Think back to what you know of the first few hundred years of Christian history. My guess is that a major part of what comes to mind is the relentless way the Romans persecuted Christians, including throwing them to the lions -- until, finally, in the Fourth Century the Emperor Constantine moved to make Christianity the official religion of the empire.
Well, New Testament scholar Candida Moss, author of The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom, wants you to know that you've got your history mostly wrong.
". . .although prejudice against Christians was fairly widespread, the persecution of Christians was rare," she writes, "and the persectuion of Christians was limited to no more than a handful of years."
For many Christians, this carefully arrived-at conclusion will be like learning that the story of George Washington chopping down a cherry tree and then admitting the crime is a myth.
But for people who want not just to get history right but also to see how that persecution myth gets played out today in our culture wars, this book is an invaluable work of scholarship -- besides being written in easily accessible (not academic) language. Oh, there are a few silly grammatical errors in it, but the research that led to her conclusions seems quite thorough and those conclusions persuasive.
The idea of persecution in the Christian tradition goes back to Jesus himself, who died an unjust death at the hands of the Roman rulers. But as Moss notes, "his death quickly became a model for his followers." And so for the first 300 years "of its existence, the tradition maintains, Christianity was a persecuted and suffering religion."
This persecution theme continues today. Indeed, there really is some persecution of Christians around the world -- and Moss is quick to acknowledge that. You can get a good sense of the scope of the problem by reading the annual reports of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
But the pervasive idea that even Christians in the U.S. are under regular attack is simply a rhetorical tool used to promote political positions and the agendas of the culture warriors. That's Moss's argument and it's a good one.
The fact is, she writes, "the traditional history of Christian martyrdom is mistaken. Christians were not constantly persecuted, hounded or targeted by the Romans. Very few Christians died, and when they did they were often executed for what we in the modern world would call political reasons." In fact, she reports, "for the first two-hundred and fifty years of the Christian era there are only six martyrdom accounts that can be treated as reliable."
This persecution story has been told so often and with such fervor, she says, that now it "is hardwired into Christian history."
Where did this persecution myth come from? Much of it from the fourth century historian Eesebius. Indeed, Moss says that "the idea of the persecuted church is almost entirely the investion of the fourth century and later."
And the myth continues to have traction today because, as she notes, "if you're being persecuted, you must be doing something right."
Well, there are many more aspects to this intriguing story in this book, and it's well worth a careful read -- always remembering that when myth and folklore masquerade as real history, everyone loses.
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THE RESURGENT ORTHODOX JEWS
In the U.S. the largest branch of Judaism is Reform. But the Orthodoxare growing, and David Brooks of The New York Times has some intriguing thoughts about why that's happening. And my guess is that if you yourself are not an Orthodox Jew you will find that the Orthodox are different from what you imagine them to be.
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P.S.: The Association of Theological Schools and the Higher Learning Commission has notified Saint Paul School of Theology that the change of location from the seminary's Kansas City campus on Truman Road to the Church of the Resurrection in surburban Leawood, Kan., has been approved. For my most recent blog posting on the subject of this move, click here.