12 July 2013

Christianity's "myth of persecution"

From a book review at Salon:
Moss, professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame, challenges some of the most hallowed legends of the religion when she questions what she calls “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.” None of that, she maintains, is true. In the 300 years between the death of Jesus and the conversion of the Emperor Constantine, there were maybe 10 or 12 scattered years during which Christians were singled out for supression by Rome’s imperial authorities, and even then the enforcement of such initiatives was haphazard — lackadaisical in many regions, although harsh in others. “Christians were never,” Moss writes, “the victims of sustained, targeted persecution.”..

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.

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.” It didn’t help that early Christians developed a passion for martyrdom. Suffering demonstrated both the piety of the martyr and the authenticity of the religion itself, and besides, it earned you an immediate, first-class seat in heaven. (Ordinary Christians had to wait for Judgment Day.) There were reports of fanatics deliberately seeking out the opportunity to die for their faith, including a mob that turned up at the door of a Roman official in Asia Minor, demanding to be martyred, only to be turned away when he couldn’t be bothered to oblige them.
More at Salon, where there is a link to the book.


  1. Yes and no. I haven't read her book, but read the fuller article at Salon.

    She is correct in a sense, though wrong about the "maybe 10 or 12 years". MOST of the persecution that Christians faced in the first 3 centuries was not widespread and targeted. There were instances of local, targeted persecution that was extremely severe (persecution of Jews and Christians after Rome burned within Rome itself; Persecution of the same two groups by Domitian in both Asia Minor and Rome, with plenty of capital punishments and martyrdom for many).

    Then, there were instances of widespread non-targeted persecution which she seems to ignore. Maybe she talks about it in the book. Christianity in AD 111 was still illegal. Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia, wrote to the Emperor Trajan about the sheer number of Christians in his region. He asked about how he should deal with them. The question centered around whether Christians should be punished for merely being Christians, or whether they should be punished for specific and concrete crimes. His practice was to require the Christian to pray to the gods and to offer incense before the image of the Emperor. If a Christian refused, they were killed (more for being stubborn than being Christian).

    Trajan gave a rather odd reply to Pliny's inquiry. Christians were not to be sought out by the state. However, if they were accused of being a Christian (by neighbors, etc), they were held guilty. They would either need to pray to the gods and offer incense to the Emperor, or be punished (occasionally, but not always resulting in death). This was the practice that was around for nearly a century. At the time, there wasn't constant, uniform persecution, but the Empire's policy caused many problems down the road.

    She seems to also miss Decius (ad 249). He was a VERY traditional Roman Emperor, and believed that Rome could be cured of its ills and return to its glory days by returning to the gods. His persecution was different from earlier local variants (mostly local, of which I have not written about so as to save time and space). His primary purpose wasn't to create Martyrs (which seemed to fuel the Church and their faith), but to produce apostates. He issued an Imperial Decree which required all Roman subjects (Christian and otherwise) to worship the old gods and burn incense to the Emperor. Those who obeyed were given a certificate attesting to this (which have been found in many remote areas of the Empire as well as the heart itself). Those who disobeyed were outlaws (called "confessors" by Christians). Thankfully, this widespread practice and persecution lasted no more than 2 years.

    It seems she goes too far: instead of simply correcting the false assertion that Empire-wide persecution happened consistently over 300 years, it seems she is asserting persecution as such didn't really happen at all.

    1. Thank you for the extended comment, Pastor Scorup. I've located the book in our library system and have requested it; I'll see what she has to say about some of the points you raised.

    2. I've started the book. She doesn't miss out on Decius. Here's the first mention (pg 129):"Between the death of Jesus around 30 CE and the ascension of Constantine in 313, Christians died as the result of active measures by the imperial government only (1) immediately following the Great Fire of Rom ein 64, (2) around 250, during the reign of Decius, (3) briefly during the reign of Valerian in 257-8, and (4) during the "Great Persecution" under the emperor Diocletian, which lasted from 303 to 305 and was renewed by Maximinus Daia between 311 and 313."

      The detailed discussion of the reign of Decius begins on pg 145; it goes on for six pages, so I can't in all fairness condense it to a brief comment here, but the gist seems to be that the persecution happened, but it wasn't just Christians who suffered, and they didn't suffer just because they were Christians. "Nowehere in the libelli are the signatories required to confirm that they are not Christians or repudiate Christianity. Nor should we expect them to. The decree was about social conformity and political loyalty. That Christians experienced and interpreted Decius's actions as persecution does not mean that Decius himself intended to persecute them... What we have here is a short-lived piece of legislation designed to elicit social, political, and religious conformity. That Christians were caught in the crosshairs of Decius's efforts to secure his empire is deeply unfortunate, but it is not evidence of anti-Christian legislation. This is prosecution, not persecution.

      I got the book from our library system, which had three copies; you could probably find it in yours.

    3. Thanks for the update Stan!

      I think that is fair. There were plenty of other issues of local persecution, but they weren't instituted by the Imperial Government (though some might argue that Trajan's edict endorsed such treatment). It seems she hits on the correct time periods of imperial measures.

      I agreed above that Decius's treatment of Christians wasn't just to Christians. They were among the largest groups to be affected, but not the only such group. Decius was very traditional and had no place in his Empire for religious dissenters, no matter their beliefs.

      I'd personally disagree with her premise that prosecution can't be persecution, however (if that is what she is arguing - it may not be), or that persecution must necessarily end in death (again, it may not be what she is saying). There are plenty of more modern examples of persecution written into the legal code (particularly toward minorities). Are they mere prosecution or persecution? In the end, it doesn't really matter what you call it. What matters is that it ends.

      Overall, it sounds like an interesting book and a worthwhile read. I appreciate your review. I may add it to the "need to read" list, which grows ever longer despite my best efforts!

    4. I'm just giving it a quick read - slower than a skim, but not thorough. So far it seems more like a scholarly work than a polemic, but she does have a point of view that she wants to validate. I'm sure there are other interpretations to some of her data.

  2. I heard one pastor say that what some Christians call persecution is actually just character flaws.

    For our American church culture, in general, my observation is that this statement is true.

    Persecution of Christians is real in countries hostile to Christianity: India, Iraq, China, and others, but not here.

  3. The idea that the "I only answer to God" defense is now considered sinister or vaguely insane is not quite right. Someone who refuses to be conscripted into fighting a war might raise that defense and, nowadays, be respected, whereas someone who uses it to justify shooting an abortion doctor is considered a nut. I suspect that the Christians got into trouble with the Roman empire when they espoused ideas that were seen as encouraging disobedience to the empire, and little else. Heal a leper; okay, tell a slave he need not fear being killed by his master--well, that's something else.
    When we talk about the history of the church, we are looking at mountains of revisionism and need to be extremely skeptical.
    I would not say that persecution equals character flaws, but I do believe that what a lot of what people call persecution is actually just not getting everything you want.

  4. The remarks in the last paragraph of the post about martyrdom sound eerily familiar for our modern times, but not with Christianity.

    "early Christians developed a passion for martyrdom. Suffering demonstrated both the piety of the martyr and the authenticity of the religion itself, and besides, it earned you an immediate, first-class seat in heaven".

    Where have we heard that last part before?

    Would the learned Pastor Scorup have an opinion on whether the quoted remark is valid?

    1. Sure. I can break that comment down. Part of it is true, and part isn't.

      "Early Christians developed a passion for martyrdom."
      This is true, but not the way that the author is inferring. The word "martyr" is found in the Bible over 30 times, but it doesn't really mean "Martyr" in the way we think it does today. It comes from the Koine Greek word "Marturos" which literally means witness. The word itself is used for witnesses of varying sorts (legal, eyewitnesses, those who profess the truth). Stephen, a deacon, was the first (recorded) martyr in the traditional sense in the Bible. He is called a faithful "martyr", literally faithful witness. Early Christians followed the pattern of wanting and desiring to be a witness for Christ. Namely, not deny His name no matter the consequences, share the gospel (literally, "good news") and share their personal testimony about Jesus. So yes, they were passionate for martyrdom in that sense.

      As far as death? Not so much. Many were willing to die rather than forsake Christ (or more specifically, worship other gods or the Emperor), especially in the first and second century. Polycarp is one of the more prominent in this time. He was a Bishop and possible a disciple of John the Apostle. Very prominent regardless. At a very ripe age, he was seized and eventually martyred. As a side note, it is a very interesting (and humorous in its own way) account worth reading. Anyway, it was reported that Polycarp said Christians should not seek martyrdom. Probably a few did, but this was not the pattern in the early Church based on my reading and research. Even Jesus warned the apostles to "flee" from persecution, from one city to another (Matthew 10:23).

      Very quickly on the second part. "Suffering demonstrated both the piety of the martyr and the authenticity of the religion itself..." - True on both accounts, but suffering was not something to be sought after. Instead, in some circles, suffering was seen as a gift from the Lord. There were some early Christians, especially in Egypt, who would assume an ascetic lifestyle and often wander off in the desert. I can't think of any other prominent examples of Christians chasing suffering, though it comes with the package as suffering is very widespread in our world (see Philippians 1:29).

      "...it earned you an immediate, first-class seat in heaven."
      Not in the way she seems to imply. Immediate? Heaven is immediate for all believers. The early Church did not believe in purgatory or in soul sleep. A few writers postulated about its existence in the mid 3rd century onward, but it didn't gain prominence until after Constantine. Salvation according to the Bible and the early Church was based on faith, not martyrdom; heaven was immediate. First-class? Well, read Revelation 7 and decide for yourself. A special honor is given.

      In summary, she's wrong about the early church. Sadly, she'd be correct about the church several centuries down the road.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Edit: Needed to fix the comment to be more clear.

      I should add one note. For an interesting comparison between militant Islam (Ottoman Empire) and militant Christianity (Knights of St. John; Malta edition) which is fair and unbiased, read "The Great Siege: Malta - 1565" by Ernle Bradford. It is a short read and an excellent book.

    4. Wow. That's a quality comment. Thank you.

  5. Unfortunately ahistorical proclamations by popes and church bigwigs have been taken as truth. I think about the pope who propagated the myth that The Colosseum produced a bunch of martyrs. There's supposedly no history to back it up, and the fact that it was routinely pillaged for stone/marble (during Christian times) would back up that there was no such revered history there. In the end I'm glad he fibbed though, otherwise there probably wouldn't be much left for us to see there!

    1. Since I'm chiming in above, figured I'd respond here.

      You're absolutely correct. The Colosseum wasn't regarded as a place where Christians were martyred until the 17th century (Pope St. Pius aside). There is no serious history on the side of Christian martyrdom at that structure.


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