Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two-part interview series about Christian martyrdom.
Dr. Candida Moss, a professor at the University of Notre Dame, captured attention earlier this year with the publication of her book, “The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom.” From the title, alone, you can discern that the subject matter is controversial. Moss, a practicing Catholic and an expert on Christianity, contends that the early church “exaggerated, invented, and forged stories of Christian martyrs.”
Certainly advancing some bold claims, the professor holds that the so-called “Age of Martyrs” was, at least in part, fictional. This was the time-frame before Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in the fourth century — a period during which many allege that believers were brutally murdered by Roman authorities. Stories are often told today of the plight that these individuals faced.
But Moss believes that many of these narratives were exaggerations used to push back against heretics, to inspire believers and to gain support for church funding. With the purported tales continuing to be told, the professor is attempting to set straight a record she believes to be intensely inaccurate. TheBlaze interviewed Moss to gain more information about her perspective.
THEBLAZE: Why do you believe that this so-called “myth” of martyrdom developed within the Christian faith?
MOSS: First, I would like to establish what this myth is, and what it isn’t. It is the idea that Christians were continually persecuted for their beliefs; it is not a denial of all Christian martyrs from Antiquity today.
The reason we think that they were constantly persecuted is because later Christians exaggerated the numbers of martyrs and the severity of the persecutions in order to entertain, educate, and combat heresy. There wasn’t necessarily anything malicious about this; they were using the heroes of the faith to speak to the issues of their own day in the same way that we use the founding fathers to educate our children.
THEBLAZE: What led you to write “The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom”?
MOSS: Well, I had already written two other books concerning the importance of Biblical and early Church traditions about sufferings for Christianity. I wrote this book because a lot of Christian groups and individuals today refer to themselves as persecuted just like Jesus and the early Christians. Often they will talk about how Christians have always been persecuted and point to the Roman emperors as the start of that process.
Historians unanimously agree that this isn’t true, but we haven’t done a good job of conveying this to a wider audience. I wanted to change that and present the historical evidence for actual persecution and martyrdom in a form that’s accessible to everyone.
THEBLAZE: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
MOSS: Correcting the misunderstandings that surround martyrdom in the early church is not a question of tidying up some ancient facts or revising our understanding of events that happened in the distant past. It’s not merely academic. The view that the history of Christianity is a history of unrelenting persecution persists in modern religious and political debate about what it means to be Christian.
The problem is that when we apply the language of persecution to political debates or disagreements, our opponents think we’re being hysterical and we make it impossible to have reasonable discussions about how society should be run. Moreover, some Christians in other parts of the world — like Egypt or the Congo — really are persecuted and we take the spotlight off of them when claim that we’re persecuted when we’re not.
THEBLAZE: Do you think your findings will hurt or help the faith — and why?
MOSS: It’s difficult to hear that the stories we grow up with are untrue, but this book is not an attack on faith. It is a book about how a critical misunderstanding about early Christian history distorts our understanding of the present in ways that are fundamentally unhelpful and inaccurate. While some of the material in my book may be tough to hear, we still have an obligation to get our facts straight. Putting aside conspiratorial rhetoric can help strengthen our [appreciation] for the real martyrs, past and present and lend more credibility to our arguments.
THEBLAZE: Why do you think these stories have been perpetuated?
MOSS: Martyrdom stories are inspiring. These are the everyday heroes of Christianity: men and women who stood up for their beliefs despite all kinds of social pressures and physical pain. Stories of martyrs today are still inspiring. It’s also much easier to assume that we, like these heroes, are innocent sufferers than it is to contemplate the arguments of those with whom we disagree.
THEBLAZE: How did the Romans really treat early Christians?
MOSS: Well, occasionally they did persecute them. Most of the time, however, they were happy to leave Christians alone. We even have stories of Christians approaching the Roman authorities and asking to die and the Romans sending them away. If the Christians had been persecuted the Romans would not have been able to do this.
When Christians turned up in Roman courtrooms and confessed to being Christian, stonewalled interrogations, refused to participate in the imperial cult (the ancient equivalent of the pledge of allegiance), and talked about the destruction of the Roman empire, however, the Romans had little choice but to execute them. We have to bear in mind, though, that the Romans executed people for minor crimes like adultery, slandering a person in song, and making a disturbance at night.
THEBLAZE: What’s the difference between prosecution and persecution and why is it important in understanding these stories?
MOSS: Well, we all agree that not every action is covered by religious freedom. If you kill someone and claim that God told you to do it, you would still go to prison. You couldn’t cry persecution. Persecution is generally considered to be the unjust targeting of a specific group purely for being members of those groups.
Prosecution is when a person is punished for breaking a law. There’s some grey area between prosecution and persecution, but it’s important to recognize the difference because it’s possible to criticize and respond to an unjust law or political disagreements. Early Christians died because they were politically and socially subversive. With the exception of a few years, the Romans did not legislate against them much less seek them out.
THEBLAZE: Is the Bible a reliable book to follow and trust, historically speaking?
MOSS: Well, yes and no. The Books of the Bible were not written to a comprehensive ancient history textbook. Not all of the Bible was even written as history. There’s a great deal of poetry and prophecy in the Bible and those kinds of books demand that we read them as something other than just straightforward history. Even those books that are historical in nature followed the rules of ancient history writing, the standards of which were different than they are today.
We will be very disappointed if we apply modern academic standards to the entirety of the Bible and expect it to be a reliable history. There are places where focusing on the ancient context can help explain things that are otherwise shocking. For example, there is a passage in the Gospel of John when Jesus calls the Jews the sons of their father the Devil, and in 1 Peter slaves are encouraged to accept mistreatment.
These aren’t sentiments that many Christians today would share and they are passages that have, historically, done a great deal of harm. Understanding the historical context in which these books were written and theological perspectives of the authors can really help explain what motivated these authors to write such things.
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