Friday, April 19, 2013

Review “The Myth of Persecution”

History is replete with certain well-known images—George Washington crossing the Delaware, Crusades for a Holy Grail, cities of gold, etc.—and included in our iconography is the concept of Persecuted Christians in Rome. Christians thrown to the lions by cruel Roman governors; Christians secretly meeting in catacombs with symbolic fish markings on walls. Many people envision Christianity constantly, persistently and universally hounded from its very inception until Emperor Constantine sanctioned Christianity in 313 CE.

Dr. Candida Moss wrote The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians invented the story of Martyrdom to counter this conception, arguing while Christians were persecuted for short periods (12 total years within this 300 year period), most persecution was localized (not universal) and sporadic (not constant.) Her ambition is clearly stated in the introduction:

What if Christians weren’t continually persecuted by the Romans? If there had never been an Age of Martyrs, would Christians automatically see themselves as engaged in a war with critics?...The history of Christianity is steeped in the blood of martyrs and set as a battle against good and evil. How would we think about ourselves if that history were not true? The language of martyrdom and persecution is often the language of war. It forces a rupture between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and perpetuates and legitimizes an aggressive posture toward the ‘the other’ and ‘our enemies’ so that we can ‘defend the faith.’ Without this posture and the polarized view of the world upon which it relies, we might—without compromising our religious or political convictions—be able to reach common ground and engage in productive government, and we might focus on real examples of actual suffering and actual oppression.

Dr. Moss has the proverbial snowball’s chance in hell of modifying Christianity by intellectual discussion—martyrdom is the tool Christians liberal engage to legitimize their belief. Jesus—the leader of the faith—was wrongfully pursued, beaten and executed for saying the right thing; how much more the poor Christian’s view must be right when the world is seen as howling against it.

Think I am outrageous?

Recently one (1) Army reserve officer prepared a presentation regarding discrimination. In a poorly (i.e. internet google search) researched powerpoint slide, she referred to Catholicism and Evangelical Christianity as “Religious Extremism.” Let me emphasize—this was one (1) person with their own presentation. Not Army Reserve documents. Not General Army documents. One person. Yet what does the headline read? Defense Department Classifies Catholics, Evangelicals as Extremists. That’s right—the entire Defense Department (including Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard) is encompassed in this one (1) person’s single powerpoint slide. A slide immediately removed upon new information.

And how does the Christian community respond? This Christian’s comment referencing the article states, “Reading about the Christians in the first 300 years in the Roman Empire, the Romans had a problem. They hated the Christians (called them ‘atheists’), but had difficulty getting rid of them because they were renowned for being well-mannered, obedient, model citizens (except, of course, when it came to idolatry.”

Yep. One person with a powerpoint? Next thing will be Christians thrown to the lions on the White House Lawn!

But this shan’t distract us from pressing forward. Dr. Moss essentially tackles the issue from two fronts:

1) Demonstrates the Martyrdom stories were later myths, developed for particular purpose; and
2) The Romans were “prosecuting,” not “persecuting.”

I have dealt with the first point extensively and will not address it much more here. Dr. Moss did present some martyr tales later than I normally discuss (I don’t go much beyond Second Century) and pointed out interesting facets. Probably the most important point (unfortunately not presented until the end) was how significant Eusebius is on our understanding of Church History in the first three Centuries. Eusebius, in extolling martyrdom, essentially created the imagery of constant persecution by his own emphasis.

Almost our entire knowledge regarding the first three centuries of Christianity comes through Eusebius’ writing. Those documents he chose to emphasize—he included. Others he downplayed and even failed to mention entirely. Therefore, we are left with his perception of how Christianity developed through doctrinal bias—not historical accuracy.

It is the second point—“persecution” vs “prosecution” I want to address at more length. Dr. Moss points out the Christians were not necessarily being persecuted as a group to quash a belief, but instead were primarily being prosecuted under laws that would have been applicable to any group—including Christians—under the Roman Justice system. At the time I read it, I found this a very valid point, and one worth pointing out; I looked forward to doing so in my eventual review.

However, between reading the book and this writing, I read other reviews (on Amazon and elsewhere) to see how others reacted. I was stunned at how many people bellowed against this notion and were particularly upset. The general response was, “If Rome made Christianity illegal, and then punished it—what is the difference between such a ‘prosecution’ and ‘persecution.’ Isn’t this mincing words? A difference without a distinction?” Perhaps it is my familiarity with the legal system; perhaps my familiarity with certain situations—either way, I understood the difference, and why it is significant.

Let me start with a modern example before turning to the ancient illustration. In America, we are concerned with discriminating against minorities. As such, we have entered laws (even amended our Constitution), and established departments to handle claimed discrimination. If I open a restaurant and indicate, “White’s Only!”—we have laws to prohibit such behavior. Or only renting to married couples, or refusing Muslims from entering a store, or numerous other examples you can think for yourselves. We are so accustomed to this culture that if we saw a “Whites Only” sign, it would be immediately offensive, even though not long ago such a practice was accepted and even legitimatized.

Right now, in America, same-sex marriage is entering our culture. And the question being debated is whether sexual orientation is entitled to the same protection as race, religion and marital status. And if it is—can businesses discriminate against sexual orientation? This is a growing concern especially in jurisdictions allowing same-sex marriage. See, for example, this article on a bakery refusing to provide a wedding cake to a same-sex couple. (with other examples cited within.)

What is happening here, is that Christians are being prosecuted for violating discrimination laws, not persecuted for being Christian. The law enforcement agency doesn’t care if a store owner has a Christian or non-Christian belief regarding homosexuality—sexual orientation is a protected class under the law and discrimination under the law is a legal violation. Period.

I understand Christians want to claim they are being “persecuted” under the law—they are claiming their religious beliefs are being infringed upon. But the law itself is not making such a distinction—the law is saying, “The same way you can’t prohibit African-Americans from using your establishment--regardless of your reasons, religious or otherwise--you can’t prohibit homosexuals from using your establishment.” Both are protected classes; both are entitled to freedom from discrimination; both require legal response if discrimination occurs.

Now, if the US Government passed a law saying, “All Christians must pay a $100 tax for being Christian”—that would be persecution. But saying, “You cannot discriminate based on sexual orientation” and a Christian claims because of their religious beliefs they will not serve homosexuals—that would be prosecution.

I hope that sufficiently explains the difference. Again, because I am familiar with the legal system, this distinction was obvious to me, and I was surprised certain reviewers did not recognize the differentiation.

Turning to our ancient Roman culture. Dr. Moss touched on the fact this was a polytheistic culture. Again, we have become a monotheistic culture (in America) and many people do not understand the vast difference between the two. Because theism is now considered monotheistic, there is one and ONLY one God. Either the Catholic depiction of God is correct or the Protestant—not two differing gods. Either God is Yahweh or Allah or Jehovah—but not all three are gods. One person’s god-belief necessarily excludes ALL other god-beliefs.

However, first century Mediterranean culture embraced polytheism—there were multiple gods or multiple possibilities of gods. This does not mean every god was accepted—but upon being confronted with a new god, it was inspected and determined whether it was simply a description of some god already in existence, or some new god to embrace. Equally, emperors were commonly deified and considered part of the god pantheon.

Society’s forturnes were attached to gods, whereby cities would have celebrations combined with sacrifices to their chosen god. If a city worshiped Zeus (for example) on a particular day, or in celebration of games (like the Olympiad), the leaders would kill a cow, sacrifice a portion to Zeus, and the remainder of cow would be a feast for the citizenry. Remember, this was a time of sustenance living—for the poor this was one of the very few times meat would be available as a meal. An emperor giving a feast in his honor, whereby the citizenry would be anticipated to sacrifice to the emperor and then partake in the feast was integrated in the society. As normal as we expect Secret Service around the US President. Part of the culture.

Further, Roman governments often returned to traditional worship of the gods in order to stabilize the society. If it looked like society was getting out of control, or the wars were not going well, a return to traditions was embraced. (Sidenote—are we so different? After 9/11 how many people bought flags & flagpoles?) Worship of gods was included in this return to tradition.

The Christians refused to sacrifice to the emperors. This was inexplicable in the Society. “For the Romans, participation in the imperial cult was something that bound the empire together. Much like the pledge of allegiance, it was a communal ritual that solidified social ties between individuals on a local level and disparate regions and groups on an imperial level. In times of political or social instability, the imperial cult became particularly important as a form of steadying the ebb and flow of potential unrest.” (pg. 175)

Dr. Moss goes on to note even when being tried, the Christian’s response were baffling to the Roman judges, and appeared to lean toward sedition. Not only couldn’t the judge figure out why the Christians wouldn’t participate in normal cultural routines—their answers gave no information and tended toward rebellion. “We ought to obey God, rather than man.” Can you see why a Judge would be concerned?

This resonated with me on a personal level, because it has been my misfortune to…on occasion…deal with the Michigan Militia in a courtroom. They only adhere to the United States Constitution. Since the Constitution says nothing about having a driver’s license, they don’t need one. Therefore, charging them with “driving without a license” is not a legitimate crime. (And they argue the Prosecutor [absent authority from the Constitution] has no jurisdiction. Not to mention the judge, etc.)

I once was representing a Michigan Militia fellow and the Judge called the case. Imagine your typical courtroom layout. I started walking through the gate separating the audience from the counsel’s table, holding the gate for my client. (It is called a “bar” and what was originally meant by “passing the bar.” Attorneys once could cross over, non-attorneys could not. Get it?) He stopped.

Me: C’mon, the judge called the case.
Him: No. I won’t go pass the bar.
Me: Huh?
Him: I know this court does not have any jurisdiction over me, but once I pass the bar, I have agreed to their jurisdiction. I won’t do it. Until I cross that point, there is nothing they can do to me.

I was baffled. I explained it to the judge. The Judge told my client he could stand behind the bar, sentenced him and the deputy demonstrated exactly how much jurisdiction the court really did have!

I imagine a similar situation with Roman Judges and Christians. They were refusing to abide by the societal norms (like my client not going before the judge) and the reasons given made no sense to those questioning them (like saying the court would not have jurisdiction until he went pass the bar.)

Dr. Moss gives numerous examples-- from history and the martyr accounts-- of Christian interactions in trials and why Christians would be prosecuted—not persecuted—under the Roman judicial system. And yes…Christians were killed. Sedition was punishable by death.

Pliny the Younger’s
112 CE letter to the emperor Trajan admirably demonstrates the Roman governor’s puzzlement at Christians and what to do with them:

I have never participated in trials of Christians. I therefore do not know what offenses it is the practice to punish or investigate, and to what extent. And I have been not a little hesitant as to whether there should be any distinction on account of age or no difference between the very young and the more mature; whether pardon is to be granted for repentance, or, if a man has once been a Christian, it does him no good to have ceased to be one; whether the name itself, even without offenses, or only the offenses associated with the name are to be punished.

Meanwhile, in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished.

Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ--none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do--these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.

Pliny (as typical Roman) attempts to ascertain the matter, has them offer sacrifices to the Emperor, and if they did—they were seen as not a problem. If, however, they refused and continued to refuse after numerous attempts, they were executed for “stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy.” This was prosecution under Roman Law.

As for the remainder of the book, much of the material (Jewish Persecution, Death of Apostles) I have done quite a bit of study and this was more of a brief review. Obviously for Dr. Moss to keep it at a level people will actually read, she would not include the in-depth information that would put most to sleep.

I think Dr. Moss has good intention. I think she will ultimately fail—those Christians who want their religion to have birthed in persecution, ripened on Roman crosses and advanced despite Roman lions will (as I saw in other reviews) reject her premises with little thought. For me, the value was in reviewing the Christians from the Roman perspective, while reminiscing of my own history with people unwilling to abide under society’s expected norms.


  1. I alternately admire and pity liberal Christians who think they can convince fundamentalists of the error of their ways.

  2. Thanks for the book review, DaGoodS. Your blog articles never fail to teach me something new.

    OK, I thought I understood the distinction between persecution and prosecution. I figured Christians are persecuted exclusively because of their beliefs and their identification of themselves as Christians. It is not illegal to claim you are a Christian, claim the world is 6000 years old, and deny all evidence to the contrary. This is a religious belief and it is illegal to persecute a person who holds these beliefs. But I figure Christians are prosecuted because of the certain actions that may be based on those beliefs. It is illegal for a Christian to withhold filing income tax returns, even if their refusal stems from their religious beliefs. Kent Hovind is not being persecuted for being a Christian, but was prosecuted under the law. Kent Hovind was not incarcerated because of his religious beliefs, but because of his actions. I think I get it.

    I thought I understood until I read your review and read the letter of Pliny that you cited. Now I am confused. You are (and I suppose Dr Moss is also) saying that an ancient Christian who broke Roman law, any Roman law, because of their religious beliefs was, by definition, being prosecuted rather than persecuted. And the Roman law cited by Pliny was the refusal to, paraphrasing Pliny, ‘worship Trajan’s image and the statues of the gods, and curse Christ’.

    As I understand it, Roman Law dictates that deified Trajan must be worshipped. The distinction here between persecution and prosecution is very blurry for me here. It is a simple matter of which god the Christian is to worship, and the wrong choice leads to execution. But the very act of worshipping a god other than Christ vitiates the person’s claim to be a Christian. If the law is on the books to worship a particular god, even if that god is an emperor, and the Christian refuses because it violates their religious belief, technically that will lead to prosecution since it is a violation of the law, but I do not see how that is not also religious persecution as well. I don’t think the distinction between persecution/prosecution is a clear dichotomy. I so not see it as simple either/or.

    I am not a lawyer, and I have zero legal training, so maybe you can help me better understand by answering these two questions that I think are relevant in making a distinction:

    Pliny places Trajan’s image and statues of ‘the gods’ to see if these will be worshipped over the superstition of Christ. Refusal to worship Trajan leads to prosecution, thus, according to Dr Moss, not persecution. If Pliny had interrogated his subjects, not with Trajan’s image, but only with statues of ‘the gods’ e.g. previously deified emperors, would this also be only a case of prosecution?

    From your review, it appears that Dr Moss makes the persecution/prosecution distinction with Roman Law as the basis for that distinction. Does this mean that the prevailing law that governs any state or empire sets the standard in that jurisdiction? If a boy in North Korea somehow refuses to join the Korean Children’s Union or worship Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, but is instead caught reading a Bible in his bedroom, will his execution and his family’s execution under North Korean Law be a matter of simple prosecution?

  3. HeIsSailing,

    It is a difference in perspective. Much the same as when I was growing up, when we talked about Columbus discovering America, Columbus was the hero in the story, and the native Mesoamericans were landscape. That dynamic has changed. Before the Romans were considered the bad oppressors; Dr. Moss is attempting to demonstrate what Christianity would look like from a Roman perspective.

    In answer to your questions…to the First, I would say, “No.” The deification (and worship) of the emperor would be the demarcation whether a person was supportive of Roman government, or a possible rebel. Whether they worshipped other gods would be of no consequence. To the second question, party yes and no.

    Remember, it is a matter of degree as well. Imagine a person murdering a doctor who performs abortion under the claim their religion mandated it, as the doctor was a murderer. We would still charge and fully prosecute such a person, recognizing allowing people to murder under the guise of religion would eventually cause our entire society to collapse. People could lie, cheat, steal, etc. under their religious beliefs.

    The Christians appeared guilty of sedition—almost the equivalent of treason. To allow such actions would be detrimental to their society. I do not know how reading a Bible would be considered in North Korea—it may be the equivalent and any actions taken by the North Korean government (while unfavorable to us) would, in the eyes of the North Koreans, be prosecution, not persecution.

  4. thanks much for this helpful review. This gives a new perspective to the topic. Maybe I'll go study Eusebius now.

    I'm interested in what you would do with this in light of the "die for a lie" argument. Even if Christians weren't systematically persecuted, but had legitimate reason to fear prosecution, wouldn't that still lend some support to the argument?

    And my second question is this: even if all the apostles were martyred and Christians persecuted regularly over the first few centuries, how much credibility does that give to truth claims about Jesus being the resurrected son of God?

  5. DoOrDoNot,

    My answer was too long. Had to put it in a new post.

  6. DagoodS, Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions.

  7. I have not read Dr. Moss' work.

    I agree with your general point that the difference between persecution and prosecution is clear--namely, discrimination. However,

    1. I don't think the wedding cake example works in your favor.
    2. The Roman examples strikes me as potentially being both persecution and prosecution.

    Re (1), I skimmed the linked article. It seems to me that the bakery didn't deny the lesbians service based on their orientation; rather, they refused to create an expression (the cake) endorsing something (lesbian wedding) that conflicts with their religious beliefs. Presumably, if the lesbians wanted a birthday cake (that didn't have writing that specifically endorses homosexuality), they would have done it.