Is the Persecution of Early Christians a Myth?

That’s the thesis of a new book by Candida Moss, a professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Notre Dame, called The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom. Moss argues that the claims of widespread persecution and martyrdom of Christians by the Roman empire in the first couple centuries after Jesus’ death are vastly exaggerated and often simply made up.

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?…

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.

Moss also examines surviving Roman records. She notes that during the only concerted anti-Christian Roman campaign, under the emperor Diocletian between 303 and 306, Christians were expelled from public offices. Their churches, such as the one in Nicomedia, across the street from the imperial palace, were destroyed. Yet, as Moss points out, if the Christians were holding high offices in the first place and had built their church “in the emperor’s own front yard,” they could hardly have been in hiding away in catacombs before Diocletian issued his edicts against them.

I haven’t read the book yet, but I will at some point. It will be interesting to see how other serious historical scholars react to this thesis.

Comments

  1. anubisprime says

    I think it has been mentioned that the feeding of the xtians to the lions never really happened as the meme is claimed.

    There were indeed executions involving lions apparently but not a punishment exclusively for xtians.

    The victims were more likely criminals, that happened to be xtian, what a shocker!

  2. Michael Heath says

    One of the first lessons ones needs to acquire when studying history from this period and prior, is that their standards of objective truth when making factual assertions is not to the standard current credible academics and scientists use. Largely because they lacked a process to better validate that which is asserted is true.

    It’s easy to realize why we can’t trust humans who act without a credible set of standards and processes by simply making observations like the Columbine example above. Another example would be Sarah Palin’s reaction to criticism, which sometimes has her claiming victimhood by falsely accusing her critics of attempting to infringe upon her speech rights when all they do is expose her indefensible arguments.

    Having credible standards and a process provides effective filters against those who can’t think critically from perpetrating authoritative narratives they find psychologically fulfilling. This is why we see the rise of partisan media, because the yearning is great while fealty to objective truth is not a motivation unless that truth serves a partisan agenda. So now such false narratives are effective, but only within the cocoon ideologues inhabit.

  3. says

    Ed:

    FFS, STOPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPP!

    I’m having enough trouble dealing with reports that CURRENT persecution of MurKKKa’s KKKristians is mythical…

    If there had been a PETA in ancient Rome we would not be having this conversation, unless the Romans fed THEM to the lions.

    Wadeaminnit! That’s ‘zackly what happened. Here were the Romans, plannin’ a nice afternoon of bread and bloodbath and along comes some bleedin’ heart liebral with a petition to spare the poor, innocent lions and start feeding them some decent food instead of Purina Bigasscat Chow*. So Caligula takes a vote, just him and Senator Equinnus and, woodenchaknow, they decide that feeding the guy to the lions will solve TWO problems. True story.

    * A recent program on NPR talked about how they DO feed large cats and other major carnivores a commercial product that is designed and manufactured by somebody like Purina.

  4. says

    This isn’t a new thesis, not by any stretch. Back in the 80s and early 90s, during my theist days, I made a study of the early church (which, not coincidentally, is why I’m pretty much an atheist nowadays.) Even then, it was recognized among theologians that while a few emperors issued edicts of persecution, they were largely ignored in the provinces. Most persecutions were informal mob actions, where the people saw Christian refusal to conform to the ceremonial deism of the day as invoking the wrath of the gods and thus bringing on plague, famine and barbarian invasions; eliminate the “atheists” (yes, Christians were called that because they were without the gods) and prosperity and peace would be restored.

    It has been acknowledged for centuries that the martyrologies were, at most, legends of faith and not actual histories.

  5. eric says

    There were indeed executions involving lions apparently but not a punishment exclusively for xtians.

    That point is probably more generally true; the Romans most likely treated them the way they treated any other such sect or movement. Its probably not the case that the Romans executed only Christians for failing to swear oaths to/worship the Emporer. It makes little historical sense to think they killed members of a small pacifisitic sect for symbolic treason yet they didn’t kill more violently rebellious groups for the same thing. The 1st century was when the empire was expanding into (what is now) France and England, after all. Those folks were probably a much much bigger concern.

    Much more probably, the romans either executed anyone who did that regardless of creed or religion, or they didn’t execute people for that and the martyrdom stories are more myth than reality.

    Having said that, if your cause is treated just as harshly by an authoritarian government as any other cause, dying for it still makes you a legitimate martyr. It just means your cause didn’t suffer the exceptional persecution some seem intent on claiming.

  6. unbound says

    Considering honesty and truth are not particular high on the list of xtian attributes, it really isn’t surprising that they’ve been making things up all along.

    It was only 5 – 8 years ago that a xtian was telling me how the 12 days of xmas was actually xtian code of inspiration while they were being suppressed back in the day (don’t know who was oppressing them or when those days were)…which, of course, is a complete lie, but it makes its way around the xtian circles and will be “fact” from their perspective in a few decades.

  7. azportsider says

    I’d be interested in reading Richard Carrier’s take on this as well.

    democommie, you can consider “Purina Bigasscat Chow stolen. Thanks for a morning laugh.

  8. Michael Heath says

    Me earlier:

    Another example would be Sarah Palin’s reaction to criticism, which sometimes has her claiming victimhood by falsely accusing her critics of attempting to infringe upon her speech rights when all they do is expose her indefensible arguments.

    What reminded me of Ms. Palin’s behavior in this context is the existence of some New Testament passages that either instructed Christians to commit to the false truth of their faith in childish or slavish unthinking ways, or promoted their faith in light of ridicule from non-Christians interacting with the NT authors and editors. The latter appears to be a core motivation for Christians to concoct and fantasize about non-Christians suffering for all of eternity – I assume because like today, they can’t make coherent arguments defending their faith. So some emotionally lash out; the fact hundreds of millions believe such tripe also doesn’t put humanity in a very attractive light.

    It’s also not all that surprising these early Christians would wrap themselves in persecution mode when a critical premise of their faith is that humans killed even God when that entity supposedly challenged their beliefs and behavior. It’s also a juvenile defense mechanism; they think they’re right while others are so wrong, they’ll even kill God in order to resist adapting to, “the Truth”. This is perhaps one of the largest psychological projections of all time.

    I do want to make clear here that I’m not extending my observations to the point I concede Candida Moss’s attempt to falsify the factual assertion that early Christians didn’t suffer, “widespread persecution and martyrdom”. I’m not familiar enough with that aspect of history to weigh-in on her thesis.

  9. busterggi says

    Considering the RCC’s lying about so much else of its history and the psychological need of believers to feel persecuted this makes a great deal of sense. If any Christians were persecuted it was the groups deemed heretics by the RCC and exterminated violently.

  10. Phillip IV says

    I guess there was some amount of creative editing involved, throughout the centuries, and a few things might have gotten exaggerated. But there’s a kernel of truth to that “thrown to the lions” thing – that one day, Diokletian said to that one Christian : “Do you have to be so uptight all the time? You should totally buy a cat.” By today’s standards, that remark does count as anti-Christian persecution.

  11. cardinalximinez says

    I was listening to one of Erhman’s audio courses (or maybe one of his books, I can’t recall exactly) and he talks about this as well. He notes that for first couple of centuries that any hostility towards Christians was likely from local Pagan’s and not from the Roman government.

  12. Larry says

    A recent program on NPR talked about how they DO feed large cats and other major carnivores a commercial product that is designed and manufactured by somebody like Purina.

    I wonder if the Bigass Cat Chow packages has advertisements on it like Now with 20% more real wildebeast parts!!.

  13. laurentweppe says

    Her thesis is not that the persecutio didn’t happen, but that it wasn’t as enormous and systematic as the virtually every churches claim… Which should already be obvious: had the Roman Empire been as ruthless as depicted, Christianity would have disappeared in a genocide over 1800 years ago.

    Of course, now, we’re going to assist to the pointless contest of dick waving between the fundies who will compare Candida Moss to an holocaust denier and the jerks from the other side who will behave exactly like holocaust deniers (“We told you We told you wetoldyou wetoldyou wetoldyouwetoldyouwetoldyou, they’re all LIARS and our hostility is therefore forever justified“)

  14. Artor says

    If Purina Bigass Cat Chow came in Xtian flavor, I’d buy it just to use the bag as a wall poster. And all the little cats in my neighborhood would eat like the big boys for a while.

  15. says

    cardinalximinez from 12:

    I was listening to one of Erhman’s audio courses (or maybe one of his books, I can’t recall exactly) and he talks about this as well. He notes that for first couple of centuries that any hostility towards Christians was likely from local Pagan’s and not from the Roman government.

    That was Erhman’s book “Misquoting Jesus.” I just finished the audio book. He also points out that nowhere was it actrually against the law to be a Chistian. What local persecution did happen was due to just being perceived as a weird group of outsiders that could be scapegoated when necessary. Judiasm in fact was generally highly respected as a religious practice rooted in ancient tradition

  16. DaveL says

    … during the only concerted anti-Christian Roman campaign, under the emperor Diocletian between 303 and 306…

    I’m no expert on this, but what about the account from Tacitus, wherein Nero blamed Christians for the fire of 64 CE, and executed many of them?

  17. raven says

    It’s been known for a long time that the early persecutions and martyrdom’s were exagerrated.

    1. A lot of the early martyrs seem to be mythological. A lot of the early saints also. At one time there was a Saint Demeter. The xians just took the Greek goddess and put a Saint in front of her name.

    This isn’t surprising. Most of early xianity seems to be mythological.

    1. The Gospels weren’t written by Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. Those names were stuck on later.

    2. Half of Paul’s letters are known forgeries.

    3. Xmas and Easter are Pagan holidays that the xians stole. Easter is named after a Germanic goddess.

    Who were persecuted were the Roman Pagans. They were systematically persecuted using state power for centuries until there weren’t very many left. The remnants were then just massacred.

  18. left0ver1under says

    The only persecution of christians that has ever happened was persecution BY christians.

    The catholics tried to eliminate the gnostics, the war of the gospels (John/Paul/Mark/Luke fanboys vs James fanboys).

  19. raven says

    Saint Demeter Romanien Byzantine Icon
    w ww.ro-popularart. com/index.php? page=shop…

    This icon depicts Saint Demeter an important cristian saint who lived between 284-311 bc c and is represeting the victory of saint against the pagans.

    Quite clever in an obvious sort of way.

    Persecute and massacre the followers of Demeter. When their aren’t any more left, make her a Saint specializing in persecuting and killing…Pagans.

  20. jws1 says

    @ #18: Maybe six or seven years ago I saw a German historian on a PBS special about that famous fire. He came to the conclusion that Nero was punishing criminals, not persecuting a religious community for believing the wrong religion. I forget all the pieces of his argument, but the one that stuck out was the part about Christians accurately predicting the exact date of the fire a full year in advance. This is a case of either clairvoyance or terrorism.

  21. typecaster says

    Judiasm in fact was generally highly respected as a religious practice rooted in ancient tradition.

    It did tend to vary over time. Before the Revolt, Judaism was highly respected, and many people were curious about how this monotheism stuff could work. Synagogues had sections reserved for “God-fearers”, pagan sympathizers who weren’t ready to convert due to the circumcision and dietary issues. The Revolt of 66 – 70 CE, and the subsequent bar-Kokhba revolt in 132–136 CE, greatly diminished this respect. I’ve read some speculation that the anti-Semitism of the Gospels comes from the need for early Christians in the Empire to distance themselves from Judaism, due to the problems caused by following a Jewish religious leader in the post-Revolt period.

  22. Ichthyic says

    One of the first lessons ones needs to acquire when studying history from this period and prior, is that their standards of objective truth when making factual assertions is not to the standard current credible academics and scientists use.

    oh come on, this is an exposition based on one word:

    lies.

    they lie. it’s as simple as that.

    one HAS TO lie in order to create the foundations and maintain a structure for organized religion to prosper to begin with.

    they lied then, they lied after, they lie now.

    just that simple.

  23. Ichthyic says

    they’re all LIARS and our hostility is therefore forever justified“)

    because it is.

    and you fucking well know it, so stop pretending otherwise.

  24. lpetrich says

    Xians squabbled with Xians about doctrinal disputes that seem silly to many of us, and to their pagan contemporaries, that seemed just plain weird. But when they got power, their squabbles turned into outright persecution. What could justify nasty fights about whether the Father and the Son have the same essence (homoousia) or similar essences (homoiousia)?

  25. says

    If you buy Bigasscat Chow in the 40 pound bag you will find a coupon good for an Arena Action Figure (TM). The AAF’s include Gladiators, Charioteers, Beasts, Condemned Criminals and Christian Parts (along with piles of Pious Poo). Collect them all and have your own Bread’n’Circus!

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