In the Book of Revelation, when John is caught up into heaven, he sees “under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained” (6:9). The seraphim proclaim God’s holiness (4:8), and the host of heaven fall down and sing the worthiness of God and the Lamb (4:11; 5:9-14), but these souls are not praising, at least not at the moment. It is as if their sacrifice has qualified them to take up the calling of Isaiah’s watchmen on the walls, who “will never be silent day or night. You who call on the Lord, give yourselves no rest, and give Him no rest till He establishes Jerusalem and makes her the praise of the earth” (Isaiah 62:6-7).
As John looks on, these martyrs are “told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed” (Revelation 6:11). We presume that it will not be a small number; in 17:6, the city symbolically named Babylon and presented as a woman is “drunk with the blood of the saints.” As Jesus Himself warns in the Gospels, His followers “will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of Me . . . but he who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:9, 13). Justin Martyr, writing in the second century, says that he was converted from Platonic philosophy largely because he saw that Christians were “fearless of death” (Second Apology 12). In the early third century, Tertullian famously boasts, “The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed” (Apology 50).
Yet now scholar Candida Moss writes that none of this ever happened.(1) Surveying early Christian history, with a skeptical eye concerning the reliability of our sources, she finds “fewer than ten years out of nearly three hundred during which Christians were executed as the result of imperial initiatives” (129; cf. 159, 241). “Christians were not consistently 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” (14). She argues that the fourth-century church historian Eusebius, along with hagiographers (authors of saints’ lives) from the same period, were responsible for inventing a narrative of courageous suffering, which served to exhort other believers to stand firm for orthodoxy, and also to promote specific shrines (216-17, 245).
What should we make of this? I suggest that Moss’s claims, while overstated, can still help us to clarify and correct important aspects of our beliefs, attitudes, and outlook.
Defining Persecution and Martyrdom
First, it must be said that Moss sets the bar impossibly high in her definition of persecution. To take one example, “If persecution is to be defined as hostility toward a group because of its religious beliefs, then surely it is important that the Romans intended to target Christians. Otherwise this is prosecution, not persecution” (162). In other words, no attack, however severe, can be called religious persecution unless it can be established that the persecutors had bothered to acquire a theologically sophisticated understanding of the victims’ doctrines and practices. This despite the fact that, as Arthur J. Droge and James D. Tabor write, “. . . no one really seems to have cared what the Christians did or did not believe.”(2)
Moss takes as her starting point the Oxford English Dictionary definition of a Christian martyr as one who “chooses to suffer death rather than renounce faith in Christ or obedience to his teachings, a Christian way of life or adherence to a law or tenet of the church” (29). Notice, though, that the OED leaves it up to the martyr to decide whether a renunciation is at stake. Moss transfers this judgment to the persecutor. This leads to some absurd conclusions — most notably, that Stephen (in Acts 6-7) cannot be called a Christian martyr because the term “Christian” had not been coined (132-34)!
The Biblical tradition is not so stringent. Daniel’s friends are sentenced to death because they will not worship a gold image (Daniel 3:12), Daniel himself because he defies a ban on praying to the Lord (Daniel 6:12), and Mordecai and all his people because he will not bow down to honor a mere man (Esther 3:5). This is all that their enemies know, or care to know, about Jewish beliefs and customs. It is a crisis of conscience only for the faithful Jew, who feels he must disobey a ruler’s edict. For the ruler, all that matters is quashing any appearance of insubordination.
Similarly, in the New Testament, “it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God” (1 Peter 2:19). 1 Peter recognizes a distinction between suffering “as a Christian” (4:16) and suffering “for doing good” (2:20; 3:17), but it is of little consequence; what matters is that one has not incurred the suffering as a deserved punishment “for doing evil” (2:20; 3:17). The Beatitudes pronounce a blessing upon both those persecuted for righteousness and those persecuted specifically for Jesus’ sake (Matthew 5:10-12).
In the cases of Jesus and Stephen, both Jews and Romans (for different reasons) were afraid of Messianic pretenders. They did not need either the name or the concept “Christian” to recognize that Jesus’ followers were claiming for Him a unique and destabilizing authority. When they acted to silence such claims, they were, in effect, persecuting Christians.
The Extent of Persecution
Moss requires so much of persecutors that it is no wonder when she finds little evidence of persecution. Still, it is surprising that she focuses so much on the books of the New Testament which she, in common with most modern scholars, believes to be relatively late compositions. She pays scant attention to the letters of Paul, several of which are widely accepted as the earliest New Testament writings.
Paul himself bears witness that he once persecuted the church of God (Galatians 1:13, 23; 1 Corinthians 15:9; Philippians 3:6). This may not mean that he put people to death, or that he had extensive power or effectiveness, but it does indicate a deliberate, targeted campaign. It will not do to explain away as “prosecution,” the enforcement of a law (Moss 14), what the agent himself confesses was persecution carried out under a cloak of law.
Paul’s example also suggests a prime motive to persecute: the fear that one’s traditions and values are being threatened. Such fear easily clouds dispassionate inquiry; Peter Brown quotes a magistrate from about the year 200 who said to Christians, “I cannot bring myself so much as to listen to people who speak ill of the Roman way of religion.”(3) According to R.H. Barrow, such a reaction was typical:
The attitude of the Romans to foreign religion can be shortly described. When the official curators of the state religion admitted into public recognition a non-Roman cult by granting it a place among public festivals or a site for a temple, they saw to it that the cult was transformed in a way suitable to Roman tradition. The legend or story often underwent changes, the ritual and terminology were modified, and the cult bore a strong Roman imprint. When this was not possible, at least the objectionable elements were purged out of it.
Barrow goes on to say (147) that Romans would fully tolerate only those religions that were neither threatening to the dominant position of Roman cults, politically unsafe, nor morally undesirable. But Moss insists that Christians were subversive and rude, so that Roman officials held the moral high ground (186-87).(5)
It is striking to see that, with the exception of the Corinthians, the congregations to whom Paul writes are currently experiencing persecution. The Thessalonian believers have suffered opposition and hostility from their countrymen (1 Thessalonians 2:14-15); the Philippians must stand firm against opponents (1:28); the Galatians have suffered much (3:4); the Romans are reminded to bless their persecutors (12:14).
And Paul himself is encountering persecution. James Kelhoffer, to whom Moss refers in a footnote (291n23), suggests that Paul cites his many enemies as a way of legitimating his apostolic authority.(6) Perhaps. But his long and detailed catalogues of sufferings endured (2 Corinthians 6:5; 11:23-25) indicate that he was not simply viewing the world through a persecution mania, convinced that everyone was out to get him. He lists specific, severe punishments.
What is most interesting, though, is that these discussions of sufferings and afflictions open up to take in much more than incidents of persecution. Alongside his beatings and imprisonments, Paul lists hunger and anxiety (2 Corinthians 6:4-5; 11:27-28). Epaphroditus is said to have risked his life “for the work of Christ” because he fell ill (Philippians 2:25-30). The Corinthians, at present free from afflictions of their own, are encouraged to relieve others’ suffering by giving sacrificially (2 Corinthians 8:14). Indeed, the picture that emerges is not of a community in which martyrdom is prized as a mark of courageous conviction and orthodox doctrine, but of one in which suffering of any sort is valued as developing character by uniting us to the weakness and utter dependence on God modeled by Jesus (Romans 5:3-4; 2 Corinthians 12:10). We shall return to this point in a moment.
Varieties of Noble Suffering
Moss devotes a chapter to showing that both Christian and Jewish writers consciously imitate Greek stories of “noble suffering.” Both in the New Testament and in accounts of martyrs, early Christian writers “drank deeply from the well of the noble-death tradition” (81). This is an important step in the reasoning that leads her to conclude that “none of the early Christian martyrdom stories is completely historically accurate” (124).
She observes that, in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus appears “emotional and lost” as He faces death — and that the pagan critic Celsus mocked Him for this unbecoming weakness. In contrast, “Luke’s Jesus appears resolutely self-controlled”; He is depicted as a philosopher, a second Socrates (56-61).
There are a couple of points to be made here. First, the “weak” Jesus of Mark (and Matthew) was included in the New Testament, alongside Luke’s “edited” version; He continued to be read and preached and worshiped. Paul also emphasized Jesus’ weakness, and his own (1 Corinthians 1:25, 27; 2:3; 4:10; 9:22; 2 Corinthians 10:10; 11:21, 29; 12:9-10; 13:3-4, 9). So it cannot be said that this picture was simply abandoned as shameful. Rather, its contrast with, and challenge to, stories of noble suffering has had an incalculable impact, as John Stott said so well in The Cross of Christ:(7)
In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? I have entered many Buddhist temples in different Asian countries and stood respectfully before the statue of the Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing round his mouth, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world. But each time after a while I have had to turn away. And in imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in God-forsaken darkness. That is the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. Our sufferings become more manageable in the light of his.
But Moss also overstates the extent to which Luke transforms Jesus into a second Socrates. He is distressed or under pressure until His work is accomplished (12:50), and in Gethsemane He is in agony or anguish (22:44) — though Moss dismisses the latter passage (267n5). Moreover, it is Luke who records Jesus’ prayer that the Father forgive His killers (23:34). This has tremendous significance. It is not part of the Greek tradition; Socrates says only that he harbors no resentment against his accusers and judges because they have done him no real harm (Apology 33); to a philosopher, death is good, as it liberates the soul from the body (Phaedo 33-35). In the Old Testament, the righteous sufferer usually calls for vengeance: “Pour out Your wrath on them; let Your fierce anger overtake them” (Psalm 69:24). The Lord is glorified through justice, not forgiveness.
In Christianity, though, from the very beginning, persecution offers an opportunity to show the love of God that is stronger than hate. The radical and counterintuitive idea that one should forgive one’s persecutors is present in Jesus’ teaching (Luke 6:27-28) and in the early letters of Paul (Romans 12:14; 1 Corinthians 4:12), and Stephen imitates his Lord in putting it into practice (Acts 7:60). It is simply not true that “[t]he historical facts of what occurred during Jesus’s last days were overwritten with a theology of noble death and martyrdom” (Moss 61).
Some Points to Take Away
Despite these caveats, believers have much to learn from Moss’s work.
First, Moss repeatedly calls attention to the dangers of demonizing and dehumanizing those who persecute us, or who simply disagree with us. “Claims of being persecuted are used in order to exclude and suppress other groups, to identify them with demonic forces, and to legitimize rhetorical and perhaps also literal violence against them. . . . This myth of persecution was, paradoxically enough, a way to marginalize others” (246).
I can learn from this even though I do not share Moss’s faith that, if we just appeal to reason, we can always find common ground with critics and adversaries. (She briefly entertains the thought that persecution implies “blind hatred” , but this doesn’t sit well with her requirement that persecutors must be students of Christian theology.) Paul, for one, clearly believes that demons exist (1 Corinthians 10:20-21), and that most people walk in spiritual blindness (2 Corinthians 4:4; compare 1 Corinthians 2:14) or under a spiritual hardening (Romans 11:7, 25; 2 Corinthians 3:14). Nevertheless, he tries to persuade (2 Corinthians 5:11). He can slip into harsh language sometimes (Galatians 5:12; Philippians 3:2), as we do, but his conviction is that human foes, unlike demons, can be converted — as even Nebuchadnezzar, pagan king and destroyer of Jerusalem, turned from casting Daniel’s friends into a furnace to honoring their God (Daniel 4:34-37). Persecutors are to be blessed, and loved, in hope. Paul is convinced that he is not some unique trophy as one “preaching the faith he once tried to destroy”; others like him will be saved by grace as he was, and the church will praise God who works such miracles (Galatians 1:23).
Secondly, Christians should expect persecution. Of course we are not the only group to experience persecution (a straw man that Moss spends much energy demolishing). But 1 Thessalonians 3:3-4 affirms that Christians are “destined” to be persecuted (see also 2 Timothy 3:12; 1 Peter 2:21). Perhaps someone will attempt to answer Moss by proving that many Christians before Constantine suffered martyrdom. Yet it seems equally important, and considerably more urgent, to support today’s persecuted Christians, and to share their stories. Open Doors (https://www.opendoorsusa.org/) is a great place to start.
At the same time, persecution is only one form of suffering, and all righteous or innocent suffering draws us closer to Christ. Therefore we should honor the sick in our midst, the disabled, the mentally ill, the grieving, the outcasts, the abused, and the oppressed of all faiths, alongside those persecuted for following Christ. Jesus may have suffered particularly by drawing out human hostility toward God; in His kindness, though, He accepts almost any variety of pain as sufficiently similar to grant us entry into “the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings” (Philippians 3:10).
Lastly, when we encounter conflict, Moss’s critique can help us not to jump too hastily to the conclusion that we are being persecuted. We should at least apply the test spelled out in 1 Peter, asking, Have I done anything wrong, anything to cause unnecessary offense and bring this trouble on myself? Moreover, can I put this right by dropping pride and defensiveness, and reaching out to the other? We witness (the root meaning of “martyr”), first and foremost, by being people of integrity.
(1) The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom (New York: HarperOne-HarperCollins, 2013).
(2) A Noble Death: Suicide and Martyrdom Among Christians and Jews in Antiquity (New York: HarperSanFrancisco-HarperCollins, 1992), 133. Droge and Tabor also cite Augustine as the source of the distinction between persecution and prosecution, but understand prosecution as “the necessary and legal repression of criminals” (170), not as any non-theologically motivated exercise of state judicial power.
(3) The World of Late Antiquity: AD 150-750 (1971; New York and London: W.W. Norton, 1989), 17.
(4) The Romans (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1949, 1953), 144-45.
(5) Barrow acknowledges that “Christians often deliberately invited persecution,” but balances this with the observation that “Christianity was particularly vulnerable to misinterpretation” because, like a state or an empire, it claimed the allegiance of all peoples (181-83).
(6) Persecution, Persuasion and Power: Readiness to Withstand Hardship as a Corroboration of Legitimacy in the New Testament (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010), 43.
(7) The Cross of Christ (1986; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2006), 326-27.