“The Myth of Persecution”: Early Christians weren’t persecuted

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“The Myth of Persecution”: Early Christians weren’t persecuted



“The Myth of Persecution”: Early Christians weren’t persecuted

The Romans did not target, hunt or massacre Jesus' followers, says a historian of the early church

In the immediate aftermath of the Columbine High School massacre, a modern myth was born. A story went around that one of the two killers asked one of the victims, Cassie Bernall, if she believed in God. Bernall reportedly said “Yes” just before he shot her. Bernall’s mother wrote a memoir, titled “She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall,” a tribute to her daughter’s courageous Christian faith. Then, just as the book was being published, a student who was hiding near Bernall told journalist Dave Cullen that the exchange never happened.

Although Candida Moss’ new book, “The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom,” is about the three centuries following the death of Jesus, she makes a point of citing this modern-day parallel. What Bernall truly said and did in the moments before her death absolutely matters, Moss asserts, if we are going to hold her up as a “martyr.” Yet misconceptions and misrepresentations can creep in so soon. The public can get the story wrong even in this highly mediated and thoroughly reported age — and do so despite the presence among us of living eyewitnesses. So what, then, to make of the third-hand, heavily revised, agenda-laden and anachronistic accounts of Christianity’s original martyrs?

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.”

Much of the middle section of “The Myth of Persecution” is taken up with a close reading of the six “so-called authentic accounts” of the church’s first martyrs. They include Polycarp, a bishop in Smyrna during the second century who was burned at the stake, and Saint Perpetua, a well-born young mother executed in the arena at Carthage with her slave, Felicity, at the beginning of the third century. Moss carefully points out the inconsistencies between these tales and what we know about Roman society, the digs at heresies that didn’t even exist when the martyrs were killed and the references to martyrdom traditions that had yet to be established. There’s surely some kernel of truth to these stories, she explains, as well as to the first substantive history of the church written in 311 by a Palestinian named Eusebius. It’s just that it’s impossible to sort the truth from the colorful inventions, the ax-grinding and the attempts to reinforce the orthodoxies of a later age.



Interesting piece. Thanks, though I think the Salon title is a bit over the top. I didn't read the book, but I did read a couple of interviews with the author, and it seems this isn't so much about Roman history as it is about modern myth-making.

Was the history of matryrdom and persecution embellished and exploited? Obviously, since the concept has always been great propaganda and a moneymaker for the faith, and it is common knowledge that many saints and martyrs are complete fabrications. But it's not quite the same thing as the Israelite bondage in Egypt, for which there is not one shred of archaeological evidence.

Despite its sometimes harsh laws Roman society was in some ways very inclusive. So no, Christians weren't, for the most part, hunted down. But it wasn't that hard to bring a charge against someone under Roman law, and as the Salon piece points out, once in court, a person's faith could be a factor.

Now if we were to look at a similar example in a modern context I think we'd probably take a different view of it than a revisionist interpretation based on the dominance of modern Christianity, 1800 years later.



I think anyone interested in historical accuracy and scholarship cares. And that is a real concern, because it is the best thing we have to go in in order to point the way into the future.

This is more about who is interested in making a big deal about it. And the fact that that invariably falls back on revisionism, Unionist,  says more than anything.




6079_Smith_W wrote:

I think anyone interested in historical accuracy and scholarship cares. And that is a real concern, because it is the best thing we have to go in in order to point the way into the future.


There is no "historical accuracy" as to whether Christians were persecuted by Romans or not. It's a meaningless and overwhelmingly subjective statement. Some Christian got a bigger fine for jaywalking than some Jove-worshipper once? Or a bunch of Christians were mugged and murdered after a noisy party in a Roman pub? Or they had death camps where Christians were systematically murdered? Which "discovery" will validate or invalidate that thesis of persecution?

Here's my thesis: The only people who would study, [b]today[/b], whether Christians were persecuted in Rome or Jews were slaves in Egypt are people with an axe to grind, one way or the other. Whether or not these phenomena "happened", in some non-subjective sense, is of no significance to humanity today, other than to try and debunk or validate some religious beliefs. And religion isn't subject to that kind of logic.



Who (other than some historian with nothing else to study) cares whether early Christians were persecuted or not?

Who cares whether the Israelites were slaves in Egypt?

Who cares whether some dude got nailed to a cross?

What matters is how these tales - [i]whether "true" or "false" or something in between[/i] - are used to improve or enlighten or deform or destroy humanity and the planet in our time.

"Christians" hunted down and killed Jews, in all-too-recent history, because they were taught that Jews had killed Christ.

"Jews" waged war and expelled Palestinians, and continue to exclude and occupy and deny them human rights to this day, because Yahweh promised some Middle Eastern real estate to 19th century German and Polish and Russian Jews, dontcha know.

And "Muslims" riot and kill when someone ridicules some "prophet" they've never met.

"Proving" these ancient tall tales never happened is an utter waste of time. No person with blood on their brain or hands will be impressed by some historiographical argument. Their faith is far more true to them than debates about sources and footnotes.

So, the part of the linked article I found of significance is this:

Today, polemicists continue to use the deeply ingrained belief in a persecuted — and therefore morally righteous — church as a political club to demonize their opponents.

That should be underlined.



Unionist wrote:
Who (other than some historian with nothing else to study) cares whether early Christians were crucified or not?  Who cares whether the Israelites were slaves in Egypt?  Who cares whether some dude got nailed to a cross? 

Questioning the historical narrative matters, because tales of victimhood are constantly being recycled and re-invented.  It may help people to notice when victims who are being presented to us are calling out for justice, in the form of bombardment, intervention, and harsher security measures for populations to endure.  The fable of the god favoured Israelite slaves being delivered from Egypt continues to assist in underpinning many harsh views people harbour regarding the region and its peoples.  The basis for Western suspicion of the region certainly didn't take shape as a result of the terrorism of the late 20th Century.  The Christian notion of sacrifice has led countless victims to the slaughter of war, in support of some higher calling embodied as a continuity of sacrifice, which in all likelihood never existed.  Apparently, Americans are universally despised and victimized just for wanting to be free.


Historians will often investigate questions without having an axe to grind, Unionist.


Caissa wrote:

Historians will often investigate questions without having an axe to grind, Unionist.

Yes, Caissa, I understand that simple point. My simple point is that they will [b]not[/b] investigate [b]these specific questions which I named[/b] without having an axe to grind. Unless you can provide a counterexampe - i.e. someone who revisits the issue of Christian persecution in early Rome or Hebrew bondage in Egypt, without drawing any "conclusions" for our time - I think my point stands.



If they are drawing conclusions for our time period then they are not writing history but some other creature in my opinion.

For example my thesis had religious overtones. I wanted to know why a primarily Gentile organization would lobby to permit Jewish refugees into Canada between 1938-48. 


Proving something like this is analagous to "proving" that a government is bad because you have caught some Minister 'mispeaking'.

"Yes. And....? "


No matter how hard you try, you are never going to disprove harmful fables. There will always be a legion of credible sounding rationalizations sufficient to eliminate the proof [not to mention some 'objectively rational' arguments that question the material used against the fable].

Contradicting this particular evidence would be a piece of cake.

It will only be accepted by people already without an interest in the narrative of persecution.


When significant and powerful institutions like the RC Church for example, build their empire on bullshit, it is constructive for researchers to dispel the nonsense. Kudos to the author for the research.


Thanks for making my case, Unionist.

I'm not at all challenging the notion that Christians played up the theme of persecution. It's obvious.

On the other hand, if we were talking about the question of whether an identifiable minority might get different treatment under the law nowadays it would be heresy to question it here on this forum.

What makes it allowable?  The focus on that word you put in bold - "today". We aren't talking about today, but rather 1900 years ago.

Let me point it out once more, just to make sure its clear. I agree completely with Moss's thesis that modern Christians have played this one - played it for centuries, actually.

But that Salon headline - that early Christians weren't persecuted? Sorry, but there is a good case to the contrary, whether some played fast and loose with history or not.



KenS wrote:

No matter how hard you try, you are never going to disprove harmful fables. There will always be a legion of credible sounding rationalizations sufficient to eliminate the proof [not to mention some 'objectively rational' arguments that question the material used against the fable].

Contradicting this particular evidence would be a piece of cake.

It will only be accepted by people already without an interest in the narrative of persecution.


In fact, I'll go further. Debating these pseudo (or real) historical events gives credence to the fanatics. It suggests their vile theses merit some scientific reflection.



Pliny's letter WRT Christians:


That would be a letter regarding the treatment of an identifiable group under the law.

And good luck if you are against discussion of any subject which might encourage fanatics.

After all, it was brought up, and it was not in the context of supporting the religious right argument. But does that mean any questioning of the argument is inflamatory?




[deleted, thanks for editing out the personal stuff]

Picture this:

Historian A discovers irrefutable primary evidence showing Jesus was divorced, Mohammed was gay, and Moses admitted to a drinking buddy that (in his words, translated:) "I made all that crap up!!"

Three religions immediately come crashing to the ground, and its ex-devotees embrace each other as peace reigns supreme. People stream into the streets saying: "You were right all along! My received knowledge was full of shit! Forgive me!"

Just one more research grant should do it.




Oh, as for Pliny's letter, I have no problem with that. It is rather the contemporary so-called "historians" who study these things with sinister designs. From the wikipedia entry:

Additionally, Pliny's letter also allows scholars to date the Christian pogroms in the Eastern provinces. Pliny specifically says in his letter that he cannot find anything to answer his question on the Christians in any constitutiones of previous Emperors.[2] Given that Pliny wrote his letter to the Emperor because he was unsure of any previous legal precedent implies that there was not a systematic Roman persecution of the Christians prior to the letters. The letters might also serve as evidence for an historical Jesus Christ. It supports the existence of the early Christian Church and speaks to its belief system.

How do you spell "bullshit" in Latin?



Interesting article - thanks for posting it NR.

Religions put out whatever myths or doctrine that serve their purpose at any given time. The concept of martyrdom is intended to inspire a fanatical and unquestioning devotion to the principles of the particular religion. The more preposterous the religious doctrine, the more fanatical and unquestioning they'll need the followers to be. Whether there were early Christian martyrs is almost impossible to prove, but the concept of martyrdom, of course it's a lie.  You tell people the truth and they're not going to go down so easily.


Sorry U, I know I did a bit of editing, but what of it was personal? You mean the part that it might have to do with concern over other peoples' fanatics rather than those on our side? Seems to me that was about your argument, not your attire or personal hygiene.

It wasn't that I was trying to hide anything, just that it kind of broke the flow. And I just said it again.

And we aren't talking about the validity of religions, but rather the application of Roman law. Now if you want to talk about that, we can have a discussion. But again, let's dispense with the revisionism.



faeces taurinus


Thanks, Bacchus!


Thanks Bacchus.

U, have you read Trajan's reply to Pliny? How about we set that in modern Canada, and substitute Christian for any minority faith?

Sure they weren't actively hunted down in all jurisdictions. But they were in some, and holding that faith was grounds for conviction, unless the accused converted to poltheism.

Really, I'm not trying to mess with your politics; it's just that it doesn't translate so well to two millennia ago. And frankly, I;d say that was the author's argumetn in the first place. And it's not like this thread was started by someone from the religious right, so the outrage seems a bit out of place to me.




Thanks Rebecca.

Nothing is perfect, however salon.com is a website that many here can appreciate, just as thetyee.ca website in Canada.


North Report.

sorry to mix you up in all this, and I know how headlines can get fucked up, given that they have to get at least across the edge of the last column in order to look right (and that the author of the article hardly ever writes them). For the record, thanks again for posting it, because it is interesting.



Part of the problem is taking the word "myth" only in the now common sense as "totally untrue" (suggested by the misleading title of the first article linked) whereas mythologies may, and often do, include some events that happened.

The archetype of martyrdom for Christians, Jesus, was killed, but a  mythological construct involving supernatural events becomes central to the religion and a model for salvation.

The function of perpetuating a notion of victimhood of a group, religion or cult, as a means of creating political solidarity and power is observable to all who would look and a worthwhile area of study.

Like most (all?) here I haven't read the book, but you might get a more nuanced view from
the following interview with the author.

"[Danielle Tumminio]:So you're saying that there's a widespread belief that we don't say Christians were always persecuted in history, then it's harder for some contemporary Christians to say that they're still persecuted?

 [Candida Moss]:
Yes. But intriguingly, the historical evidence for systematic persecution of Christians by Jews and Romans is actually very slim. There were only a few years before the rise of the emperor Constantine that Christians were sought out by the authorities just for being Christians. The stories about early Christian martyrs have been edited, expanded, and sometimes even invented, giving the impression that Christians were under constant attack. This mistaken impression is important because it fosters a sense of Christian victimhood and that victim mentality continues to rear its head in modern politics and society. It's difficult to imagine that people could make the same claims about persecution today were it not for the idea that Christians have always been persecuted...."



What's that expression: "To the victors go the spoils and the writing of history" they say.