Friday, March 22, 2013

Book Snap: Candida Moss' "The Myth of Persecution"

When this book was first taken notice of on TheologyWeb, I made two predictions: 1) It would attack a "strawman" version of early Christian persecution, and 2) it would use the same poor logic and scholarship as copycat theorists like Dennis MacDonald and Randel Helms as a way to cast doubt on stories of persecution. Both predictions were correct, with some qualification. 

First, although a strawman is attacked, it's a strawman that's also hoisted by some popular Christian leaders and commentators. The "myth" of the title is that of "unrelenting persecution" in the earliest years of the church. [21] In contrast, my view has been stated before as follows:

This is a standard argument, but in need of some fine-tuning. The most important martyrs are those of the time of Jesus and shortly thereafter. 

Admittedly there are few examples of this sort of martyrdom that we may point to -- records of church tradition are our only source for the martyrdoms of many of the Apostles; our best witness is actually Paul himself, who testifies that he persecuted the church with "zeal" -- using a word used to describe the actions of the Maccabbeans who killed when needed to clean things up.

But in fact we can broaden this argument further: persecution did not automatically equal martyrdom, and this is yet another reason why Christianity should not have thrived and survived. As Robin Lane Fox writes, "By reducing the history of Christian persecution to a history of legal hearings, we miss a large part of the victimization." [Fox.PagChr, 424] Beyond action by authorities, Christians could expect social ostracization if they stuck by their faith, and that is where much of the persecution Fox refers to came from - rejection by family and society, relegation to outcast status.

It didn't need to be martyrdom -- it was enough that you would suffer socially and otherwise, even if still alive. DeSilva notes that those who violated the current social values (as Christians indeed did) would find themselves subject to measures designed to shame them back into compliance -- insult, reproach, physical abuse, whipping, confiscation of property, and of course disgrace -- much more important in an honor-and-shame society than to us. And the NT offers ample record of such things happening [Heb. 10:32-4; 1 Pet. 2;12, 3;16, 4:12-16; Phil. 1:27-30; 1 Thess. 1:6, 2:13-14; 2 Thess. 1:4-5; Rev. 2:9-10, 13].


Candida Moss is a New Testament scholar, but like so many of even those, she has not yet caught up  to the data when it comes to the dealings with a deviant movement in an agonistic society. Nearly after the thinking of a fundamentalist, The Myth of Persecution (hereafter MP) consistently presents the matter as though death and martydom were the only forms of persecution to be concerned with. More nuanced scholars, and better practiced Christian apologists, do not engage in this strawman. Moss and the Christians she addresses do. (We'll see why she bothers, at the end of this review.) Thus for example, she says:

"Scholars of early Christianity agree that there is very little evidence for the persecution of Christians. Although there are references to the deaths of Christians in the writings of the early church, these are vague and often exaggerated." [16]

Are they? Perhaps they are; I've not looked into the issue much, having had no need, but if they are, Moss' arguments aren't the ones that will compel the conclusion. Beyond that, as can be seen, the equation made here is clearly, "persecution = deaths," which is, as noted above, an extremely simplistic understanding of the matter. (Less often, Moss' words imply that only the state can persecute; but most of what would have been experienced by the Christians as social deviants would have been from their immediate social ingroups.)

One thing Moss does get right is that certain types of death were considered honorable, which does substantially affect the argument re, "why would they die for a lie"? [17] That's one reason I adopted a more nuanced form of the argument some years ago.

Another semi-strawman addressed by Moss is that Christian martyrdom was somehow "unique" and that Christians invented the concept. I have to admit that I have never heard this one before myself, and though  it was apparently a view held by an authority no less stellar than the historian Glen Bowersock [24], it seems to rest on a matter of semantics and a reputed degree of expression, combined with a new use of the word "martyr" by Christians. Whatever the virtues of those arguments may be, it is certainly not an argument we would have used here.

With that, we can briefly discuss now Moss' case for mimesis, and it is a rather poorer one than we have seen from others of the same school. It should be noted to start that Moss admits that the concept of dealing with death with nobility, honor, and dignity reflected the common mores of the social world of the Bible. [41] But Moss forgets this lesson almost immediately, saying only a few pages later that "early Christians borrowed or adapted ideas about noble death..." [56] Later she refers to such elements in the death of Polycarp. [65] 

Huh? If dying nobly was a commonplace virtue of their world, then why do we need to theorize "borrowing" or "adapting"? Wouldn't real life, historic Christians strive for the same virtues? And wouldn't real accounts of them doing so be the ones most likely to be featured for the purpose of exhortation? So it is, for example, in her analysis of the martydom of Polycarp [63f], Moss manages to claim as parallels things that would be perfect commonplaces in an agonistic setting, and the rest of the parallels aren't much better, as she argues it was all put together to imitate Jesus.

But now to a more serious point. I have noted that all mimetic theorists have to engage in some level of dishonesty to make their case. We saw this with Thomas Brodie in the last review, and we actually find worse from Moss, in the form of outright misinformation. For example, she reports on the story of Polycarp's martyrdom:

"Before his arrest, hearing rumors of persecution, Polycarp goes outside the city."

Um, yes. Just assuming for the sake of argument that this was the full story (it isn't), let's think about that. If Polycarp were a Christian, and he wanted to imitate Jesus, going outside the city would have been a way for him, as a historical person, to honor Jesus by way of imitation. Moss apparently hasn't figured out that what she thinks an author can invent, a real person like Polycarp can actually DO, and for the same reason.

But like I said, that's assuming for the sake of argument. I might point out, though, that there's more to the story than Moss tells the reader, which shows that her claim of a parallel is more reliant on her own description than on the story itself:

But the most admirable Polycarp, when he first heard [that he was sought for], was in no measure disturbed, but resolved to continue in the city. However, in deference to the wish of many, he was persuaded to leave it. He departed, therefore, to a country house not far distant from the city. There he stayed with a few [friends], engaged in nothing else night and day than praying for all men, and for the Churches throughout the world, according to his usual custom.

In other words, this isn't at all like what happened to Jesus. Jesus was led out of the city to be executed, for the dual purpose of having his execution beside a public road AND to avoid the ritual pollution of a death by crucifixion within the city's precincts. Polycarp, who wanted to stay in the city, had to be persuaded to leave, apparently for the purpose of taking him out of harm's way -- as shown by the fact that he gets off to another home when he hears he's on the verge of being caught. For Moss to claim this as a parallel, while also NOT relating the whole text, is the height of dishonesty.

Just as dishonest is this claim by Moss: "[Polycarp] is betrayed by someone close to him..."  We're supposed to think Judas mimesis, right? Not so:

And when those who sought for him were at hand, he departed to another dwelling, whither his pursuers immediately came after him. And when they found him not, they seized upon two youths [that were there], one of whom, being subjected to torture, confessed. It was thus impossible that he should continue hid, since those that betrayed him were of his own household.

So in other words, this wasn't a "betrayal" in the Judas sense -- a disloyal follower turning the leader in for a reward. This was another victim, one who "betrayed" only in the sense of, "gave him away" -- and that under torture. Does Moss tell her readers any of this? No, she does not, and one is compelled to ask why.

The one decent parallel Moss offers is that in which Polycarp, like Jesus, rides into town on a donkey. But this of all things is exactly the sort of intentionality Polycarp would want to engage -- showing that he was a man of peace, and a follower of Jesus in that.

It's also worth noting some examples of how Moss engages in what I call Kummel Karps, after the Biblical scholar Werner Kummel, whose main standard for making an objection to the historicity of the text was that he was capable of thinking it up, in some cases after apparently having ingested non-culinary mushrooms. Moss follows this tradition well, as for example she argues that Luke's version of Jesus in his Passion has him looking more noble, while Mark's version has Jesus looking "desperate and in need of comfort." [59] 

Um, no. For one thing, in the social world of the Bible, proper emotional display was part and parcel of expressing yourself honorably, even if you didn't happen to feel that way. In other words, just because Jesus SOUNDS "desperate and in need of comfort" doesn't mean he actually was. For another, Moss relies on some rather poor and outdated scholarship to arrive at her conclusion about Mark's Jesus; apparently no one told her that Jeremias' "abba = childlike" thesis has been thoroughly debunked. For another, the cry of "dereliction" at the cross, quoting as it does Ps. 22, is actually an allusion to that Psalm's triumphant end, in essence, Jesus doing a Schwarzenegger "I'll be back" impersonation. Beyond that, Moss detects the wrong reason for Luke to have a more businesslike tone (Jesus "knelt down, and prayed") versus Mark's more dramatic approach (Jesus "threw himself on the ground and prayed"). Luke is writing to Theophilus, who is most likely a Roman magistrate who'd ask Luke to save the drama for his mama, whereas Mark reflects an oral performance by Peter, done honorably (see Whitney Shiner on this). Moss' supposition of an "editorial program" is right, but for the wrong reasons. Beyond that, her claim that "Luke's changes to Mark's Gospel revolutionize our picture of Jesus" is more than a little silly, since it doesn't make Mark's account go poof and vanish.

More examples of Kummel Karps can be found in Moss' take on Polycarp's martyrdom. One section of the analysis consists of a series of inane questions such as, "Does it seem plausible that the Jewish members of the audience squeezed past the other members of the crowd and jumped the barrier [at an arena] in order to collect firewood from nearby businesses?" [98] Um -- yes.  Perhaps Moss could stand to watch a few soccer riots and get an education; one tends to get jaded living in academic ivory towers and all.

But then again, she also reports the story incorrectly anyway, even as she this time actually quotes it: "This, then, was carried into effect with greater speed than it was spoken, the multitudes immediately gathering together wood and fagots out of the shops and baths; the Jews especially, according to custom, eagerly assisting them in it." Note: Moss incorrectly indicates that Jews alone went to gather wood, when it is actually said that Jews especially did so, which eliminates the Karp about Jewish members particularly "squeezing past". There is also nothing to suggest they needed to jump a barrier. (I also wonder whether the Jews were actually shop owners who were happy to contribute wood, rather than people in the arena, which would also render Moss' Kummel Karp moot.)

Perhaps the most laughable portion of MP is Moss' treatment of Tacitus' account of the fire of 64 AD, and the resulting blame assigned to Christians. Moss begins by taking the tack of the Christ myther, pretending that there must be some problem because Tacitus is writing about an event that happened 50 years earlier. Then she raises a Kummel Karp that the use of "Christians" of people in 64 AD is anachronistic -- which is based not on evidence, but on Moss' presupposition that it just can't be that way. Finally, she all but accuses Tacitus of simply making the blame up as it "reflects his own situation around 115." [139] This is imagination, empty accusation, and wishful thinking at work -- not careful consideration or respectful treatment of the evidence.

I couldn't finish without this howler from Moss, which I collected from another reviewer of MP: "The canonical Acts of the Apostles ends before Paul even gets to Rome...” [77] 

Really? Is Moss' Bible missing Acts 28?

And so, why does Moss bother with all of this, anyway? The answer lies in the sort of naivete that is borne of passive-aggressive self-righteousness. Apparently a number of Christians see fit to invoke the spectre of marytrdom in the early church as a talking and rallying point. Having debunked this Sunday School mythology, Moss naively supposes that with a wave of her Tinkerbell wand and a clapping of her shoes together, she will be able to shut off that "dialogue-ending language" [13] spigot so we can "seek compromise and resolution" instead of snap at each other,and the maybe become "more compassionate," have a less "polarized view," [14] and all sit down and watch Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood together. Ha, ha, ha. Of course, it doesn't occur to Moss that it's a very simple matter to appeal to the few certifiably historical instances of martyrdom that remain after that, including many in more modern times;  or beyond that, to just "act the martyr" on some other basis, as members of many groups, even atheists, are prone to . Candida Moss, meet John Loftus. She probably should, so that she can get a grip on just how fruitless it is, in fact, to "seek compromise and resolution" with certain parties.

In the end, MP is a fairly desperate attempt to debunk a myth that probably didn't need much debunking in the first place.


  1. An article by Moss was published on the Daily Beast. It is titled "Why Did The Catholic Church Ban The Spreading of Ashes".

    Here is the quote I want you to see:

    "For early Christians the resurrection of the dead might have been threatened by the experience of martyrdom. Not only were the bodies of martyrs dismembered and eaten by wild animals, they were frequently burned, and (according to Christians) the Romans delighted in throwing corpses into rivers and secreting away remains so that Christians could not bury their dead. The response to this, from Christian theologians, was to point out that the God who created the universe could surely reassemble a dismembered body. It was an idea they had absorbed from the martyrs of the Maccabean revolt."

    Next paragraph is
    "What all of this shows is that, historically speaking, both the theology and practice of burial have responded to changing political and social climates. The same can be said of Tuesday’s announcement."