These days, in order to get published, many have written books against all conventions and traditions in a radical way. And going against convention Candida Moss did, but not from motive we may all expect.
The Myth of Persecution by Moss is the latest offering of an important topic in church history. This book will raise a few eyebrows. Moss’ motive is noble. She starts by showing how playing the victim can in fact cause one to become the victimizer, evident in recent clashes between religious groups (pp. 2-3). The result of her work then, is partly practical and partly ethical.
The first myth Moss deals with is that Christians alone owned martyrdom. The ethical topos of martyrdom is found almost universally. In the early Christian world, the Greeks and Romans both had “suffering of the righteous” as a theme, evident in the legend about Socrates’ death. Between the Testaments, Jews also had such a tradition (e.g. the Maccabees, Daniel etc.). For those of us who have studied both the early Christian world and Christianity, Moss’s observation is no news. However, she is writing to an audience (especially Christian audience) that has long believed that martyrdom was what set Christians apart and that such noble martyrdom itself would have been sufficient evidence to prove the truth of Christianity.
The second myth Moss focuses on is that extensive persecution happened in the early post-apostolic church. She points out how Christians for various purposes and from various viewpoints constructed an impression that they were highly persecuted. She cites case after case, exhausting all primary literature related to the topic. In making her case, she notes rhetorical strategy and artistry employed by early Christians, especially apologists, who partly try to elicit sympathy for the faith, partly try to deal with their own historical situation, and partly to justify their own ecclesiastical decision-making.
While I find this book fascinating and full of great historical factoids, I do have a few points of critical engagements with it. First, Moss’s discussion about the root of the Christian word “witness” (i.e. the Greek word “marturion”) probably deserves a little more nuanced treatment. It is unfair to give the impression that somehow the earliest Christians had transformed a Greek word that originally meant “witness” to “martyr.” I’m unsure that they did not. Such a usage, within contexts of all available texts, did not begin until second century, maybe with the exception of Revelation. She states that it is impossible to prove the shift (p. 27), but if we gather all the usages within context of every text in the first two centuries, surely, we cannot avoid the conclusion of some shift (or widening) of meaning. Within the NT, the word is used exactly as other Greek speakers did, as “witness.” With no consideration of the shift, she makes her case stronger on Christian invention of martyrdom terminologies (as we know it now) while basing their ideas on heroic deaths from other cultures.
Second, Moss’s examples from pre-NT texts show that such heroic deaths were normal. Why indeed is this news for the scholarly readers? Obviously, she does not have the well-read audience in mind. This is not a criticism against her. Rather, it is a criticism against the wider faith community that is stuck in the “Bible-only” rut while never having to bother finding out the impact extra-biblical stuff on the biblical stuff. Among scholars, the “uniqueness” of martyrdom to Christianity should not be the term “martyrdom,” as Moss rightly points out. However, the cause for martyrdom seems to be a somewhat unique Christian phenomenon in the first two centuries. Rightly, she points out that the plot of martyrdom narrative in Christian literature resembles that of other similar genres. However, this does not automatically show that these stories are not historical. After all, there’re only so many different elements we can fit into a martyrdom story, and such elements are the cause of why we categorize them to be martyrdom story to begin with. The form critical argument is a bit circular (i.e. if the story contains these elements, it must be a martyrdom story; it’s a martyrdom story because it contains these elements). This is the point where Moss switches from her historical move into a rhetorical-literary reading of the text. Sure, I understand that some of the conversations and events were under the artistic construct of early church writers, much like a lot of the conversations and events recorded in the NT. Some accounts “borrowed” (to use Moss’s term) expressions and plotline from other non-Christian literature in an artistic retelling. Yet, if we dismiss artistic reconstruction as the tool of doing history, anything on the National Geographic Channel is still less believable because after all, NGC programming is often not only chronologically removed from ancient events but also speculatively retold of those events. I have no problem with literary artistry to communicate a story. I also understand that such construct is powerful rhetorically. In fact, the very fact the entire NT canon is preserved as one body of literature testifies to the power of artistic construct. Yet, unlike Moss, I hesitate to project into such constructs that entire events were fictional which seems to be the logical step she takes from her chapter two to chapter three. Moreover, sometimes, the inconsistent but not impossible details can be a proof of reality rather than fiction simply because if an ancient author were to make up a story, he would do better to make sure all details were smooth rather than rough. In some places (p. 150), Moss clearly favors Roman documents over Christian perception, even to the degree of speculating on the “intent” of the Roman emperor Decius (circa 3rd century) of not persecuting Christians in particular (that, is ONE explanation of course). If the fascist decrees of Decius only created problems for Christians, the only right logical deduction by the Christians would be that the decree was aimed at them. Even if the legislation was designed for everyone, the affected party was the Christians. Moss’s outright dismissal of the Christian claim seems a little weak here, at least in her favoring of non-Christian literature. The Christian perspective in Christian documents should at least rank with equal importance as the non-Christian documents.
We must summarize my assessment above. In some of Moss’s examination of facts, Moss’s observations about the impossible details of the story are helpful at least for a historian to separate facts from fiction. Perhaps another way to look at this inquiry is the degree of believability in each particular text and in each case. She seems to have dealt with a more nuanced formulation in her last chapters. As historians, we probably should work on a spectrum instead of absolutes. Certainly, some of the tales were probably false, as Moss points out the impossible details in some of the stories (e.g. Barlaam and Josaphat). So, were there persecutions in the early church? Of course, there were. These stories are based on some kind of situation. Were the persecutions equally widespread? Maybe not. They were probably more sporadic than continuous and more local rather than widespread. The ancient picture is always going to be more complicated than we like to imagine in our popular framing of history.
I do not want to give the impression that Moss’s work has no contribution; her work has big contributions. It certainly condemns certain Christian logic that points at martyrdom as the proof of truth. With the new Islamic jihad, the idea of martyrdom and heroic death has been taken to the next rhetorical level. Yet, no Christian would dare to argue that such heroism would be the reason why everyone should be Muslim or even a Gnostic (p. 108 has a discussion on possible Gnostic martyrs also). This argument is certainly not within the NT. Moss’ work practically destroys this argument by dethroning its powerful place in Christian apologetics. More importantly, she shows that any such apologetic rhetoric can be an exercise of power. Power is always involved when religion is involved, whether it is about powerlessness or powerfulness. Moss’ explicit intention of not wanting to attack the faith surely can inform us about our faith. Would the Christian faith be weaker if widespread persecution was not an early-church reality? I do not think so. In that sense, we should thank Moss for destroying one of our apologetic paper models in the guise of a strong fortress.
Another contribution Moss makes is towards the way we do history. Christians tend to construct historical metanarratives. However, she gives example after example from various locations that persecution was not extensive. For those of us who work with historical narrative, we can take heed and understand that perhaps “extensive” is a relative term. If we survey where these pockets of persecution happened (I presuppose that such persecutions actually happened), we can only carefully say that persecution happened in those locations and not all over the Empire. Even if we buy into the persecution in multiple locations, they did not happen all at the same time. Dealing with reconstructed history from raw primary source material, presuppositions often influence us more than we realize. Moss is there to sound the alarm. The same should go for those studying the Bible. They should also reexamine their own presuppositions, lest truth gets mixed up with falsehood and reality with fantasy. History, after all, is interpretive.
Moss’s book, whether we like it or not, has pointed out the complex dynamics of victimhood rhetoric. I agree with one particular colleague, Prof. Greg Carey whose article basically declares that we just need to get over ourselves (he’s talking about the Christians in the western society)! Her work has more ethical implications than mere historicity of martyr accounts. People have played the victim while justifying their own verbal (and sometimes physical) violence on their self-righteous and self-interest jihad. I have seen this on both sides of the fence. Certain power mongers on the Right in Hong Kong churches almost always play the victim card when their extreme views are questioned by intellectually vigorous oppositions. After gaining much sympathy from airing their victimhood laundry in public from their “fans” and congregations, such “victims” harnessed their momentum by counterattacking those who even dared questioned (how dare they question anything at all?) their original claims, thus making these sleigh-of-hand artists the inerrant saints of the Religious Right. Not only is such rhetoric unhelpful, it insults those true victims of persecution in places all over the world where people indeed give their lives for their faith for no other reason other than extremist hatred from their persecutors. The Coptic women being gang-raped by a Muslim extremist mob in Egypt shouting “Nazara, Nazara!” (a derogatory term means something like “Nazarene” to describe Christians) were going through persecution! The Indonesian Christians whose churches were burnt recently were true victims of persecution! The Coptic Christians being killed for no other reason than believing in Jesus were martyrs! Make no mistake about it. Calling our little religious inconveniences or disagreeable but minor inquiries from our interlocutors persecution amounts to calling a Chinese New Year firecracker an atomic bomb. In our relatively safe environment to practice our faith, many of our church leaders need to create enemies and victimhood in order to get publicity and gain greater power. Such efforts insult true victims. For this ethical problem alone (and it’s a problem that plays out almost every other week among Religious Right circles), I believe every believer should read Moss’s work and engage with its ethical dimension in order to break the stronghold of victimhood rhetoric by charlatans and to avoid making such mistakes themselves. The human imagination can be deceitful and vulnerable all at once. Moss’s work will serve as the proper antidote to such ecclesiastical sickness.
One of the big contributions of this work, even if it destroys some time-honored Christian traditions is the application of historical critical method. The historical critical method has been thoroughly applied to both Testaments in biblical studies, but in our popular study of church history, the method is uneven and sometimes sloppy. Her work has shown both the merit and limitation of such methods. I would suggest all serious students of church history engage with every single piece of literature Moss dissected in order to come up with their own conclusions.