We have been repeatedly asked about a recently published book called The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom, by Candida Moss, professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Notre Dame University. In the book, she asserts that early Christian martyr stories (first three centuries of the church) either were forgeries (“pious fraud”) or that the original stories were edited, rewritten, and altered to fit personal, theological, ecclesiastical, and/or political agendas. She writes that stories of an afterlife for martyrs were invented to protect God’s reputation since God did not come through and save them before death. The stories, she believes, are unreliable at best, obscured by being worked over, or were made-up. “The purpose of this book is to show that the foundations for this idea [that there were legitimate martyrs in the early church] are imaginary,” she writes. They are “inspirational fiction.”
She states that Christians were prosecuted (not persecuted) because Romans saw them as disloyal citizens, not merely because they were Christians. In other words, the Romans did not prosecute them for their faith; Roman emperors were barely aware that Christians existed. She plays a semantic game with her readers at this point: Christians were prosecuted because they were atheistic (putting the public at risk of not receiving the blessings of the gods), anti-social (refusing to participate in pagan feasts that were often immoral), and disloyal (refusing to call the emperor “Lord”). “Just because Christians were prosecuted or executed, even unjustly, does not necessarily mean that they were persecuted,” she writes. “Persecution implies that a certain group is being unfairly targeted for attack and condemnation, usually because of blind hatred.” Christians were a threat to political instability, she claims, and were “uncooperative, stubborn, and difficult.” The problem with her argument is that Christians were seen this way because of their faith and loyalty to Jesus Christ—which is a religious issue with broader implications. They refused to go with the program if it was idolatrous and immoral. They were prosecuted because they were persecuted.
Moss makes bold assertions based on less-than-credible documentation (the thrust of her argument is that what she says is true because she says so) and debunks church fathers like Ignatius, Irenaeus, Justin, Tertullian, and the historian Eusebius. She casts negative light upon early Christian writers but speaks positively of the anti-Christian Greek philosopher Celsus and contemporary radical historians like British Marxist historian C.M.E. de Ste. Croix. She uses supposition and insinuation to support her arguments and equates classical hero stories to stories of Christian martyrs (implying that this is where Christians got the idea of martyrdom). “Scholars hypothesize,” she writes, “that this idea of delayed judgment and eschatological reward developed because these promises of immediate reward were constantly unfulfilled [meaning that people died for their faith rather than being blessed]. As a result and in order to avoid the conclusion that God was either notoriously unreliable or fundamentally incompetent, the idea of future eschatological reward and punishment emerged” (47) [Italics mine].
Moss is saying that these ideas emerged to protect the reputation of God! Eusebius was well acquainted with those who were undergoing persecution, but that does not mean he was interested in presenting the facts (216) [Italics mine]! “His portrayal of Christianity as a church of martyrs was strategic. It allowed him to use martyrs to further other claims he wanted to make.” There was, in fact, competition between writers of martyrdom stories (245). She trivializes the stories of martyrs by stating that the gory stories of the deaths of the disciples of Christ were “wildly appealing: they were the campfire stories and bestselling novels of their day” (6). It carried the fictional tradition on from generation to generation, getting gorier until Christians were victorious over Rome (7).
She hits a low point when she says that the Gospel of Mark sought to show Jesus’ “human side.” A little too human according to Moss and also to the great ancient skeptic, the cynical Celsus, whom she introduces as a “well-educated second-century pagan critic of Christianity.” Celsus mocks Christ’s words about asking the Father to let the cup pass from him. Moss comments: “It’s human to die, but to many it seemed a little weak to whine about it ahead of time” (58) [Italics mine].
Although this book does not add to her credibility as a scholar, Moss does make a few valid points that we need to consider:
- Persecution is complex. There may be more than one reason why people are persecuted (e.g., because of their ethnicity, they are perceived as a political threat by totalitarian governments seeking to bring everyone into conformity, or they were born into a minority faith community that the majority will not tolerate).
- Persecution stories should be well documented.
- Some have a “persecution complex” that should not be encouraged. There are those who see everything negative that comes into their lives as persecution caused by their faith. It is a psychological issue based on an unrealistic assessment of the facts.
Reviewed by Roy Stults, Ph.D.
Roy Stults, PhD, is the Online Workshop Coordinator and Educational Services Coordinator for The Voice of the Martyrs. He graduated from Olivet Nazarene University (BA and MA), Nazarene Theological Seminary (M.Div.), Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Doctor of Missiology), and The University of Manchester (England) with a PhD (theology). A Vietnam veteran, Dr. Stults served as a missionary for 19 years and pastored U.S. churches for eight years. Prior to joining VOM, he was a Professor of Religion at Oklahoma Wesleyan University.