In The Myth of Persecution, Candida Moss, a leading expert on early Christianity, reveals how the early church exaggerated, invented, and forged stories of Christian martyrs and how the dangerous legacy of a martyrdom complex is employed today to silence dissent and galvanize a new generation of culture warriors.
According to cherished church tradition and popular belief, before the Emperor Constantine made Christianity legal in the fourth century, early Christians were systematically persecuted by a brutal Roman Empire intent on their destruction. As the story goes, vast numbers of believers were thrown to the lions, tortured, or burned alive because they refused to renounce Christ. These saints, Christianity's inspirational heroes, are still venerated today.
Moss, however, exposes that the "Age of Martyrs" is a fiction—there was no sustained 300-year-long effort by the Romans to persecute Christians. Instead, these stories were pious exaggerations; highly stylized rewritings of Jewish, Greek, and Roman noble death traditions; and even forgeries designed to marginalize heretics, inspire the faithful, and fund churches.
The traditional story of persecution is still taught in Sunday school classes, celebrated in sermons, and employed by church leaders, politicians, and media pundits who insist that Christians were—and always will be—persecuted by a hostile, secular world. While violence against Christians does occur in select parts of the world today, the rhetoric of persecution is both misleading and rooted in an inaccurate history of the early church. Moss urges modern Christians to abandon the conspiratorial assumption that the world is out to get Christians and, rather, embrace the consolation, moral instruction, and spiritual guidance that these martyrdom stories provide.
According to traditional interpretation, early Christian believers were fed to the lions, killed by gladiators, and otherwise savagely persecuted by the Roman Empire for centuries until the time that the Roman emperor Constantine established Christianity as an accepted and tolerated religion. In this brilliant and provocative book, Moss (Ancient Christian Martyrdom), an award-winning scholar of early Christianity, cannily challenges this standard view. Drawing on close readings of traditional martyr stories and on deep historical research, she convincingly demonstrates that little evidence exists for the widespread persecution of Christians by the Romans. Only six accounts of martyrdom from these years including the well-known stories of Perpetua and Justin Martyr can be considered reliable, and even these, she observes, were significantly modified over time to reflect later theological ideas important for establishing the authority of the Christian church. By the time the church historian Eusebius writes down many of these stories in the fourth century, they have become rhetorical tools used to "exclude and suppress other groups, to identify them with demonic forces, and to legitimize... violence against them." Moss raises significant questions that help us reconsider the nature and role of martyrdom in any religion.