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Friday, December 26, 2014

Don't be a martyr

- Stoning of St Stephen, Paolo Uccello

On the feast day of the Christian martyr, Stephen, let's look back at a book by Notre Dame professor of New Testament and Early Christianity, Candida Moss ... The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom. The book was endorsed by many (see the Amazon page) and there were a lot of article on it in religious publications, from National Catholic Reporter and US Catholic, to The Christian Century and First Things (see the Wikipedia page for links to these reviews). Here's an intro to the book from that page ...

Moss's thesis is that the traditional idea of the "Age of Martyrdom", when Christians suffered persecution from the Roman authorities and lived in fear of being thrown to the lions, is largely fictional. There was never sustained, targeted persecution of Christians by Imperial Roman authorities. Official persecution of Christians by order of the Roman Emperor lasted for at most twelve years of the first three hundred of the Church's history. Most of the stories of individual martyrs are pure invention, and even the oldest and most historically accurate stories of martyrs and their sufferings have been altered and re-written by later editors, so that it is impossible to know for sure what any of the martyrs actually thought, did or said.

This idea may seem only historically interesting but it's actually very relevant to what's going on today, given the Catholic Bishops' assertion that the Obama administration is out to get them, the Religious Right's worries about the war on Christmas and Easter, and the issue of the treatment of Christians in the Middle East. It should be pointed out, of course, that persecution goes both ways ... the Catholic Church spent centuries persecuting people, both those of other faiths as well as other Christians.

Here's the beginning of an article by Moss at The Daily Beast ...

The Death of Jesus and the Rise of the Christian Persecution Myth

For Christians, the crucifixion is the event that changed everything. Prior to the death of Jesus and the emergence of Christianity most ancient people interpreted oppression, persecution, and violence as a sign that their deity was either irate or impotent. The crucifixion forced Jesus’s followers to rethink this paradigm. The death of their leader was reshaped as triumph and the experience of persecution became a sign of elevated moral status, a badge of honor. The genius of the Jesus movement was its ability to disassociate earthly pain from divine punishment. As a result Christians identified themselves as innocent victims; they associated their sufferings with those of Jesus and aligned the source of those sufferings with the forces that killed Jesus. From the very beginning, victimhood was hardwired into the Christian psyche.

The enduring impact of this idea is evident in the rhetoric of modern-day Christians. In the weeks that followed the recent papal resignation, Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles, who was accused of participating in the coverup of sexual abuse by priests, described himself in terms appropriate to a martyr: as a scapegoat who suffered like Jesus. Because of the nature of the crimes for which he is suspected, Mahony’s claims that he is being persecuted have been universally dismissed, but other similarly hyperbolic instances of American Christians crying “persecution” slip into the public square.

The belief that Christians are continuously persecuted has a basis in Scripture. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus instructs his followers to take up their cross and follow him and predicts that his followers will be persecuted for his name. Then again, in the very same passage he predicts that some of those standing before him will not taste death before the arrival of his kingdom in glory. Why do we accept the prophecy of persecution when the statement about the disciples living until the last judgment clearly failed? The reason why Jesus’s statements about persecution have had such a pronounced impact on the formation of Christian identity is that this prophecy is believed to have been proven in the experiences of the early church. The Church has suffered since the beginning, the argument goes, and we are persecuted now as we have always been.

But what if Christians were not always persecuted? What if there never was an “Age of the Martyrs”? ......

And here are a few of the articles about the book ...

- The long shadow of the martyr myth, NCR

- Christ was persecuted, but what about Christians?, CNN's Belief Blog

- Us Against Them, America Magazine


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