Is it possible that more Christians are persecuted (or that Christians are more persecuted) today than in the ancient world or than at any other time in history? This sounds like a trick question or like the introduction to a paradoxical argument. In fact, it is a perfectly straightforward inquiry aroused by the crisscross of two arguments that have just landed on my desk.
The first is a new book, The Myth of Persecution, by Candida Moss, professor of New Testament and early Christianity at Notre Dame, and — full disclosure — my goddaughter. She argues in her book that early Christians (that is, after about a.d. 300) exaggerated the degree to which earlier Christians had suffered persecution for their beliefs. Individual martyrdoms were either invented or heavily edited, sometimes by Christians, sometimes by their Roman critics. These exaggerations established a myth of anti-Christian persecution, she argues, that has ever since distorted how Christians think of their faith and interpret criticisms of it. They see it as embattled because its beliefs are both true and a challenge to secular and other religious authorities: The persecution confirms its truth.
Moss does not deny that some early Christians were imprisoned or executed by the Romans. But she believes that Christians were one religious sect among several that the Roman authorities repressed from time to time in response to perceived threats to political order. Nero’s blaming of Christians for the great fire of Rome, for instance, was largely invented by Tacitus 50 years later when disquiet about Christianity was rife in the Roman establishment. Nero certainly had many people brutally murdered, perhaps to deflect blame for the fire from his own person, but he had probably never heard of Christians, who had not reached the city in large numbers by a.d. 64. Moss also examines pious stories of the faith’s early martyrs with forensic skepticism, pointing to inconsistencies, revisions, borrowings from other martyrdoms, suspensions of disbelief by the authors, and so on. She persuades me, at least, that some of these events never happened or at least never happened as traditionally reported.
I shall never watch movies like Quo Vadis in the same trusting spirit again.
But there is nothing unorthodox in all this. The Catholic Church itself concluded some years ago that many long-venerated saints had never actually existed. As I recall, the British tabloids were particularly upset at Rome’s brusque dismissal of Saint George, England’s patron saint, who, if he existed at all, never set foot outside the Caucasus. Nor does Moss deny that some of her martyrs were actually executed. She merely casts doubt on the details of how they met their ends — especially those details that nonbelieving witnesses failed to notice — and on whether they were ill treated from specifically religious motives. But persecution may depend on where you are sitting. Though the Romans doubtless had motives other than anti-Christian fervor for executing Christians — for instance, punishing them for draft-dodging — those facing execution would nonetheless see their fate as stemming directly from their faith.
If so, they would be largely right. Consider the first few pages of Moss’s book, where she describes the murder of Mariam Fekry, a young Coptic Christian in Egypt who was among those killed when a bomb exploded in an Alexandrian church where she was attending midnight Mass on the last day of 2010. Moss believes that Mariam was not a martyr (as she was then hailed). She is right. There is a distinction to be made between martyrdom and persecution. A martyr is someone who, confronted with a choice between death and his faith, chooses to undergo death; a victim of persecution is someone who is killed or brutally abused because of his faith without being given a choice.
Mariam was not confronted with a choice between death and her faith. But, as Moss states, she was killed because she was a Christian; she is therefore a victim of persecution. The anti-Christian persecution by Islamist zealots that struck Mariam down, moreover, is not an ambiguous matter of Christians’ being one of many groups suffering for political reasons under a more general repression. They are being attacked, killed, and ethnically cleansed from the Middle East and elsewhere precisely because they are Christians and therefore infidels. Their murderers often state this explicitly.