Persecution Myth? How the Present Explains the Past
Originally published by World Magazine
Despite the fact that Christian martyrdom under the militant Roman Empire has long been an unquestioned historical fact, Candida Moss in her new book The Myth of Persecution claims that it was largely a "myth," that many of history's best known narratives of Christian martyrs were entirely fabricated.
Failure to comply: Saint Sebastian, who was ordered killed by the Roman emperor Diocletian.
This thesis, as most modern-day academic theses concerning early history, is fundamentally based on conjecture, projections, and above all, anachronisms—the sort that earlier turned Christ into a homosexual hippie and Muhammad into a humanitarian feminist. Neither Moss nor anyone else can prove or disprove what the primary historical texts say—that Roman persecution of Christians was very real, widespread, and brutal.
We weren't there.
But from an objective point of view, is it not more reasonable to accept the many testimonies of contemporary eyewitnesses, than it is the conjectures of a politically charged book that is separated from its subject by 2,000 years?
Among other ideas unintelligible and inapplicable to the ancient world, Moss invokes "T-shirts," "favorite athletes," and "brands of soda" to "prove" that the ancient narrative of Christians tortured and killed for their faith was all a gag to make a profit: "Martyrs were like the action heroes of the ancient world," Moss says. "It was like getting your favorite athlete endorsing your favorite brand of soda. …Of course, the prices were completely jacked up."
In short, the merit of Moss' thesis rests in the fact that it satisfies a certain anti-Christian sentiment, that it satisfies a modern-day political perspective—and not that it offers any facts or serious arguments. By projecting cynical postmodern perspectives onto the mentalities of both Romans and Christians, who lived worlds and centuries away, the thesis is ultimately farcical.
Even so, let's tackle the myth charge from a different angle. Let's leave the question of eyewitnesses, texts, and traditions, and instead rely on common sense—that which is in short supply in the academic community. The fact is, we can often learn about the past by looking at the present. If at least 100 million Christians are currently being persecuted today, in an era when Western ideas of humanitarianism and religious tolerance have permeated the rest of the world—is it not reasonable to conclude that 2,000 years ago, when "might made right" and brutally prevailed, that Christians were also being persecuted then, especially when contemporary sources indicate as much?
Consider the modern Islamic world alone, where today's overwhelming majority of horrific Christian persecution occurs, as documented in my new book Crucified Again: Exposing Islam's New War on Christians. Today in the 21st century, Christians under Islam are still being tortured, imprisoned, enslaved, and killed; their churches and Bibles are routinely banned or burned.
Why is that? Because Islam is a supremacist cult, which brooks no opposition and demands conformity, one way or the other: Islamic law (see Koran 9:29) teaches that those who come under its hegemony must either convert, or keep their faith but live as ostracized third-class citizens (dhimmis), or die. The supremacist culture of the Roman Empire—an even older martial cult devoted to the gods of war—was not much different.
If today's Muslims—who are acquainted with modern ideas of humanitarianism and tolerance—are still brutally persecuting the Christian minorities in their midst, are we seriously to believe that the warlike Roman Empire, which existed at a time when brutality and cruelty were the expected norm, did not persecute Christians, especially when the records clearly say it did? The Roman punishment of crucifixion alone sheds light on the ruthless severity of the ancient empire.
Christianity was and still is the one religion that refuses to comply with its supremacist overlords, that puts its beliefs above the preservation of life. Other religions approve outward conformity (Islamic law permits Muslims to outwardly renounce Muhammad if doing so will save their lives), while Christians have long had a habit of "annoying" their superiors by refusing to comply, even to save their lives.
Just as Christ irked Pilate, the representative of the supremacist Roman Empire, by refusing to utter some words to save his life, his disciples and countless other ancient Christians followed his example, and today modern-day Christians are doing the same. Their supremacist overlords—whether pagan Romans or modern Muslims—persecuted, and continue to persecute, them for it. (Most recently in Iran, Islamic authorities are trying to force an imprisoned Iranian-American pastor to abjure Christ, even as he resists under torture.)
Historical texts aside, today's Christian persecution is a clear indicator of yesterday's Christian persecution—for those who exercise some common sense, that is.