HP has a nice interview with Candida Moss on her book ”The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom.” Back in March I posted on the myth but the interview adds to the narrative.
Q: You argue that modern myths of Christian persecution are rooted in an ancient myth, and you focus on Pliny, a first- and second-century Roman who governed what is now Turkey. Why should we know about him?
A: He’s the first Roman official to actually talk about Christians. He writes to the Emperor Trajan and says, “What am I supposed to do about them? They’re not doing anything wrong, but when they’re in the courtroom they’re very stubborn.” Those charges could get you killed in the Roman world. And Pliny has other concerns: Christians were not purchasing the meat associated with the Roman temples. And he thinks of Christians not as a religious group, but prone to superstition, which the Romans considered a kind of madness that could spread like a disease.
Pliny and Trajan agree that there will be no seeking out of Christians, but if they do end up in courtrooms and are stubborn, he will give them three chances to curse Christ and make a sacrifice in the Roman temple. If they don’t, they will be killed. I’m not saying what Pliny did was right, but it’s very far from the story I grew up with, about Christians being hunted down.
I read Pliny in Latin class with Barbra Lindsay. In fact, I chose to take Latin when I met her when she had just become Distinguished Professor at the University of Utah. She was short, kindlyno-nonsense, and had tanned leathery skin from smoking too many years. My theory of education is to find the great teachers and take what they offer and let the degree fall where it may or may not.
At any rate, BL’s main emphasis on Rome was its authoritarian hierarchy requiring absolute obedience. The emperor was god. Not so unusual when you consider Egypt and their pharaoh’s were gods on earth. Until modern political democratic sensibilities it was pretty common for rulers to consider themselves gods. It’s not a big jump to go from animal totemism to being the greatest animal of all and then to a god a fantastical animal of superhuman powers. And they don’t take shit. It wasn’t my way or the highway, it was my way or death. Prisons cost money.
Q: Isn’t that persecution though? They’re not being sought out, but if they do wind up in court, there’s a decent chance they’re going to die.
A: Is it persecution? I’d say it comes fairly close to the line. I’m not saying it’s just. But it was illegal to be part of a secret club at the time. It was illegal to be stubborn toward a Roman judge. So it’s not that they’re being persecuted for having a Trinity. They are being executed for breaking the law.
I want to understand what, from the ancient Roman perspective, was the problem with Christians. The Romans tolerated lots of religious groups. They only really acted in situations where they thought the group was dangerous, and Christians talk about their new emperor Christ. They talk about how they cannot respect the Roman government. A lot of them say they won’t join the military. They’re very subversive. But this is a world where religious freedom isn’t a right; it just doesn’t exist as a concept yet.
Most dictators are ruthless. If you were German even, didn’t have to be nonGerman, you didn’t argue with Hitler either. Umar the famous Muslim general was pious, poor, generous and ruthless as well. You just don’t argue with the big guys.
Here’s a video of her.
I can see some christian in court. “But I don’t recognize your laws as legitimate. I follow god’s law.” “What?” “Your laws aren’t mine. This court isn’t mine. I follow Christ.” “What?” After several rounds of this, just kill the bastard as he’s fomenting revolution. It’s madness to argue against Roman Law, Roman Religion, Roman Civilization. Anything else is crap. The Christians hardly stood out. Just one of the many sects growing like weeds then.
Unlike the millet system started by the zoroasterians and copied later by the muslims, Rome had no need or desire for separate ecumenical courts–you’re either Roman or Not. There was one court, one law, and one empire. If you stuck to yourselves, stayed out of the way, and didn’t question the law you were tolerated. (At least not taxed separately as Mohammed would later do to nonmuslims.) Otherwise, prisons were nonexistent, life was cheap, and christians made lousy slaves.
Q: Critics of your book — even if they agree that there was no concerted, sustained campaign to root out and kill the early Christians — argue that this was nonetheless a dark and dangerous period for them. Doesn’t that count for something?
A: The situation was terrible and we should be attentive to that, but distinctions need to be made. The Emperor Decius (who in the third century required everyone in the empire to make a sacrifice to his divine spirit) didn’t really know what his edict would mean for Christians and he wasn’t trying to attack them. He was basically trying to bolster the Roman Empire.
In a contemporary discussion, Catholics feel very strongly about the Obama administration’s contraceptive mandate. President Obama is not trying to harm Catholics or Christians generally; he is trying to provide health care. Catholics can disagree with him very strongly, but unless he’s trying to attack Catholics, as long as we believe he is interested in health care, we can continue to have a discussion with him.
There’s been a lot of back and forth between the Catholic bishops and the Obama administration. That’s a different situation than if we were in a country where legislation was passed that said “Christians can’t own Bibles” or “you can’t go to church.”
Yep, christians are whiney bastards right now–I can’t force you to follow my christian laws so I am being persecuted. It belies their desire to make us all christian. It’s true most of the most whiney are evangelical but how many christians of all ilk have said they’d just like to say what a comfort christ is to them. Or how important it is to be moral. And how often do they whine against each other that they aren’t being a good christian–but at least they are christian right?
There are teeth under that whine and quickly the tables could turn and when they gain power they would be ruthless as they have in the past. The bible is the most published book in the world. Wars have begun and ended in response to christian invasion.
In this country, it has been more subtle. In the 70′s they said, I was there to hear it, take positions of authority, claim the justice system and create christian schools. Over time christian influence will have effective power. Rather than battle head on become part of the system and change from within it. Scary huh? Good old Freeman Institute and Cleon Skousen. You learn funny things when you’re janitor for a conservative hotbed.
Jim Newman, bright and well