First off: I'm disappointed that Goodreads got this title, and its subtitle, flat-out wrong. It's printed correctly on the cover they show; but in case you can't see that, the actual title of this book is: The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented A Story Of Martyrdom.
And that's important, because Candida Moss is making a strong case against popularly accepted ideas of Christian persecution,
past and present. [UPDATE: GR corrected the title after I first posted this review. Thank you, watchful GR librarians!]
Moss is Catholic, and professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame. She starts off with some anecdotes about contemporary American Christians who claim to be persecuted -- Rush Limbaugh's brother David, for instance, who published a book titled Persecution: How Liberals Are Waging War Against Christianity.
She goes on to ask a few simple questions:
"If there had never been an Age of Martyrs, would Christians automatically see themselves as engaged in a war with their critics? Would Christians still see themselves as persecuted, or would they try to understand their opponents? Would the response to violence be to fight back or to address the causes of misunderstanding? Would we be more compassionate? Would we be less self-righteous? The history of Christianity is steeped in the blood of the martyrs and set as a battle between good and evil. How would we think about ourselves if that history were not true?"
She goes on to present solid, detailed evidence for the case that claims of constant anti-Christian persecution are exaggerated at best. To be blunt: not only is the body count significantly lower than the ancient stories would lead us to believe, but the definition of persecution has to be examined.
"Just because Christians were prosecuted or executed, even unjustly,
does not necessarily mean that they were persecuted. Persecution
implies that a certain group is being unfairly targeted for attack and condemnation, usually because of blind hatred. We have to know, then, why Christians were being arrested and executed and whether the reasons were a part of general legal practice or whether the Christians were being singled out. As we look at episodes of 'persecution,' we need to constantly ask ourselves: Is this religious persecution or is this ancient justice?"
Moss' prose is smooth and her writing voice quite natural; she is at once scholarly, engaging, and a good read even for non-academics. She has occasional spikes of humor. When discussing ancient rumors about those scary, baby-eating, incest-committing Christians, she points out that if you want to discredit a group, you have to be willing to go all the way. "For slander to be effective it has to have some teeth -- there's no point in accusing someone of going over the speed limit."
I guess I could have kept this review shorter and more effective by simply pointing out that Sister Simone Campbell, one of those fantastic Nuns On The Bus, gave it a glowing back-cover review. If she liked it, you should read it. I don't believe in God. I do believe in nuns.