In her book, The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom, Candida Moss argues for her claim that the early Christians created a myth whose legacy still impacts the world today.
She begins the book with the story of the December 31, 2010 murder of Mariam Fekry and this sets the stage for the discussion that follows. Mariam, a Coptic Christian, was cast by some as a martyr and the bombing that killed her was presented as an attack on Christianity itself. This attack, some claimed, warranted divinely sanctioned retribution. Moss contends that this way of thinking is grounded in the myth of persecution and she spends the remainder of this book examining this subject.
Moss’ main claim is that the commonly held view that “Christians huddled in catacombs out of fear, meeting in secret to avoid arrest and mercilessly thrown to lions merely for their religious beliefs” is simply untrue. She spends much of the book endeavoring to support her claim.
She starts her argument by considering martyrdom before Christianity and tracing its likely influence on the Christian views of martyrdom. Naturally, she notes that there was no ancient word for “martyr” but makes an excellent case that the concept was well understood even in the ancient world.
As a philosopher, I found her analysis of the deaths of the philosophers (most notable Socrates) interesting. I did, however, find her assessment of the death of Socrates problematic in some ways (such as her claims about his philosophical views). On the whole, however, Moss does a reasonably good job tracing the likely influences on the Christian concept of martyrdom from the ancient world. This is, of course, not new—philosophers have noted the connection between Socrates (and Plato) and Christianity for quite some time (some thinkers referred to them as being “Christians before Christ”). However, Moss does a good job focusing on the specific connection as it relates to martyrdom (rather than, for example, metaphysics).
Moss then shifts to examining the pagan and Jewish martyrdom traditions and connects the dots between the pre-Christian martyrs and the Christian martyrs. Her approach is quite sensible: she looks for relevant similarities between the stories of the non-Christian martyrs and the stories of the Christian martyrs and uses these similarities to support her claim that Christians borrowed heavily in creating their stories of martyrdom. While this sort of approach does have its weakness, she does a reasonably good job making her case. After all, if the Christian stories significantly replicate the tales of the earlier non-Christian martyrs, then this suggests a clear influence. It also provides evidence that the Christian stories are, at the very least, embellished with details from the older stories.
After considering the non-Christian influences, Moss then turns to making a direct case that persecution is a myth. She does this by considering the available evidence and takes it to show that the Christians were not, as a matter of fact, persecuted in the manner that has become the received view. She notes that from the death of Jesus to the time of Constantine Christians were only sporadically subject to the attention of the Roman authorities and that this attention was not consistent in terms of its harshness or lack thereof. That is, the Roman Empire did not engage in what would legitimately count as persecution of Christians.
Moss then focuses on the six allegedly “authentic accounts” of the first Christian martyrs, such as Polycarp and Felicity. One of her methods in assessing the plausibility of these accounts is to look for anachronisms such as attacks on heresies that post-dated the story or references to traditions that did not exist at the time when the story allegedly took place. Another method she employs is to look for errors in the stories in regards to what we now know about Roman society (or details that are inconsistent with likely behavior). While these methods do not provide complete support for her case (after all, such inconsistencies could be explained away), they do lend credence to her claims.
Another important method she employs is what can be regarded as an argument by definition. That is, she considers what would actually count as persecution and examines the available evidence to see if the treatment of Christians would count as persecution rather than prosecution. She carefully makes the case that although some Christians were sometimes subject to brutal punishments this does not entail that they were persecuted. A key part of making this case is arguing that the Christians who were prosecuted were treated in such a manner not because of a campaign of persecution against Christians as Christians. Rather, it was because the specific Christians in question acted in ways that were punishable under general Roman law (like refusing to accept the authority of the Roman officials).
Obviously enough, this approach is only as good as the historical data used to make the case. As such, a potential weak point lies in the fact that our information about this time is far from complete. Of course, this is also a problem for those who would claim that Christians were persecuted—they, too, have to draw on limited resources and engage in speculation. However, the weight of the evidence (at least as presented by Moss) seems to favor the view put forth in the book.
Moss heads into the end section of the book by arguing that the notion of Christianity as a persecuted faith was manufactured almost entirely in the fourth century and later. Interestingly enough, this was when the faith was doing quite well. Moss claims that the reasons for the development of the myth included the desire to have a rhetorical tool against heretics (having a martyr praise the orthodox and condemn the heretic was the equivalent of a celebrity endorsement and condemnation) as well as to provide the equivalent of a horror story to entertain the faithful.
While the majority of the book makes a reasonable strong case for Moss’ thesis, the end of the book is somewhat disappointing. In fact, it almost feels as if it were hastily tacked on in an attempt to make the book more relevant to today and to appeal to a more diverse audience.
Disappointingly, Moss moves rather too quickly through her short examination of the legacy of this myth. While she does briefly note some of its harms (such as how it enables powerful Christians to claim that they are being victimized and thus feel justified in refusing to tolerate their critics), this section is more of a lost opportunity than a significant success.
While I do agree with her assessment of the matter, her case is not particularly strong. She spends a significant portion of the last section involves a personal anecdote about overhearing two students condemning a nine year old girl who received an abortion after being raped by her stepfather. While I do understand the rhetorical power of an anecdote, such an appeal to anecdotal evidence is at best logically weak. It is not for nothing that the appeal to anecdotal evidence is a classic fallacy.
If the anecdote had been backed up by more significant evidence of the effect in question, then her case would have been considerably stronger—after all, this is an academic work rather than a discussion of her personal experiences. It also has the unfortunate potential of creating the impression that she is relying so strongly on an anecdote because she lacks solid evidence.
Moss ends on an optimistic note that revealing the myth as a myth will help undo its legacy. Somewhat ironically, she makes a strong case against her optimism in the preceding chapters by noting how eager some people are to embrace and employ the myth. Perhaps the greatest irony is, of course, that those who give her case due consideration are already reasonable people while those who most need to be “cured” will probably just regard the book as a work aimed at persecuting Christians.
Overall, I found the book informative, well-reasoned and approachable. I would certainly recommend the book to anyone who would like to consider a rational case aimed at exposing the myth of persecution.
Like most people, I accumulate stuff that I no longer want or need and I like to get rid of it. I also like Christmas gift giving. As an experienced game master, I also really enjoy tormenting others (in the context of the game, of course). Back in 2010 I combined all of these into the much dreaded King Bob’s Game-an event my gaming group has learned to fear and loath.
The theological basis for the game was inspired by the Three King’s Day celebration in Puerto Rico. This is a very pleasant, but very hot, place to visit and I certainly recommend going there. The Spanish fortifications in San Juan alone are worth the trip.
As the story goes, three wise men or kings (not the same thing at all, of course) brought the baby Jesus some gifts. While this served as the theological foundation for the massive commercialization of Christmas, it also gave rise to Three Kings Day, which is celebrated in Puerto Rico. The gist of the holiday is that children put out grass and water for the Kings’ camels and they get small gifts in return. This holiday is on January 6th.
Fortunately, a little research revealed that there was a 4th king, King Bob. Unlike the Three Kings, Bob was not great with directions and ended up arriving at the wrong city, albeit a few days before the other kings arrived in the proper destination.
Since King Bob could not find the baby Jesus, he decided to give away the gifts via a game, which is now known as King Bob’s game. Alternatively, it can be called The Game of the Fourth King.
Here is how the game is played.
What You Will Need
Gifts: At least 1 wrapped gift per player, preferably more. Cheap gifts are best.
Dice: Ideally you should have a D20 and some D6s, but for non gamers six sided dice will do.
There are two roles in the game: King Bob’s stand in and player. King Bob supervises the game but does not play. He also does not get any gifts. Optionally, King Bob can also play and get gifts, but that is bad theology.
Everyone other than King Bob’s stand in is a player.
Setting Up the Game
King Bob sets up the game by creating a pile of the wrapped gifts and defending them from the greasy hands of the players until the game starts. Each player should have a die (or dice) and a board or piece of paper is needed to keep track of the order of play.
Gamers will be familiar with this, but non-gamers will not. For the non-gamers, this is how you determine the order in which the players take their turns. To determine this, each player rolls a die (preferably the standard D20). The player with the highest roll goes first, the player with the second highest goes second and so on. In the case of a tie, reroll until it is settled.
Starting the Game
The game starts with the player who has the highest initiative. S/he selects one gift from the pile and DOES NOTopen it. Shaking and such is allowed. The second player then has his/her turn and so on for each player until it is back to the first player. After the first player has selected his gift, the other players will have more options and the first player will also have these options on his/her second turn.
Playing the Game
After the first player has a gift, the second player has his turn and so on until everyone has had a turn. The first player then has his second turn and so on. During play, a player has options. Only ONE option may be taken each turn. A player can take a different option each turn, but is not required to do so.
- Pick a Gift: the player selects a gift from the pile but DOES NOT open it. The next player then takes his/her turn.
- Open a Gift: the player opens one gift that s/he has in his/her possession and opens it. The next player then takes his/her turn.
- Steal a Gift: the player attempts to take a gift from another player. The player who is trying to steal the gift is the thief and the player who has the gift is the defender. The defender has the option of allowing the theft or resisting. If the defender allows the theft, the thief gets the gift and adds it to his/her collection. If the defender decides to resist, then the thief and the defender each roll a six sided die. If the defender matches or exceeds the thief’s roll, then s/he keeps the gift. If not, the thief adds the gift to his/her collection. The next player then takes his/her turn. Defender does not count as the defending player’s turn and s/he can defend as often as needed.
- Inflict a Gift: the player attempts to give a gift to another player. The player who is trying to give the gift is the giver and the player who has the gift is the defender. The defender has the option of allowing the giving or resisting. If the defender allows the giving, the defender gets the gift and adds it to his/her collection. If the defender decides to resist, then the giver and the defender each roll a six sided die. If the defender matches or exceeds the giver’s roll, then the gift remains with the giver. If not, the defender adds the gift to his/her collection. The next player then takes his/her turn. Defender does not count as the defending player’s turn and s/he can defend as often as needed.
Ending the Game
The game ends as soon as no more gifts remain in the gift pile (that is, the players possess all the gifts). Players must take their gifts with them when the game ends, mainly because the game is often played with the intention of getting rid of bad gifts or items that King Bob no longer wants.
Some people enjoy adding a drinking element to all games. In this case, a player who loses a roll has to take a drink.
Republicans tend to make a point of claiming that they are people of faith-typically Christians. However, they often seem to take positions that directly contradict key parts of Christianity.
As an intellectual exercise reconcile Exodus 22:21( “Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt”) with the views of most of the Republican party.
Bonus points for reconciling Herman Cain’s view of the poor with Luke 6:20: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”
Additional points for reconciling Exodus 22:25 (“If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not be like a moneylender; charge him no interest”) with the capitalist banking system.
Even more bonus points if you can explain why the media folks seem to never raise the point that there appears to be a serious inconsistency between certain espoused Republican values and actual Christianity.
Since Democrats are supposed to godless atheists, they get a pass on this one.
Robert Jeffress, a Texas pastor, handed the media another controversy by his remarks about Romney and Mormonism. Jeffress noted that while Romney is a moral man, he does not regard Romney as being a Christian and sees Mormonism as a cult. He did add that he would prefer Romney over Obama.
Hearing Jeffress compare Romney and Perry, I was struck by the fact that Jeffress refereed to Romney as being moral in a way that made it sound derogatory. Jeffress noted that he would prefer a Christian to a moral and good person. This could, of course, be taken as indicating that Jeffrress thinks that Christians would do things that a good and moral person would not, but presumably he thinks that being a Christian someone makes a person better than someone who is merely moral and good. It is, of course, not entirely clear what this would be in terms of doing what is right. In any case, I will now turn to the main focus of this post, the matter of Mormonism.
Some years back I had the opportunity to discuss the matter of cults with a colleague in religion. His considered view was that the term “cult” was merely a derogatory term and that there seemed to be no principled way to distinguish between a religion and a cult (other than the fact that “cult” is a dysphemism for “religion”). I, perhaps because of many years of writing Call of Cthulhu adventures, was inclined to contend that “cult” did have some use as a term of classification-if only in terms of popular usage. However, the claim that “cult” is a mere insult with no real intellectual heft behind it does have some appeal.
That said, cults are generally taken to be distinguished from religions on the basis of size and doctrine. In terms of size, cults are supposed to be relatively small. However, the size factor does not seem to be the most significant. After all, there are small religions and it seems reasonable to think that cult could get rather big and still be a cult. Unless, of course, a cult must be (by definition) small. Mormonism is, obviously enough, not small and hence would not be a cult if a necessary condition for cult status is being small. Of course, “small” is a vague term, so perhaps it could be considered small given the right sort of definition of the term.
In terms of doctrines, cults are supposed to have strange, sinister, threatening or pernicious tenets. To use a fictional context, the cults in Call of Cthulhu worship alien beings (like Cthulhu and Hastur) and often intend to bring about terrible things, such as mass destruction or the fall of man. To use a real world example, Heaven’s Gate members held that the earth would be recycled and that they could escape via a UFO by committing suicide. There do seem to be some important and practical distinctions between these cults (real and fictional) and, for example, Episcopalians. If so, the question then becomes whether or not Mormonism is more like Heaven’s Gate (or a Cthulhu cult) or the Episcopalian church.
Mormonism does, of course, have what strike many as odd tenets and beliefs. For example, Joseph Smith claimed to have translated an ancient book through God’s power and he also claimed to have visions. While using magic to translate texts is standard fare in D&D (the spell comprehend languages does it quite nicely), it does seem like an odd thing. Mormons also practiced polygamy (and some sects still accept it) and there are various secrets that are supposed to be held by the church (including what some folks call “magic underwear”).
Of course, if Mormonism is compared with other religions (or cults, if your prefer) it does not seem to be unusual in such matters. After all, the bible is full of tales of the supernatural (burning bushes, parting seas, healing of the sick and raising from the dead). Also, some folks see accepted religions such as Catholicism as being full of secrets and having sinister and pernicious doctrines. As such, there seems to be nothing about Mormonism that would single it out for cult status that would also not include other faiths that are typically not regarded as cults. As such, my considered view is that Mormonism is no more (or less) a cult than Catholicism or any evangelical variety of Christianity.
As far as Mormons not being Christian, that would seem to depend on whether Jesus is really the Christ or not. While the Mormons have some different doctrines relative to Christian sects, they do seem to have the main tenet in that they accept Jesus as their savior and so on. So it seems likely that he would accept them as Christians. Of course, Jesus seems to often be rather more loving and tolerant than some of his followers.
If Jesus was just some guy, then there seem to be two main possibilities. The first is that Christianity is thus a mere fiction and asking whether they are Christians or not is a bit like asking whether people are really Sith or Jedi or not. The second possibility is that Christianity is some sort of social construct that does, in fact, matter in some way. In this case, the question would be one of who gets to define what it is to be a Christian (much like the question of who gets to define what it is to be a liberal or conservative).
My considered view is that the Mormons are, in general, just as much Christians as the other folks who profess to be Christians. In fact, it would be rather un-Christian for a professed Christian to reject them as mere cultists. But, of course, this is not up to me-God gets the deciding (and only) vote.
As far as how this will impact the general election, I suspect that conservative evangelicals would back the cultist Romney over Obama and that most other non-Mormon Americans would probably not hold Romney being a Mormon as a mark against him. There would be, no doubt, some vocal exceptions.
When it comes to Islam and terror, the fine folks at Fox have generally taken the view that Muslim terrorists are representative of Islam as a whole. However, when it turned out that Breivik (the person allegedly responsible for the terrible murders in Norway) claimed to be a Christian, the fine folks at Fox rushed to argue that he is not a Christian.
The main argument put forth by the fine folks at Fox is that a person who truly accepts Jesus would not engage in such horrible behavior. Naturally, Muslims who are not terrorists have argued that true Muslims would not engage in terrorist behavior. On the face of it, if the argument holds in the case of Christianity, then it should also hold in the case of Islam.
The obvious reply is to argue that while a true Christian would never do such things, such horrible acts are perfectly consistent with true Islam. The challenge is, obviously enough, to prove both of these things.
It will not do to point to the actions of those who profess the faiths. After all, people professing to be Christians have done terrible things as those who have claimed to be exemplars of Islam.
Turning to the holy books as evidence is a better approach, but not without its flaws. While the writings of Islam seem to allow and even endorse terrible things, the same is true of the Christian texts. As such, turning to the texts hardly seems to achieve the goal in question.
It can be argued that the violent content in the bible is either not an expression of the true essence of Christianity or that (to steal a bit from True Lies) true Christians only harm bad people (and thus are justified in doing so). In contrast, it must be argued that violent content in the Islamic writings is an expression of the true essence of Islam and that harming the good and the innocent is perfectly consistent with Islam. If this can be done, then the fine folks at Fox can consistently brand Muslims as terrorists while insisting that no Christian can be a terrorist.
The end of the world has been predicted numerous times and has yet to come to pass. However, the past failures of the world to end as predicted has not deterred new predictions. The latest prediction is based on an interpretation of the bible and the date set is May 21, 2011. If this is correct, then we do not have that much time left.
Interestingly enough, the bible (Mark & Matthew) seems to clearly state that no one (other than God) can know the hour or the day when the end will come. As such, to use the bible to predict the day of the end would seem to be somewhat problematic. After all, if the bible is accurate, then it would be accurate in regards to the claim that the day cannot be known. If that part is not accurate, then this would cast doubt on the parts that are used to make predictions about the end. Naturally enough, folks who calculate the end of days always have a response to the claim that this day cannot be known and perhaps they are right.
Not surprisingly, I am rather skeptical about May 21 being the end. After all, there have been numerous other attempts to calculate the end from the bible and these have all failed. As such, there seems little reason to believe that this new calculation is correct. Unless, of course, the new calculation is such that its methodology and content are both reliable. I am inclined to suspect that this is not the case. However, we do not have long to wait for an answer.
If the end does not arrive on May 21, the result will probably be the same as what occurred with other failed predictions: a new prediction will be offered based on the claim that the original calculation was off to do some (until then) unknown error in the calculations or in the interpretation of the textual evidence. The group that accepts the prediction will lose some members due to the failure, but others will accept the changed prediction. However, if the new prediction does not come to pass (or is set too far in the future) then the group will gradually lose membership and fade away.
In any case, it is not clear how useful a correct prediction would be. Given that we have no real way to confirm the predictions until the day arrives to confirm or disprove it, it makes little sense to change one’s life on the basis of such predictions. Unless, of course, the change is one that would be a good idea anyway. However, to quit one’s job or abandon one’s family on the basis of such a prediction would seem to be a bad idea. After all, such things would seem to have no impact on what is supposed to occur in the end and would have a negative impact should the prediction turn out to be wrong.
In any case, we’ll have the answer soon enough.
Belief is an interesting thing. When people are being rational, they believe in proportion to the evidence and in accord with its strength. When people are being irrational, they believe whatever they happen to feel strongly about. Good reasons and bad reasons matter not, all one needs is to feel it strongly enough.
One excellent example of this is shown by a recent Pew Research center poll. While there has been no new evidence for the claim that Obama is a Muslin, there has been a significant change in the percentage of people who believe that he is a Muslim and not a Christian. As shown in the Pew results (above) only 34% of those polled think he is Christian while 18% think he is Muslim. 43% now claim to not know his religion.
Another interesting bit of information is the fact that 31% of Republicans apparently believe that Obama is a Muslim.
As far as his faith goes, only he truly knows what he believes. However, as far as external evidence, there seems to be about as much evidence to believe that he is a Christian as there is for most people who claim to be Christians. After all, he goes to church occasionally, he claims to be a Christian, and he mentions God from time to time. He is clearly not, as some might say, a “Super Jesus” Christian.
As far as his being a Muslim, there seems to be no real evidence for this claim. No evidence of his being a member of a mosque, no profession of belief, no following of specific Muslim doctrines, and so on. While he has said nice things about Islam and has acted in ways to improve relations between the United States and Muslim countries, this hardly counts as evidence that he is a Muslim. After all, many Christians have said nice things about Islam and have worked to improve relations between the faiths. So, if he is a Muslim, then he is certainly a very secret Muslim.
Of course, that might be exactly what some people believe-that Obama is concealing his true faith under the guise of Christianity. The obvious concern is, of course, how did such people pierce his disguise and what evidence do they have of his true faith?
What I suspect is that they have nothing that would pass muster as evidence. Instead, the change in what people think is based on how they feel about Obama rather than any plausible evidence that supports the claim that he is a Muslim. As noted above, 31% of Republicans believe Obama is a Muslim. This seems to indicate that the belief is not based on evidence but on the political views of the believers. Of course, it could be countered that the Democrats fail to see evidence because of their own bias. But, then how does one explain that fact that most Republicans do not believe that he is Muslim? The best explanation, I think, is that he is not a Muslim.
South Park’s 200th episode featured Muhammad. He was not, of course, actually drawn as Muhammad but rather presented wearing a mascot’s bear costume. This, not surprisingly, has led revolutionmuslim.com to post a warning to South Park creators: they will end up like van Gogh. No, not the painter who allegedly sliced off his own ear. Rather, this is Theo van Gogh who was murdered after making a film about violence against women in certain Islamic cultures.
One reason for this response is that it is supposed to be forbidden to create images of Muhammad. The idea that certain images should not be displayed is not unique to Islam. There have been times when the displaying of certain religious images was forbidden in Christianity (and not just graven images, etc.). While the idea that such images should not be displayed seems like mere irrational superstition, it can be argued that people’s religious beliefs should be respected. So, for example, if Islam forbids the portrayal of Muhammad, then this should be honored. Then again, the idea that the free expression of ideas and views can be held hostage by theological views might strike some as rather medieval.
Another reason for this response is that the episode can be seen as mocking Islam-or at least making a veiled (sorry) attack on the followers who tend to be rather obsessed about Muhammad being portrayed. While people obviously do not like having their beliefs mocked, how people respond to such mocking shows a great deal about the people in question. South Park routinely makes fun of Christianity (Jesus is a recurring character on the show and his epic battle with Santa is a thing of legends), yet Christians generally do not make death threats over such mockery. In contrast, Islam’s defenders might be seen as operating like the Spanish Inquisition-quick to use violence to “defend” the faith. To be fair, people claiming to be Christians do still use violence and justify it on the basis of their faith. Perhaps the best known examples are the murders of doctors who perform abortions.
It might be the case, as some have argued, that a significant number of Muslims are still operating in the mindset of the dark ages (that is, how religion often operated in Europe prior to the Enlightenment…and beyond). After all, a mature and rational human being can, as the saying goes, take a joke. Also, an ethical person proportions her response to the severity of the offense. Having Muhammad in a bear suit might seem a bit silly, but it hardly seems something worth killing over. As such, the folks at Revolutionmuslim.com might be regarded as rather immature and unethical. Some might go so far as to make the same claim about many followers of Islam or perhaps even the entire faith.
Islam might, as some see it, be lagging behind because it is a younger religion and also because it has been far less influenced by Modern and contemporary ideas and influences (like democracy, women’s rights, scientific advances, and liberal political theory). Perhaps, as some have argued, Islam will eventually emerge from the dark ages after a long and prolonged struggle, much like Christianity.
Then again, as some argue, perhaps Islam is not lagging behind. After all, this presumes that religions progress towards some sort of “better” state. It might well be the case that Islam is up to date with the 21st century, just not the Western and liberal 21st century.