Engaging @CandidaMoss’s The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom

This is not a review; there are plenty of reviews out there. Instead, this is an ongoing — when I can get time — engagement with this book. There is a reason why I would rather engage this book instead of reading it and keeping it to myself. First, because I find it interesting the interaction with Classicism. The New Testament writers lived in, was acculturated by, and used their culture. No Christian at any point and time lived or lives in a vacuum. Second, when I posted a link to one of my posts regarding Dr. Moss, I was roundly criticized by a fellow Protestant in respect to a perceived minimalism advocated by the professor. How ironic — a Protestant against what he perceives as minimalism of the value of Christian Tradition.

But, the author does not seek to dismiss Christian Tradition nor to minimize the stories we have received. With righteous reason, she writes to right the rhetoric. Her introduction begins with several stories showcasing why this project is important, concluding with the statement, “(t)he rhetoric of persecution legitimates and condones retributive violence.”

As an American, I fear I am overcome with the language of persecution. We see this daily in the bluster from the Religious Right when they fear a great tribulation or some extreme persecution that amounts to nothing more than a political disagreement. She is right, that this martyrdom complex comes from a long tradition of Christians believing that they have a foundation of persecution.

Her goal is rather grand but simple, hopeful even,

Without this posture and the polarized view of the world upon which it relies, we might— without compromising our religious or political convictions— be able to reach common ground and engage in productive government, and we might focus on real examples of actual suffering and actual oppression.

And she is not alone in her endeavor to reexamine early Christian martyrdom stories. That is the thing with my friends who decry such an action by a “modern” or “new” scholar. They forget sound history, something Moss reminds us of when she embarks on this journey. A real examination of early Christian martyr stories began in the seventeenth century by a Catholic priest, coming to fruition centuries later when out of the sixty-eight volumes of stories collected, only a handful were thought to be reliable. The large amount of stories, stories that were rewritten, multiplying in detail, quantity, and quality is likewise an interesting pursuit for those who would study literary trajectories. It was, after all, the Greco-Roman and Jewish and almost every culture way to take previous stories, using them to build new ones.

She ends her introduction with an unwavering statement:

The traditional history of martyrdom is a myth, a myth that gives Christians who deploy it in the sorts of examples adduced here the rhetorical high ground, but a myth that makes dialogue impossible.

I take it she intends to defend that statement. I look forward to it.

The point of the book, as I take it, is not to dismiss actual martyrs of the Christian faith, but given historical facts and present realities initiated by bad historical fantasies, it is time to reexamine what this poor myth has left us. I hope you will get this book instead of complaining about it. Also, honestly guys. For those of you who are so enlightened, stop the ogling. It’s getting ridiculous. 

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