The myth of persecution How early Christians invented a Story of Martyrdom

Candida R. Moss

Book - 2013

A leading scholar on Christian history reveals how the early church forged stories of Christian martyrs and how the legacy of martyrdom is used today to condemn others as enemies and opponents.

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2nd Floor 272/Moss Due Oct 8, 2023
New York : HarperOne c2013.
1st ed
Physical Description
308 p. ; 25 cm
Includes bibliographical references (p. [263]-295) and index.
Main Author
Candida R. Moss (-)
  • Martyrdom before Christianity
  • Christian borrowing of Jewish and pagan martyrdom traditions
  • Inventing martyrs in early Christianity
  • How persecuted were the early Christians?
  • Why did the Romans dislike Christians?
  • Myths about martyrs
  • The invention of the persecuted church
  • The dangerous legacy of a martyrdom complex.
Review by Booklist Review

Countering politicians' and interest groups' claims that Christians are as persecuted now as they were before Roman emperor Constantine legalized Christianity (313 CE), Moss, an expert on martyrdom, shows how right they are by demonstrating how wrong they are. They're wrong, first, when they say martyrdom is particularly Christian, for the early martyrdom literature is, besides wildly improbable, modeled on accounts of the deaths of Socrates and other philosophers, of noble Roman suicides like Lucretia, and of faithful-unto-death Jews in the Maccabean period. Christians experienced anything resembling persecution in a mere 12 nonconsecutive years between Jesus and Constantine; only in the last bout of so-called persecution were Christians targeted, and even then it was for political nonconformity, not religion. Eusebius, the early-fourth-century historian of the faith, invented the still-prevalent concepts of persecution and martyrdom to bind the faithful together in support of the rising institutional church. The downside to this effort was that it encouraged among Christians an us-versus-them, all-or-nothing attitude that can lead to violence, for example, against abortion providers. Historical argumentation at its most cogent.--Olson, Ray Copyright 2010 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission. Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

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. (Mar.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved Review by Kirkus Book Review

A prickly, uneven survey of Christian persecution that delves into modern-day fundamentalist intolerance. The notion that early Christians were meek, passive and unrelentingly persecuted for their religious beliefs has been manufactured by early church historians like Eusebius, writes New Testament scholar Moss (Early Christianity/Univ. of Notre Dame; The Other Christs: Imitating Jesus in Ancient Christian Ideologies of Martyrdom, 2010, etc.), disguising the true violent, militaristic tone of the early Christian message. The author addresses deeply troubling aspects of an us-vs.-them mentality she sees rampant in today's secularized world, from Islamic suicide bombers to the use of Joan of Arc by the French political right to Republican Christian voters viewing themselves as a persecuted minority. First, Moss wades through examples in the ancient world, including the high-profile cases of Greek and Roman heroes like Achilles, Socrates and Lucretia, who died for their beliefs, offering a model for the early Christians to borrow from. The author then moves into the early Christian era, when accounts of martyred apostles like Stephen and converts like Polycarp and Perpetua established a rich literary tradition after the imitation of Christ, with details altered and shaped by later Christian apologists. Key to Moss' narrative is the history of Roman persecution of Christians, which she finds overblown, explaining the "sporadic" persecution as a politically motivated, entirely understandable move to suppress a pesky group of insurgents who constituted a threat to order and piety. 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. A strongly worded polemic on the dangers of defensive exceptionalism.]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.