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Candida Moss, The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom HarperOne, 2013.


Reviewed by Robert M. Price.


It seems inevitable that some will compare this fascinating revisionist history to William Arens’s The Man-Eating Myth (1979), and Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman’s Time on the Cross (1974), even to Holocaust denial. Go ahead! Church historian Moss does indeed reject as fabrication a major belief about the massive suffering of pious innocents in the past, only the fictive victims are Christians, not Jews. The real difference, however, is that Moss offers close analysis of texts, nuanced sifting of evidence, and persuasive arguments. Those who deny the Nazi persecution of Jews are using that denial to facilitate their dreams of repeating the Holocaust, whereas Candida Moss hopes by her scrutiny to disarm new violence inspired by false visions of the past and the hatreds they nourish.

            Our author defines persecution and martyrdom as the respective infliction and suffering of violence upon members of a religious group because of the victims’ religious identity. And though the same Greek word (dioko) lies behind both our words “persecution” and “prosecution,” Moss argues that it is vital that we distinguish the two. Sometimes, as she shows, the ancient Romans merely (at least from their own point of view) prosecuted Christians because Christians stubbornly refused to obey Roman laws (e.g., mandating the offering of incense to the divine spirit of Caesar) because of certain unintended consequences. Sacrificing to Caesar seemed no more to Rome than the Pledge of Allegiance does to traditionalist Americans today, who take offense at those who refuse to salute the flag. Roman officials could not be expected to anticipate the offense. It was offense taken more than offense given. And, though Moss does not otherwise trust the accuracy of the ostensible reporting in ancient accounts of the martyrs’ courtroom dramas, she seems to take pretty literally the bratty defiance of Christians who sometimes even refused to state their names for the record. They thought they were shouldering the cross of Jesus when they were actually just carrying a cross-sized chip on the shoulder. They would have seemed like today’s Code Pink activists or Wall Street Occupiers seem to me: self-righteous nuisances and hooligans. In short, they appear to have been asking for it. And some literally did ask for it, volunteering for execution so as to win the best seats in heaven. Here one thinks of the Al-Qaida slogan, “You love life; we love death.”

            Moss does not deny that ancient Romans did execute some Christians because they were Christians, but not merely because of it. Rather, as Christians, disdaining any authority but that of a rival king, Jesus (Acts 17:7), they were refusing to abide by the prevalent social contract whereby the survival of the Empire depended upon religio-civic piety (pretty much the same thing throughout history until the modern West) whose figurehead was the emperor. As Moss describes it, it sounds as if the pagan Romans had their own version of the Deuteronomic theology: apostasy among the chosen people will cause the people to forfeit divine protection. One may wonder if they would have freaked out at the disloyalty of a tiny sect of crackpots, but apparently they did.

            I wonder if Moss’s own anthropological observation that the ancients did not distinguish between religious and political aspects really serves the larger point she is making. She seems to be trying to mitigate the Romans’ culpability by implying that their gripes against Christians were more often political, not religious. But isn’t that just the distinction she deems anachronistic? In fact she will later criticize anti-abortionists and Republicans for painting “mere” political differences in the colors of religion and religious persecution. But I wonder if Catholic Pro-Lifers could or should view their opposition to abortion as political and not religious. I cannot imagine that Dr. King (whom Moss explicitly counts as one who suffered political opposition, not religious) would have drawn a distinction between his religious conscience and his political policies.

            But how much and how often were Christians either persecuted or prosecuted? Moss arrives at a pretty modest estimate of a measly dozen years, during the reign of Diocletian, and even then there was a lot less to it than we have been led (mainly by the institutional propagandist Eusebius) to believe. It is no news among scholars that the vast ocean of martyrdom stories dating from the fourth century (their heyday) are grossly fictive. But Moss carefully examines even the handful of second-century (?) accounts, beginning with “The Martyrdom of Polycarp,” and has no trouble demonstrating that these, too, are either obviously bogus or at least have been so redacted and idealized from a later standpoint that whatever core of truth they may contain is not retrievable and may not exist at all. It’s not exactly failing to see the forest for the trees. It’s more like finding there is no longer any forest because all the trees have been cut down!

            Martyr accounts started to flourish once the Diocletian trouble was past, and for reasons of ecclesiastical power politics. Eusebius, a great cataloguer of martyr-fictions, tended to meld the (real and imagined) pagan persecutors of the past with their supposed successors in his own day, the so-called heretics, both of them Satan’s agents to subvert and to destroy the One True Church. This equation allowed him to invoke the martyrs as endorsing the theological opinions of Eusebius’ own party. For instance, Eusebius tells his readers that just before they were killed the blessed martyrs of Lyons petitioned the Bishop of Rome to name Irenaeus to succeed the bishop about to bite the dust. Moss early on mentions the stale argument of Christian apologists that Jesus must really have risen from the dead because the apostles would scarcely have yielded up their lives for a falsehood (though we have no evidence at all as to how they may have died, whether by boiling in oil, by skiing accidents, or via auto-erotic asphyxiation). She warns us that this bad argument will be found writ large over the history of martyrdom, and this is what she means: Eusebius and the other spin-doctors invoked the testimony of martyrs and confessors to establish Orthodoxy. If these saintly folks attested to the truth of our faith (and not yours!), this must mean they (i.e., we) are right!

It is a bit surprising that Moss does not make more of Ignatius of Antioch in this regard than she does. In a couple of footnotes she does mention the Ignatian Epistles as examples of a martyr’s clout being used to reinforce the authority of the bishops. And, as such, Ignatius is an even better example of what she is talking about than is Eusebius. But, more than this, since the Ignatian corpus is almost certainly a set of bogus pseudepigrapha, it serves as a prime example of the sort of pious fabrication that forms the martyrdom tradition. Especially given that the Antiochene martyr is portrayed in these writings as a suicidal fanatic who just cannot wait to have the shreds of his flesh picked from the teeth of the lions who will munch on him in the Coliseum.

And, speaking of forged letters, Moss is altogether too forgiving of implausibility when she takes as authentic the famous 117th letter of Pliny the Younger to his boss Trajan. This is a transparent bit of apologetic, wherein an outsider, even a persecutor, is made to praise the very objects of his wrath as not deserving it, as well as attesting to their fantastic success: so many have deserted paganism that the meat markets are stuck with the steaks that used to keep the sacrificial altars running with blood. No record of Roman policy toward Christians, this letter merely uses literary ventriloquism for Christian self-praise.

            Similarly, I suspect Moss is being too easy on Tacitus’ account of Nero’s persecution of Christians in the first century. She winds up minimizing the importance of it anyway, but is it not worth mentioning that some view the relevant passage as a later interpolation since no Christian till Eusebius mentions this alleged persecution, even though it would have come in quite handy?

            Throughout The Myth of Persecution I could not help noticing again and again how what Moss says about the fictive and anachronistic features of the martyr accounts applies equally to the New Testament writings. She seems to draw a distinction.


The reason it was so easy to forge or invent martyrdom stories is that, unlike the New Testament but like the overwhelming majority of early Christian literature, stories about martyrs weren’t canonized. This meant that when they were copied, the scribes responsible had considerable freedom to alter, expand, edit, or invent traditions as they saw fit. Sometimes authors were just adding to an earlier tradition. They set down in writing campfire stories or gossipy oral traditions, the origins of which are completely unknown. Other times they edited a text to make it more orthodox, placing creeds, statements of faith, or denouncements of heretics on the lips of the saints. (p. 235)


But I think she does not mean to erect a firewall to safeguard gospel accuracy. She just means, I think, that, once canonized, the New Testament books could not be casually expanded or rewritten as the non-canonical materials could. But comparison of New Testament manuscripts shows that, the farther back into the manuscript genealogy one goes, the greater the fluidity of the text and the scribal liberty to emend and to amend. And then we must wonder if the same tendencies were more rampant in the decades during which the New Testament books were taking shape, before canonization. For instance, Moss shows how ostensible trial records in martyr accounts do not really conform to the legal patterns on record in actual trial transcripts from the ancient world, and that the martyrs are often depicted as standing up for much later theological beliefs than prevailed in the era in which the scenes are set. It has long been evident to biblical critics that the same applies in spades to the gospel trial narratives. What? The Sanhedrin trying Jesus on Passover Eve? Not a chance. And finding him guilty of blasphemy for his messianic claims? There was nothing blasphemous about Jesus, Bar Kochba, or anybody else claiming to be the messiah (though of course they might be mistaken). No, the “son of God” business surely reflects the later Christian Christology, not of a Jewish king, but of a divine being. The gospel trial scenes are no more historical than the fanciful martyrologies.

            We must, however, wonder if the gospels do not give us more evidence of early persecution than Moss allows for. Do not the texts contain plenty of warnings that Christians must be prepared to be dragged before hostile magistrates, to be willing to carry their crosses as Jesus did, etc.? Moss mentions these texts, but her reading is that these ancient Christians were mistaken in their expectations. But that seems to me too facile. Granted, Jesus issued no such warnings; they are anachronistic for his day, since they assume that Christians are already a distinct, outlaw sect. But isn’t the rule that all such “predictions” are made after the fact, to create the impression that events in the writer’s own day were already foreseen? We wouldn’t be reading them at all unless somebody were saying, albeit fictively, “I told you so.” So the axiom of historical interconnection bids us determine when such persecutions reared their ugly heads and then to date the relevant texts there (the Sitz-im-Leben). Maybe the gospels are even later than some us had thought.

            One radical hunch begets another: is it possible that the reports about the third-century persecutors demanding that Christians hand over their sacred books should be understood along the same lines that Old Testament Minimalists understand 4 Ezra 14, where the seer reminds God how, apparently during the Babylonian capture of Jerusalem in 567 BCE, “thy Law has been burned, and so no one knows the things that have been done or will be done by thee” (v. 21) and asks that he may be supernaturally inspired to replace the lost 24 books of the canon (vv. 22-45)? Is not this passage an attempt to create a false ancient pedigree for books written, de novo, in one’s own day? And dare we consider whether various New Testament writings were likewise composed as ostensible “replacements” for hypothetical apostolic scriptures that had actually had no previous existence? That would sure explain all those apparently anachronistic references to persecution.  

            Finally, if Eusebius trumped up the myth of a long age of Christian martyrdom in order to advance the interests of his preferred brand of Christianity, it seems equally likely that Candida Moss’s demolition effort has political motivations of its own. She warns that the long-cherished paranoia of Christians who imagine themselves the constant targets of Satan and his agents contributes to a political climate in which modern Christians refuse to take seriously the reasoned opinions of ideological opponents. She bemoans the shrill protests of Catholics Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich and Presbyterian Ann Coulter who compare opposition by liberal politicians and media to Roman persecution of their ancient co-religionists. But one may wonder if Moss’s use of the persecution trope as a weapon of accusation against these conservatives is not itself a mirror-image version of the tactic she decries.

Moss wants us to stop demonizing our enemies and to start a sympathetic dialogue with them. Let her see how far such appeals get with Al-Qaida and the Taliban. I should say that those who go gunning for school children and who massacre members of rival religions have pretty well demonized themselves. I can’t afford to care what childhood traumas or what socio-economic deprivations may have led them to their bloodthirsty courses of action, and neither can she. Gandhi once advised German Jews to use his principles of nonviolent resistance against Hitler. You know where that gets you? Ah, er, martyrdom.    


Copyright©2013 by Robert M Price