As usual, I am trying to read two or three books at one time, and that means I have several different lines of thought running in my head all at the same time. Lately, this has been especially true, since I went through a flurry of book buying which will lead to bankruptcy if I don’t take myself in had. All this diverse reading doesn’t really help a lot with blogging, because I have a tendency to jump back and forth along the trains of thought that occupy my mind, and what comes out sometimes looks a bit more like a word salad then carefully thought through argument — and then, of course, it simply gets trashed. One of the things that I am particularly interested in right now is Tom Nagel’s book Mind and Cosmos, a task which has ramified in all sorts of different directions, especially in areas of the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of science, both of which I need to read myself back into in order to say anything at all pertinent to the complex subject matters involved. One of the things that strikes me about many of the critiques of Nagel’s book is that they fail to notice, or at least most of them fail to notice, that Nagel has been saying something like this for years, ever since his essay “What’s it like to be a bat?” In almost all his work he has concentrated on the irreducibility of mind, and mental entities, to physical brain states. And, on the other hand, he has expressed his concern over what he calls the “view from nowhere” (the title of one of his books) — or what Bernard Williams called the Absolute Conception of Reality – which concerns the way that scientific understanding has simply pared away all that is subjective and human, so that the world studied by physics, for instance, is a rarified world which is colourless, odourless, soundless, and so on; and, while this has led to many of sciences greatest successes, when science turns itself back to the study of mind it excludes everything that makes mind and consciousness unique. However, as I say, this is something for another time, when I have had the chance to consider the issues more closely.
For now, I want just briefly to introduce a new book which I received late yesterday (I am only up to page 33, so this is very preliminary), by a professor at Notre Dame University, Candida Moss, Prof of New Testament and early Christianity. Her new, and rather striking book, is entitled The Myth of Persecution: how early Christians invented the story of martyrdom. The fundamental thesis of the book is that the Christian martyrology of the early centuries is almost entirely fabricated. She points out that in one study undertaken in France beginning in the 18th century, out of 68 volumes of texts and commentary it was determined that “only a handful of stories were historically reliable.” (16) The study itself was carried out initially by a Dutch Jesuit who soon realised that the task was too great for one man, and the project was eventually taken over by a team of scholars led by the priest named John Bolland, the group eventually coming to be known as the society of Bollandists, which has spent over three centuries examining the cultic legends of the Christian martyrs. The result of their labours was the sixty-eight volume compendium of martyr stories, only a small number of which can be reliably held to be historically sound.
The fact, however, that the church thought of itself as a perpetual victim has had serious consequences for the way that the church itself, and individual Christians, have encountered and related with others, especially with those who disagree. Indeed, disagreement has been almost universally interpreted in the Christian tradition as persecution and victimisation. Professor Moss gives a typical example of this dynamic in action:
In August 2011 Republican residential candidate Rick Santorum publicly complained that the “gay community… [had] gone out on a jihad” against him.… Even though Santorum is a political figure whose words and actions have ramifications for others and, thus, invite scrutiny and criticism from the public, he cast his critics as persecutors. In doing so he implied that he was the victim of hatred, that this was not a matter of different opinions, and that his opponents had no reason for criticising him. 
Moss shows how in a number of examples this tendency of taking the victim’s part, even though there is no evidence of victimisation at all, has had a deleterious effect on the way that the church has related to the world. It has made it seem that a violent, defensive response is the appropriate posture to take, not only in response to actual violence, but also to moderate criticism, making it all but impossible to discuss the truth or falsity, the rights or wrongs, that are raised, even by insiders, who by virtue of criticism effectively place themselves on the outside of the community. Thus heretics, merely by the invocation of critical issues having to do with belief or practice, put themselves beyond the pale, which makes criticism, even criticism made in good faith, an act which can be interpreted, through the lens of Martyrology, as persecution.
The interesting thing about this dynamic is that it is almost entirely based on a myth of persecution, and not on its reality, the myth being that the church and its individual members are always being persecuted, or stand under the threat of persecution. Martyrologies were effectively ways in which the church exercised power, criticised the establishment, and gave, so it was supposed, witness to the truth of Christian beliefs. Later on fake martyrologies were fabricated to attract visitors and thereby to bolster commerce and revenue, and a vibrant competition arose amongst martyr stories, each one trying to outdo the other in the types and degree of suffering experienced by the martyr, exemplifying the nobility of the martyr’s death as well as the orthodoxy of the martyr’s faith. Indeed, as time went on, martyr stories were edited precisely to defend and uphold particular conceptions of orthodoxy.
This tendency to think of the church as always subject to persecution legitimates violent and hyperbolic responses to criticism. This is amusingly evident in a book published by David Limbaugh, brother of the mad-conservative talk-show host, Rush Limbaugh, entitled Persecution: How Liberals Are Waging War against Christianity. According to Moss,
[t]he book describes itself as a “call to action” for modern Christians who, like Christianity’s founders, should stand up and defend their right to religious freedom. 
This, of course, is completely unhistorical as it relates to the early church, for the idea of religious freedom is not pertinent to the situation in the ancient world; and besides, the early Christians did not experience persecution to the extent often assumed. Professor Moss’s fundamental thesis is that belief in a persecuted church is almost entirely a fabrication of the early church for political reasons. Very seldom in the first centuries of the church’s existence were Christians under threat of serious persecution. In most cases what is now thought of as persecution was, Moss says, prosecution. Christians were not victimised because they were Christian, but because they disobeyed the law. This may be thought to be a minor distinction; however, in a world in which freedom of religion was not a value, laws respecting the behaviour of people in relation to the majority religion of the Empire were thought to be appropriate and right, and punishment was the result of disobeying such laws. To turn this into a deliberate persecution of Christians qua Christians was, in a sense, a deliberate fabrication on the part of Christians in order to focus attention upon themselves, and, in a perverse way, to underwrite the truth of Christian beliefs by the willingness of Christians to endure pain and death in their defence. (Of course, this does nothing to confirm the truth of the beliefs, but that is another story.) Thus, martyrdom was seen differently from the point of view of Imperial officials, on the one hand, and Christians themselves, on the other.
The interesting thing is that this martyrdom complex (as we may call it) is something that so indelibly marked the church that it has been preserved up to the present day. One of the most amusing episodes which illustrates this fact is the spectacle of a former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, fulminating about persecution because a woman was denied the right to wear a cross with her flight attendant’s uniform, or because B&B operators were not allowed to deny accommodation to a gay couple. To think of these rather minor inconveniences as persecution is nothing short of ridiculous. As Professor Moss says:
It is this idea, the idea that Christians are always persecuted, that authenticates modern Christian appropriations of martyrdom. It provides the interpretative lens through which to view all kinds of Christian experiences in the world as a struggle between “us” and “them.” 
That this interpretive lens is based almost entirely on legendary accounts of Christian martyrs is perhaps the most astonishing feature of this phenomenon.
Another aspect of the myth of martyrdom is the way that the legends or myths of martyrs were used to enforce particular points of doctrinal orthodoxy. As Moss says, “[a]n anecdote in which a martyr denounced a heretic was worth 100 rational arguments about why that heretical position was wrong.” (19) Of course, the problem with this sort of thing is that it makes discussion and argument virtually impossible, and perhaps that was its point. As we know from the Vatican document, “An Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian,” the Magisterium has a validity superior to its argumentation. The use of martyrs, in the way suggested, effectively makes the same point. The utterances of martyrs, as holy persons, cannot be effectively questioned without at the same time diminishing both the holiness of the particular martyr involved, and the holiness of the entire martyr system itself.
Professor Moss takes the argument one step further. For the real power of Christian martyrdom myths lies in the belief that martyrdom is special and unique to Christianity, something which Moss goes on to deny, demonstrating that, in fact, there was a long tradition before Christianity of the ideal of the noble death, not least of which was the death of Socrates. And we can take this a bit further, because in fact the lines between dying for or on account of one’s religious beliefs, and dying for one’s political principles, is blurred and indistinct. Martin Luther King Jr., for example, as Moss says
[w]as ordained and utilized religious imagery and language in his speeches and self-understanding, [but] he was assassinated not because he was a Christian, but rather because he was a rallying point and leader in the civil rights movement. Calling Dr King a martyr blurs the line between his religious vocation and his political activism.
Interestingly, this is a point that was made by Christopher Hitchens, one for which he was roundly criticised by Christians, that King’s political activism was motivated as much by his association with nonreligious political activists as it was by his Christian convictions. The martyrdom tradition tends to theologise everything it touches, thus turning what by any measure is largely secular in nature into a religious act. Including King in a Christian martyrology makes him more than a political activist; it turns him into a witness to the truth of his Christian beliefs.
This is probably as good a place as any to bring this post to an end, by remarking on the effect of making what we may justly call the “martyrdom move.” What it does, Moss suggests, is to justify acts of aggression and violence in defence of what becomes, through making the move, the moral high ground. By understanding themselves as victims, even when they are not, acts of intransigence and violence are justified, because to stand with the martyr is already to have claimed the moral high ground, which has a very powerful rhetorical effect:
The traditional history of martyrdom is a myth, a myth that gives Christians who deploy it in the sorts of examples adduced here the rhetorical high ground, but a myth that makes dialogue impossible. 
The use of the idea of persecution tends to give Christians a license, as Moss says, “to remain committed to conflict and opposition in conflict with others.”  With the recognition that the martyrologies of the church are largely the creation of myth could come, if Christians chose, a different approach to disagreement and contention. They might, Moss suggests, adopt the virtues of the martyrs rather than “embracing the false history of persecution that has grown up around them.”  It will, at the very least, be interesting to see how Christians respond to Moss’s thesis. It is not entirely new, of course, and historians have been aware for some time that the martyrologies of the early church are characterised by an incredible amount of myth and legend, but this is the first largely popular history to deal with the subject of persecution in the early church — and, as I say, it will be interesting to see what the Christian response will be.