Debunking the Myth of Persecution

I have a cartoon on my office door showing a pie chart representing religious affiliation in the U.S. Of course, by far the largest section of the pie is labelled “Christian.” All others are represented by small slivers. A speech balloon from the Christian part says “Help! We are being oppressed!” The rhetoric of oppression is still absurdly used by Christian polemicists. Every holiday season we hear about the “war on Christmas.” The removal of “Roy’s Rock,”–a two-and-a-half ton granite monument with the Ten Commandments inscribed placed in a Montgomery, Alabama courthouse by a fundamentalist judge–elicited hysterical shrieks of martyrdom from the religious right. Lately, proposed requirements that religious institutions pay for their employee’s contraceptives as a standard part of healthcare coverage has elicited cries of outrage and charges that freedom of religion is being infringed.

Such rhetoric has a history, of course, dating right back to the earliest days of Christianity. One of the most powerful images of early Christianity is the depiction of huddled Christians praying in the arena as ravenous lions are set upon them. The rhetoric of victimhood is very effective and is used by propagandists whenever possible. The story of Christian persecution is one of the most successful pieces of propaganda ever. Art and literature have reproduced these tales and depictions many times. Even Hollywood movies like Quo Vadis have chillingly portrayed the mass martyrdoms. Everybody knows that innocent Christians were systematically and savagely persecuted by the wicked pagan Roman Empire.

Turns out, though, that, once again, what everybody “knows” is wrong. The Myth of Persecution, a new book by historian Candida Moss, professor of New Testament at Notre Dame University, pours cold water over the whole mythos of martyrdom. (Check the review by Laura Miller at In fact, the Roman Empire displayed a remarkable degree of religious tolerance, certainly far more than was shown by later Christian societies. Moss notes that in the 300-odd years between the founding of Christianity and Constantine’s official declaration of tolerance, there were only ten or twelve years scattered through that period in which Christians were the objects of particular persecution. Even then, enforcement was stringent in some areas and lax in others. The idea of widespread, chronic, systematic persecution of Christianity is just false, Moss argues, an invention of the Church for propagandistic purposes.

Of course, Christians, like any other citizens, did sometimes wind up in the courts on various charges. When they did, Moss notes that they were prone to making defiant pronouncements, denying the authority of the emperor and the courts. Indeed, many Christians actively sought martyrdom. Often the authorities refused to oblige them.

The upshot is that then as now the rhetoric of persecution served to perpetuate a myth of Christian victimization at the hands of a secular culture. The truth, of course, is that Torquemada could have taught Diocletian a thing or two about real religious persecution.