The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom by Candida Moss, HarperOne, 2013; 308 pages, ISBN 978-0062104526, hardback $25.99.
Christians have long cherished stories of martyrs and their persecution, particularly from the first three centuries CE before Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Stories of the early church rising above violent suppression by authories through the heroism of members willing to die for their faith is considered to prove the truth of Christian doctrines (who would die for something that wasn't true?) and the moral superiority of believers over others. The first historian of the church, Eusebius in the time of Constantine, wrote a narrative that identified martyrs and orthodoxy as opposed to heretics and the forces of Satan. Surprisingly, some Christians today, even when in the majority, continue to view the world through this same narrative and perceive themselves as persecuted by any individual or group who opposes or disagrees with them, opposition which by definition is satanic or heretical and so cannot be compromised with. The author wrote this book to counter this "us vs. them," no compromise attitude by showing that in fact Christians in the early centuries were not constantly persecuted by the Roman state; that virtually all of the stories about the martyrs date from after Christianity became an accepted and then a dominant religion in the Roman Empire; that most of them are of questionable factuality, many being outright fiction; and that Eusebius is a propagandist rather than a reliable historian and invented the idea of the persecuted church to bolster the claims of the orthodox party allied with the Roman Emperor.
The author, a specialist in the Christian martyrs, is presenting scholarly material for a general audience. Among these scholarly findings are that there are only six stories of martyrs from the first 250 years of the Christian movement that scholars hold to be authentic – that is, accounts of actual events written during the period they claim to be written in, which does not mean that these accounts are necessarily accurate. Also, that in the first 300 years of the Christian movement the Roman imperial government had capital laws affecting Christians as religionists for only twelve years, and some of these laws weren't addressed to Christians as such but to anyone who refused to carry out the civic religion that bound the Empire together. Most Romans didn't like Christians but didn't go out of their way to persecute them either. This is an worthwhile read for those interested in early Christianity, issues of justification through persecution in religion, or the often disproportionate reactions of some Christians to criticism or opposition. – Sally Dougherty