Notre Dame Professor Claims Christian Martyrdom Is a Myth

May 6, 2013 | 0 comments

Candida Moss, a professor of early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame, claims that many of the reports of martyrdom in the early Church under the Roman Empire were entirely fabricated in her recently published book, The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom.

According to Yahoo News, “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.”

Contrary to the article’s assertion, Daniel Larison, who holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Chicago, explains that this is “an interpretation of early church history that no one defends.

The article goes on to outline one of the main points of the book:

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.

The early Christians would not follow Roman rules—such as sacrificing to the Roman gods—because of their religious beliefs, which makes this assertion utterly ridiculous. The article continues:

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.

This point strikes me as a non-starter. A victim is a victim, regardless of whether or not he is inadvertently targeted. Like the martyrs under Roman persecution, many Catholic business owners will face a penalty for refusing to drop their religious convictions in favor of a law imposed on them by the state. Professor Moss explains:

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. 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.

I’ll concede that what some Christian commentators here in the United States describe as persecution does not hold a candle to the persecutions that are happening elsewhere around the world at this time. This does not mean we should not be vigilant in protecting our religious liberties.

What I do take issue with is the way Moss “steals the thunder” of the early Christian martyrs by adopting a minority opinion among scholars to “cannibalize those experiences.”


Jon Sorensen earned his bachelor’s degree in 3D Animation and Visual Communications in 2004 from Platt College, Ontario. Before coming to Catholic Answers, he worked in the automotive industry producing television commercials and corporate video. He has also produced motion graphics for several feature-...

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