Monday, March 4, 2013

Early Christian Persecution: A Myth?

Jean-Léon Gérôme: The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer

A deacon writes of the new book by Candida Moss, a book which claims that the relentless persecution of Christians in the early Church is a myth:
Perhaps it would be an overreaction 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.  (Read entire post.)
I am not going to attempt to debunk the book before reading it but off the top of my head I can see several problems with the author's contentions, that the Christians fostered the "myth" of constant persecution order to keep out heretics and later used it as a galvanizing political tool to defeat adversaries. I do not understand how she can say this when some of the most chilling accounts of the persecutions of the Christians in the Roman Empire come from the Romans themselves, such as Tacitus, who wrote the following:
Therefore, to stop the rumor [that he had set Rome on fire], he [Emperor Nero] falsely charged with guilt, and punished with the most fearful tortures, the persons commonly called Christians, who were [generally] hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of that name, was put to death as a criminal by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea, in the reign of Tiberius, but the pernicious superstition - repressed for a time, broke out yet again, not only through Judea, - where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also, whither all things horrible and disgraceful flow from all quarters, as to a common receptacle, and where they are encouraged. Accordingly first those were arrested who confessed they were Christians; next on their information, a vast multitude were convicted, not so much on the charge of burning the city, as of 'hating the human race'. 

In their very deaths they were made the subjects of sport: for they were covered with the hides of wild beasts, and worried to death by dogs, or nailed to crosses, or set fire to, and when the day waned, burned to serve for the evening lights. Nero offered his own garden players for the spectacle, and exhibited a Circensian game, indiscriminately mingling with the common people in the dress of a charioteer, or else standing in his chariot. For this cause a feeling of compassion arose towards the sufferers, though guilty and deserving of exemplary capital punishment, because they seemed not to be cut off for the public good, but were victims of the ferocity of one man.
 That the Christians were viciously persecuted by the Romans is a fact of history. No, the persecution was not constant, but often depended upon the politics of the time or of the region. Christians could live happily for decades in some places without being persecuted. The persecution ebbed and flowed over the course of three hundred years. Over the years, legends grew up around many of the more famous and popular martyrs and saints, as they became patrons of towns, cities and countries, stopped volcanic eruptions, ended plagues, saved girls from prostitution and sent babies to infertile couples. This did not happen as propaganda. It happened naturally over the course of time.

When I was a child during the Second Vatican Council, I remember when many early martyrs and saints were removed from the Roman Calender because of lack of solid historical evidence of their ordeals or even of their existence, St. Catherine of Alexandria being one. The same saints, however, were retained by the Byzantine Catholic calender, since they and the accounts of their sufferings were seen as being hallowed by sacred tradition.

Even if every Roman martyr was an invention, and no one was martyred before 1545, there would be still be enough martyrs to cover the Church in glory until the end of time. There are many solid accounts of Catholics martyred in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland with enough horrible tortures to convince even Candida Moss that martyrdom was not a myth or a piece of propaganda. It was a fact of life for the faithful.

More Christians were martyred in the twentieth century than at any other time of history. The Nazi concentration camps and Communist gulags contained many priests, nuns, laypeople. Are we to understand that their sufferings were all part of a propaganda machine or were they a powerful witness to an undying faith? What about the martyrs today, in Egypt, China, India, Iraq, Pakistan, and Indonesia? They die because they are attacked by those who hate what they believe, just like every other martyr in the past.



Stephanie A. Mann said...

Several years ago Anne Barbeau Gardiner in the New Oxford Review reviewed a book which posits that English Catholics created a myth of persecution and martyrdom : The book title is The Construction of Martyrdom in the English Catholic Community. By Anne Dillon. Ashgate (802-865-7641). 474 pages. 69 illustrations. $104.95

elena maria vidal said...

That's crazy, when there are so many primary sources on the subject! It's almost as bad as those who try to deny the Holocaust.