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Reform Magazine | December 13, 2017

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What martyrs?

What martyrs?

There’s an interesting book out by Candida Moss, called The Myth of Persecution: How early Christians invented a story of martyrdom. It attacks the tradition that in the Roman Empire, “vast numbers of believers were thrown to the lions, tortured, or burned alive because they refused to renounce Christ”. These stories are exaggerations and forgeries, according to the book, and “the ‘Age of Martyrs’ is a fiction”.

Moss makes extensive connections between this and the persecution complex of certain Christians today – inspired by this myth they are inventing their own imaginary martyrdom.

It’s an engaging read and solidly scholarly. The problem is that there’s simply no escaping the reality that large numbers of Christians were tortured and killed by the Roman authorities. Yes attacks were generally sporadic and localised, and of course many later martyrdom stories are obviously fantastic. But that does not make the whole thing a fantasy.

Take two pieces of immovable historical evidence. One is the fact the church faced a massive apostasy crisis in the third century, breaking up over the question of whether to readmit those who had denied their faith to save their lives. This is not a story that Christians would have invented, and it is not something that could have happened without a serious assault on the church.

The second is Tertullian’s second-century book Apologeticus. Written to Roman governors, who would, one supposes, know whether he is making it up, he discusses the torture and execution of Christians, and the policy of using these things to force them to recant. What’s more he defends them from the popular charge of being insane fanatics in their willingness to die for their faith – a charge that it would be rather bizarre of him to invent.

It may sound like a 1700 year old historical argument with little contemporary relevance. But what interests me (apart from the fact that it’s a 1700 year old historical argument) is that Moss’s book is explicitly a counter-attack to western Christians who today claim to be persecuted for their faith. However nuanced her argument may be, a lot of people will hear that the persecution of the early church has been proved to be fictional, which it hasn’t.

It is the present day “persecution” of western Christians that is fictional. We have always known that this fiction devalues the real sufferings of Christians in other parts of the world. Now it turns out that it is also devaluing and discrediting the sufferings of Christians in the past as well.

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