Thursday, February 21, 2013

The "Myth" of Early Christian Persecution?

The Cardinal Newman Society news feed has this item today, about Notre Dame theology professor, Dr. Candida Moss, promoting her new book, "The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom."  Here is her promotional:

Perhaps it would be an overreaction to this promotional material to express my surprise at what appears to be such a boldly revisionist project coming out of Notre Dame's theology department.  I've not read this book, and have only read about her previous book on the early martyrs; so I make no judgments about Dr. Moss's scholarship.  Certainly, I believe she would agree that there's nothing "mythic" or "invented" about the mere fact of persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire in the second and third centuries.  Consider, for example, Trajan's law criminalizing Christianity "for the name;" the numerous judicial records of exactly such trials and the death, imprisonment, or exiling of actual Christians that resulted; the mid-third-century imperial laws (Decius, Valerian) against Christian clergy, possession of the Christian scriptures, and so forth; the persecution of Diocletian and his successors in the East; none of these things have ever been in doubt as what actually happened.  (The question of why Roman authorities treated Christian in such ways is a separate one.  I'd agree with her that it wasn't "merely because they refused to deny Christ."  But why does she think these facts happened?)

This historical layer of the "Church of the martyrs" certainly does, as Dr. Moss claims, underlie in a persistent way the attitudes of Christians of other times and places to all sorts of circumstances.  In this sense, one could say there is a "myth" being formed.  But that's hardly unusual; all coherent groups of every kind, not only religious, recount shared experiences to reinforce identity and commitment.  There's no implication here, generally, that "myth" in this sense means "not true," or "distorting the historical record," or "politicized," or the like.  So it's difficult to see, based only on this promotional material and the rather provocative title, why it might follow that those implications are pertinent in this case.

But the promotion of the book as such, distinct from its scholarly content, does indeed seem to me obviously ideological ("... and they're not similarly persecuted today.")  Here is an advertisement for an upcoming lecture on the same, to be given in Washington DC in March.  Note the way in which word choice is used here to create an effect, and to qualify the meaningfulness of historical facts, in the direction of the very modern agenda already revealed in the video [my comments]:

According to cherished [w/c] church tradition, early Christians were uniquely [neither historians nor the Church have held the general position that only Christians were persecuted in the Roman Empire in Late Antiquity; one has only to look at e.g. Domitian] and systematically [the imperial laws against Christians in 251, 257, and 303-10 were as systematic as things got for the time] persecuted by a brutal [w/c] Roman Empire. Vast [w/c] numbers of believers were thrown to the lions or routinely [w/c] tortured or burned alive. In spite of these horrors, so the story goes [are we now to believe that no Christians were martyred by the Roman state?], these heroes of the early church chose to die rather than renounce their faith in God [indeed so; some Christians, then as now, possessed such courage and fidelity]. Such stories form part of the teaching of the church to the present day, inspiring some to acts of like courage in the face of modern hardships [this was and is an explicit goal in remembering the acts of the martyrs, just as the imitation of holiness is an explicit goal of remembering the lives of the saints]. Yet there is also the troubling [w/c] use of this heritage to silence the voices of those who act outside the perceived orthodoxies of the day [note the implication that all orthodox teachings are merely "perceived" and "of the day"].

In this lecture, Professor Candida Moss will address the true history [never before told! hidden for hundreds of year!] of persecution in the early church, and show how this history includes exaggerations and forgeries [this too is well known; yet we are able to evaluate the historical evidence and reliably hold that some subset of the evidence* is not exaggerated, forged, or added in later centuries] that eventually became part of the rhetoric [w/c] of the church. Moss will also address the question of the legacy [what she refers to in the trailer above as "dangerous," "especially in the language of the religious and political right"] of this history; a legacy that has animated the acts of some within the religious world to exclude [w/c; the great sin of post-modernity] those who would challenge [w/c] their hegemony [w/c].

What I find most arresting in this is how blatantly partisan such an avenue of promotion is, while still holding out the promised scholarship as properly scientific history.  Because we know, of course, that rational, right-thinking progressives never make use of a religious heritage to suggest false or unhistorical connections between the past and the present:

(Any allusion to other historical persons, living, dead, or resurrected from the dead, is purely a figment of the viewer's bigoted imagination.)
Just in the promotional material, then, one seems meant to conclude that, since the Roman Empire is not really a persecutor of Christians, but made to seem so by (some) Christians intent on preserving their "hegemony," so too the modern states of the West can and should similarly exclude Christian persons and Christian ideas (the "dangerous" "religious and political right") from the public square.  One cannot suggest that such exclusion might seem to violate otherwise compelling norms of law and fundamental rights, in a manner reminiscent of the history of persecution of Christians at other times and places, because of the implication that this is not really "persecution," for the same reasons it wasn't in late antique Rome.  And it's left dangling as a further implication that such exclusion is necessary, lest Christians rebuild that same hegemony that (the now well-worn ideology continues) has been dismantled, at such heroic cost, by the forces of egalitarian Reason in the last three or four centuries.

This maneuver (again, just in the promotional material, since I haven't read the book itself), strikes me as highly damaging to the faith of believers.  It calls into serious doubt the accepted meaning of an important period of the Church's history, and therefore also the authority of the tradition (or even Tradition) which has accepted and "mythologized" (if you like) that meaning.  It challenges the use of that authority by the current leaders of the Church (in the Catholic Church, at least, the apostolic authority of the bishops) who have been increasingly outspoken against precisely that impetus of exclusion, common in the West for two generations.  And it undermines the solidarity of Christians with the victims of much worse injustices (many of them, of course, Christians themselves) by falsely dividing different forms of abuse of power according to ideological preferences. 

I hope the book itself will offer much better than this; this is certainly not exemplary of the love of truth and pietas to one's students which Notre Dame and Yale taught me.

* Herbert Musurillo, The Acts of the Christian Martyrs (Oxford, 1972), is an excellent example of exactly such an effort to sift true historical accounts of early Christian martyrs from later pious fictions, and is generally accepted by historians as basically accurate.

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