Persecution or prosecution?

Moss' 'Myth of Persecution' re-evaluates the Early Church

“The Myth of Persecution.” Candida Moss. New York: Harper One, 2013. 320 pp.

“The Myth of Persecution.” Candida Moss. New York: Harper One, 2013.
320 pp.

Candida Moss advances a provocative interpretation of a pivotal epoch in Christian history through her erudite and accessible “The Myth of Persecution.” Moss adeptly and cogently asserts that the historicity of the antique legends of persecution and Christian martyrdom warrant re-examination.

While Moss does not deny that some Christians were tortured and put to death, the term “persecution” carries connotations that the historical record does not wholly support. This lucidity of this book is a service in itself, for it has much to say about the use and dangerous abuse of hagiography by Christians at large, not simply scholars and institutional leaders.

Above all, Moss’ analysis and reflections should serve to inject a needed dose of wisdom and sobriety into those Christian voices who catapult themselves in the bombastic skirmishes of the contemporary American culture wars, but her conclusions may face a mixed reception.

Moss, educated at Yale and Oxford, and a professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the university of Notre Dame, has published several notable works, including a number of books and articles on the subject of Christian martyrdom. The timing of “The Myth of Persecution” is auspicious, especially as a number of Christian leaders, official and self-appointed, are finding it au courant to use the rhetoric of persecution to demonize their critics and ideological opponents. Such rhetoric relies on the historicity of the ancient martyrology corpus, as well as the soundness and prudence of appeals to that oeuvre. Moss brings both issues into question.

Legends of martyrdom, as we know, predated Christianity. We find them, for example, in the books of Daniel and Maccabees as well as Plato’s account of the death of Socrates. Among the aims of her book, Moss seeks to demonstrate that later Christian martyrdom accounts were “adapted, borrowed, and even directly copied from these other traditions.” But borrowing is not where the problems end.

The Christian narrative has long held and aggressively taught that those first in the faith faced systematic persecution; that this new religion growing up around a person known as Jesus the Christ provoked acts of terror, torture and murder, all based upon Romans’ irrational hatred and fear. Moss notes, however, that there is a distinct difference between persecution and prosecution: “A persecutor targets representatives of a specific group for underserved punishment merely because of their participation in that group. An individual is prosecuted because that person has broken a law.” Such a distinction is prescient, and, Moss argues, has been misunderstood or ignored by generations of Christians.

While it is true that some Christians were tortured and killed in the early centuries of the Common Era, the assertion that these acts were the result of a widespread, state-sponsored persecution is, arguably, unfounded. In fact, Moss demonstrates that those Christians who were put to death were seen by their executioners as political subversives who were a danger to the stability and continued existence of Rome. For example, refusing to take part in the imperial cult of sacrifice was a crime. Although the law requiring such sacrifice might appear unjust and a violation of conscience to the modern mind, because Christians were put to death under this law does not mean that they were victims of persecution.

Moss also argues against the classical presentation of early Christian martyrs as “a blend of humility, courage, determination, love, and selflessness” whose actions “are motivated by goodness and love.” This, she asserts, is an overly simplistic picture. In reality, significant chapters of the martyrdom mythos are characterized by vengeful theologies of justice, as well as exalted promises of rewards in heaven. Moss underscores Tertullian, a third-century writer from North Africa, as an example. She notes that Tertullian wrote of looking forward to the day when:

“I see those governors, persecutors of the Lord’s name, melting in the flames more savage than those with which they insolently raged against Christians! … I believe that [these spectacles] are more pleasing than the circus or both of the enclosures, or than any racetrack” (p. 206).

Apparently, the teaching of Matthew 5:44 has been a longstanding challenge that the church has had a difficult time taking seriously.

Finally, in the penultimate chapter, entitled “The Invention of the Persecuted Church,” Moss makes an example of Eusebius, the fourth-century bishop who authored the deeply significant book “Church History.” Writing during a period of peace for Christians, Eusebius bends the Christian narrative to arc toward a story of persecution. It was ironic, Moss notes, that with peace, Christian rhetoric grew more polemical and polarizing, not less. But Eusebius, she argues, had his purpose – those doing the persecuting were the heretics and schismatics, whereas the persecuted were the holy, the orthodox, the faithful. And of course, it is helpful if a holy and orthodox martyr made some statements in the moments before death that support one’s particular theological position. Apparently, appeals to emotion and authority were arguments used as often in the early church as they are presently.

Moss’ conclusions about the manufacture and embellishment of much of the Christian martyr legends are perhaps not terribly earthshattering. But Moss does make a significant contribution through her observations about the legacy of martyrdom in the modern milieu. When modern-day Christians, especially Americans, portray themselves as persecuted, they tread into dangerous territory. By labeling your political or ideological opponent a “persecutor,” dialogue, compromise or any hint of reasonable discourse is circumscribed. Who would try to collaborate or even talk with a party who is irrational, fueled by hatred and in a league with Satan? As Moss notes:

“No longer are reasoned argument, good judgment, or logic able to win the day, because failing to convince others of one’s opinions would be a better sign that one’s opinions were correct. Framed by the myth that we are persecuted, dialogue is not only impossible, it is undesirable. We revel in the outrage and scandal that our words and opinions elicit. We don’t want to be understood by our opponents. We will fan the flames of hatred and bask in the knowledge that we are right and their criticism proves it” (p. 255).

In the end, Candida Moss has invited Christians to re-evaluate and re-contextualize a part of our legacy – persecution and martyrdom – which is based more on polemic and exaggeration than historical fact. More importantly, she calls us to jettison an infantile way of voicing concerns and positions in the public square. The rhetoric of persecution and polemic is as poisonous as it is melodramatic.


(Brian B. Pinter is the director of campus ministry and a teacher of theology at Regis High School in New York City.)

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