The Myth of Persecution

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The Myth of Persecution
Jean-Léon Gérôme - The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer - Walters 37113.jpg
Author Candida Moss
Country United States
Language English
Genre Christian history, Roman history
Publisher HarperCollins
Publication date
Media type Print (hardcover)
Pages 308
ISBN 978-0-06-210452-6

The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom is a 2013 book by Candida Moss, a professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame. Moss's thesis is that the traditional idea of the "Age of Martyrdom", when Christians suffered persecution from the Roman authorities and lived in fear of being thrown to the lions, is largely fictional. There was never sustained, targeted persecution of Christians by Imperial Roman authorities. Official persecution of Christians by order of the Roman Emperor lasted for at most twelve years of the first three hundred of the Church's history. Most of the stories of individual martyrs are pure invention, and even the oldest and most historically accurate stories of martyrs and their sufferings have been altered and re-written by later editors, so that it is impossible to know for sure what any of the martyrs actually thought, did or said.


Martyrdom before Christianity[edit]

The word "martyr" is Greek, meaning "witness". Originally meaning a witness in a trial, it came to be used by Christians as signifying someone who had witnessed for Christ with their life.[1]:26–27 Although the word "martyr" was not used in the sense of one who had chosen to die rather than renounce their convictions prior to Christianity, and the Christian tradition has held that martyrdom did not exist in previous eras, Moss argues that there were examples of martyrs among earlier Jews, Greeks and Romans, they were just not called by that term.[1]:52 In particular, the deaths of Socrates and the aged Jewish teacher Eleazar in 2 Maccabees, Moss maintains, heavily influenced Christian martyrdom narratives, to the extent that "Christians adapted their ideas about martyrdom and sometimes even the stories themselves" (italics in original) "from both ancient Jewish and pagan writers."[1]:80


There are many extant Acts of the Martyrs, but Moss characterizes most of them as "elaborate, ornate, entertaining, and far from the truth"[1]:87, with numerous examples which have been patterned on Greek romance novels.[1]:77–78. As an example, Moss examines the martyrdom story of Chrysanthus and Daria, a young Christian man who fell in love with a vestal virgin, who converted to Christianity, and was sentenced to serve as a prostitute in a brothel by the authorities. Her chastity was however protected by an escaped lion, and both the saints were condemned to be buried alive.[1]:84. According to Moss, the Romans would never have condemned a vestal virgin, whose purity was thought to ensure the stability of society, to serve as a prostitute. She states that this is "an impossible story" and "simply could not have happened".[1]:86 Moss examines the oldest and generally agreed to be most authentic of the martyrdom accounts—the Martyrdom of Polycarp, the Acts of Ptolemaeus and Lucius, the account of the trial and death of Justin Martyr and companions, the Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs, the story of Perpetua and Felicity, and the Persecution in Lyon involving the bishop Pothinus, Blandina and several others—and finds that even these cannot be relied on as accurate historical accounts as they have been altered and re-written by subsequent generations of Christians.

Martyrdom of Polycarp[edit]

This account purports to be of an eyewitness, who states that as Polycarp entered the stadium where he was to be tried, the Christians present, but not the others, heard a voice which said "Be strong, Polycarp, and act like a man". Upon his burning alive, the Christians, and no others, perceived a fragrant odour like incense.[1]:96. The trial takes place in a sports stadium, not a law court where trials were normally held, and there are many parallels with the death of Christ, such as Polycarp entering the city on the back of a donkey, which seem "exaggerated or invented in order to make Polycarp seem like Jesus".[1]:98 The "many wild coincidences, improbabilities and illegalities" of the narrative do not mean, according to Moss, that Polycarp did not really suffer martyrdom, but that it is "impossible for us to imagine that the Martyrdom of Polycarp is a historical account of the events as they actually happened".[1]:100

Persecution in Lyons[edit]

The tortures and deaths of Saints Pothinus, Blandina, and others in Gaul about 177 are known from a letter, apparently by one of the survivors, which is extant only in a partial version in the Church History of Eusebius of Caesarea, from about two hundred years after the events.[1]:112 In the text, one of the Christians states he has been brought from Vienne, others from Lyons, but these cities were in two different Roman provinces.[1]:113 Moss notes that various theological terms are used which are not otherwise attested before the third century (a reference to the church as the "virgin mother", a distinction between "confessors" - Christians in prison who have been condemned but not yet put to death - and martyrs, for instance), and the letter begins by saying that the events are "worthy of undying remembrance", a phrase used by Eusebius in both the Church History and his Martyrs of Palestine.[1]:113 These are indications, according to Moss, that the letter has been edited by Eusebius and it is impossible to tell which parts of it are at all historical and which have been added by Eusebius for theological purposes.[1]:114


According to Moss, although provincial governors in the Roman Empire had a great deal of personal discretion and power to do what they felt was needed in their jurisdiction, and there were local and sporadic incidents of persecution and mob violence against Christians, for most of the first three hundred years of Christian history Christians were able to live in peace, practice professions, and rise to positions of responsibility. "We are talking about fewer than ten years out of nearly three hundred during which Christians were executed as the result of imperial initiatives."[1]:129

Reasons for persecution[edit]

Moss holds that the Romans interpreted refusal to burn incense and make sacrificial offerings to an image of the Emperor as seditious and a sign of possible treason. They were not concerned with religious doctrine, but political rebellion.[1]:174

Rewards for martyrs[edit]

Moss describes Church teachings that, once dead, all would wait for the Day of Judgement to decide one's eternal fate - all except for martyrs, who were awarded a martyr's crown and immediately went to heaven.[1]:209 For this reason some Christians deliberately sought martyrdom in a suicidal quest for a martyr's crown.[1]:212

Consequences of the legend[edit]

Although there were undoubtedly real martyrs and some persecutions of Christians merely for being Christians, Moss claims that the idea of a persecuted church was greatly exaggerated, especially by early church historian Eusebius.[1]:217–233 The idea that Christians have always been persecuted by the powers of evil, and always will be, leads to a combative and aggressive attitude by Christians even today, according to Moss, in debates over such issues as abortion and same-sex marriage.[1]:249–256


Laura Miller wrote for Salon, reviewing The Myth of Persecution, "Moss cannot be called a natural or fluent writer, but she is thorough, strives for clarity and is genuinely fired up in her concern for the influence of the myth of martyrdom on Western societies."[2] In The National Catholic Reporter, Maureen Daly said "In the first few pages of The Myth of Persecution, I had the feeling that I had fallen into an argument already at full boil...Moss, scholar of the early church and martyrs, contends persecution was rare and the duration brief. Why is this important? “The myth of Christian martyrdom is not only inaccurate; it has contributed to great violence and continues to support a view of the world in which we are under attack from our fellow human beings,” she writes.[3] First Things writer Ephraim Radner, a historical theologian, reviews that "according to Moss’s criteria...The rule is apparently to read skeptically the writings of the past, but not to doubt the imaginations of present-day scholars. The whole book, however, begs for the latter suspicion. Her framing chapters on the dishonesty and dangers of “persecution” claims by contemporary conservative political voices and religious leaders easily identify her bias."[4] Kirkus Review said "The myth of martyrdom—and the expectation of huge rewards in heaven—was effective in organizing a cohesive early Christian identity, which involved the notion of being “under attack” and justified a violent reaction. While none of Moss’ arguments are particularly new or striking, she provides an intriguing venture that begs for more research and focus."[5]



  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t Moss, Candida (2013). The Myth of Persecution. HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0-06-210452-6. 
  2. ^ Miller, Laura (24 February 2013). ""The Myth of Persecution": Early Christians weren’t persecuted". Salon. 
  3. ^ Daly, Maureen (27 March 2013). "The long shadow of the martyr myth". National Catholic Reporter. 
  4. ^ Radner, Ephraim (May 2013). "Unmythical Martyrs A review of The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom". First Things. 
  5. ^ "THE MYTH OF PERSECUTION How Early Christians Invented a Story of Persecution". Kirkus Reviews. 26 November 2012.