A prickly, uneven survey of Christian persecution that delves into modern-day fundamentalist intolerance.
The notion that early Christians were meek, passive and unrelentingly persecuted for their religious beliefs has been manufactured by early church historians like Eusebius, writes New Testament scholar Moss (Early Christianity/Univ. of Notre Dame; The Other Christs: Imitating Jesus in Ancient Christian Ideologies of Martyrdom, 2010, etc.), disguising the true violent, militaristic tone of the early Christian message. The author addresses deeply troubling aspects of an us-vs.-them mentality she sees rampant in today’s secularized world, from Islamic suicide bombers to the use of Joan of Arc by the French political right to Republican Christian voters viewing themselves as a persecuted minority. First, Moss wades through examples in the ancient world, including the high-profile cases of Greek and Roman heroes like Achilles, Socrates and Lucretia, who died for their beliefs, offering a model for the early Christians to borrow from. The author then moves into the early Christian era, when accounts of martyred apostles like Stephen and converts like Polycarp and Perpetua established a rich literary tradition after the imitation of Christ, with details altered and shaped by later Christian apologists. Key to Moss’ narrative is the history of Roman persecution of Christians, which she finds overblown, explaining the “sporadic” persecution as a politically motivated, entirely understandable move to suppress a pesky group of insurgents who constituted a threat to order and piety. The myth of martyrdom—and the expectation of huge rewards in heaven—was effective in organizing a cohesive early Christian identity, which involved the notion of being “under attack” and justified a violent reaction. While none of Moss’ arguments are particularly new or striking, she provides an intriguing venture that begs for more research and focus.
A strongly worded polemic on the dangers of defensive exceptionalism.