Review of Candida Moss, The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom (HarperOne, 2013).
The book should be titled, “The Myths About Persecution,” since Moss attempts to revise, correct, or overturn a variety of (mis)conceptions that average Christians have about persecution and martyrdom in the early church. She refers to “the Sunday School narrative” (p. 186), “the Sunday School myth” (p. 207), etc. Here are some of the myths she tries to expose and her version of the reality. I have grouped them into two groups: those where I generally agree with her critique, and those where I think her revisionism is dead wrong.
I generally agree with her critique of these common misconceptions (with qualifications):
Myth 1: Martyrdom is a uniquely Christian idea. Corollary: Christianity is true because it has martyrs who died for their beliefs.
Reality according to Moss: The word “martyr” is a Christian coinage, but the concept of dying for one’s convictions is not new or unique and goes back to the Greeks (the death of Socrates) and the Jews (the Maccabean martyrs).
My response: Moss is right, but I disagree with her view that Luke’s account of Jesus’ agony in the garden is an attempt to rewrite it using the death of Socrates as a model. I also don’t know of any theologians who claim that Christianity is true because it has martyrs.
Myth 2: Christians were continuously persecuted for 250 years by the Roman government prior to the conversion of Constantine.
Reality according to Moss: Christians were subject to persecution by Roman authorities for no more than 10-12 of those years.
My response: True, Christians were not “continuously” persecuted for nearly 250 years straight. No respected scholar would claim that. On the other hand, reducing it to 10-12 years is an over-reaction in the opposite direction.
Myth 3: Christians were routinely targeted, sought out, and rounded up.
Reality according to Moss: Most Roman laws did not target Christianity specifically. When Christians were killed, it was sporadic and local prosecution, not persecution.
My response: Moss is right that the persecutions were sporadic and local, depending more on the whim of Roman officials in charge of any given area. But she downplays the fact that it was illegal merely to be a Christian from Nero’s persecution (AD 64) down to the Edict of Milan (AD 313). During that time, any Christian could be executed simply for admitting before a Roman official that he was a Christian, i.e., for nomen Christianum (Justin, First Apology 4; the Trajan-Pliny correspondence).
I disagree with her critique of these - Moss is engaging in ugly revisionism:
Myth 4: The oldest martyrdom accounts (she mentions six on p. 92, e.g., The Martyrdom of Polycarp) that have come down to us are historically reliable.
Reality according to Moss: These six martyrdom accounts were written much later and show signs of significant ideological editing, to the point that we cannot know anything about what the martyrs actually said or why they died, and therefore we cannot know if they were truly martyrs.
My response: There was some editing to be sure, but not enough to warrant her rank skepticism. Her vain efforts to cast doubt on the Acts of Justin and Companions are particularly revelatory of her extreme bias.
Myth 5: The emperor Nero persecuted Christians after the Great Fire in AD 64.
Reality according to Moss: The followers of Jesus were not yet identified as “Christians” and there is no evidence that the Romans were even interested in Christians at this point. Our first evidence of true persecution of Christians comes from the letters between Trajan and Pliny in AD 112.
My response: I have to wonder if there any scholars who would agree with her extreme skepticism about the Neronic persecution. Tacitus was no biased ecclesiastical author, and he was pretty clear that Nero persecuted those “called Christians by the populace,” making them scapegoats for the great fire in Rome (Annals 15.44).
Myth 6: Roman motivations for persecuting Christians were primarily religious.
Reality according to Moss: Roman motivations were primarily social and political – they wanted to preserve social cohesion.
My response: Moss grudgingly acknowledges the religious dimension – preserving the favor of the gods – but downplays it so much that it barely registers in her account.
Myth 7: The martyrs did not choose to die.
Reality according to Moss: Voluntary martyrdom/suicide was common and was not condemned until later (Clement of Alexandria and Augustine).
My response: To be sure, there were some unsavory characters who tried to get themselves killed, but they were never recognized as true martyrs. Our earliest extra-biblical martyrdom account, The Martyrdom of Polycarp, makes this point in its condemnation of the martyr wannabe, Quintus (see Ch. 4).
Myth 8: The martyrs were peaceful and lamblike, entirely innocent of the charges and did not deserve to be put to death.
Reality according to Moss: They deserved it! They were uncooperative, impudent, obstinate, and indulged in violent revenge fantasies. They even refused to be “respectful” to the emperor, claiming they could be respectful only to Christ (p. 177). The Christians were so unsubmissive, Roman officials can hardly be blamed for their response (p. 178).
My response: Moss really is guilty of character assassination here. How does she deal with Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:17 (“honor the emperor”)?
So who invented the myth of persecution? Eusebius! (Ch. 7). Moss argues that Eusebius invented the stories of the martyrs in order to use them as pegs on which to hang authoritative condemnations of heretics or to provide letters of recommendation for bishops. But if he made up the stories of the martyrs, how would they have had any preexisting authority? The stories would have to have been well-known and accepted as authoritative before Eusebius could come along to use them to advance his agenda. If Eusebius invented anything, it would not be the stories of the martyrs, but the words of the martyrs speaking to issues of Eusebius’s day.
Moss herself gives this illustration: “It would be akin to a modern politician ‘discovering’ a letter from George Washington that makes a definitive statement on gay marriage or some other controversial issue” (p. 224). But on this analogy, the politician cannot be responsible for inventing the story of George Washington out of whole cloth, but only the letter attributed to him. George Washington must already exist in the communal historical memory to be able to function as an authority.
Clayton Croy (author of A Primer of Biblical Greek [Eerdmans, 1999]) has also written a good review.