New research challenges the idea of an Age of Christian Martyrs during the early centuries of Christian expansion in the Mediterranean world.
Candida Moss, Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame explains: “For the first three hundred years of its existence, tradition maintains, Christianity was a persecuted and suffering religion. Members were hunted down and executed, their property and books burned by crusading emperors intent on routing out the new religion. Women and children were thrown to the lions and boiled alive in caldrons, as maddened crowds bayed for blood. Jesus, Stephen, and the Apostles were only the beginning.”
Moss sketches out how the notion of an Age of Christian Martyrs coalesced. “As Christianity grew, so did the ranks of martyrs,” she states. “According to the fourth-century historian Eusebius, early Christians were racked, whipped, beaten, and scourged. Tens of thousands were condemned to the amphitheaters to face wild animals, forced to fight gladiators, beheaded, strangled quietly in jail, or burned publicly as a mark of shame.”
By the end of the Fourth Century CE, stories of numerous martyred saints were circulating in Christian texts throughout the Mediterranean.
“The history of early Christianity, as we have received it, is a history of victimization and pain,” Moss indicates. “It underwrites the idea that Christians are at odds with their world, engaged in a continuing struggle between good and evil.”
However, “that narrative has very little basis in the documentary record,” she argues. “There is almost no evidence from the period before Constantine, traditionally called the Age of Martyrs, to support the idea that Christians were continuously persecuted.”
The Chronicle of Higher Education has published an article by Candida Moss that appears to be an excerpt from her forthcoming book, The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom (Harper Collins).
NIU students in HIST 640 Religious Violence in Comparative Perspective will be interested in this article.