Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Myth of Persecution by Candida Moss

Let’s start with my biases. In some ways, I might not be the target audience for this book. I’m a pretty conservative Christian and believe that the Bible is what it says it is. I don’t put a lot of stock in biblical textual criticism that appeals to things like “Q”, and I think a lot of liberal theology is a joke. On the other hand, maybe I’m exactly who it’s for: a believer who wants to know the truth even if it’s difficult or different. Unfortunately, The Myth of Persecution was disappointing--not only did I disagree with Moss’ conclusions in many instances, but I also didn’t find many of her arguments rigorous enough to be worthy of serious consideration.

But first, the good. Moss is a good writer, and the book moves along at a nice clip, covering a lot of material that could have been dull in a quick, enjoyable way. I also really appreciated her attitude throughout, and her desire for open dialog and honest examination of even the most sacred of Christian cows. When she discussed Christians and their modern day martyr complex, I found myself agreeing with her that positing an “us-vs.-them” approach to life ultimately stifles dialog and and prevents open communication and fellowship from taking place. I’ll even go a step further and say that, when Moss draws conclusions at the close of each section, I often agreed with her big picture points, even while i disagreed with the manner in which she reached them.

I don’t want to go through the issues I had point by point, but here’s a summary, followed by a couple examples. Primarily, Moss seems to operate from the perspective that Christian writers can’t be trusted. In virtually every instance where a Christian document disagreed with a non-Christian document--or, in some cases, was simply not corroborated by a secular one--the Christian document is treated as though it were clearly incorrect. Christian writers are repeatedly referred to as “shrill” and Moss clearly views them as uncredible. There are a lot of semantic games as well, one in particular that I’ll touch on below, and data that seems to contradict the thesis of the book--that Christians never experienced sustained persecution--is frequently glossed over lightly.

For example, when discussing Saul, who later became the Apostle Paul, and his persecution of believers, she allows that this may, indeed be an example of actual persecution; however, she then reframes it thusly:
“It wasn’t until the end of the first century that Jesus followers began to refer to themselves as “Christians”. The historical period when Stephen died and Paul was writing cannot be considered a period in which Jews persecuted Christians, because Christians did not yet exist.”
This is semantic hair-splitting of the worst kind. “Christian” literally means “little Christ” and the obvious implication is that a Christian is simply a Christ-follower. By Moss’ logic, Christ-followers who call themselves something besides “Christian” cannot be broadly thought of as persecuted Christians even if they are identical in all but name.

This isn’t the only instance of such pedantry either. Moss develops much of her thesis by carefully delineating between persecution and prosecution. Persecution, in the sense Moss uses it, covers only instances of violence targeted toward a specific group. Therefore, when Decius passed a law forbidding Christians from defending themselves in a court of law, this is not “persecution” but “prosecution”. She draws this same distinction between governmental “persecution” and personal “prosecution”. This seems ridiculous on its face: would anyone seriously argue that the Jews were not persecuted when they were ghettoized in Germany? Did their persecution begin only when violence against them was systematized?

Throughout the book, Moss relies on specious constructions like these, as well as examples that end with “We simply can’t know for sure” but carry the strong implication that her conclusions are correct. She takes traditional stories of martyrs, picks apart the embellishments, and then, frequently, dismisses the story altogether. She even does this with the story of Christ himself, whose death she unconvincingly compares to Socrates, after which she states,
“Every time someone is referred to or described as dying like Christ they are actually dying like Socrates and the Maccabees”
Moss is a scholar of martyrdom, and to some extent, I’m willing to believe that her more scholarly works--this is her first for a general audience--are more substantially argued. The history she covers is fascinating, and her advocacy for historical skepticism is valuable. Her ultimate point--that a martyr complex inhibits, rather than enhances, the Christian life, is strong, and one that many Christians I know could stand to learn. Unfortunately, Moss’ biases and over-reliance on semantics severely undercut her arguments and the book as a whole.

A positive review of the book, from an atheist perspective


VinnyJH57 said...

The distinction between "persecution" and "prosecution" is not dependent on violence. Christians who were prosecuted were put to death just as much as Christians who were persecuted. The reason that Moss does not consider the Decian edict to be persecution is that it did not target Christians. Everyone was required to participate in the imperial cult and everyone suffered the same penalty for failing to do so.

Brent Waggoner said...

Vinny, thanks for your comment. Re-reading the section where she defines the difference between persecution and prosecution in light of it does clarify it somewhat. However, if there's a law that disproportionately harms a subgroup of people, I think it could be said that said group is being persecuted; it's just that it's happening incidentally. I don't think Moss would agree with me, but I feel her definition is too narrow.

I'm adding a link to your review to the end of mine, so our readers can see another perspective.

VinnyJH57 said...

I agree that there are actions that fall short of physical violence that might still be described as persecution, but I think that you would be hard pressed to come up with a workable definition that wouldn't lead to endless arguments about specific cases. By drawing the line at physical violence, it is at least possible to make apples-to-apples comparisons.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this book for the tour.