The Myth of Persecution

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
The Myth of Persecution
The Myth of Persecution.jpg
AuthorCandida Moss
CountryUnited States
GenreChristian history, Roman history
Publication date
Media typePrint (hardcover)

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: -

  1. 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.
  2. There was never sustained, targeted persecution of Christians by Imperial Roman authorities.
  3. 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.
  4. Most of the stories of individual martyrs are pure invention,
  5. 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 book explains the origin of the Greek word "martyr" and how it came to be used by Christians as signifying someone who had witnessed for Christ with their life.[1]:26–27 Moss states that the Christian tradition held that martyrdom did not exist in previous eras. She goes on to argue that there were examples of martyrs among earlier Jews, Greeks and Romans, they were just not called by that term.[1]:52 Citing the deaths of Socrates and the aged Jewish teacher Eleazar, Moss maintains that they 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


It is a central thesis of the book that the ancient writings on martyrs and martyrdom are not reliable accounts of the events described. Moss characterizes most of the extant sources, such as the Acts of the Martyrs, as "elaborate, ornate, entertaining, and far from the truth".[1]:87 Moss also finds similarities between the events related and those of ancient Greek romance novels.[1]:77–78 In her book, Moss examined 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. She claims that one cannot rely on these primary sources as accurate historical accounts because they have been altered and re-written by subsequent generations of Christians.

Examination of primary sources[edit]

In her examination of the "Martyrdom of Polycarp", Moss claims that it contains "many wild coincidences, improbabilities and illegalities". While not denying that Polycarp really suffered martyrdom, she observes 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

Moss examines the tortures and deaths of Saints Pothinus, Blandina, and others in Church History by Eusebius of Caesarea. While the events occurred in Gaul about 177, the author notes that they originate from a partial version that may have been written about two hundred years after the events.[1]:112 In the text, Moss notes inconsistencies between the quoted cities and provinces of the Empire.[1]:113 Moss claims that various theological terms used were not otherwise attested before the third century. Moss notes that the letter begins by saying that the events are "worthy of undying remembrance" and she observes that the phrase was also used by Eusebius in both the Church History and his Martyrs of Palestine.[1]:113 According to Moss, these indicate that the letter was edited by Eusebius and that it is therefore impossible to tell which parts of it are historical and which parts were 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 According to the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia, "Of the 249 years from the first persecution under Nero (64) to the year 313, when Constantine established lasting peace, it is calculated that the Christians suffered persecution about 129 years and enjoyed a certain degree of toleration about 120 years."[2]

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


It is the author's contention that there are consequences of the promotion of such a "myth" that reach to the present day. While accepting that there were genuine cases of martyrdom and state persecutions of Christians, the author goes on to claims that the idea of a persecuted church was greatly exaggerated, especially by early church historian Eusebius.[1]:217–233 The author concludes that the idea that Christians have always been persecuted by the powers of evil, and always will be, has led to a combative and aggressive attitude by Christians even today. This is evidenced, according to Moss, in debates over such issues as abortion and same-sex marriage.[1]:249–256


Laura Miller, writing for Salon, reviewed The Myth of Persecution. She said that "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."[3]

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.[4]

Ephraim Radner, a historical theologian and the author of First Things reviewed the book. He wrote 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."[5]

Kirkus Reviews 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."[6]

In his review, N. Clayton Croy said: "Modern ideology drives Moss's thesis more than ancient testimony, and the result is a distortion of history more severe than the caricature she wants to expose."[7]



  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Moss, Candida (2013). The Myth of Persecution. HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0-06-210452-6.
  2. ^  Hassatt, Maurice M. (1913). "Martyr" . In Herbermann, Charles (ed.). Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. IX. New York: Robert Appleton.
  3. ^ Miller, Laura (24 February 2013). ""The Myth of Persecution": Early Christians weren't persecuted". Salon.
  4. ^ Daly, Maureen (27 March 2013). "The long shadow of the martyr myth". National Catholic Reporter.
  5. ^ Radner, Ephraim (May 2013). "Unmythical Martyrs A review of The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom". First Things.
  6. ^ "THE MYTH OF PERSECUTION How Early Christians Invented a Story of Persecution". Kirkus Reviews. 26 November 2012.
  7. ^