A Notre Dame theologian is downplaying the history of the persecution of Christians. “Early Christians, like virtually everyone in the ancient world, expanded, updated, and rewrote their sacred texts,” Candida Moss writes in The Chronicle Review. “The problem lies not with the use of these texts as religious stories—but with their acceptance as historical records.”
“The account of persecution and martyrdom encoded in these texts makes claims about the motives of non-Christians and the place of Christians in the world. It is easily adopted to justify vitriol and polemic in other contexts.” Nonetheless, Moss goes on to acknowledge that Christians were persecuted.
“There is no doubt that Romans executed Christians, just as they executed other social and political subversives,” Moss writes. “There is even evidence to suggest that there were brief periods (AD 257-58 under Valerian and 303-5, Diocletian’s tetrarchy) when Christians were deliberately singled out by Roman legislators and administrators. But Christians were not the victims of sustained persecution by the Romans, as has been mythologized in popular imagination. For the vast majority of the pre-Constantinian period, Christians flourished.”
“They were, as the third-century Christian writer Tertullian tells us, able to succeed in politics, law, and business. They were not hiding, either in the catacombs in Rome or in general. On the eve of Diocletian’s Great Persecution—which, beginning in 303, outlawed Christian scriptures, prohibited Christians from meeting, and razed places of worship—a newly erected church nestled across from the imperial palace in Nicomedia in Turkey, a symbol of the confidence of Christians living in the Roman Empire.”
Moss has made significant media appearances. She was interviewed on CBS News when Pope Benedict XVI retired and was featured in a National Geographic documentary on John the Baptist. “Even when Christians were killed by Romans, it was in numbers far fewer than is usually posited, and for a complicated blend of reasons, some social and political, that cannot be straightforwardly described as ‘religious,’” she argues in her essay in The Chronicle Review. “In the view of some Roman governors, like Pliny the Younger, Christianity was not a religion at all, but a politically subversive superstition.”
“Eusebius, and generations of Christians since, have decried the Emperor Decius for his ‘wicked’ and vicious persecution of Christians around 250. Yet none of the Roman evidence for the so-called Decian persecution even mentions Christians. It appears that Decius’ attempt to reform the empire was about social uniformity, not about Christianity. Before Decius, the prosecution of Christians was occasional and prompted by local officials, petty jealousies, and regional concerns.”
“That Christians saw themselves as persecuted is understandable, but it does not mean that the Romans were persecuting them. There is a difference between persecution and prosecution.” Perhaps that depends on what the meaning of persecution is.
Merriam Webster’s defines it as: “to harass or punish in a manner designed to injure, grieve, or afflict; specifically : to cause to suffer because of belief.” The early Christians seem to meet that test, even given the evidence Moss offers. Come to think of it, their heirs could also make the persecution charge based on that definition.
Malcolm A. Kline is the Executive Director of Accuracy in Academia.
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