Were Early Christians Really Persecuted? Historian Reveals the Surprising Truth.
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This is not to deny that some Christians were executed in horrible ways under conditions we’d consider grotesquely unjust. But it’s important, Moss explains, to distinguish between “persecution” and “prosecution.” The Romans had no desire to support a prison population, so capital punishment was common for many seemingly minor offenses; you could be sentenced to be beaten to death for writing a slanderous song. Moss distinguishes between those cases in which Christians were prosecuted simply for being Christians and those in which they were condemned for engaging in what the Romans considered subversive or treasonous activity. Given the “everyday ideals and social structures” the Romans regarded as essential to the empire, such transgressions might include publicly denying the divine status of the emperor, rejecting military service or refusing to accept the authority of a court. In one of her most fascinating chapters, Moss tries to explain how baffling and annoying the Romans (for whom “pacifism didn’t exist as a concept”) found the Christians — when the Romans thought about them at all.
Christians wound up in Roman courts for any number of reasons, but when they got there, they were prone to announcing, as a believer named Liberian once did, “that he cannot be respectful to the emperor, that he can be respectful only to Christ.” Moss compares this to “modern defendants who say that they will not recognize the authority of the court or of the government, but recognize only the authority of God. For modern Americans, as for ancient Romans, this sounds either sinister or vaguely insane.” It didn’t help that early Christians developed a passion for martyrdom. Suffering demonstrated both the piety of the martyr and the authenticity of the religion itself, and besides, it earned you an immediate, first-class seat in heaven. (Ordinary Christians had to wait for Judgment Day.) There were reports of fanatics deliberately seeking out the opportunity to die for their faith, including a mob that turned up at the door of a Roman official in Asia Minor, demanding to be martyred, only to be turned away when he couldn’t be bothered to oblige them.
Moss cannot be called a natural or fluent writer, but she is thorough, strives for clarity and is genuinely fired up in her concern for the influence of the myth of martyrdom on Western societies. “The idea of the persecuted church is almost entirely the invention of the 4th century and later,” she writes. This was, significantly, a period during which the church had become “politically secure,” thanks to Constantine. Yet, instead of providing a truthful account of Christianity’s early years, the scholars and clerics of the fourth century cranked out tales of horrific, systemic violence. These stories were subtly (and not so subtly) used as propaganda against heretical ideas or sects. They also made appealingly gruesome entertainment for believers who were, personally, fairly safe; Moss likens this to contemporary suburbanites reveling in a horror film.
Today, polemicists continue to use the deeply ingrained belief in a persecuted — and therefore morally righteous — church as a political club to demonize their opponents. Moss sees a direct link between the valorization of martyrs and preposterous right-wing rhetoric about the “war on Christianity.” It’s a tactic that makes compromise impossible. “You cannot collaborate with someone who is persecuting you,” Moss astutely points out. “You have to defend yourself.”
Where she is less shrewd is in her belief that by exposing the “false history of persecution,” we can somehow purge this paranoid approach to political differences. One of the most enlightening aspects of “The Myth of Persecution” is Moss’ ability to find contemporary analogies that make the ancient world more intelligible to the average reader, such as the Cassie Bernall story. But that story has an additional lesson to offer, about the true believer’s imperviousness to unpalatable facts. Bernall’s family and church are unmoved by the schoolmates who were present at the shooting and who have debunked the “She said yes” legend. “You can say it didn’t happen that way,” the Bernalls’ pastor told one reporter, “but the church won’t accept it. To the church, Cassie will always say yes, period.”