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.
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.
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.