Book review: The Myth of Persecution

by Candida Moss

★★★★★

Are the stories of Christian persecution during Christianity’s early years really true? Or should we recognize them as apologetic exaggeration?

Candida Moss takes a hard look at how such stories are derived, and she has high standards for what counts as persecution. Execution for merely refusing to recant one’s Christian beliefs doesn’t measure up (prosecution is not persecution, any more than prejudice is persecution). Yet she makes her point strongly that widespread, repeated persecution of Christians before the time of Constantine is no more than a myth.

There is much at stake in this discussion, because it is a common apologetic tactic to claim “proof” of Jesus’ resurrection by referring to his followers’ willingness to die for their beliefs. But what if this willingness to sacrifice for one’s principles, in the few cases where it is genuine, differs little from the principles of many other philosophers of the day? Socrates, for example, was equally willing to die for his principles.

Moss writes with intelligence and deep research as she presents her case that Christian martyrdom stories are distorted by their chroniclers, often presented with unsubtle motives. Eusibus, who played a key role in defining orthodoxy, very effectively employed martyrdom stories to further his own theological agendas.

But is there an even darker side to exaggerating the stories of our martyrs? Does an over-admiration for martyrdom promote an us-versus-them atmosphere that encourages polarization? More than a rhetorical question, Moss fears that overplaying martyrdom does Christianity a disservice. It leads us to believe persecution (perceived or real) is evidence of God’s approval. Evidence that we are the chosen ones. Maybe we should quit playing our martyr cards and instead pay a little more attention why Christians were so despised. Moss pulls no punches as she explains why Christians didn’t fit in with either Gentile or Jew.

I remember growing up with 1 Peter 4:12 in mind: “Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you.” Are we as Christians supposed to ignore such advice? Perhaps Moss was never teased as a child for professing Christian beliefs. Perhaps she’s simply telling us it’s time to grow up. Perhaps she’s insinuating that the reward isn’t worth the suffering. Whatever your personal experience in “carrying your cross” and “suffering for Christ,” you can bet this controversial book will provoke emotions. Moss writes bluntly, unafraid to step on a few toes. But maybe it is time to grow up.

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5 Comments

  1. Sounds like an interesting book.

    Curious about this paragraph: Execution for merely refusing to recant one’s Christian beliefs doesn’t measure up (prosecution is not persecution, any more than prejudice is persecution). Yet she makes her point strongly that widespread, repeated persecution of Christians before the time of Constantine is no more than a myth.

    How does execution for refusing to recant your beliefs not count as persecution? It seems pretty clear to me – you hold your beliefs, you refuse to recant and they kill you. If that is not persecution, what is?

    Also, that last sentence seems a little vague. The idea that Christians were hunted down and martyred in the first centuries in an empire-wide manner is a myth. Rather, persecution was sporadic. I guess my question is, is she saying that the Decian persecution begun in 250 AD and Diocletian’s persecutions in the early 300s are also myths?

  2. Lee Harmon

    That’s a good question, Dave! Because religion and politics were intertwined, and because religious freedom was not a recognized right, religious practices were sometimes against the law – and it is not persecution to prosecute; the latter is merely enforcing law. It not the same as targeting a person or group.

    Decius, for example, may not have had Christians in mind at all. I think she finds “the Great Persecution” (Diocletian) a bit more troublesome, but she finds it to be exaggerated.

    • I see what you’re (she’s) saying: it is not that the law was made to target Christians (that would be persecution), it is that Christians violated an already existing law (prosecution).

      I saw another blogger review this book. I may have to pick it up.

  3. This really is an interesting topic to consider, Christian or not. Having been raised as a Christian and having been taught that Christians have long been persecuted, reading the various reviews of this book have certainly given me food for thought!

    Thank you for being on this tour and for writing such a thoughtful review!

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  3. Be Not Conformed… | James' Ramblings - [...] book, The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom.   See here, here, here, and …

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