Did Emperor Decius Specifically Target Christians? [bibliography]

Emperor_Traianus_Decius_(Mary_Harrsch)Because Christian persecution is such a volatile topic, I approached this video with a measure of trepidation. Tempers can flare when you try to vet the historicity of martyrdom accounts. Dr. Candida Moss, for example, received huge amounts of hate mail for her book The Myth of Persecution back in 2013 for applying the historical critical method to these stories, and I’m not eager to experience that for myself.

The whole point of this video, though, was to try to get into the mind of Decius and the Romans in general. Why would Decius decree such an odd edict? And why would the Romans react in violence to the Christians who refused to sacrifice? As I said in the video, the mainstream scholarly consensus is that Decius was out to bolster the strength of the empire through a massive show of piety. He probably didn’t have Christians in mind. Scholars from earlier in the 20th century viewed it as a piece of anti-Christian legislation, but the discovery and analysis of the Decian certificates from Egypt cast some doubt on these conclusions.

Having said that, I do find the timing in the middle of the 3rd century as Christianity was starting to grow in numbers as a bit suspicious. So I allow myself a certain measure of skepticism to account for the possibility of an anti-Christian bias. The complete lack of references to Christianity in the papyrological evidence, though, has me pretty well convinced. I highly recommend that you read through the documents themselves to see for yourself.

As far as secondary literature, my research for this video came mainly from the scholars I mention: Allen Brent, Candida Moss, and J.B. Rives. Both Brent and Rives engage the earlier scholarship on this topic, so if you want actual names and titles for these older scholars, please check out their work.

Bibliography:

Brent, Allen. Cyprian and Roman Carthage. 2010

Knipfing, John. “The Libelli of the Decian Persecution,” The Harvard Theological Review, Vol 16, No 4 (Oct 1923), 345-390.

Moss, Candida. Myth of Persecution. 2013.

Rives, J.B. “The Decree of Decius and the Religion of Empire,” Journal of Roman Studies, Vol 89 (1999), 135-154.

Andrew Henry is a PhD student in early Christianity at Boston University. His research focuses on the popular and domestic religion of the eastern Mediterranean, particularly the magico-religious rituals deployed to harness and direct ritual power.

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