I just finished reading Candida Moss’ The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented A Story of Martyrdom. As the subtitle of the book suggests, Moss’ central thesis is that the traditional and popular belief that early Christians were systematically persecuted is a fiction.
Moss does a good job in explaining that stories of persecution in the early church have been exaggerated. Contrary to a story line of several hundred years of efforts to destroy Christianity, what persecution there was seems to have been episodic, local and often for reasons other than religion. Moss’ research suggests that many of the popular stories of early church martyrs have no historical basis.
Apart from historical accuracy, why does it matter? What difference would it make to abandon the fiction?
Moss argues that it would make a big difference. Defining oneself as a persecuted people has an effect on how one behaves in the world. I think Moss is correct that the more one believes one is persecuted, the less one feels obliged to debate with and understand those who one labels as the one doing the persecuting (particularly because of the identification in the early chuch of persecutors and evil). As Archbishop Desmond Tutu commented in talkind about the book, “the popular misconception about martyrdom in the early church still creates real barriers to compassion and dialogue today.”
The book is a worthwhile read.