I had very little knowledge of this book prior to receiving my copy, though I did have high expectations based upon what little I did know. A professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Notre Dame, Dr. Candida Moss has focused quite a bit on the subject of martyrdom and judging from her earlier work she tends to treat the evidence objectively (while remaining realistic about it), making her a superb scholar. From the blurb on the book, it looked to be a subject with which I have a lot of interest; it appeared to have that edge, that revisionist quality, of which I felt I would enjoy reading.
There were a lot of ways this book could have failed. It is not an easy task to challenge a foundational doctrine. Often books of this magnitude will fall short somewhere, either in interpretation, or in attempts to find bizarre explanations that side-step critical issues. So it is, in fact, a testament–a μάρτυς, if you will–to Dr. Moss’s abilities that this book finds its footing and takes off running from the very first page. It does not disappoint.
In the introduction of The Myth of Persecution, Dr. Moss spends a good amount of time laying out the framework for the rest of the book. She engages, first and foremost, the modern mindset of martyrdom within Christianity–a temperament that she treats carefully and respectfully–and how this contemporary mentality feeds off of a tradition of an ancient persecuted Christian church. In certain cases throughout the history of the world, persecuted Christians (i.e., those who often face inexplicable hardships, including death) have likened their struggle with the ancient martyr traditions, often dualistically (as in a battle between good and evil). This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, she writes, as “Sometimes this idea inspires great courage and heroism and provides comfort to the sick or dying” (p. 9). She then goes on to aptly point out the distinction between actual persecutions and the invoked kind. That is to say, those who would relate disagreements (often minor) between themselves and other political- or social-opposing groups (like those relating to how religious issues should be handled in a secular society which makes allowances for minority rights, for example) to persecution.
We all know about this tactic, don’t we? How often do we hear someone talking about how they are ‘religiously persecuted’ because they can’t force prayer in school? Or how about those who feel oppressed because they can’t get judicial officials to follow the law of the Bible instead of modern, secular laws? Dr. Moss highlights this important issue with a good blend of criticism while recognizing the social factors that push this mentality onward. For that she gets bonus points, in my book. It is far too easy to get lost in the polemics and vitriol, and yet she somehow manages to avoid all that by cutting right to the social factors and implications, while remaining honest and forthright about the ‘wrongness’ (if I can use it that way) of such blatant word misuse. But while this is not persecution in the true sense, she argues, this is how modern western societies–particularly in America–interpret the word:
In this polarized view of the world, disagreement and conflict–even entirely nonviolent conflict–is not just a difference of opinion; it is [in the mind of this social entity-Ed.] religious persecution. (ibid.)
Dr. Moss is tactful, never making any accusations or calling into question anyone’s integrity or honesty; she treats these feelings are genuine (though when it comes to politicians, she may be too generous). Still, her underlying premise is that there are individuals, whether they are religious or political figures, who evoke the language of persecution and–when this occurs–there are real and unfortunate consequences.
These mythical constructs that a person might conjure–specifically those constructs empowered emotionally by persecution language–are far from beneficial. Rather than drumming up strong convictions, bolstering courage in face of opposition, or seeking out peaceful solutions, those groups within our society who feel persecuted are charged-up by this language, encouraged to become reactionary, and cause tremendous trouble–even to the point of committing acts of violence. In other words, one who is under the impression that they are being persecuted–rather than simply acknowledging a disagreement in opinion–are likely to find justification in retaliation; that is to say, those who feel persecuted become the persecutors.
Then Dr. Moss throws in the wrench: What if the age of persecution is (mostly) a myth? What if this deep-seated social memory recall, that many Christians learn from a young age, is not rooted in the verisimilitude of history? This raises all sorts of questions, and Dr. Moss does a fine job dealing with them all. As a minimalist, I am always more interested in the ‘why’ than the ‘what'; ‘what is this story saying’ is important, but not as important–in my opinion–as ‘why is this story being told?’. So I was delighted to see Dr. Moss express this very concept:
When asked to describe the experiences of Christians under Roman Rule,…others might refer to those martyrs burned alive or beheaded or to the extreme tortures and grisly forms of execution that only the most sadistic minds could conjure up. … This is the picture of the early church that we get from nearly two thousand years of literature, art, and–now–film. .. When it comes to why Christians were persecuted, people are hard-pressed to supply an answer. (pp. 127, 128)
To be clear, she does not outright deny that Christians are persecuted (or that they were persecuted in antiquity); she is particular in what she says:
There’s no doubt that Christians thought they were persecuted;… Nor should we underestimate the reality of their experiences. There is no doubt that Christians did die, that they were horrifically tortured and executed in ways that would appall people today,…. At the same time, the statements of apologists like Justin martyr, Tertullian, and Eusebius do not fit the evidence. We need to be wary of the claims of Christians that they were everywhere and always persecuted, when, in fact, they were not. (pp. 160, 161)
That said, I have to find something about which to be critical lest I be considered a bias reviewer; to be fair to Dr. Moss, these criticisms don’t have any impact on the value and usefulness of this book, and most of what I have to criticize is superficial at best.
Let me preface this by saying I really enjoyed Dr. Moss’s discussion of the early martyrdom traditions and how, like most ancient literature, there are clear designs at work, where the authors of these traditions show literary indebtedness to other,more ancient narratives (both Greco-Roman and Jewish). Still, I would have liked to see a discussion of some of the earlier persecution stories dealing with Paul and Ignatius. While Paul is talked about a bit (especially on his rhetoric of persecution), I don’t recall reading anything about his supposed imprisonment (as this is, itself, a form of persecution. Both of these narratives have similar (unbelievable) elements (Colossians 4:18, where Paul is supposedly writing from prison, vs. Ignatius’ Epistle to the Romans): Here they are, captured by Romans for, apparently, just practicing Christianity, and yet these same captors are supplying both Paul and Ignatius with a seemingly endless amount of ink and papyri just to write about the very same religion for which they were arrested. And just who sent the letters? It seems rather bizarre to imagine the Romans, who are presented as hostile towards Ignatius, would just do his bidding by sending out mail. Likewise it seems just as silly to presume that other Christians would smuggle them out. In the church tradition, Paul is supposedly martyred, but Ignatius reminds us in his epistles that he is supposedly surrounded by all sorts of wild beasts heading toward the Colosseum to be martyred!
Additionally, a discussion of the Abraham/Isaac traditions would have fit nicely into Chapter 1, which deals with the concept of martyrdom prior to Christianity. While not necessarily a ‘martyr tradition’ in the official sense (read the book to find out why the language is important), in some versions of the story, Isaac is killed by Abraham. This story also has certain motifs, like with that of Socrates, of a death narrative that was deemed both necessary and pious in certain Jewish and Christian traditions. In my opinion, the father having to sacrifice his son to embolden a covenant has some interesting (albeit, generic) correlations with the passion narrative itself.
Of course, these minor critiques are nothing to worry about. Their absence does not detract from the book in any way. To the contrary, and to Dr. Moss’s credit, what she didn’t include couldn’t hurt her case, but only make it stronger. The best example? The rather small size of the Christian movement in the first few centuries. As a barely noticeable religion, a historian would be hard-pressed to find a solid reason why the Romans would even take notice of Christianity, make any sort of distinction between it and Judaism, or find just cause (or any cause) to launch a campaign of persecution against them. Quite to the point, Pliny, a provincial governor of Bithynia (see his Epistulae) in the early second century, doesn’t even seem to notice them through most of his political career (which is extensive, and he surely would have come into contact with them at some point were there persecutions prior to the period!), and only when someone brings them before him, he acts–but he is utterly confused by them, and has to write the emperor in order to find out what to do with them (besides what he has already done)! He isn’t even sure if holding the name ‘Christian’ itself or if the actions done under the name are considered an offense. Had the Christian movement been larger, had there been an edict or discussion or law concerning the persecution of Christians prior to or during his governorship, Pliny would have known about it. So not only is Dr. Moss right, arguments could be made which greatly support her conclusions in this very important volume.
This is a book about which I could go on and on, but I don’t want to drag this review out any longer (and continue to bore the pants off my readers when they could be enjoying the book I’m reviewing instead). The Myth of Persecution espouses many truths about modern society and ancient society, both religious and secular. But it also exposes a truth about humanity as a whole, though quite indirectly: we are satiated by myth. Humans are simply more inclined to accept a traditional perspective than a factual one. Man is intrigued more by legends of heroism than by real courage and heroism (and many of us wouldn’t even know where to look for it). And whether a story is historical or not will never be as important as whether it is good or not. For that reason, as well, some may not like what Dr. Moss has to say. Her presentation–sound and verifiable as it is–will not win support from certain social groups and individuals who find the age of martyrs a useful tool in directing the masses to fulfill their agendas.
For those who are interested in the early church–that is, the best approximation we can find of what that ‘early church’ might have looked like–this book is a dream come true. It analyzes long-ignored subjects in a tenacious–yet fruitful–manner that will grab your attention and keep you turning pages. It is an enjoyable read and Dr. Moss has much to say–all of it is engaging, thoughtful, and brilliant. These are traits that are hard to come by in even the most popular academic books.
Finally, I would add–in light of today being International Women’s Day–that The Myth of Persecution is defining in others ways not directly relevant to the subject of martyrdom. There is something really exhilarating and refreshing about a book like this, which defies centuries of church tradition dominated by a testosterone-run hierarchy, written by an intelligent and (dare I say) attractive woman, in a profession (academia) also dominated by men (though, finally, the dynamics are shifting–yet not fast enough). Scholarship (and society, more broadly) needs more of just this sort of thing; it needs more books that shake the foundations of long-held presuppositions by bright female scholars like Dr. Moss. I hope she helps keep studies like this coming (and I also hope she lets me keep reviewing them).
I hope readers will check out the other reviews along this review tour:
Wednesday, March 6th: RMP
Wednesday, March 6th: A Philosopher’s Blog
Thursday, March 7th: A Book Geek
Saturday, March 9th: The Musings of Thomas Verenna
Monday, March 11th: Aspire2
Tuesday, March 12th: Earliest Christianity
Wednesday, March 13th: 50 Books Project
Thursday, March 14th: Do You Ever Think About Things You Do Think About?
Monday, March 18th: The Way Foreward
Tuesday, March 19th: The Dubious Disciple
Wednesday, March 20th: Exploring Our Matrix
Thursday, March 21st: The Gods Are Bored
Monday, March 25th: Broken Teepee
Also check out her interview at the Huffington Post and check out her book trailer here: