The Pokey Finger of God

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The Christian Persecution Myth

February 27th, 2013 · No Comments · christianity, culture, media

One of my favorite myths of the “Early Church” has top billing in this new book by Candida Moss. I discussed this in some detail in my book, Janus in Nicea, but it was less of a key point than a reinforcing element. In retrospect, this is a better topic for public discussion as it doesn’t require one to broach the question of whether Christianity existed prior to the Fourth Century.

Moss apparently takes the Early Church stories more seriously than I did, but still comes to the same conclusion. This article describes some points she made about anachronisms within the specific persecution narratives that I failed to notice.

Here’s the thing: the actual stories of Christian persecution individually fail to stand up to scrutiny. Either the Romans didn’t generally behave the way the stories are portrayed, or more primary records from the time dispute the more lurid stories. In any case, the “Sunday School” mythos of early Christians hiding in catacombs to avoid sustained and brutal persecution isn’t supported even by the most sympathetic persecution narratives. Instead the narratives show a pattern of occasional interest in mild punishments that were easily avoided.

Further, looking to contemporary documentation regarding persecution narratives prior to Diocletian (where it exists) reveals that they all focused, not on Christians, but on other fringe cults that really did populate the Pre-Christian Greco-Roman world.

This, I think, is the key point: the political and religious reality of Third Century Rome isn’t correctly reflected in Early Church stories, and especially not in persecution narratives. Given the extremely complex interrelationships between the many varieties of religious practice available to Romans in the Third Century, the Roman attitudes reported in most persecution narratives simply don’t make any sense historically. However, as Fourth Century propaganda, they sound great.