The Myth of Persecution

Carl Trueman Articles
Candida Moss, The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom (New York: HarperOne 2013), 320 pp., $25.99 

This is an entertaining, at times thought-provoking, but deeply flawed book. For all of its underlying scholarship, it is reminiscent of those Christmas Specials on the History Channel where some learned scholar announces to the camera that the Bible never specified that there were three wise men. Cue portentous pause, the assumption apparently being that somewhere in the ensuing silence one can hear two thousand years of Christian theology (rather than a mere century of kitsch festive season artwork) collapsing into a heap of rubble. 

Moss wears her learning lightly and obviously enjoys her role as aspiring iconoclast. She articulates her basic thesis in clear, readable prose: in the first three centuries empire wide, intentional, targeted persecution of Christians specifically for their Christianity was extremely rare; and martyrs were more significant because of the manner in which they were represented in literature than they were in their own times and contexts. Further, it is often difficult to date with precision the martyrs who do survive or to ascertain how historically reliable they are. As a historical thesis it is scarcely radical and reflects what I was taught as an undergraduate and what I teach in my M.Div. classes at Westminster Theological Seminary; it is the political thesis to which she moves that is far more contentious.

Moss's historical thesis depends upon a number of points. She points out that it was not Christianity in itself but certain implications of Christianity (for example, the problematic nature of loyalty to the emperor and the civic sphere for those of an exclusive religion) which created much of the hostility. She also tends to posit late dates for martyr accounts, tying them to developments concerning what we might describe, for want of a better phrase, as the fetishizing of the body exemplified in the rise of monasticism and the cult of the saints in fourth-century Christianity.

There is a sense in which the general thesis relies heavily upon the ignorance of the reader.  Throughout the book, the impression is given that the paucity of empire-wide persecution of Christians and the lack of reliable first-hand accounts of the same will somehow deal a devastating blow to the faithful. It may be that there are some out there who think the Romans organized mass persecution for centuries before it all ended rather unexpectedly with the sudden conversion of Constantine; but surely no first year undergraduate or modestly well-read churchgoer would believe such a narrative. Further, it is also true - and not seriously contested by any scholar of which I am aware - that Christians are severely persecuted in numerous areas of the world today. True, this is not really the case in America; but persecution today is no myth. A dove may not have emerged from Polycarp's side as he died; but millions of Christians have died for their faith, or for the social outworking of their faith, throughout the centuries. To talk of the 'myth' of persecution is somewhat mischievous.

This presumption of ignorance on the part of the reader leads to some oddly patronising comments. On page 89, for example, we are informed in parenthesis that 'yes, the Christians owned slaves.' Cue History Channel pause and sound of distressed faithful abandoning the church in droves? I doubt it. The fact that Christians owned slaves is surely news only to anyone who has not read the New Testament or seen any of the many new atheist polemics which delight in texts such as Colossians 3:22. Moss's comment thus left me wondering whether her target audience was not, after all, benighted Bible-thumping Christians but rather the fan base of Jersey Shore.

Further, even though the early church accounts of martyrdoms are stylized or enhanced, it does not really undermine claims about the general reality of persecution even if it should make us very cautious about the details of individual accounts. We know from the writings of Ignatius of Antioch that persecution and death for the faith (at least as assumed in the mind of the Christian even if not legally defined as such by Rome) became an ideal for some Christians very early on in the post-apostolic world. There is also the rise of monasticism in the fourth century. Moss is possibly correct to locate the rise of martyrdom literature with the fetishizing of saints' bodies; but I am not sure that one can draw too many hard conclusions about the reality or prior function of martyrdom from such later use, even if true. It would seem at least arguable that the accounts are designed to maintain, as an aspirational ideal, the kind of physical asceticism which the church had previously found in the persecution it had suffered from the state.

I would also dispute her reading of the early second century letter of Pliny, governor of Pontus Bithynia, who uncovered a Christian community in his territory and meted out harsh punishment upon those who refused to abjure their religion. We know from Pliny's other letters that he was an unctuous creep. This was, after all, the man who did well under the despotic Domitian and yet switched sides and survived to prosper under Trajan. That in itself is eloquent testimony to his political astuteness. He was a man always wanting to ingratiate himself with those higher up the political ladder in order to bolster his own standing. Given the confident way in which he deals with the Christians and yet, despite his 'ignorance' of proper process, happens upon essentially the correct process, it seems to me a perfectly reasonable reading of the letter to Trajan that Pliny did know of precedents for treating Christians but wanted to present his actions to the Emperor as a form of wise guesswork which might therefore elicit praise from his master.  Maybe my interpretation is wrong but it is at least worth pondering. That it is not even considered reflects a methodological flaw that runs throughout the work: a 'maybe' in interpretation becomes a certain foundation for further historical argument and confident assertion. A tad more self-awareness regarding appropriate levels of certainty based upon contestable interpretations of narrow evidential bases would have been most welcome in Moss's work.

Now to Moss's political thesis. The most contentious and indeed mischievous part of the book is the connection Moss makes between what one might call the breakdown in modern political discourse and the 'myth of persecution.'  While she says that she is not targeting the Right in particular (p. 12), in the context of the book as a whole such a claim seems like so much throat-clearing. I am no fan of the American Right and have no sympathy with the Glenn Becks and right-wing conspiracy theorists; but, brief protestation notwithstanding, Moss does seem to focus rather exclusively upon the Right and its shortcomings.

Her argument is simple: the myth of the persecution of Christians has fuelled a paranoid victim mentality on the political Right that imperils intelligent civil discourse. Ironically, as she makes this case, she herself engages in precisely the kind of myth making that she rightly decries. On page 252, she recounts her shock at hearing two students at Notre Dame expressing no sympathy for a nine-year old rape victim who had had an abortion.  She was right to be shocked; but if her point is that the Christian mythology of persecution polarizes the world around and destroys civil discourse, then she herself here provides a good example of how alternative myths do much the same.

Moss's definition of myth seems to mean 'a narrative which radically distorts actual historical realities'. Surely it is then the case that, of all current political issues, abortion more than any other depends upon an established mythology: the idea that its primary reason for existence is to serve the victims of rape and incest? Like the little girl referenced by Moss, there are such victims and it is indeed horrible to hear of two young women expressing no sympathy. But if Moss can claim this lack of sympathy is somehow connected to a myth of Christian martyrdom, then how much more is lack of sympathy for babies in the womb connected to a 'mythology' of rape and incest? I wonder if Moss will follow this volume with one that debunks the pro-choice myth of persecution that poisons current political and ethical debate far more than that of Christians with, I have to say, far less historical and contemporary evidential support. That would be most useful.

Thus, given the ultimate political purpose of the book, the final problem with Moss's thesis is not really historical at all. It is the fact that she fails to set the function of martyr narratives within the wider framework of modern politics. The problem is not martyr myths; it is that politics, stripped of any common ground and left only as an increasingly angry struggle between competing and incommensurate narratives, has become a species of mere emotivism, of which stories of persecution are simply one obvious tool. How iconoclasm, which creates its own mythology by building certainties, historical and moral, on debatable readings of history, is to serve in overcoming this impasse is entirely unclear to me. But, then again, I am not part of the Jersey Shore fan base.

Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary. His latest book is The Creedal Imperative (Crossway, 2012).