Beforewords: James Corke-Webster on Persecution

Isaac Parham · Thu, 20 Jan 2022

Ahead of our new collection on persecution, we speak to returning Fellow Dr. James Corke-Webster who will be delivering the opening talk in the series.

So, James, your next Garden Talk (Did the Roman Empire really wage war against Christians and their God?) is on Monday – would you like to give us a sneak preview of what we can expect?

OK, so next week's talk is about the persecution of Christians under the Roman Empire, in the first three centuries A.D. and sort of roughly from the birth of Jesus up until the conversion of the Emperor Constantine. 

It's a topic which I think has filtered into the popular imagination. The image of Christians being thrown to the lions has become a common phrase in society and it's also used as a historical touchstone for a lot of contemporary stuff. You quite often get the persecution of Christians being referenced when Christians feel under threat in modern America, for example.

And this is not what I think happens basically – it’s one of those cases where a misunderstanding in the past is still having repercussions today. And so that will be what the talk will be trying to demonstrate: what is wrong with the traditional picture and then see if we can put something new and different in its place.

Interesting. And what do you want people to take away from your Garden Talk?

I think there’s two different ways I want their thinking to have changed. So one is about the concrete historical reality of what happened. I hope they'll come away with a completely different picture of the nature of early Christianity, the nature of the Roman Empire and thus the nature of the way that they interacted. It sort of takes the agency away from Rome a little bit, and it changes the way we think about what Christians experienced. So for both sides, I hope it will be a change of perspective. 

And then on the macro level, what I want to suggest is a different way of thinking about persecution as a whole. Not to say that the state is not sometimes the persecuting agent, but that there are other other ways of thinking about persecution and other aspects to the way that people have and do suffer that we sometimes neglect when we focus on law and government.

That’s an interesting point and actually as we’ve been putting this collection together we've noticed a common thread: powerful people and groups co-opting persecution as a way to spin the narrative and change public opinion.

This is exactly right. Persecutory identity is a powerful one, especially in politics.

Aside from this interview, is there anything that you would recommend people read or watch to prime them for your talk?

I did write a short, introductory piece called The Roman Persecutions, it’s in a companion to martyrdom and it is on Google Books. It talks about the way scholarship in general approach this topic and ends by talking a little bit about how I think we should approach the topic

And then much more interestingly, I am going to start Monday’s Talk by talking about a very famous film, Quo Vadis, which is one of one of the classics of Hollywood that I think has contributed a lot to creating the iconic image of Christians being thrown to the lions in the Colosseum, whereas in fact, we have no actual evidence of Christians being thrown to lions in the Colosseum, for example. It’s a good film and a good starting point.

More broadly then, why do you think the concept and history of persecution is particularly relevant and important now?

Persecution is resonant because it’s a continuing facet of human experience. From the ancient world through to today there have been groups and minority groups that have suffered persecution in some form and I suppose it’s a reminder to people that we are kind of all in some sense vulnerable to it. It has this kind of pull for people.

One of the reasons people are interested in history is, I think, because of the power of empathy. Persecution is when people are at their most vulnerable and most exposed. And that's often when we see people's humanity most. So it's a reminder of the fact that history isn't just dates and famous wars or generals, it's about human experience. It’s about connecting with the human condition.

Save your seat for James’ Garden Talk here.


Throughout history, humans have found ways to oppress and malign those they feel they're in opposition to, whether because of ethnicity or beliefs. In this collection, we're exploring the legacy of persecutions past, and why they're such a recurring theme.

Did the Roman Empire really wage a war against Christians and their God?

Dr. James Corke-Webster

History remembers the persecution of early Christians as a clash between the Roman state and its traditional gods, and the new Christian cult and its upstart God. But is that really all there is to the story?

On demand
Watch now
Are we living in an age of persecution?

Prof. Fathali M. Moghaddam

What's driving us when we act as a collective? And why does modern life mean more people feel persecuted than ever before?

On demand
Watch now
What conditions create witch hunts?

Dr. Mikki Brock

Witch hunting is, by and large, a thing of the past, yet we remain captivated by the concept. What drives this fascination, and why are we still talking about witch hunts today?

On demand
Watch now

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