PERSECUTION of minorities is a global tragedy. The combination of religion and persecution is especially explosive. Now, University of Notre Dame scholar Candida Moss is trying to sort out real persecution from an ancient Christian myth of persecution that still shapes our world in powerful ways. Her book opens with recent news stories involving the incendiary claim that Christians, today, are victims of a 2,000-year-long campaign of persecution by the world’s powers. This claim shows up everywhere: from American politics to international hot spots.
No question: Real persecution is a worldwide problem. However, this new book debunks one specific persecution story—the myth that global forces have been trying to destroy Christianity since the Roman Empire. In her research, Candida Moss focuses on the ancient world and early Christianity. That’s where the current myth of persecution is rooted, she argues. That myth is so tempting that, to this day, it helps Christian leaders shore up their membership and strengthen the resolve of followers.
The myth is dangerous because it acts like gasoline in many current and potential global conflicts. And the truth is: This ancient myth is wrong.
Candida Moss’s book The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom, is a great choice for individuals and discussion groups hoping to sort out truth from fiction in that foundational era of the world’s largest faith.
Today, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviews Candida Moss about her book and its provocative claims:
INTERVIEW WITH NOTRE DAME’S CANDIDA MOSS
ON HER NEW BOOK: ‘THE MYTH OF PERSECUTION’
DAVID: This news will come as a shock to millions. I’ve been covering religion in America for decades and I remember one of the most famous church-marketing advertisements played on this very point. It was released by the talented folks at the Episcopal Ad Project and was focused on getting people back to church. The advertisement showed a Sunday Detroit football game on a TV set and the caption read: “After 2,000 years, it’s still the Lions vs. the Christians.” Your book takes us right up to current news stories in which people are making this persecution claim.
CANDIDA: This myth is everywhere. I teach at a Catholic university and I see a lot of students who assume this is the story of Christianity. The idea bubbles up in the way Christians think and talk about themselves and react to things we encounter all the time.
We just had a case of Fox News commentators accusing NBC of persecuting Christians because of a Saturday Night Live skit they didn’t like. That can seem frivolous, until you stop to think that this is an important battle for advertising revenue on which networks depend. We tend to think of this claim of persecution as coming from the political and the religious right. But, really, the influence of this myth can be seen everywhere in our culture.
DAVID: I can envision readers of this interview shaking their heads already. What about Nero? What about the Colosseum? For nearly 500 years, popes have considered those ruins to be a Christian shrine to martyrdom. And, what about all those Hollywood movies?
In your book, you write: “The traditional history of Christian martyrdom is mistaken. Christians were not consistently persecuted, hounded, or targeted by the Romans. Very few Christians died, and when they did, they were often executed for what we in the modern world would call political reasons. There is a difference between persecution and prosecution. … Although prejudice against Christians was fairly widespread, the prosecution of Christians was rare, and the persecution of Christians was limited to no more than a handful of years.”
In about 250 pages of very compelling reading, you lay out this entire case. But, here in the interview, I’ve got to ask: What about Nero? We all know the story about Nero burning Rome, blaming the Christians and touching off an open season on killing Christians.
PROBLEMS WITH THE MYTH OF NERO
PERSECUTING CHRISTIANS FOR BURNING ROME
CANDIDA: There are a number of problems with the Nero myth. One problem is that it makes no sense for Nero to have claimed that Christians were to blame. That term, Christian, isn’t widely known until the end of the first century, long after Nero’s death.
DAVID: Nero died in 68. The famous claim about Nero and the Christians comes from Tacitus, who was born in 56 and didn’t publish his writing until the end of the first century and the start of the second century. In other words—the Christians hadn’t fully emerged from Judaism as their own widely known religious group until long after Nero.
CANDIDA: The evidence points to this story of Nero scapegoating the Christians as coming from the second century. How could he have scapegoated “Christians,” when they still were known as Jews at that time in Rome? It is clear that Roman sources condemned Nero for the fire and Nero did try to scapegoat others, but it just doesn’t make sense that he specifically named “Christians.”
DAVID: That’s just one famous story of persecution, though. The “Age of Martyrs” and the whole idea of widespread Roman persecution refers to a much longer period than Nero. So, tell us more about that era.
CANDIDA: For a time, Christians definitely had a bad reputation as subversives. Their reputation was bad enough that, if they wound up in a Roman courtroom, officials might say something like: “Well, we know already that you’re a Christian and Christians are subversives.” But, Romans certainly weren’t killing Christians on sight and, even in Roman courtrooms if someone wound up facing charges, Roman officials weren’t condemning people just for being Christians. That wasn’t a widespread practice. In fact, we have stories of Roman officials who had individuals come before them and volunteer to die as Christian martyrs—and the Romans actually told them: “No way!”
DAVID: Hollywood movies, novels and a host of other tales certainly give us the impression that Christians faced ghastly deaths at Roman hands for merely being Christian. You say that some Christians were, indeed, put to death. Any way to estimate numbers?
CANDIDA: It’s hard to estimate numbers, but the numbers we have recorded are fairly small. There is almost no evidence from this period before Constantine that is called the Age of Martyrs. What we have are stories that come later from people writing things like Lives of the Saints or stories of individual martyrs. In the second century, we do have a very small number of records of people being executed. In the third century, we do see more Christians dying, but it’s hard to tell how many. The point here is that the claims of huge numbers dying come from much later authors with a purpose for writing the story in that way.
DAVID: In your book, you write: “The reason these Christians invented martyrdom stories and saw their history as a history of persecution is because then, as now, martyrdom was a powerful tool. Early Christians respected saints as holy people with a special connection to God. … In later times, martyrs were powerful spokespersons for the church. When early Christians wanted to prove the antiquity and orthodoxy of their own opinion, they would edit or compose a story attributing their own views to an early Christian orthodox martyr. … Martyrs became mouthpieces for later religious positions.”
CANDIDA: If you died as a martyr, they said it wiped your sins clean. Martyrdom became this ultimate statement of faith. How can you doubt the faith or sincerity of someone who is willing to pay the ultimate sacrifice for the faith? To this day, we think of people as especially heroic if they die because of their religious convictions.
CHRISTIAN MARTYRS IN SONGS & STORIES:
‘AND I MEAN TO BE ONE, TOO!’
DAVID: Depending on the affiliation of our readers—and their region of the world—they may be more or less exposed to this myth of persecution in weekly worship. Some religious cultures delve deeply into this imagery; others avoid it. Still, most Christians can find some of this in the hymn books they use each week. One example is I Sing a Song of the Saints of God, which rattles off a litany of diverse kinds of saints, including one who “was slain by a fierce wild beast.” Then, the refrain says that these saints are so inspiring that “I mean to be one, too.” There are many other hymns that lift up martyrdom.
CANDIDA: To this day, you can find Christian children playing imaginary games of Christians vs. Romans. In Anglican and Catholic traditions when teenagers choose their confirmation names—I know that martyrs’ names win overwhelmingly among the possible saints’ names. Young people love martyrs! Roman Catholics still celebrate martyrs’ feast days and there are a lot of popular martyrs’ relics around the world. You mentioned Hollywood a moment ago and other secular media, but this is present in lots of Christian communities right now.
DAVID: Plus, there are dozens of editions of the famous books of martyrs still in print and in e-editions. There’s Alban Butler’s 18th-century Lives of the Saints, a huge Catholic compendium of saints published in the 1750s. And there’s Foxe’s Book of Martyrs published in 1563 that is a Protestant book about all the horrible ways Protestant martyrs were treated by Catholic powers. These books still sell every single day.
CANDIDA: What’s interesting about Foxe’s book is that it shows this isn’t just a Catholic thing. Protestants are also invested in the history of martyrdom. First, Foxe’s book is fascinating because it was published under Queen Elizabeth. Foxe starts with the martyrs of the early church, but he ends up presenting the stories of martyrs who died during the reign of Queen Mary as standing in continuity with the heroes of old. Foxe was claiming that his church under Queen Elizabeth was directly connected to the early church. Foxe’s book also was amazing because it became such a best seller. This shows how these claims about martyrdom and persecution are popular throughout Christian history.
‘THE MYTH OF PERSECUTION’ AND INTERFAITH CHALLENGES
DAVID: Let’s cut to the conclusion of your book, which really makes it a great choice, I think, for sparking spirited discussion in congregations across the country. What we’re discussing here is not distant history—we’re talking about a long-running world view that affects the way Christians view people of other faiths.
CANDIDA: We all tend to point to our own martyrs. We find this in the ancient world and we find this today. Christians like to say “our martyrs” are peaceful and “their martyrs” are violent. But there are examples of Christian martyrs who were violent, too. Comparing our persecution with the persecution of others isn’t helpful, either. We can wind up using martyrdom as a sign of our moral superiority.
When people finish my book, I hope they will close the cover with a greater awareness of the dangers of this language and imagery of martyrdom and persecution. I hope that people will come away with a greater appreciation of what martyrdom actually is and what this history really was. I hope that people will realize how focusing on our martyrs can potentially keep us from healthy and nurturing dialogue with people of other faiths and cultures.
DAVID: I will let you have the last words in this interview by concluding with one more short passage from your book: “The view that the history of Christianity is a history of unrelenting persecution persists in modern religious and political debate about what it means to be Christian. It creates a world in which Christians are under attack; it endorses political warfare rather than encouraging political discourse; and it legitimizes seeing those who disagree with us as our enemies. It is precisely because the myth of persecution continues to be so influential that it is imperative that we get it right.”
Care to read more about interfaith peacemaking?
ReadTheSpirit publishes several books by international peacemaker Dr. Daniel Buttry. Popular choices are his two-volume Interfaith Heroes series, profiling courageous men and women who crossed religious boundaries to make peace, as well as his Blessed Are the Peacemakers, telling the stories of dozens of men, women and children around the world who risk pursuing peace in often very dangerous situations.
(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, values and cultural diversity.)