The Myth of Christian Persecution

A Christian religious fanatic carries a cross as he has his bare back whipped bloody during Good Friday in Paombong town, nor
A Christian religious fanatic carries a cross as he has his bare back whipped bloody during Good Friday in Paombong town, north of the Philippine capital Manila on April 6, 2012. Many Filipinos went through more practical acts of piety like visiting churches on foot to pray during the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday holidays. AFP PHOTO / JAY DIRECTO (Photo credit should read JAY DIRECTO/AFP/Getty Images)

Christians of all denominations maintain that the Early Church was widely persecuted. They state that in the first few centuries after the death of the Messiah, Christians were hunted, tortured and killed just for following Christ. This persecution is believed to have begun with the deaths of Stephen, the Apostles, and then the Christians persecuted under a long succession of cruel and vindictive Roman emperors.

This history of early Christianity establishes Christianity as a religion of innocent sufferers; as a church beleaguered and under attack. In periods of crisis or perceived crisis Christians of all stripes have returned to this stereotype of the early church in order to find themselves and understand their experiences. This is true even today: during the debate over the HHS mandate last year, a Catholic Bishop said that President Obama was attacking Christians just like the Roman emperors, Hitler and Stalin had. In August 2011 Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum publicly complained that the "gay community ... had gone out on a jihad" against him. In the course of the last election, similar statements were made by Mitt Romney, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly, to name but a few.

This is not just a case of election-day banter or political nastiness. Just recently, Fox News host Todd Starnes accused NBC of persecuting Christians because of a skit that aired on Saturday Night Live. The accusation may appear flimsy, but the advertising boycott of NBC that resulted was not. The rhetorical power of persecution language is very real.

These evaluations of modern society and Christianity's place in it trace themselves back to the early Church. Christianity is responsible for changing the way that we think about persecution. Were it not for the belief that early Christians were persecuted, Christian identity would not be so intimately linked to the experience of persecution. It is precisely for this reason that understanding the history is so important.

Intriguingly, when we look at the ancient evidence for the treatment of early Christians a very different picture emerges. The vast majority of our ancient sources for persecution in the first century were written in the second century and beyond. The stories about the deaths of the apostles, for instance, were written as late as a hundred years later and modeled on the fanciful genre of ancient romance novels.

Even the earliest, most ostensibly trustworthy martyrdom stories have been edited and reworked. The authors of these accounts borrowed from ancient mythology, changed the details of events to make the martyrs appear more like Jesus, and made the Roman antagonists increasingly venomous. The motivations of these later authors and editors, who have gone unheralded by history but who shaped our understanding of the world, are arguably more fascinating than the martyrdom stories themselves. No doubt there are kernels of truth at the heart of some of some of the stories, but we do not have evidence of persecution.

The Roman evidence is also ambiguous. If Nero did target Christians after the great fire of Rome in 64 C.E. -- and the are good reasons for thinking he did not -- his treatment of them stemmed less from a desire to harm Christians than it did from his need to deflect blame from himself. Ancient Romans who spread the story about Nero saw his actions as contemptible and unjust.

Archeological evidence reveals that on those occasions when Christians did die en masse it was the result of general legislation intended to defend and fortify the empire. Christians were not named directly in imperial legislation until the second half of the third century, and it was only from 303-305 C.E., in the reign of the Emperor Diocletian, that we see anything resembling the brutal persecution of popular imagination. Christians did die. And Christians were occasionally persecuted, but should two years of persecution under Diocletian lead to nearly 2,000 years of Christian persecution complex?

The idea that Christianity is persecuted and needs to defend itself from external and internal attack comes from the victorious Church of the fourth and fifth centuries and beyond. It is a story that has brought comfort to the suffering, sick and oppressed, but it is a story that was used -- expanded, exaggerated and even invented -- to exclude heretics, that legitimized great violence and that continues to disrupt civil discourse. And it precisely this -- the effect that this inflated myth of persecution has had on modern politics and discourse -- that makes it imperative that we get our facts straight.

When disagreement and dissent are conflated with persecution, dialogue, collaboration and even compassion become impossible. You cannot reason with your persecutors, you have to fight them. If persecution becomes a badge of honor and a sign of moral superiority then what reason is there to try and persuade others of one's arguments? Framed by the myth that we are persecuted, dialogue is not only impossible; it is undesirable. Moreover, it overshadows actual persecution. Christians around the world endure violence and oppression today. But those experiences are overshadowed by complaints that conflate disputes over lawmaking with persecution. If persecution language is not reserved for situations of actual persecution, then unspeakable violence becomes indescribable. Disagreement becomes martyrdom and martyrdom becomes disagreement.

Candida Moss is professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame and the author of 'The Myth of Persecution.'