Prosecuting the Persecuted

The Myth of Persecution

How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom
Candida Moss
HarperOne, $25.99, 320 pp.

Historians of Christianity routinely speak of the period from the first century to the time of Constantine as “the age of martyrdom” or “the age of persecution.” Though these are useful designations, signaling a fundamental change in Christian fortunes—before Constantine, Christians were persecuted and sometimes martyred; after him, they enjoyed a privileged status—no one truly views the church’s first centuries as a time of unrelieved terror. Even the fourth-century Christian apologist Lactantius, who could barely suppress his glee over the death of persecutors (de Morte Persecutorum), recognized that Roman persecutions, while violent, were limited and sporadic.

Candida Moss, however, discerns in such formulations an insidious and pernicious myth of martyrdom, “based in a series of inaccurate beliefs about Christian history,” which erroneously posits a Roman Empire constantly in pursuit of believers. This myth, she says, holds that “only Christians are martyred, that being a Christian means being persecuted, and that the experience of persecution is a sign both that one is right and that one is good.” In her view, its “dangerous legacy” is the prevalence among Christians today of a persecution complex—an outlook that in turn fuels a willingness to demonize opponents and to resist any form of political compromise. Moss finds the rhetoric of martyrdom and persecution among contemporary U.S. bishops who actively oppose abortion, and...

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About the Author

Luke Timothy Johnson, a frequent contributor, is the R.W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University. Two of his most recent books are Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity (Yale) and Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church (Eerdmans).