In her provocative The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christianity Invented a Story of Martyrdom (HarperOne, Mar.), Notre Dame professor of New Testament and Early Christianity Candida Moss argues that the "Age of Martyrs" never existed and that early Christians were not persecuted in a sustained way by the Roman Empire.
How did you come to write this book?
I had already written two academic books on ancient martyrdom—The Other Christs (Oxford UP, 2010) and Ancient Christian Martyrdom (Yale, 2012)—so I have been thinking about the origins and development of these ideas for a while. Lately, though, I started to hear more and more comments about global persecution of Christians tying such events to the persecution of early Christians. I wanted to show that the sustained period of persecution never happened in the ways that we usually think, and as a consequence I wanted to encourage us to rethink the rhetoric of persecution.
How did early Christians invent a story of martyrdom?
One, people love a good martyr story, so the number of martyr stories exploded in the first three centuries of Christianity. Second, these stories became a good tool for inviting people into the faith. These martyrs are the superheroes of the faith, enduring persecution for wearing the brand of Christianity. Thus, as Christianity develops in the Roman Empire, religious leaders begin to circulate stories of martyrs, and the stories keep getting better and more dramatic the more they are told. Yet, the stories are anachronistic, and when you look at the texts, and I've looked at hundreds and hundreds of them—you can see where many of them get the historical facts wrong. Where the history is wrong the texts are wrong.
Why does the myth of persecution continue to be so influential?
This idea of persecution, especially as it is illustrated in the martyr stories, is hardwired into Christianity early on. Built into the idea of persecution is the idea of innocence. The myth creates a world in which Christians are under attack simply for their beliefs while at the same time turning into enemies those who disagree with Christians. I want us to recognize that today's persecuted groups are not in the same situation as those early Christian groups. For example, in April, 19 Christians were killed as they gathered for worship at Bayero University in Nigeria. This is an example of injustice and violence against Christians, but it’s premature to call it an act of persecution. By referring to all such acts as persecution, as I point out in my book, is to forget the plights of those who fight such violence and injustice on a daily basis.
What messages would you like readers to take from your book?
Persecution rhetoric leads to dividing the world into "us"—the pure and innocent—and "them"—the demonic enemy. As I say in my book, the myth of persecution gives Christians that use it the rhetorical high ground, and using the myth makes dialogue impossible. The view that the history of Christianity is a history of unrelenting persecution endures in contemporary religious and political debate about what it means to be Christian. We must get history right, and if we can eliminate the rhetoric of persecution, we can have productive dialogue without the apocalyptic rhetoric of good and evil.