Book Plunge: The Myth of Persecution

What do I think of Candida Moss’s book? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

A friend took a photo of this book in a bookstore and sent it to me asking if I’d review it. Naturally, I said I’d see if I could find it and fortunately, I found it at the local library and ordered it eager to find out just how exactly Candida Moss had found out something that no other historian had found out in all these years. What I found out rather was that like many other revisionists, Moss sees all the evidence in favor of her position as ironclad and everything contrary to it as reason to be skeptical.

Moss actually plays her hand throughout the book saying how she wants there to be more constructive dialogue and that can’t be had as long as one side is saying that they are persecuted. Now if all Moss had said had been that the persecution card is played way too easily by both sides, there would have been no complaint. Indeed, Christians have too often played the persecution card. If you’re told to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” when you work at a department store, that could be silly and irrational and anything else, but it is hardly worth calling persecution when other Christians are losing their lives elsewhere.

But if Christians can play the card too lightly, Moss’s problem is she only plays it in one situation. If people are being killed, then that’s persecution, but if the government is not actively killing Christians, then she says persecution wasn’t going on. Much of the persecution going on would have been social  It could occur in being ostracized from society, being treated as shameful and deviant, loss of property, not being given basic rights in society, etc. This would have resulted in killing in severe cases.

Now Moss to an extent does recognize that there was a reason the Roman Empire did not like Christians, but she doesn’t really paint the full picture of it. Religion and politics would have been inseparable in the days of the Roman Empire and to go against the religious cult of the day, which would not include Jesus, would mean going against the political system. In short, being a Christian would be seen as being a rebel against the Roman Empire, especially if what you were saying was that your god, Jesus, was King.

Moss also at times in the book says statements that she does not back with sources. For instance, on page 16, she says “Scholars of early Christianity agree that there is very little evidence for the persecution of Christians.”

Perhaps they do. What would have been helpful is to see this claim which could in fact be a central point to her book be backed by naming some of these scholars. The reader who is wanting to know who these scholars are however will be disappointed. Moss doesn’t list them. The unaware reader will be caught off guard by such a statement. The aware one wants to see a statement backed with evidence.

Moss also tries to show a history of martyrdom, yet quite interestingly, sometimes the facts don’t really go that way, but she’s willing to show martyrdom anyway! For instance, consider Daniel and his three young friends. Do they count as Christian martyrs? Moss tries to show that they would have fit into a culture of martyrdom yet on page 48 says

Apart from the fact that Daniel and the three young men don’t die, these are exactly like Christian martyrdom stories. A pious individual refuses to perform some action because it goes against religious law and is condemned to death. This idea is linked to the expectation that the person will be rewarded for piety and the opponents will be punished. Everything we need for martyrdom we can find in Daniel.

Why yes! We have a perfect story of martyrdom here! You just have to ignore the fact that Daniel and three young men DID NOT DIE. Yes. That’s a minor little detail but aside from them dying for their beliefs, everything else is like they did die for their beliefs.

When she gets around to the claim of Tacitus, she uses many of the kinds of arguments we would expect from Christ-mythers. For instance, she says that it is anachronistic for Tacitus to use the term “Christians” since at the time of the great fire, the followers of Jesus would not be known as Christians. This is something that could be disputed, but let’s accept that it’s true purely for the sake of argument.

At the time Tacitus is writing this, the people who would read his book would know exactly who he was talking about. What would be problematic about him using a name like Christian to refer to a group that was the same in the content of their beliefs in the past? Is there a problem with using a term that would be a modern understanding of a group if it in fact identifies that group?

Also, she says that the writing takes place fifty years after the events. To this, the reply is “And?” Most of the writings of Plutarch take place that much later. Much of the other events described in Tacitus’s writings also occurred 50+ years later. Does Moss want to equally extend doubt to other writings of ancient history because of a time gap that is really small by the standard of ancient history?

Moss also tells of how Polycarp was made to be like Jesus. In a sense, this is true. Polycarp would want to act like Jesus in how He died. This is common. Yet when she does this, she twists the story. On page 63, she says Polycarp is betrayed by someone close to him. Indeed, he was. We could think that this would fit in perfectly with the Judas image, but let’s look at what the account actually says:

CHAPTER 6

6:1 And when those who sought him continued in the pursuit, he departed unto another villa, and straightway they who sought him came up. And when they found him not, they apprehended two lads, of whom the one, when put to the torture, confessed.

6:2 For it was impossible for him to escape their notice, since they who betrayed him were of his own household. For the Eirenarchus, which is the same office as Cleronomus, Herodes by name, hasted to bring him into the arena, that he indeed might fulfil his proper lot, by becoming a partaker of Christ, and that they who betrayed him might undergo the same punishment as Judas.

Yes. The similarities are right there. We all remember in the Gospel accounts how Judas was captured by the Sanhedrin and then tortured until he fessed up to Jesus’s whereabouts and….wait. What’s that? Judas wasn’t tortured but gave the information on his own so that Jesus could be arrested? Hmmm. That does change things a little doesn’t it?

Like I said earlier, Moss too often accepts evidence easily that agrees with her and disregards that which doesn’t. If a text could have any editing or theological addition in it or anything that Moss just doesn’t understand, then we should consider it absolutely worthless as a historical account. If instead there is something that goes with her theory, we should accept it wholeheartedly without much in-depth looking.

For instance, Moss on page 144 writes about how the Christians presented themselves to C. Arrius Antoninus and desired to be executed in 185 A.D. This governor told them all to just go home. Moss sees this as Christians seeking martyrdom. Could it not just as well be a response to martyrdom going on and the Christians saying “Hey. If you want to deal with us, come here and get us!” It could be they would also be aware how problematic it would appear to the populace for the governor to go after a group of people like that. Consider it a challenge.

Moss also writes about a Christian monk named Shenoute in the fifth century who reportedly said “There is no crime for those who have Christ” in order to explain the destruction of a pagan temple. Did he says this? It would be nice to know, but in the endnote, all Moss has is a reference to an author who used that as the title of his book. It would have been better to have had a source of the original quotation itself. Perhaps Gaddis, who shes get it from, did get it from an original source. Should I not have that cited instead? What if I want to see the quote in its original context?

Now Moss is certainly right that too many people do look at treatment they consider persecution and say “I must be doing something right!” This is not the case. Biblically, if you are living a godly life in Christ Jesus, you expect to be persecuted, but because you are persecuted, it does not mean that you are doing something right.

The best way I can think of to conclude this is with the work of Dr. Michael Bird.

I’ve taught Christians from persecuted churches in Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sudan, China, and Egypt. Persecution is no myth. These Christians, average men and women like you and I, have either seen or experienced some of the most unspeakable and inhumane evils one could mention. There is no myth here, only a cold and brutal evil that is faced by innocents.

Moss is obviously a religious academic superstar in the making. She did a great job on the Bill O’Reilly show giving his “Republican Jesus” a good going over. The Yanks will love her pommy accent. However, I can’t help but think that a few weeks visiting churches in Juba, Karachi, Alexandria, or Lebanon might give her some life experience to better inform her own career for a life in academics and the media. It’s one thing to write about the myth of persecution from the safety of a professorial chair with minions chanting for more tweets to bash the religious right; but it might be a harder myth to perpetuate after listening to a mother in Juba telling you what a Muslim mob did to her eighteen month year old son.

Yes. It would be interesting to see if Moss and her fans would be willing to go to these countries and see this going on and write the same thing. (Keep in mind as I write this that ISIS is the major threat right now and I know of no place where a site like “Voice of the Martyrs” was interacted with in the book) For now, I must conclude that Moss has shown instead that if you ignore everything opposed to you and emphasize everything that works in your favor, it’s easy to make a historical case. The problem with it is just that it won’t be true.

In Christ,

Nick Peters

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