The Reality of Persecution

Originally at:

by Philip Jenkins

Rome was not the only empire in antiquity, nor the only one with a sizable Christian population.

I stress that repeatedly because of the number of times we read about Christian engagement with the secular world, which seems to be defined as the Roman Empire. In fact, the Persian Empire also had plenty of Christians, and any rounded account of Christian history needs to take them into account. Doing so can radically change our perceptions of that history.

As a case in point, I cite Candida Moss’s widely-publicized 2013 book The Myth of Persecution, which dismisses as largely mythical the familiar Christian narrative of extensive persecution and martyrdom in the early church. No, she says, persecution was rare and infrequent, and when it did occur, it was not for specifically religious motives: rather, Christians suffered for their political positions. Christians simply blew up the stories that did occur for their own propagandist purposes.

Let me say right off that I admire much of Moss’s work enormously. Her columns at CNN and elsewhere are smart and valuable: see for instance her recent attack on claims made about the discovery of an ancient gospel in an Egyptian mummy mask. Having said that, I will critique her work on persecution.

I disagree with her book on many points, but for the sake of argument, let us accept that every word in it is correct. Even so, her account of the secular sphere wholly concerns the Roman world, and I see no reference in the book to Persia, where martyrdom and anti-Christian persecution undoubtedly did occur, on a vast and horrendous scale. Surely, that fact gravely undermines her argument?

From 224 through 651, Persia was ruled by the Sassanid dynasty. Apart from our modern concept of Persia/Iran, their empire stretched deep into Central Asia and usually incorporated much of what would call Pakistan and Iraq. Christians were numerous in its Western territories, and in the borderlands between the Persian and Roman empires, in lands that we know as Syria and eastern Turkey. Persia also had a state religion in the form of the Zoroastrian faith, which like Christianity had its various sects and denominations.

The Persian regime thus had a natural bias against minority faiths, far more so than did the Roman Empire, where the official emperor cult made minimal demands on subjects. Persecution was all the more likely when the Persian regime saw Christians as potential allies of Rome, which tolerated Christianity in 313 and made it the empire’s official faith in 380. Anti-Christian persecutions in the Persian Empire began in the late third century, and became ferociously intense from the fourth century onwards. Between 320 and 620, Rome and Persia were locked in a deadly Superpower confrontation, in which Cold War conditions sporadically erupted into open conflict. Over time, these wars became increasingly religious in nature, with horrible consequence for Persia’s Christian subjects.

As in Rome, certain eras and particular rulers stand out as the most notorious. If Western Christians loathed the name of Diocletian, their eastern counterparts trembled at the memory of Shapur II, who ruled (incredibly) from 309 through 379. On his era, and on so much else, I draw on the wonderful Encyclopedia Iranica, which is freely available online.

I quote Andrew Walls:

“The persecutions under Decius and Diocletian are a well-known feature of the story of Christianity of the Roman Empire; the Christians of the Persian Empire knew still fiercer, and more sustained, pressure. In one forty-year period of the fourth century, no less than 16,000 Christians were put to death by the Persian emperor Sapor [Shapur] II. The cause for this particularly savage attack on Christians was a direct response to the increasing favor shown by Constantine to Christians.”

The “sixteen thousand” figure is from the Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, ii 14. I stress that the number is credible, and is not just a random big statistic grasped out of the air to create shock and awe. It is based on calculations by the very well-connected and well-informed Christians of Edessa, who had excellent relations with the persecuted communities.

Bloody persecutions continued into the fifth century, and sporadically beyond.

Not just were these mass persecutions on exactly the lines that Candida Moss dismisses as mythical in the West, but they were very specifically religious, undertaken by adherents of Religion X because of its theologically motivated loathing of Religion Y. Of course politics also played its role in driving hatred, but those factors cannot be separated from religious. Zoroastrians had a firm belief in a Devil or Devil-like figure, and saw Christians as his earthly servants.

Also as in the West, martyrdom and persecution were fundamental to the Christian world-view, to the self-concept of believers and their perception of the faith. The Syriac Acts of the Persian Martyrs were cherished for centuries. There is an excellent recent discussion of this process of commemoration in Philip Wood’s important studyThe Chronicle of Seert: Christian Historical Imagination in Late Antique Iraq(Oxford University Press, 2013).

Looking eastwards, then, must make us ask: what “myth” of persecution?

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