The Lookout

Notre Dame professor tackles ‘myth’ of Christian martyrdom

A stained glass window of Saint Perpetua, an early Christian martyr, in the church of …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.

“The reason I make the distinction is in the case of people seeking you out, torturing you just because you’re Christian—which did happen for a few years—in that situation, you can’t negotiate,” she said. “You have no opportunity to resist or to fight back. In a situation where there’s sort of disagreements … there’s room for debate.”

Moss pointed to the new U.S. health care law's requirement that insurance companies cover contraception as an example of a law that inadvertently targeted Christians but was interpreted as a direct attack on the faith.

Much like the Emperor Diocletian’s edict that all Romans make a sacrifice to the gods (which Moss describes as being like a mandatory “pledge of allegiance”), the contraceptive mandate was not designed to target or single out Christians, she says. (Christians and others who refused to make the sacrifice in the fourth century were slaughtered. Christian organizations that do not want to provide contraception under the 21st century law will be fined.)

Notre Dame is one dozens of religiously affiliated universities that sued over the birth control mandate, saying providing its employees and students with health insurance that covered contraceptives would violate the university's religious freedom.

Some in the religious community framed the contraceptive mandate as a deliberate persecution of Christians, rather than as bad policy, Moss says, in a way that’s made it difficult for them to negotiate.

“Labeling it persecution is saying, ‘We’re under attack, we’re persecuted. The other side has no reason to do this and we have to fight. We shouldn’t have to negotiate or compromise,” she said.

Moss says she is personally against her university’s decision to sue over the mandate.

“I think that the University of Notre Dame does not control how I spend my salary, therefore controlling what kinds of health care people have access to is maybe something we should not be trying to do,” she said. “I think Catholic institutions should trust their employees not to use contraception.”

Moss said the early Christian “persecution complex” influences the present-day political debate in America. The cable news hobbyhorse that there’s a deliberate “War on Christmas” in America is one example of a modern day martyrdom myth, she said.

When former House Speaker Newt Gingrich argued during his campaign for the GOP presidential nomination last year that there was an “aggressive” war on Christianity waged throughout the country, Moss also heard echoes of apocryphal martyrdom.

Moss says she thinks dispelling the myths of martyrdom of the early church will not minimize the true instances of religious persecution occurring around the world.

“I completely sympathize with [my critics'] concern that in writing a book like this maybe I will make people less interested in persecution that is happening around the world,” she said. “I do care. I think we should care about those who are oppressed. I don’t think misusing the category here in America draws attention to persecution around the world. I think it cannibalizes those experiences. It steals their thunder.”