Are the Roman Martyrs a Self-Serving Christian Myth?

Barb Wire

Here’s the subtitle that goes with the above title: A Notre Dame professor claims that sustained early Christian persecution is a myth.

This news item has gotten some coverage in recent days and no doubt many Christians found the timing interesting. In an era that has seen more reporting than ever about modern-day persecution of Christians — we’re now supposed to believe that no such persecution took place in earlier times when barbarism had fewer restraints.

N. Clayton Croy, a professor of New Testament at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus in Ohio, has taken on Candida Moss, professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame, and author of “The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom.” It’s a book, Croy says, “that is sure to enthuse some readers and enrage others”:

The thesis is evident in the title, and the topic is one on which Moss is well-qualified to write. She has previously written two academic books on early Christian martyrdom (one being a revision of her Yale dissertation) as well as a raft of scholarly articles.

The book’s introduction reveals that the author’s concerns are not solely historical. Moss begins with the story of the New Year’s Day (2011) bombing of a Coptic Church in Alexandria, Egypt, a violent act that ended the lives of over twenty worshipers and injured nearly a hundred more. Moss notes that the victims were soon declared martyrs and that, rather than turning the other cheek, the Christian community became “militarized,” as the incident came to be seen in the context of a two-thousand-year-old religious conflict. Moss’s concern is that the rhetoric of persecution “legitimates and condones retributive violence.” The foundation of that rhetoric, the “myth,” goes far beyond modern attacks against Coptic Christians; it is rooted in a narrative that begins with the early church. But according to Moss, this rhetoric lacks justification, and “the purpose of this book is to show that the foundations for this idea [sustained early Christian persecution] are imaginary.

The great thing about articles like this one from Professor Croy is that many people are saved the expense of buying and the time of reading books like Moss’. Here’s Croy:

Despite the author’s considerable erudition, this is a deeply flawed book, a work of revisionist history. One might judge that conservative Christians in the West have sometimes overplayed the persecution card, but they have not created instances of cultural hostility out of whole cloth, and they certainly did not create the “Age of the Martyrs” out of thin air. More important, Moss largely overlooks modern Christianity in the two-thirds world, especially in the Middle East and in Communist states. Here we find not just cultural insensitivity but old-fashioned persecution: arrests, beatings, and decapitations. Exactly one week after the publication of Moss’s book, another book came out: Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians, authored by Paul Marshall, Lela Gilbert, and Nina Shea. They document persecution in about forty different countries. Moss’s opening story about the bombing of the Coptic Church in Alexandria is part of that reality, but the fact that Moss uses this story to launch a criticism, in effect, of the rhetoric of the Coptic victims rather than the actions of the jihadist perpetrators is grotesque.

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Professor N. Clayton Croy’s review can be read at

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Barb Wire.

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