February 28, 2013

Myth vs realilty: Ancient Christianity and #martyrdom

Much of the information is already well-known to me, but this story about Candida Moss' new book, may be enlightening not just to many broader-minded Christians, but even to secularists, even to generally well-informed ones.

In "The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom," Moss lays out in detail just exactly what her title says.

And, it's no atheist who's doing this, whether out of mean-spiritedness or other reasons. Per her Amazon bio:
Candida Moss is Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame. A graduate of Oxford University, she earned her doctorate from Yale University. Moss has received awards and fellowships from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Catholic Biblical Association, and the John Templeton Foundation.
So, she's a Catholic, teaches at a Catholic University, and has gotten money from a foundation that's even been accused, at times, of trying to get scientists who take its money to bend backward to favor religious thought.

A sampling of what's in this book:
Moss ... challenges some of the most hallowed legends of the religion when she questions what she calls “the Sunday school narrative of a church of martyrs, of Christians huddled in catacombs out of fear, meeting in secret to avoid arrest and mercilessly thrown to lions merely for their religious beliefs.” None of that, she maintains, is true. In the 300 years between the death of Jesus and the conversion of the Emperor Constantine, there were maybe 10 or 12 scattered years during which Christians were singled out for supression by Rome’s imperial authorities, and even then the enforcement of such initiatives was haphazard — lackadaisical in many regions, although harsh in others. “Christians were never,” Moss writes, “the victims of sustained, targeted persecution.”
From there, she moves on to a more detailed look at stories of six martyrdoms.
They include Polycarp, a bishop in Smyrna during the second century who was burned at the stake, and Saint Perpetua, a well-born young mother executed in the arena at Carthage with her slave, Felicity, at the beginning of the third century. Moss carefully points out the inconsistencies between these tales and what we know about Roman society, the digs at heresies that didn’t even exist when the martyrs were killed and the references to martyrdom traditions that had yet to be established. There’s surely some kernel of truth to these stories, she explains, as well as to the first substantive history of the church written in 311 by a Palestinian named Eusebius. It’s just that it’s impossible to sort the truth from the colorful inventions, the ax-grinding and the attempts to reinforce the orthodoxies of a later age.
She doesn't deny thast some Christians were killed. Thast said, she also, per the story, distinguishes between "persecution and "prosecution."

And, as she notes, Christians hauled into courts for other issues deliberately provoked the magistrates:
Christians wound up in Roman courts for any number of reasons, but when they got there, they were prone to announcing, as a believer named Liberian once did, “that he cannot be respectful to the emperor, that he can be respectful only to Christ.” Moss compares this to “modern defendants who say that they will not recognize the authority of the court or of the government, but recognize only the authority of God. For modern Americans, as for ancient Romans, this sounds either sinister or vaguely insane.”
Indeed, that's anything but "persecution." However, contra Alternet, for many of today's Religious Right who perpetuate the myth of persecution, it probably doesn't sound insane at all. Nor does it to some religious cults, whether rooted in Christianity or not.

That said, it did sound insane to some Christians at the time. We have letters from some bishops telling members of their flocks not to do this.

And, judging by the review, Moss, even, may not go back far enough.

This all actually starts with Paul. "Luke" made up the idea that he was a Roman citizen. He may or may not have been martyred himself, and if he was, it was because he was a Jew. The idea that Christians were blamed for the Great Fire in Rome has little historic support.

The reality?

The Roman historian Suetonius' warning about what's often called "Christian disturbances" in Rome in the reign of Claudius should be translated as "Messianic disturbances." To the degree Acts has any historical truth behind it at all, it partially describes what can be found in more detail in Josephus: Messianic-claimant Jews popped up all the time, and not just in Palestine. The fact that Tacitus doesn't use the Greek word "Christos" but a similar one, often used for Apollo, shows how little he knew about Judaism.

Now, back to Paul, alleged martyrdom in Rome for him, and related details.

First, the word "Christian" wasn't even used until well into the second century. That's one of several relevant facts that you can find in Paul Tabor's "Paul and Jesus," reviewed by me here.

Second, as far as we know, the names of Jesus-believers in Paul's letter to the Romans may have been ALL of them in Rome, or nearly so.

Third, Paul likely was NOT a Roman citizen.

Therefore, in Acts 26, his "appeal to Caesar" didn't happen either.

In reality, as Tabor points out, his ongoing, increasing, enmity with James and even Peter may well have reached a boiling point in the late 50s CE. As part of that, Paul may have violated some precept of Torah, even in the Temple court. Or, if not, contra Acts, he may have refused to correct the impression he was telling even Jews not to circumcise.

In any case, some disturbance probably did happen, and the Roman procurator Felix arrested him.

Maybe he was eventually flogged to the degree a non-Roman could be, whether by Felix or his successor Festus, and then told to stay out of Jerusalem on pain of death. From there, he could then have scrounged a trip to Rome on his own. And, quite possibly, died a natural death before the Great Fire of Rome.

Tacitus claims Nero blamed Christians for this. However, he's not a primary source. Suetonius, the only other halfway close Romans to write about early Christians (see above) says nothing about Nero blaming Christians. So, even if Tacitus' statement is not an interpolation, given Tacitus' ax-grinding, it's not likely  to be true. Or, as with Josephus' statement about Jesus, it may have a genuine core, but a Christian expansion, in which case, like Suetonius, we should read him as talking about Messianic Jewish disturbances in general.

And, if the Paul of Acts is actually true, especially as interpreted by Tabor, it's as plausible that he would have denied being a Jew, and told Nero, if he had a chance, his "cosmic Christ" had nothing to do with "Jewish self-mutilators."

Of course, there's another possibility for Paul's death.

Maybe followers of James and Peter killed him in Jerusalem after high priest Ananus had killed James. Or even more notably Zealot followers of Jesus did. It's at least as plausible as the tale Luke and early Christian myth spin.

And that myth, of Paul's martyrdom, coupled with the one spelled out in Acts about Stephen, started this whole thing.

It sounds like Moss didn't quite go deep enough. (She could also have mentioned intra-Christian persecution after the Council of Nicaea, where Christian "brotherly love" exceeded anything pre-Diocletian, at least, on the pre-Christian Roman imperial side.

But, this isn't just about the past.

Thoughts for today below the fold:

That said, this isn't just about ancient Christian origin myths.

Holding on to these myths today, contra Joan Walsh at Alternet, is a key issue.

For fundamentalist Protestants, it's the same thinking that fuels the "War on Christmas" and other claims.

For certain types of Catholics, it's a continuation of the veneration of the saints that was full steam ahead 1,500 years ago, and that can, in turn, affect Catholic-Protestant relations, hardcore Catholic attitudes against modernization and more.

It's the hand-to-the-head fake martyr poise of people like Sarah Palin, who are true believers, even more than the Bill O'Reillys, who tout the "War on Christmas" for ratings and loofahs.

And, on things like Obamacare and coverage for contraception, with pushback, and back, and back, against President Obama, it has public policy implications.

Or, it does on gay marriage, where Christians want to claim "persecution" when governments want to extend civil rights on a purely secular issue.

Or the Vatican circling the wagons in the face of the priestly child sex abuse scandal.

Or the Phelps family church, Westboro Baptist, generally making asses of themselves.

Or Jehovah's Witnesses taking glory in door slams.

Or John Paul II "cheating" to beatify Mother Theresa, part of creating more saints in his pontificate than in the previous 400 years — not martyrdom, but clear myth-making.

So, Moss' book isn't in a vacuum.

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