Candida Moss. The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom. New York: HarperOne: 2013.
Candida Moss is a professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Notre Dame. Her book The Myth of Persecution was widely discussed in the biblio-blogosphere and other media outlets over a year ago (see here for my post about this). I had already read a number of reviews of the book, so I thought that I had a good idea what Candida Moss’ thesis was. Still, when I saw the book at a local library about a month ago, I decided to check it out. In my experience, reading what others say about a book can be quite different from reading the book itself, for reading the book myself allows me to have my own unique experience of it—-to notice and to appreciate what stands out to me personally. Granted, I cannot read everything out there, so there will be times when I may have to rest on book reviews or scanning to tell me what a book is about and what its main arguments are. But, whenever I can, I like to read a book for myself.
Candida Moss’ overall argument in The Myth of Persecution is that ancient Christians were not singled out for religious persecution by the Roman authorities. Indeed, Christians were deemed to be rather subversive, for they refused to participate in the imperial cult and to serve in the army, plus they were not exactly cooperative in court, for some of them refused even to give their names and instead just identified themselves as Christians. Their belief that Jesus should be obeyed over Caesar also did not endear them to the Romans. But Christians were not specifically targeted for persecution just for being Christians. Roman emperors were not demanding adherence to the imperial cult in order to single out Christians for persecution, but rather the emperors were doing so for political purposes: to consolidate their own political power in uncertain times. Moreover, Romans even allowed Christians to serve in governmental positions of authority. In a time when the bar for execution was low, there were Christians who were executed for subversion. At the same time, in discussing the Book of Revelation’s depiction of martyrdom, Moss contends that the number of martyrs was probably quite small, since the authorities in those days lacked the capacity of later totalitarian states.
Moss examines accounts of martyrdom, ones that have long been believed to be historically-accurate (i.e., Polycarp, Perpetua, etc.). She notes anachronisms and historical implausibilities, as she compares what the accounts say with when historical trends emerged as well as Roman procedures. She dates many accounts to the third century C.E., which is some time after the time that they purport to depict. Moss also questions Tacitus’ claim that Nero blamed the fire that he caused on the Christians, for she doubts that Christians were a distinct group in Nero’s day, and she maintains that Tacitus was projecting the opposition to Christians in his own day onto Nero’s time.
In addition, Moss observes literary patterning in martyr stories: many of the stories look similar or follow a pattern, or they resemble early stories about martyrdom or the death of the righteous, such as the story in II Maccabees 7 about the martyrdom of the seven righteous sons, and the death of Socrates. Moss is open to seeing some historical kernel in these stories, but she maintains that they have been edited for specific purposes. Moss argues that even a story about Jesus’ death—-the inspiration to Christian martyrs—-has been patterned after Socrates. Moss is definitely not a Christ-mythicist, for she believes that Jesus existed and was arrested and died, but she thinks that the Gospel of Luke makes Jesus’ death look like that of Socrates, as Jesus follows the ideal of greeting his death with calm, in contrast with how Jesus is in Mark. Moss also notes an ancient Christian comparison of Jesus with Socrates.
According to Moss, there were a variety of reasons that ancient Christians emphasized martyrdom. Some wanted a straight ticket to heaven rather than going to purgatory first, or to hell, and they believed that martyrdom would guarantee that for them; later, in medieval times, several Christian Crusaders would view themselves as martyrs. Martyrs also had a certain authority, and Christians appealed to their alleged statements to combat what they believed to be heresies, or to get a church built in their area.
Moss believes that her historical analysis on this topic is important for today, for so many people depict themselves as martyrs. There are conservatives and Christians who believe that they are being persecuted, and this promotes an us vs. them mindset that demonizes the other side rather than seeking common ground. (Moss still acknowledges that there is a place for fighting oppression, however.) Moss favorably refers to Christians such as Justin Martyr, who engaged pagan philosophy and sought commonalities with the Romans.
A common Christian apologetic claim is that Christianity is true because Jesus’ disciples were willing to die for it, and they would not have died for something that they knew was a lie. According to this rationale, the disciples were so willing to die because they had seen the risen Jesus. Moss actually engages this argument, or at least a version of it: she says that she heard a version of it as a young girl in school, and she also refers to Justin Martyr’s argument that the Christians are right because they are being persecuted, whereas the heretics are not. Moss does not buy this argument, for she notes that all sorts of people—-including non-Christians—-have died for a cause. Moreover, she refers to various contradictory stories about how the disciples died, and not all of them depict them as martyrs.
I have little quarrel with Moss’ historical arguments, but I do have slight disagreements with her application of them to contemporary debates and issues. First of all, I do not think that she successfully refutes the Christian apologetic argument that Christianity is true because the disciples were willing to die for their belief that Jesus rose from the dead. She acknowledges that ancient Christians died for their beliefs, and, even if many did not, they still suffered or experienced inconvenience on account of them. While people have died for all sorts of beliefs, skeptics of the Christian apologetic argument should address why the early Christians were willing to die for Jesus specifically, a man who had been shamefully executed. Why did this cause survive, and is his actual resurrection the only explanation? Many skeptics have explored this territory, to their credit.
Second, while I agree with Moss that having a persecution complex can lead to an us vs. them mindset rather than seeking to understand other points-of-view and find common ground, I do not think that she really sought to understand the viewpoint of conservatives and Christians claiming to be persecuted. What leads them to think that way, and what (if anything) can be done to ameliorate their concerns? Maybe it’s a lost cause: some Christians do not want their business’s health insurance plans to cover certain forms of contraception, or they do not want their adoption agencies to recognize same-sex couples, whereas the other side thinks that they should. Common ground is not always easy to find.
In addition to reading Moss’ overall argument, there were other interesting things that I learned from the book. First of all, Moss claimed that the vast majority of Christians in the ancient world did not go to church. On page 283, she refers to Ramsay MacMullen, who argued in The Second Church: Popular Christianity A.D. 200-400 “that only 5 percent of the Christian population actually attended church services” (Moss’ words). So much for “forsake not the assembling of yourselves together” (Hebrews 10:25)! Second, Moss states on page 285: “The Romans acquired their knowledge about the gods through observation. It was empirical and factual. The Christians spoke about ‘trust’ and ‘belief.’ Why anyone would want to die for something as flimsy as a belief must have seemed quite curious to an ancient Roman.” I want to learn more about this, and I see that the book that Moss cites for this claim—-Clifford Ando’s The Matter of the Gods: Religion and the Roman Empire—-is at a local library, so I may just check it out! I wonder how the Romans empirically justified their belief in many gods. I know that Roman philosophers, such as the Stoics, had their arguments for their beliefs about the divine. Third, Moss tells the story of how a Buddhist tale became a Christian tale in the course of its transmission.