Thursday, March 21, 2013

Are Stories of Christian Persecution a Myth?

I remember the first time I heard the story of Polycarp, an early Christian martyr. According to the legend, this bishop of Smyrna was executed for his faith. Having been tried and found to be a Christian he was tied to a stake and set on fire. However, the flames didn't burn him and instead of smelling burning flesh the crowd smelled what seemed like baking bread. Frustrated, the executioner stabbed Polycarp and the flow of blood from his dying body extinguished the flames. 

It wasn't long after that I was introduced to martyr stories through the works of Eusebius the church historian and Foxe's Book of Martyrs. It seems that many died while proclaiming their love for God and the Church.

But did they? Are these stories true or are they myths based perhaps on real events or are they completely fabricated stories. In her new book The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom (Harper Collins, 2013), Candida Moss examines the martyrdom genre. Here's the blurb.

In The Myth of Persecution, Candida Moss, a leading expert on early Christianity, reveals how the early church exaggerated, invented, and forged stories of Christian martyrs and how the dangerous legacy of a martyrdom complex is employed today to silence dissent and galvanize a new generation of culture warriors. According to cherished church tradition and popular belief, before the Emperor Constantine made Christianity legal in the fourth century, early Christians were systematically persecuted by a brutal Roman Empire intent on their destruction. As the story goes, vast numbers of believers were thrown to the lions, tortured, or burned alive because they refused to renounce Christ. These saints, Christianity’s inspirational heroes, are still venerated today. Moss, however, exposes that the “Age of Martyrs” is a fiction—there was no sustained 300-year-long effort by the Romans to persecute Christians. Instead, these stories were pious exaggerations; highly stylized rewritings of Jewish, Greek, and Roman noble death traditions; and even forgeries designed to marginalize heretics, inspire the faithful, and fund churches. The traditional story of persecution is still taught in Sunday school classes, celebrated in sermons, and employed by church leaders, politicians, and media pundits who insist that Christians were—and always will be—persecuted by a hostile, secular world. Moss urges modern Christians to abandon the conspiratorial assumption that the world is out to get Christians and, rather, embrace the consolation, moral instruction, and spiritual guidance that these martyrdom stories provide.
In a Hufington Post article timed to coincide with the release of her book, Moss had this to say:

Even the earliest, most ostensibly trustworthy martyrdom stories have been edited and reworked. The authors of these accounts borrowed from ancient mythology, changed the details of events to make the martyrs appear more like Jesus, and made the Roman antagonists increasingly venomous. The motivations of these later authors and editors, who have gone unheralded by history but who shaped our understanding of the world, are arguably more fascinating than the martyrdom stories themselves. No doubt there are kernels of truth at the heart of some of some of the stories, but we do not have evidence of persecution.
The Roman evidence is also ambiguous. If Nero did target Christians after the great fire of Rome in 64 C.E. -- and the are good reasons for thinking he did not -- his treatment of them stemmed less from a desire to harm Christians than it did from his need to deflect blame from himself. Ancient Romans who spread the story about Nero saw his actions as contemptible and unjust.
Archeological evidence reveals that on those occasions when Christians did die en masse it was the result of general legislation intended to defend and fortify the empire. Christians were not named directly in imperial legislation until the second half of the third century, and it was only from 303-305 C.E., in the reign of the Emperor Diocletian, that we see anything resembling the brutal persecution of popular imagination. Christians did die. And Christians were occasionally persecuted, but should two years of persecution under Diocletian lead to nearly 2,000 years of Christian persecution complex?
The idea that Christianity is persecuted and needs to defend itself from external and internal attack comes from the victorious Church of the fourth and fifth centuries and beyond. It is a story that has brought comfort to the suffering, sick and oppressed, but it is a story that was used -- expanded, exaggerated and even invented -- to exclude heretics, that legitimized great violence and that continues to disrupt civil discourse. And it precisely this -- the effect that this inflated myth of persecution has had on modern politics and discourse -- that makes it imperative that we get our facts straight.

Clearly this is going to be a provocative book that will bring both heat and light to the discussion. I look forward to reading it to see what she has to say. I imagine there will be some who react, but I suspect that there will be much that Moss will shed light on that will help us to evaluate the history of Christianity. 

No comments:

Post a Comment