A stained glass window of Saint Perpetua, an early Christian martyr, in the church of Notre Dame. (Gaetan Poix)Candida Moss, a professor of early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame and a practicing Catholic, wants to shatter what she calls the “myth” of martyrdom in the Christian faith.
Sunday school tales of early Christians being rounded up at their secret catacomb meetings and thrown to the lions by evil Romans are mere fairy tales, Moss writes in a new book. In fact, in the first 250 years of Christianity, Romans mostly regarded the religion's practitioners as meddlesome members of a superstitious cult.
The government actively persecuted Christians for only about 10 years, Moss suggests, and even then intermittently. And, she says, many of the best known early stories of brave Christian martyrs were entirely fabricated.
The controversial thesis, laid out in "The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom," has earned her a lot of hate mail and a few sidelong looks from fellow faculty members. But Moss maintains that the Roman Catholic Church and historians have known for centuries that most early Christian martyr stories were exaggerated or invented.
A small group of priest scholars in the 17th century began sifting through the myths, discrediting not only embellished stories about saints (including that St. George slew a dragon) but also tossing out popular stories about early Christian martyrs.
Historians, including Moss, say only a handful of martyrdom stories from the first 300 years of Christianity—which includes the reign of the cruel, Christian-loathing Nero—are verifiable. (Saint Perpetua of Carthage, pictured in the stained glass window above, is one of the six famous early Christian martyrs Moss believes was actually killed for her faith.)
Moss contends that when Christians were executed, it was often not because of their religious beliefs but because they wouldn't follow Roman rules. Many laws that led to early Christians’ execution were not specifically targeted at them—such as a law requiring all Roman citizens to engage in a public sacrifice to the gods—but their refusal to observe those laws and other mores of Roman society led to their deaths.
Moss calls early Christians “rude, subversive and disrespectful,” noting that they refused to swear oaths, join the military or participate in any other part of Roman society.
Moss can at times seem clinical when attempting to distinguish between true and systematic persecution of Christians for their faith and intermittent violence against them for refusing to conform.
"If persecution is to be defined as hostility toward a group because of its religious beliefs, then surely it is important that the Romans intended to target Christians,” she writes. “Otherwise this is prosecution, not persecution."
With true government persecution, victims have no room to negotiate when trying to convince the government to stop targeting them, Moss said. But when the government’s laws inadvertently lead to the persecution of Christians, there remains room for dialogue and debate over changing those laws.Read More »from Notre Dame professor tackles ‘myth’ of Christian martyrdom