Candida Moss deconstructs much of the mythology surrounding Christian martyrdom. While some may find the deconstructive task threatening, Moss writes in a welcoming style and roots her work in extensive research.
Most of the book deals with the early centuries of established Christianity, but Moss’s aim is actually directed toward modern-day Christians and the ways in which a collective martyrdom mentality has led to a “Christians vs. the World” perspective. Moss mentions right-wing American political figures such as Ann Coulter, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, David Limbaugh and others as being exemplars of this mentality.
Moss argues that the “Us vs. Them” worldview assumed by many Christians is unhealthy and unhelpful and should be abandoned. Yet her methods in dismantling this worldview do not prove effective. After spending chapters convincingly proving the fictitious nature of most early Christian martyrdom accounts, Moss blames the prevalence of the church’s martyrdom complex on fourth century Christian historian Eusebius. According to Moss, “Eusebius encodes the understanding of the church as persecuted into the history of Christianity itself.” In Moss’s telling, Eusebius used martyr stories to support the established church’s claims to orthodoxy. By placing words of support in the mouths of martyrs, Eusebius endears orthodox theology to his readers. While doing so, however, Eusebius exaggerated and embellished. Then he cemented his exaggerations in church history.
While Moss effectively shows that Eusebius used martyr stories to establish orthodox theology, the very fact martyr stories were rhetorically effective for Eusebius hints that martyr fascination was already present in Christianity before Eusebius. Clearly, martyr stories were a common denominator among various Christian sects before Eusebius began writing. Otherwise, martyrs would not have been Eusebius’s chosen vehicles for his message. This shows the Christian identification with martyrdom preceded Eusebius. If the fascination with martyrs was only exaggerated by Eusebius, and not created by him, then does dismantling his exaggerations rid Christianity of the unhealthy applications of its martyr complex?
Regardless, while Eusebius definitely broadened martyrdom and used it for his own ends, it is the writers of the New Testament who ensure martyrdom will always be central to Christian identity. As long as Christians worship a God who died upon a cross, they will identify with martyrs.
Furthermore, not all uses of martyr stories are negative. Again, as Moss states, “Stories about martyrs have inspired generations of Christians to liberate themselves from slavery, to resist tyranny, to live lives in the service of others and in the pursuit of justice, to find courage despite adversity, and to seek out a life full of purpose.” While stripping away exaggerations is worthwhile, it would be unhelpful, inaccurate and impossible to completely rid Christianity of its martyr heritage.
In my opinion, while it is an important, useful and well-written book, “The Myth of Persecution” is not complete. My hope is that Moss, being eminently qualified in this field, would help reconstruct an accurate, positive and accessible view of Christian martyrdom. She begins this work in Chapter 5, and I look forward to an accessible book that reintroduces Christian martyrdom to a popular audience.
JONATHAN SAUR is a candidate for ministry in Los Ranchos Presbytery. He lives in San Juan Capistrano, Calif.