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Notre Dame Professor Debunks Christian Myth of Persecution

Candida Moss, a professor of early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame and a practicing Catholic, wants to shatter what she calls the “myth” of martyrdom in the Christian faith.


Professor Candida Moss Portrait
Professor Candida Moss teaches early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame.

Candida Moss, a Professor at Notre Dame University and practicing Catholic, has written a book that tackles the “myth of martyrdom in the Christian faith.”

Sunday school tales of early Christians being rounded up at their secret catacomb meetings and thrown to the lions by evil Romans are mere fairy tales, Moss writes in a new book. In fact, in the first 250 years of Christianity, Romans mostly regarded the religion’s practitioners as meddlesome members of a superstitious cult.

The government actively persecuted Christians for only about 10 years, Moss suggests, and even then intermittently. And, she says, many of the best known early stories of brave Christian martyrs were entirely fabricated.

In Professor Moss’ new book, The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom, she maintains that the Catholic Church and historians have known for centuries that most early Christian martyr stories were exaggerated or invented.

[W]hen Christians were executed, it was often not because of their religious beliefs but because they wouldn’t follow Roman rules. Many laws that led to early Christians’ execution were not specifically targeted at them—such as a law requiring all Roman citizens to engage in a public sacrifice to the gods—but their refusal to observe those laws and other mores of Roman society led to their deaths.

Moss calls early Christians “rude, subversive and disrespectful,” noting that they refused to swear oaths, join the military or participate in any other part of Roman society.

She goes to lengths to argue that Christians were prosecuted, not persecuted. With true government persecution, victims have no room to negotiate when trying to convince the government to stop targeting them, Moss said. But when the government’s laws inadvertently lead to the persecution of Christians, there remains room for dialogue and debate over changing those laws.

Moss pointed to the new U.S. health care law’s requirement that insurance companies cover contraception as an example of a law that inadvertently targeted Christians but was interpreted as a direct attack on the faith.

Much like the Emperor Diocletian’s edict that all Romans make a sacrifice to the gods (which Moss describes as being like a mandatory “pledge of allegiance”), the contraceptive mandate was not designed to target or single out Christians, she says. (Christians and others who refused to make the sacrifice in the fourth century were slaughtered. Christian organizations that do not want to provide contraception under the 21st century law will be fined.)

Notre Dame University is one of the many religious schools and businesses that sued to stop the mandate. Their argument was that forcing them to provide coverage for contraception violated their religious freedom. As a deliberate attack directly at religion. In other words, persecution.

“Labeling it persecution is saying, ‘We’re under attack, we’re persecuted. The other side has no reason to do this and we have to fight. We shouldn’t have to negotiate or compromise,” she said.

“I think that the University of Notre Dame does not control how I spend my salary, therefore controlling what kinds of health care people have access to is maybe something we should not be trying to do,” she said. “I think Catholic institutions should trust their employees not to use contraception.”

Source: Notre Dame professor tackles ‘myth’ of Christian martyrdom


5 thoughts on “Notre Dame Professor Debunks Christian Myth of Persecution

  1. Charlie Sitzes says:

    She won’t last long.

  2. Jake Silvera says:

    She is just mincing words
    The christians were “prosecuted” because they would not involve themselves in rituals and sacrifice to Caesar as a god.
    It would be the equivalent of the united states declaring that everyone had to sacrifice to the president as a god, but you as a skeptic would not and were “prosecuted” for not doing so based on you beliefs
    the definition of persecute from Merriam Webster online “to pursue with harassing or oppressive treatment, especially because of religion, race, or beliefs; harass persistently”
    The government prosecuting you for not following that law, would be oppressing you because of your beliefs, therefore you would be persecuted; just like the christians of Rome.
    just because the Romans were not directly persecuting christians, they were persecuting anyone who would not sell out their beliefs skeptic, christian, and anyone else who wouldn’t worship Caesar.
    Christians get credit, because they were the only group that resisted the Romans.
    Yes i am a Christian
    Jake Silvera

    • Adam Bourque says:

      You missed the entire point of the article. The laws applied to all people. They were not specifically targeted to just Christians. So the argument for “persecution” disappears.

      • Jake Silvera says:

        I am sure that i understand the point of the article.
        I say above that
        “just because the Romans were not directly persecuting christians, they were persecuting anyone who would not sell out their beliefs skeptic, christian, and anyone else who wouldn’t worship Caesar.”
        They were persecuting people based on their beliefs, or non-belief in Caesar’s Godhood
        Thank You for the reply
        Jake Silvera

  3. Brenton Jefferson says:

    The rule is apparently to read skeptically the writings of the past, but not to doubt the imaginations of present-day scholars. The whole book, however, begs for the latter suspicion. Her framing chapters on the dishonesty and dangers of “persecution” claims by contemporary conservative political voices and religious leaders easily identify her bias. But does her deconstruction of early Christian persecution really undercut the reality of present-day persecution?

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