Despite the extreme antipathy shown toward religion by the educational establishment, the Chronicle of Higher Education doesn’t shy away from the topic. In the March 1 edition of The Chronicle Review, a piece by Candida Moss presents one of the uncomfortable facts of religious history to the academic world. Many of us who are “specialists” have known for quite some time that the record for mass persecution among early Christians is sketchy at best. In “The Myths Behind the Age of Martyrs,” Moss reveals that historical documents don’t present the first few centuries of Christendom as quite the blood-bath that early hagiographies do. It is true that perceptions vary depending on one’s point of view. If your auntie were thrown to the lions, it might look like everyone you knew was being persecuted. If you were a Roman historian, the numbers might seem small in comparison with, say, those pesky Carthaginians, heathens the lot of them. Still, it was this persecuted self-image that left a lasting imprint on Christianity. Until Constantine, anyway. When Christianity became imperial, it didn’t hesitate to get medieval on a few posteriors.
As Moss points out, early Christians (as well as Jews and those of other bookish traditions) rewrote their stories over time. Even altering the Bible—not yet the Holy Bible—was fair game. The whole discipline of textual criticism grew up to answer the question of what the original Bible likely said. As soon as believers take their writings as factual, however, the story will change. Were early Christians persecuted? Almost certainly. By the tens of thousands that tradition asserts? Less likely. The Romans were practical. Like most domineering classes, lording it over someone isn’t nearly as satisfying when your subjects are dead. You want that superior feeling? Keep the masses in servitude. But alive. That’s not to say that it didn’t feel like everyone you knew was being murdered for trying to do the right thing.
When I was little, I was taught that it is more important to put others’ needs and wants in front of your own. It is a basic Christian teaching. Somewhat naively, I approached the academic empire with that simple basis deeply embedded in my mind. I didn’t realize just how often others would use this trait to their own advantage. Other Christians as well as the non-religious are happy to take from the willing giver. This didn’t prepare me well for life in the business world where, I am learning, the delight in taking from the giver has only grown stronger over the centuries. So I end each day spent and weary and feeling like I’ve been thrown to the lions. Not literally. Still, I believe in the plain idea that if we all treated others’ needs before our own the world would be a much better place. I’ve never outgrown my idealism. Until others join in, however, I’m sitting in the stands trying hard not to watch what the lions are doing down below.