The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom. Candida Moss. HarperOne publishers. 2013. 320 pp.
Did you know that Americans might agree on issues like abortion if Christians realized that the story of early Christian persecution is a fable? Dr. Candida Moss, a prominent professor of theology at Notre Dame University, has written a book suggesting just that in The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom.
Moss’s book holds special significance for Notre Dame because she targets two bishops closely associated with the university, the late Bishop John M. D’Arcy and Bishop Daniel Jenky, C.S.C., as carriers of the martyrdom myth virus into the public square. Moreover, she has drawn on her book to criticize Notre Dame’s lawsuit to block the Obama abortifacient/contraception/sterilization mandate.
We examine here principally how Professor Moss vaults to her remarkable conclusion that Christian delusions about events nearly two millennia ago poison the political atmosphere today. But, first, a few words about Professor Moss’s historical analysis.
The “myth of martyrdom”
Professor Moss’s eye-catching historical verdict is that early Christian leaders “exaggerated, revised, and forged” history in order “to justify and support the institutions of orthodoxy,” “to bolster the position of the church hierarchy,” and “to fund churches” – a theme she highlights in her promotional video.
The early Christians, she adds, were, “rude, subversive, and disrespectful.”
But it is a commonplace that many accounts of early martyrs are unhistorical. We leave to historians the question of whether Moss has added anything significant to prior research.
Early returns are not encouraging.
One commentator wonders “why Moss sees a need to argue” what “no one studying Christianity in the Roman Empire” would dispute.
Another scholar, in a lacerating First Things review, describes how, in “the tedium of repeated déjà vu of this sad little volume,” Moss is “seemingly excited by what are hardly new discoveries.”
Yet another theologian observes that Moss not only “tells us something we already know” but also “is far more skeptical of their [ancient texts’] veracity than other scholarly readers have been.”
The myth in the hands of the “political and religious right”
It is Moss’s attempt to connect her findings to current political and religious controversies that is most likely to draw attention, for it relates to radioactive public policy issues such as abortion and religious freedom.
It is also the part that strains credulity to the breaking point.
It is the fiction of Christian martyrdom, she claims, that fuels the stubborn righteousness of many religious and political leaders and their followers. As the First Things reviewer put it, her thesis is that “fantasies about Christians being thrown to the lions inform … resistance to things like abortion.”
If you haven’t noticed this, it’s likely because, Moss tells us, “very Christian ideas about persecution and martyrdom are bubbling just barely beneath the surface.”
But Moss’s expertise is in ancient Christian history, not sociology or political science, and she offers no supporting studies for this notion. To the extent Moss moves beyond anecdotal evidence, she cites focus group discussions from a book with the distinctly unscholarly title:
“Blowing Smoke: Why the Right Keeps Serving up Whack-Job Fantasies About the Plot to Euthanize Grandma, Outlaw Christmas, and Turn Junior into a Raging Homosexual.”
The Notre Dame connection
Moss does provide three Notre Dame related examples of the martyrdom myth’s destructive effect.
The first is the denunciation of the Obama contraception mandate by Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, C.S.C., a Notre Dame trustee and fellow. He cited as historical warnings the erosion of religious liberty under Clemenceau, Hitler, and Stalin, and he told Catholics to take heart from the Church’s survival through “centuries of terrible persecution.”
Untroubled by the fact that Bishop Jenky spoke only of religious liberty, Moss charges him with “imply[ing] that Obama’s policies might set us on the road to another Holocaust.” She thereby renews an earlier reckless attack on the bishop by a number of her faculty colleagues that we discussed in a previous bulletin.
But she doesn’t stop there. The bishop also “implies,” she asserts, “If you are not with us … you are with the devil, Judas Iscariot, Hitler and Stalin.”
But not, rather awkwardly for Moss, with Diocletian or Nero.
Moss strains just as hard to find the martyrdom myth at the heart of a homily by the late Bishop John D’Arcy.
It was a pro-life Mass. The reading was from the Acts of the Apostles. Quite naturally, the bishop encouraged pro-life advocates facing a strong pro-choice culture by citing the inspirational struggles and sometimes martyrdom of apostles and their companions. In Moss’s reading, by way again of “implication,” the bishop was thereby asserting that “pro-lifers are modern-day martyrs and victims of persecution.”
“I vividly recall turning to my friend [a faculty colleague] and raising my eyebrows,” she reports.
A reader might be tempted to follow suit.
Even Notre Dame president Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., it seems, isn’t sufficiently committed to civil discourse. In a recent article, Moss draws on her book to criticize Notre Dame and others suing to block the Obama abortifacient/contraception/sterilization mandate. The mandate, she wrote with no visible means of support, only “inadvertently targeted Christians.” Notre Dame should stop “controlling what kinds of health care people have access to.” Moss might do well to stop imagining that it does.
Unsurprisingly, Moss’s book has been endorsed by those happy to find a scholarly anchor for their characterization of pro-life and religious liberty advocates as blinkered extremists. As one commentator has observed of the promotional encomiums, “Every single one comes from either a liberal Christian or, in one case, from a prominent gay historian who is no longer a Christian.”
Dismissing modern persecution
Finally, switching centuries, Moss asserts that Christians are “not systematically and continually persecuted today” in other countries. The “religious and political right,” again, have greatly exaggerated.
Indeed, she says, if the myth of Christian persecution were dispatched, we would “be forced to empathize with the economic, political, and social realities that engender real violence against Christians” such as the mass murder of Nigerian Christians gathered to worship.
Is it remotely credible that it is the martyrdom myth that blocks empathy for the Nigerian murderers?
A different perspective on modern martyrdom
The tone was decidedly different at a 2012 Notre Dame conference on Christian persecution organized by Dr. John Cavadini, the director of the Institute for Church Life, and Dr. Daniel Philpott of the Political Science Department.
John L. Allen, Jr. of the National Catholic Reporter, hardly a member of the “religious and political right,” was a keynote speaker. He has reported that studies show:
[E]ighty percent of all acts of religious discrimination in the world today are directed at Christians….Christians face either de jure or de facto discrimination in 139 nations, roughly two-thirds of all countries on earth. In the most bone-chilling estimate of all…an average of 100,000 Christians have been killed for the faith each year over the last decade, which works out to 11 new martyrs every hour (emphasis supplied).
If this is not persecution surely it is close enough.
William Dempsey is the chairman of the board of Sycamore Trust, an association of Notre Dame alumni.