruelty, but that’s an awfully low bar, to put it mildly. Roman society was violent and cruel by modern standards. This is a society in which gladiatorial games were standard elements of public festivals. It was a society based on slavery which applied the death penalty (in very nasty ways) for a whole host of offenses. If the HBO series Rome or its BBC ancestor I, Claudius is any example of popular ideas of Roman culture, the idea that the Romans were big softies does not really seem to be a pop culture standard.  And needless to say, the Romans don’t come off as particularly cuddly in the old toga epics such as Sparticus and or the modern ones such as Gladiator.

After this odd intro, Moss goes on to argue that the Romans weren’t really persecuting Christians, they were prosecuting them for what they saw as violations of Roman cultural and legal norms. She pulls out examples of other religious and cultural groups which the Romans also persecuted (her word is “prosecuted” but I’m not willing to concede her linguistic game here except when quoting her directly.) She explains why Romans saw Christianity as being subversive to the the Roman order. What I’ve read of this is kind of okay, though there are certainly better and more scholarly treatments of the topic. Moss is so fixated on explaining away Christian persecution that she seems to talk about everything through the lens of special pleading. She concludes:

The Sunday school narrative of a church of martyrs, of Christians huddled in catacombs out of fear, meeting in secret to avoid arrest, and mercilessly thrown to lions merely for their religious beliefs is a macabre fairy tale. When Christians appeared in Roman courtrooms, they were not tried as heretics, blasphemers, or even fools. Christians had a reputation for being socially reclusive, refusing to join the military, and refusing to swear oaths. Once in the courtroom Christians said things that sounded like sedition. They were rude, subversive, and disrespectful. Most important, they were threatening. Even if the actions of the Romans still seem unjust, we must admit that they had reasons for treating Christians the way they did. (page 186)

Well, no kidding. Every group seen as cruel and repressive has reasons for what it does. Pick the nastiest groups in history, and you can bet that with sufficient study one can come up with reasons why they behaved as they did. And indeed, it’s worth doing that. A view of history in which dangerously bad bogeymen do horrible things simply because they are bad is a shallow view of history that teaches us nothing. If all that Moss were doing with this book is trying to give a balanced view of how the Romans understood Christians and why they treated them the way that they did, it would make a good read. Although she constantly engages in sleight of hand and special pleading in support of her contention that Christians weren’t really persecuted (much), she does have at least a basic knowledge of the sources. If she were content to simply talk about the sources, she might be able to write a decent book. (If you want such a book, there’s a pretty good one I’ve read called The Christians as the Romans Saw Them — it’s also out from a real academic press, Yale, as compared to Moss’s work which is out from HarperOne) This book, however, has all the flaws of a ideologically motivated hack job. And that it’s written by a theology professor from Notre Dame just completes the joke.

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26 Responses to Bad History: Was the Persecution of Christians a Myth?

  • As I said the other day, her motivation appears quite clear: If the Church and individual Christians suffer government and/or legal sanction because their beliefs and how they practice those beliefs are at odds with cultural “norms” – be those norms abortion-on-demand, the HHS mandate, or same-sex “marriage” – they are not REALLY being persecuted. In essence, the Church and individual Christians can either get on board with the agenda or not; but if they choose not to, they wouldn’t be able to legitimately cry “persecution” if the legal fallout is not to to their liking.

    Moss’s motivation, as with the motivation of many on the Catholic left and Christian left who are critical of the Church, is actually quite transparent: political ideology trumps religious dogma.

  • They like the smells and bells, and the color and pageantry that we have seen at the Vatican this week, but as for religion actually telling them to repent and change their lives, not for a second. They applaud the outward show of religion and boo the substance.

  • This is an important article for Christians to read and refer to, when they hear the increasing number of followers of Dr. Moss, armed with her half-truths, proclaiming her gospel.

  • Pingback: Sacred Images Pictorial Guide to Holy Week Easter Triduum - Big Pulpit
  • According to Ms. Moss’ definition, Christians aren’t persecuted in China today, because while they may be harassed, imprisoned, tortured, or even killed by the government, the Communist Party’s motives for doing so are ultimately political. I’m sure this must be a great comfort to the victims of this non-persecution.

  • The real message is clear.

    You’re crazy if you think you’re persecuted, but when we actually do persecute you, it will be for good reasons.

    Christianity really IS responsible for the insane idea that a man’s loyalties might lie with a power higher than and distinct from the state. In that sense it is responsible for the freedoms we enjoy today. I don’t even think it is Christianity that Moss has a problem with, but freedom itself, the nerve and the gall it takes to say “no”, for the sake of conscience, to supposedly benevolent rulers who supposedly know what is best for us.

    The irony here is that by denying that Christians were and are persecuted, Moss makes it easier to persecute them. By arguing that the authorities were rational and justified in their views of early Christians, she makes the case that today’s secular state is rational and justified in suppressing freedom expressed as conscientious objection to its policies.

    I have seen this shell game many times. First deny the problem and call people insane who recognize it, then acknowledge the problem and call people insane who complain about it. It is a diabolical game.

  • I saw her piece on the “Chronicle of Higher Ed” online the other day. There were readers who left comments, unimpressed with her for secular reasons.

  • Another member of the Patriotic Association hard at work.

    Thanks for this handy dismantling, Darwin.

  • Actually, (for them) to the extent “it” advances the agenda/narrative, it is GOOD history.

  • “the Romans don’t come off as particularly cuddly in the old toga epics such as Spartacus”

    The depiction of Crassus crucifying the survivors of the slave army of Spartacus is completely historical:

    “Since there was still a very large number of fugitives from the battle in the mountains, Crassus proceeded against them. They formed themselves into four groups and kept up their resistance until there were only 6,000 survivors, who were taken prisoner and crucified all the way along the road from Rome to Capua.”

    Appian

    Imagine the sight, sound and smell of that. Crassus wanted an object lesson that the slaves of Italy would remember forever and he wanted to establish himself as a frontrunner to be one of the two consuls in the upcoming election. Crassus was hailed for his stern measures, and no one said a word against what he did, at least a word that has come down to us in the source material.

    The Romans were not the cruelest people in the Ancient world but they were brutal in a way that most moderns would find shocking. Pay your taxes and do what you were told in the Roman Empire and you were mostly left alone. Step out of line, and the whole power of the Roman state could land on you, with the best result for you being slavery for yourself and your family and the worst being death on a cross for you and your family. Christians until the time of Constantine always had to worry about a sudden wave of persecution forcing them to choose between abjuring Christ and dying a horrible death. That Ms. Moss does not see that as persecution makes one wonder how much State power she would be content with being used against people who have the temerity to disagree with her before she would deem it to be persecution.

  • I wasted some time plumbing the depths of this MossThing so you won’t have to. Overall conclusion: she is going for it, money, fame, and notoriety all at once.

    This one has clogged up a spot on Notre Dame’s faculty with her idiosyncratic idiocy, and now makes herself available to serve as a liberal non-believing academic consultant for the History Channel TV series “The Bible.” Oh, how utterly! And her alleged “research-based book” informs that Romans did not persecute Christians. Goodness gracious, now that’s special, isn’t it?

    Enough said, and a fortiori, enough heard!

    I wasted some time plumbing the depths of this MossThing so you won’t have to. Now I need a shower and, yes, I will require that scrub brush. I’ll give it back in about 45 minutes.

  • The falsity of her presumptions drives me batty. I have taught religion, studied religion – and done so in Catholic instutions. There is not a textbook out there – and never has been – that has held that the persecutions were empire-wide and constant for 300 years.

    She’s a mess. Notre Dame should be embarrassed. Well, they already should be about other things..but anyway..

  • It is highly likely that possible future kind, gentle, soft Western totalitarisms will not persecute Christians, nor prosecute them. It will judge them to be mentally ill and insure that they are given the best treatments that public monies can provide. And if their minds should be destroyed by said treatments, then compassion will be exercised: pity will move the “care providers” to euthanize them so that they no longer “suffer”. But a persecution? Oh no, it wouldn’t be that at all.

  • I pray episodes like this begin to erode Notre Dame’s “pocket book” through lower demand for their “product.” I know, it may take a while for this to happen. However, when I hear someone mention ND as a graduate or as a parent who is sending their kids to this school, I cringe. A whopping $65k/year is spent by most parents and students to receive revisionist history, progressive theology, social justice awareness. Recall the quote by P.T. Barnum, “there is a sucker born every minute.” Well, at least Barnum was offering a real live show. ND is offering fiction and fantasy. Moss is busy at the practice of undermining truth and the faith of others. Who knew, we have Judas with us still today.

  • Let’s talk about persecution in “modern” times. Wonder what she would say about the persecution of Christians in Mexico less than 100 years ago. Probably that it was their own fault for not jumping into line with the government. If any of you don’t know what I am talking about, here is a good explanation: http://www.catholic.com/magazine/articles/¡viva-cristo-rey

  • Here is the problem: people run out of things to research, they run out of ideas, and cannot put together a thesis. They become very creative and imagine they found something new, different, or opposite to that which was said before. They get goofy. That’s what happened here. Notre Dame is to blame for hiring and, I suppose giving tenure to someone like this. Despicable!

  • I think you are right about that Barbara. We have had several posts on the Cristeros Movement at The American Catholic:

    http://the-american-catholic.com/2012/03/22/for-greater-glory-viva-christo-rey/

  • The 800 Martyrs of Otranto:

    “The first of the chroniclers, Giovanni Michele Laggetto, adds, in the “Historia della guerra di Otranto del 1480 [Story of the war of Otranto in 1480],” transcribed from an ancient manuscript and published in 1924:

    “And turning to the Christians, Primaldo spoke these words: ‘My brothers, until today we have fought in defense of our homeland, to save our lives, and for our earthly governors; now it is time for us to fight to save our souls for our Lord. And since he died on the cross for us, it is fitting that we should die for him, remaining firm and constant in the faith, and with this earthly death we will earn eternal life and the glory of martyrdom.’ At these words, all began to shout with one voice and with great fervor that they wanted to die a thousand times, by any sort of death, rather than renounce Christ.”

    The holocaust within the Spanish Civil War has been denied far too long. Almost no one in America knows that during the 1930’s Spanish “Civil” War the “republicans” massacred of tens of thousands of Roman Catholic religious and lay people. For decades, the MSM, publishers, and the academy have sold the one-sided idea that Franco and his government (World War II neutrals) were merely fascists. The MSM, et al, egregiously deny the mass murders of Spanish Catholic religious and lay persons committed by the Soviet-led Spanish and international brigands such as Hemingway, Robeson and the so-called Abraham Lincoln brigade.

    There was a general massacre of Roman Catholic clergy and laity in the areas under communist control during the 1936 to 1939 Spanish Civil War. Four thousand Roman Catholic bishops, priests, brothers, and nuns, and tens of thousands of lay Catholic people were martyred. The Lord had called the Spanish religious community to a radical witness. When the republicans found them to be religious, they were arrested and executed. For example, the bolshevists murdered 165 of the order of Catholic school teachers, the De La Salle Christian Brothers, whose brothers have, for over 150 years, served their vocations at Manhattan College. On October 10, 1993, Pope John Paul II proclaimed “blessed”, seven Spanish Christian Brothers and three Spanish Marianists (Carlos Erana, Jesus Hita, Fidel Fuidio). The Marianists are dedicated religious priests and brothers who serve Long Island Roman Catholics at Chaminade High School and Bishop Kellenberg Memorial High School.

  • I’m not sure why Moss sees a need to argue against “systematic persecution” or a “sustained three-hundred-year-long effort” of persecution, since no one studying Christianity in the Roman Empire that I know of argues that this is what happened. If there is one thing we do know about Roman persecutions of Christians, it is that they weren’t systematic and they weren’t sustained. I doubt that anyone seriously defends or teaches the idea that there was a constant, universal Roman policy of persecution that never let up, and anyone who does teach such a thing knows virtually nothing about the history of the church or the Roman Empire.
    http://www.theamericanconservative.com/larison/persecutions-and-history/

  • You’re clearly misrepresenting her work:

    She wrote two other books (one won a big prize according to her ND bio page). One from Oxford and one from Yale.

    In the chapter available for free she is critical of the left as well.

  • Maddy,

    I’ve quoted directly from the book pretty extensively, so I think it’s hard to make the case that I’m mischaracterizing it. I haven’t read her other books, which as you say are academic works unlike this one which is for popular consumption. However, whatever their merits, a basic reading of this book makes it pretty clear that it’s based on a massive strawman effort and also on some very poor attempts to wave away or explain away very well established primary source material.

  • What leads ND to employ a person who openly espouses positions of this sort? Is it some misplaced inclination to provide a counter-voice to Catholic dogma?

  • It is interesting to read the last paragraph of the review–“A view of history in which dangerously bad bogeymen do horrible things simply because they are bad is a shallow view of history that teaches us nothing”–and then to read many of the comments about Ms. Moss.

    As for moving goalposts, that’s something we all have to beware of. E.g., when she states that the Romans “…were known for being comparatively beneficent rulers…” and then the reviewer says “…Roman society was violent and cruel by modern standards.” I assume that Moss’s “…were known…” meant, in Roman times, not by modern standards. Which goal post should we use?

    A note on your reading of Pliny: You wrote, “The question at hand is not whether Christians were considered to be Enemy Of The State #1 in the Roman mind, but rather whether they were being persecuted. In this case, obviously they were, since Pliny figured that a good minimum was interrogating everyone accused of being a Christian and executing those who would not recant.” But if you read Pliny’s language he was saying that he was treating them thus because they were like others who transgressed: “I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished.” Pliny seems to further contextualize his attitude when he said, ” I had forbidden political associations.”

    So the wrinkle here might be: was Pliny going after the Christians qua Christians, or because they fit the profile of a larger set: political instigators of movements inimical to the empire?

    From an academic perspective, she may well be tilting at a straw man. From a popular perspective, the notion of Christians persecuted by Romans is a commonplace among many who were brought up with a Christian education; the technical distinctions within the concept, not so much. So if she was writing to a more popular audience, maybe the commonplace concept was one worth addressing.

  • Jake Arvey,

    On goal posts: It struck me that Dr. Moss must be referring to modern standards, since she is talking about people judging the Romans particularly harshly for being repressive towards the Christians when they were generally such “nice” guys.

    The Romans were usually so kind, the argument goes, that their treatment of Christians was out of character and cruel. On the other, it is used as evidence of Roman innocence; the Romans were so kind that we must conclude that the Christians deserved it.

    I’m just honestly not sure where that comes from, as I don’t think that the Romans have a particular reputation for being kind in the popular consciousness.

    On your point regarding Pliny: I guess I’m a little unclear as to whether it’s relevant that Pliny was interested in persecuting Christians qua Christians or whether he saw Christians as one of a number of identifiable groups which were considered seditious. Would it really make the Christians less persecuted if follows of the cult of Isis were persecuted too?

    Now, it is true that one can get some good insights by looking at the way in which persecutions of the Christians fit in with Roman persecutions of other groups. For instance, “secret societies” (which tended to be defined pretty broadly) were frequently repressed by the Romans. One of the few areas of association which was pretty consistently allowed was burial societies. This, in turn, is almost certainly why the Christians tended at times to meet and worship in the catacombs around the tombs of the martyrs. It wasn’t exactly that they were “hiding” in the catacombs, but rather that burial societies which met to make offerings at the tombs of the dead were one of the few kinds of organization which were permissible.

    But again: Persecuting Christians because they do the things that Christians do (meet to celebrate the mass, refuse to sacrifice to pagan gods, refuse to take part in certain activities they believed to violate their consciences) is still persecuting Christians even if its these secondary characteristics that one objects to, not the fact that they worship one God and believe that he became man in Jesus Christ.

  • Darwin,

    Your points are well taken. There does seem to be a lot of popular history that describes certain eras and leaders as beneficent; maybe that’s a pop history “meme” that should be dispatched.

    On your first point in reply, I’ll parse it a bit further: it seems as if she was applying a modern perception to classical evaluations of the Romans. I was just thinking about Plutarch’s descriptions of men like Cato, but now I’m wondering how much of that was puffery.

    I have peeked at a few of her other things in the U of Chicago library, and she seems to have some interesting interests. She is still young, as scholars go, and will probably develop more nuanced evaluations of this material as time goes on. If not, my view is, let’s have many voices and then evaluate them, rather than wish they’d go away as some of your commenters seem to feel. She’s probably finding that an attempt to make these ancient studies more contemporary by tying them to current political trends can be very tricky!

  • Fr. Jim Martin is recommending this book for Easter reading. Really. Along with John Freakin’ Dominic Crossan.

    http://www.harpercollins.com/books/10-Best-Books-Read-Easter-Selections-Inspire-Educate-Provoke/?isbn=9780062282910?AA=index_authorIntro_2153

    What a joke. Why orthodox Catholics fawn over this man, I’ll never understand.