A Moss on a Roll Gathers no Stones— ‘The Myth of Persecution’

By Ben Witherington

Harper One is especially good at publishing books that can be called ‘provocations’ or ‘pot-stirrers’, or ‘debunkers’. Candida Moss’ recent volume with the deliberately provocative title ‘The Myth of Persecution’ is such a book. At heart, the root of her concern is exaggeration, hyperbole in the accounts of martyrdoms, and perhaps the possible ‘persecution’ complex of various of the earliest Christian writers. In response to this she has trotted out what has become a somewhat standard lament, to wit— ‘yes there were some persecutions, yes there were some martyrs, but the whole thing has been greatly exaggerated (in some cases to promote a sort of ‘cult of the martyrs’), the persecutions were not systematic, were with rare exception not Imperially instigated, were in fact sporadic and regional, and so on, and so on…’

While I am certainly prepared to admit that there is some hyperbole, and even some careless reporting in some early Christian accounts about martyrdom, this certainly cannot be said of all of them, and it especially cannot be said of eyewitness reports, to take one example, the reports of Eusebius of what happened in Palestine, including in his own town, Caesarea Maritima, during his lifetime.

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I would have thought that if Moss was going to try and hoist Eusebius on his own petard, that she would have bothered to adequately do her homework on Eusebius, for instance that she would have read the very thorough, very detailed article J.B. Lightfoot wrote on this church father, which is definitely critical in its analysis of Eusebius, in both senses of the word critical. A 40 page hommage to Eusebius it is not.

It first appeared in the Dictionary of Christian Biography (Vol. 2, London: Murray, 1880 ed. William Smith, pp. 308-48) and was much remarked on thereafter by careful historians of the period. Indeed, it became a benchmark for fair and balanced treatments of Eusebius’ work thereafter. The following is a quotation from this article…

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A Moss on a Roll Gathers no Stones—- ‘The Myth of Persecution’


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