02/24/2013 01:41 am ET | Updated Apr 25, 2013

Candida Moss on Whether Christian Martyrs are a Myth

I recently got my hands on a copy of Dr. Candida Moss's latest book, "The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom." As a person of faith and an academic, I was fascinated and challenged by some of her findings about how ancient Christian martyr stories continue to affect how many Christians understand their faith today, and I wanted to know more. What follows is an in-depth series of questions that I asked to Dr. Moss, who's a New Testament scholar at Notre Dame University:

So Dr. Moss, what led you to write this book?

I initially became interested in this subject because of a homily I heard that compared the situation facing modern Christians in America to the martyrs of the early church. I was surprised by the comparison because modern Americans aren't living in fear for their lives and the analogy seemed a little hyperbolic and sensational. After this, I began to notice the language of persecution and victimization being bandied about everywhere from politics, to sermons, to the media, but rarely in regard to situations that involve imprisonment and violence.

Huh. That's curious. Can you say a little more about how you saw martyrs being used in American public discourse?

Often these statements referred to the history of the early Church as evidence that Christians have always been persecuted and, thus, should expect to be persecuted today. In these arguments, a lot of weight rests on the idea that Christians were persecuted in the early church because, without the idea of near-continuous persecution, it would be difficult to recast, say, disagreements about the role of prayer in schools as persecution.

So you're saying that there's a widespread belief that we don't say Christians were always persecuted in history, then it's harder for some contemporary Christians to say that they're still persecuted?

Yes. But intriguingly, the historical evidence for systematic persecution of Christians by Jews and Romans is actually very slim. There were only a few years before the rise of the emperor Constantine that Christians were sought out by the authorities just for being Christians. The stories about early Christian martyrs have been edited, expanded, and sometimes even invented, giving the impression that Christians were under constant attack. This mistaken impression is important because it fosters a sense of Christian victimhood and that victim mentality continues to rear its head in modern politics and society. It's difficult to imagine that people could make the same claims about persecution today were it not for the idea that Christians have always been persecuted.

Wow -- so that sounds like a pretty bold claim that some contemporary Christians are making. What do these Christians gain by having this tradition of martyrs? What is lost or harmful about this tradition?

Christian martyrs are sources of inspiration and moral instruction. The traditions associated with these martyrs show them displaying virtues like courage, love, and perseverance. These are ordinary Christians who overcame human self-centeredness in defense of their faith. Stories about the sufferings and triumphs of women and slaves have proven particularly inspirational for those who are sick, suffering, or oppressed.

At the same time, however, and as I argue in my book, identifying oneself as a persecuted minority necessarily identifies others as persecutors. It turns disagreement into a struggle for survival with an innocent "us" pitted against a hateful "them." This polarizing view of the world not only makes it impossible to have meaningful dialogue and collaboration, but it can also be used to legitimize violence against others in the name of "self-defense." Perhaps the worst effect of this misuse is that it harms those who truly are persecuted: Sadly, people of many religious traditions continue to be persecuted around the world, and yet their voices are drowned out by our own. In my opinion, we need to reserve the language of persecution for the situations of violence that truly warrant them.

You're both a historian and a person of faith. Some of the historical evidence you offer in this book may be challenging for people of faith to read. Was it challenging for you to write? What would you say to those readers who might struggle with the historical evidence in this book?

In a word, yes. To those readers who might struggle with this book, I would say that you can appreciate the martyrs without subscribing to the view that Christians were, are, and always have been persecuted. We still have an obligation to get our facts straight, however painful that might be. Getting the history right can help reduce the alarmist, conspiratorial rhetoric of victimization so common today. And it can also strengthen our appreciation for the real martyrs. Martyrdom accounts are inspiring -- and should be -- but we do those people who suffered and died a deep disservice when we extend their experience to claim that "all Christians are persecuted and always will be" because that's not true, then and now.

In one of this book's early chapters, you write about the concept of a good death. What did it mean to die a good death in the ancient world? Can you talk a little bit about the differences between a good death in ancient Greece and in ancient Judaism?

It seems very counter-intuitive to us, but ancient Greeks, Romans, Jews and later Christians thought about death -- a lot. They theorized about what it meant to die nobly and even encouraged people to embrace death in the service of country, city, law or God. Iconic figures like Achilles and Socrates were remembered in large part because of the way in which they died. For ancient Greeks fighting in battle, dying nobly ensured that one would be remembered as a courageous hero. Ancient Jews were willing to lay down their lives out of obedience to the law but also in the knowledge that God would reward them in the afterlife. But while Jews and Romans differed about what, precisely, was worth dying for and the form of reward they could expect, they were in agreement that dying with self-control for something greater than oneself was a good thing.

So how did ancient Greek and Jewish ideas about a good death affect the early Christians?

Christianity emerged in a world in which everyone valued dying for a cause. So it makes sense that the early Christians shared this view and that they interpreted death -- especially the traumatizing death of their leader -- in a similar way. Sometimes scholars or modern observers will say that ancient Christians must have been crazy for desiring martyrdom because it is unnatural or insane. But the fact of the matter is that dying nobly was well regarded in ancient culture and Christians were perfectly in keeping with the rest of society valorizing certain kinds of death.

That's really interesting. In my role as a priest, I have the opportunity to talk to people fairly regularly about their own mortality, and most people I speak with believe that a good death involves dying peacefully, preferably in their sleep. I've also heard many people say that they would want to be surrounded by friends and loved ones. So dying for a cause isn't something that comes up often when they think about a good death. You don't write about this a lot, but I'm curious: Do you think that 21st century Westerners have a different idea about what it means to die a good death? Do you think our perception of death now is healthier than in the ancient world?

It's a good thing that we aren't volunteering to become martyrs as some early Christians did! But I think that 21st century Westerners don't think about death enough. Despite the maxim about death and taxes, we tend to imagine that we can live forever, and a lot of people speculate about whether or not we can eradicate death altogether. The effect of this is that we are shocked and traumatized when death takes place, and we don't think enough about the principles that we value more highly than ourselves.

So then how did Jesus' death affect what the early Christians thought about a good death and martyrdom?

The belief that Jesus was the Son of God has allowed Christians to ask themselves not just 'what does God want from us ' but also 'what would Jesus do?' When it comes to martyrdom, there is one very clear-cut answer: Jesus would die. In trying to follow in the footsteps of the Savior, early Christians self-consciously modeled their deaths on that of Jesus. The late first century bishop Ignatius of Antioch writes -- in terms that are a little uncomfortable to modern ears -- that he longs for his body to be consumed by the wild animals so that he can imitate the suffering of his God. He was not alone. This meant that dying like Christ was a dearly cherished ideal for Christians, even if, unlike Ignatius, they never underwent martyrdom themselves.

On page 52, you write that, "The afterlife that martyrs describe is bodily resurrection" in the ancient Jewish, and Christian communities. For me, at least, this makes me wonder if the afterlife was a kind of convenient coping mechanism that martyrs used to justify their suffering. Would you characterize it this way? And if this was the case -- or even if it wasn't -- would you consider this to be evidence against the existence of an afterlife?

The resurrection of the body does provide consolation for the grieving and it does function as a coping mechanism for people, even today. That said, just because people find consolation in something doesn't necessarily mean it's not true. I would say that the development of ideas about the resurrection in tandem with ideas about martyrdom isn't evidence against the afterlife, but it does help us understand the history of why people think about the afterlife in the way that they do. Jewish authors first described the afterlife as the restoration of the body in response to the disfiguring torture and execution of observant Jews in the second century BC. Christians were heirs to this tradition. And some Christians adopted the idea that they would be resurrected in their bodies along with the idea that they should suffer for God.

After offering some pretty compelling evidence, you conclude on page 213 that, "Many cherished and widely held beliefs about martyrs are far from the mark, that persecution was not as severe as Christian authors and two thousand years of tradition would lead us to believe, and that we have very little evidence for what the martyrs themselves actually said." Can you talk a little bit about why the early Christians created these myths? Do you think they saw the creation of these myths as problematic or would this have been an accepted practice at the time?

There were a lot of motivations for creating martyr stories. Sometimes there was a vague story of a particular saint floating around that a scribe simply set in writing and embellished in order to support local religious practices. Sometimes a scribe composed a martyrdom story for an anonymous deceased Christian who may or may not have been a martyr. Other times, stories were expanded or anecdotes added in order that the martyr could be remembered for approving bishops or condemning heretics. Christians weren't the only ones to do this-Greek historians Herodotus and Thucydides did the same thing -- so it clearly wasn't as problematic for ancient audiences as it is for us. At the same time, we can't accept this history of persecution uncritically. We need to be realistic about the nature of our traditions.

So along those lines, how can the historic martyrs who did sacrifice their lives for a greater good be a positive force in contemporary society? And if some of the martyr stories we have are fiction instead of fact, can they still serve a positive purpose?

We need to keep the figure of the righteous sufferer in our religious cast of characters because without it, we might lean too heavily towards the idea that the socially and politically marginalized deserve their lot in life. Some of these martyrs' stories may not be based on historical events, but these are stories of courage, of emboldened Christians standing up for their beliefs, and of people speaking out in the face of injustice and tyranny. They are stories about people suffering despite being good and sometimes because they were good, rather than because they were punished.

In the conclusion, you write about the rhetorical power of Joan of Arc, a well-known French martyr who still plays a role in French political and social life. Do you think that there is there such a thing as too much remembering? At some point, should the stories of a martyr be forgotten?

As a historian, I think that remembering is an aid to avoiding future mistakes, and as someone who works on martyrs, I want everyone to remember them, but I also know that that process of remembering the past is unavoidably partisan and ideological. My own work included! I think we need to treat religious memories with care because they exert a great deal of power-for good and for bad-in the present.

You present some rich evidence that the early Christian community was not persecuted and that many martyr stories were made up. In light of your scholarship, what needs to change in the Christian community today? Or, put differently, how would you like the Christian community to use your work?

In my opinion, the important thing is that we don't reproduce the false history of persecution in destructive ways: We're not always persecuted and situations are not always black and white. Conflict and disagreement are sometimes just that, and sometimes there are two valid sides to an argument. Even things that seem unjust might be the result of honest disagreements and good-natured misunderstandings. So we need to use language that reflects the wide variety of factors that contribute to conflict involving Christians. At the same time we also need to be attentive to all instances of injustice and violence. Unprovoked violence against another human being is morally wrong regardless of whether or not the attack is religiously motivated. By fixating on persecution, we're allowing ourselves to overlook a great deal of injustice.