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Were The Martyrs Real?

A Notre Dame historian has a book coming out soon contending that the early Christians invented stories of the Age of Martyrdom. Here’s the Amazon description of the book:

According to Cherished Church tradition and popular belief, before the Emperor Constantine made Christianity legal in the fourth century, early Christians were systematically persecuted by a brutal Roman Empire intent on their destruction. As the story goes, vast numbers of believers were thrown to the lions, tortured, or burned alive because they refused to renounce Christ. These saints, Christianity’s inspirational heroes, are still venerated today.

In The Myth of Persecution, Candida Moss reveals that the “Age of Martyrs” is a fiction—there was no sustained three-hundred-year-long effort by the Romans to persecute Christians. Instead, these stories were pious exaggerations; highly stylized rewritings of Jewish, Greek, and Roman noble death traditions; and even forgeries designed to marginalize heretics, inspire the faithful, and fund churches.

The traditional story of persecution is still taught in Sunday school classes, celebrated in sermons, and employed by church leaders, politicians, and media pundits who insist that Christians were—and always will be—persecuted by a hostile, secular world. Moss urges modern Christians to abandon the conspiratorial assumption that the world is out to destroy the church and, rather, embrace the consolation, moral instruction, and spiritual guidance that these martyrdom stories provide.

Obviously I haven’t read the book, and am not a historian, and therefore am in no position to evaluate these claims. It is interesting, though, to see how this description (which is provided by the publisher) focuses on the instrumentality of history. Moss assumes that contemporary Christians and politicians who appeal to them use false history for reasons of cultural politics; she is hoping to use what she believes is real history for the same thing, from the other side.

What gives the game away are the blurbs the publisher has collected. Every single one comes from either a liberal Christian or, in one case, from a prominent gay historian who is no longer a Christian, and whose departure from the church had a lot to do with his inability to reconcile Christianity with his sexuality. Mind you, none of this proves or disproves the claims in Moss’s book; rather, it signals the audience to which she wishes to appeal. Without taking a position on Moss’s claims, I do find it a puzzling quality of liberal Christians that they tend to get excited when something that had been a cherished belief or practice of the Church is shown to have been false.

To be clear, it is better to live with a painful truth than with a comforting lie, and if reliable scholarship can help us see the truth more clearly, then it must be not only accepted, but encouraged. That said, I don’t understand the sense of pleasure and excitement many liberal Christians have over the supposed unmasking of the historical Church, and the delegitimizing of its self-understanding and traditions. There is among them very little sense of tragedy in this, but rather glee. I suppose I could understand it a bit if I thought that the Church was at long last being liberated by scholarship from an oppressive and restrictive falsehood that distorted the truth. Surely that is part of the sense of triumph when one more beloved part of our inheritance is revealed, or believed to have been revealed, to be a lie. But there’s more to it than that. There is often a perverse joy in tearing down the past, and a concomitant inability to understand that this kind of thing can just as easily produce nihilism instead of hoped-for reforms. Here’s one blurb for Moss’s book, from a radical nun:

“Moss dismantles the wall of righteousness that some Christians erect in order to justify their conflict with others. Without this persecution narrative, we will be better equipped to work together in our complex and pluralistic world.”

You see this over and over in the blurbs from Christian religious leaders: praise for Moss’s book because it serves some kind of reform they wish to see in the present day. Again, without having read the book, I have no way of judging Moss’s case. My point is about the perverse joy with which many liberal Christians meet the scholarly dismantling of their religion and religious tradition.

UPDATE: Daniel Larison, who is an academically trained historian, gives reason to believe this is an entirely manufactured controversy.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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