In Theory: Were early Christians persecuted for their beliefs?

Were early Christians really persecuted for their beliefs? The popular image is of them being thrown to the lions and having to meet in secret, but an author is challenging what she calls the "myth" of Christian persecution.

Candida Moss, who is Professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame, has written a book called "The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented A Story of Martyrdom." Dealing with the 300 years following the death of Jesus, she sets out to debunk what she calls "the Sunday school narrative of a church of martyrs" and claims that instead of three centuries of continual suppression, there were perhaps only 10 or 12 years during which it happened with any frequency. Moss looks at the church's first martyrs and how their stories fit into what's known about Roman society and points out inconsistencies, such as heresies that didn't exist at the time. She also notes that Christians were expelled from public office in 303-306 A.D. and points out that if they held public office, they could hardly have been hiding in catacombs. A mainstay of her writing is that it's important to distinguish between Christians who were prosecuted for being Christian and those who were condemned for carrying out what the Romans believed were treasonous activities. The first, she says, is persecution, the second prosecution.

Q: What do you think of her claims?

One of the more difficult moments in Christian development is when we are faced with the fact that things did not happen exactly the way we learned in Sunday school. The immediate conclusion may be that since something did not happen the way we were taught, the actual events are somehow less relevant. This is false.

In the case of martyrdom, the true relevance is how the church values sacrificial love. Jesus taught, "Greater love has no one than this, that they lay down their life for their friends." Those who give up their lives for their faith are thus friends of God, just as God gave up his own life in Jesus to love us. It would not be surprising if the early church took this teaching and, in its eagerness to illustrate such love, exaggerated its claims.

Yet, I think the real question is, "Was the early church filled with liars?" No. They were right by claiming self-sacrifice is the greatest mark of love for another. Furthermore, they were not making up the idea of martyrs out of thin air. If the church did not see scores of martyrs in the beginning, there were certainly some of great note and the long tale of history made up for them in quantity.

While Christianity does not hold an exclusive claim to dying for one's faith, Christians still face imprisonment and death across the globe. When facing these deaths today the early church echoes Jesus' words to them, "If your life be lost, let it be given in love."

David Derus
Student, FullerTheological Seminary


Let's begin with Moss' claim. She is charging early Christians with perpetrating a widespread, corporate, deliberate deception. Or, in simpler words, the early church was a group of liars, lying about what had happened in the decades before their time. Instead of preaching the truth of the Gospel, they spread a lie about history. For the sake of what? Sympathy in the public eye? And how would they think they could make such a deception believable if it contradicted the testimony of other impartial secular historians who recorded the events of those times?

History can be a tricky thing — it often depends on whose story you believe. Perhaps Moss is the party, knowingly or not, that is trying to rewrite history. Another possible book title might be, "The Myth of Importance: Challenging Commonly Known Historical Events for the Sake of Advancing One's Academic Career."

On the very day that Jesus rose from the tomb, "some of the guard [who had been there] came into the city and reported to the chief priests all that had happened. And when they had assembled with the elders and counseled together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, and said, you are to say, 'his disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.'… And they took the money and did as they had been instructed; and this story was widely spread among the Jews, and is to this day." (Matthew 28:11-13, 15). John 2:24 records that "Jesus, on his part, was not entrusting himself to them, for he knew all men." Man's testimony is not always reliable. God's word is.

Pastor Jon Barta
Valley Baptist Church


The first thought that crosses my mind is, "Well, I can't tell that joke anymore about the score from the Coliseum: Lions 44, Christians 0." But in all seriousness, I do find myself wondering what her point is. As I learned in college and in seminary, the persecutions were not a constant thing. They more or less depended on which emperor was in power. A crazy guy like Nero seemed to blame the Christians for everything, and later on Domitian wanted to be called, "My Lord and God," and would put to death those who refused to call him that.

So Moss may have a point, but what she is saying is not all that new. Maybe what is new is the degree of seriousness of the persecutions; maybe they weren't as serious or as frequent as we have been led to believe. And any new knowledge about early Christianity is always welcome. But still, I find myself asking, "What's the point?" and "What's so new about her thesis or theory?"

The Rev. Skip Lindeman
La Cañada Congregational Church
La Cañada Flintridge


Assessing Moss' conclusions is difficult because I haven't had time to read more than a few of the book's nearly 600 pages. In that cursory look, a few things stand out.

One is her tendency to pick and choose what constitutes persecution and what doesn't, and which victims can legitimately be considered martyrs and which can't. For example, in her introduction she describes an attack on a Coptic Christian church in Egypt that left 20 worshipers dead. Yet she seems reluctant to classify the incident as persecution, even though it fits into a pattern of violence against Egypt's Christian minority.

A second criticism is her attempt to link modern Christian response to issues such as abortion on demand with the ancient tradition of persecution and martyrdom. The debate isn't shaped by a persecution complex brought on by stories of atrocities committed during first or second centuries, but by a belief that life is sacred.

A third point: She asserts that Christians have taken the view, at least at certain points in history, that martyrdom is evidence that Christianity is the true faith. I don't think that this is the case. We may look to martyrs as examples of faithfulness, but never to martyrdom as the basis of faith.

Moss may be correct that stories handed down about persecution of ancient Christians have been embellished and exaggerated. And she is right to condemn the use of martyrdom stories as an excuse for retaliation or narrow mindedness.

Nevertheless, I believe "The Myth of Persecution" overstates the relationship between those stories and modern Christian attitudes. It is true that we may find solace and inspiration from the past, but faith and conviction spring from personal spiritual experience.

Michael White
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
La Crescenta


It's interesting that Moss minimizes Christian persecution to only about 10-12 years, as if that would make it inconsequential, yet the Holocaust was that same amount of time and was horrendous. Of course, there are people writing books today denying that, too. I don't know what motivated her to write a book supposedly debunking church martyrdom, but I think it harmful and inaccurate.

The New Testament portrays the beginning of Christian persecution, starting with Christ himself. He was crucified for being the namesake of a movement comprised of both Jew and Gentile and immediately his followers became targets. The deacon Stephen was first, stoned to death by a mob that included the yet-unconverted apostle Paul (Acts 7). Immediately "a great persecution broke out against the church" and everyone "scattered" from Jerusalem, taking Christianity wherever they went (Acts 8). Then, King Herod executed the apostle James and determined to intensify persecution (Acts 12).

From then until 313 AD, with Constantine's Edict of Milan, Christianity suffered myriad persecutions throughout the Roman Empire. Who doesn't know of Nero burning Rome, then pinning it on the Christians? Or how about the historian Tertulian? He wrote in his Apologeticum (197 AD), "if there is famine, if there is plague, instantly the howl is, 'the Christians to the lion!'"

There are scads of horrific incidents recorded where Christians were tortured and killed, enslaved, or slaughtered for entertainment, and all for faith in Christ. It seems that Moss chalks this up to mere incivility; that Christians weren't persecuted for their faith, per se, but for breaking laws against it. Is this not a distinction without a difference?

Jesus said, "you will be hated by all because of my name" (Matthew 10:22); and because Christianity always conflicts with other world views, persecution has only increased upon the Earth, despite Moss' contrary opinions.

The Rev. Bryan Griem
Montrose Community Church


If the history of the Jewish people's brutal treatment by the Romans is any guide, there is no reason to doubt the cruel persecution perpetrated by the Romans against early Christians. According to some historians, approximately two million Jews — men, women, and children — were slaughtered during the Age of Rome. And there is no question that many Jews were sold into slavery and countless towns and villages were razed by the Roman legions.

Early Jewish writings such as the Talmud — which was redacted during the Roman era — are replete with horrific accounts of Rome's cruelty toward the Jewish people. In 70 CE, after laying siege to Jerusalem and starving its population, Titus breached the walls of the city and destroyed the Second Temple, the epicenter of Judaism at the time. And the famous sage Rabbi Akiva ben Joseph (40 CE – 137 CE) suffered a particularly gruesome fate when he refused to follow Emperor Hadrian's edicts against the practice and teaching of the Jewish religion: the Romans tortured him to death by flaying his flesh with iron combs.

Historically, there were some Jewish leaders (and I assume early Christian leaders as well) who held prominent positions in Rome and were treated reasonably by the authorities. There were also some Roman emperors who governed their subjects in Judea more kindly than others. But as a rule, ruthless violence was their modus operandi. It seems quite a stretch to state that the savagery against early Christians — or Jews, for that matter — was prosecution rather than persecution.

I am reminded of the statement by philosopher George Santayana that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." It is crucial that we recognize and acknowledge the cruelty of past civilizations so that we can educate ourselves and our children to avoid similar actions in the future.

Rabbi Simcha Backman
Chabad Jewish Center


The history of all religions is contested by historians and other writers. We don't know details of most events in the first couple of hundred years of the current era. We know that Christians developed a powerful church institution and took over many charitable duties in the Roman civilization.

Most scholars agree that there were many fewer martyrs than claimed by the Christian churches. But, what seems important today is how we can live together in a world of multiple faiths, religions and secular beliefs. As Moss says, when we say our opponents are evil and unreasonable, there can be no negotiation or dialogue. We instead should seek love and common ground so we can live in peace. Let's not count up martyrs, but count the reasons we can get along.

Steven Gibson


I like Moss' claim. The suggestion that only a handful of people had the courage to be martyred rings true. And even better, it fits with my own theory of those early years — a theory that wrestles with the doctrine of substitutionary atonement (the idea that Christ died for our sins). Here's what I think happened:

1) Jesus said two things that argued with his own Jewish tradition. Counter to the priestly tradition, he said that the forgiveness of sins was available to all through their own repentance, rather than through the temple system of sacrifices. And counter to the Deuteronomic tradition, which taught that the righteous are rewarded and protected by God, he said in effect, "Doing the right thing, which by definition will fly in the face of worldly powers, will probably get you rejected, punished or even killed. Do it anyway. Follow me."

2) While some — that first handful of martyrs — actually "took up their cross" and followed Jesus into death for the sake of radical righteousness, the great majority bailed out, early and hugely, on his high demands. In less than a generation (and so already by the time the Christian scriptures were written) clever theologians had flipped the whole thing around, turning it from what Jesus had told us to do into what he had done for us.

Instead of our needing to repent to be forgiven, they said that Jesus' death effected our forgiveness, and all we have to do is believe. Instead of our having to risk our lives for the sake of righteousness, Jesus was quickly called the one and only suffering righteous one, the innocent victim sacrificed on our behalf; and once again, all we have to do is believe.

I think Jesus said, "Follow me" and jumped into the pool, and Moss is probably right — only a handful of people went in after him; the rest of us walked away dry. And have been singing and making eloquent speeches ever since about what a great guy he is to have done all the hard work of faith for us.

The Rev. Amy Pringle
St. George's Episcopal Church
La Cañada Flintridge


The claims in Moss' book should have been thoroughly vetted before being published by a university press. Her book is too recent for scholarly reviews to be found via the American Theological Library Association's index of religious research; however, the writers of several reviews in magazines don't present evidence disputing Moss' facts, even if they don't like her conclusions.

She urges Christians to drop what she characterized as the "us vs. them" mentality caused by dwelling upon an inaccurate back story of persecution to be better able to find common ground with other groups.

I believe that truth about the past must be acknowledged and victims compensated as appropriate, to the extent that recompense is even possible. After that it is time to let the dead bury the dead.

It just doesn't seem to me to be working out that well for those parts of the world stuck endlessly fighting ancient cultural, religious, or ethnic conflicts. It is the prospect of such fights here that makes me continually remind anyone who will listen that our public sphere is to be strictly secular.

Today we are awash in data and reporting, so prosecuting, or even preventing persecution, of anyone for their beliefs or behavior should be a given. But being asked to sing anything other than "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" at baseball games, or to tolerate atheists and heretics in our midst, does not constitute persecution, irritating though these may be to some of us.

Roberta Medford


It is hard to disagree with a scholar of Early Christianity and the New Testament from a major Catholic institution such as the University of Notre Dame without having more information. But Moss' contention about the faked martyrdom story of early Christians certainly flies in the face of what has been presented as "Gospel" in the West for a very long time. Some of Hollywood's greatest hits of an earlier age were steeped in the idea of brutal persecution of Christians by bloodthirsty Roman tyrants, and in their entertainment value for masses of Roman spectators.

If this story of persecution took hold after the Roman Empire fell, it might have been told as a way to gain admiration for Christians who had been attacked by vicious adversaries. If these Christians were seen as innocent victims who behaved with courage, non-Christians could have been drawn to their group by the desire to be a part of a faith so strong that it gave people the courage to face insurmountable odds.

If, on the other hand, the story was spread during the times when actual persecutions were taking place, people would likely have suspected they were false, or at least exaggerated, or would have been afraid to join a group facing such incredible dangers. In either case, the story would have had a negative effect on the growth of Christianity. So I think it probably arose sometime during the late fifth century when the last western Roman Emperor was deposed.

However, without reading Moss' book, I don't really know enough to determine the truth or falsehood of the martyrdom stories. What I do know is that we have the opportunity today to end the persecution of people because of their religious beliefs. My hope is that we will find ways to discover and celebrate our commonalities as people of faith, rather than our differences. May it be so.

The Rev. Dr. Betty Stapleford
Unitarian Universalist Church of the Verdugo Hills
La Crescenta


Anyone who has studied church history can verify that there is some accuracy to Moss' claims that the magnitude of Christian martyrdom under the auspices of the Roman Empire has been exaggerated.

What I found most interesting was her distinction between persecution and prosecution. As an example, she quotes from a letter by Pliny, the governor of what is now Turkey, sent to the emperor in Rome. He commented that Christians were "stubborn," refused to buy meat from the Roman temples, and suggested that if brought into court, Christians should be given three chances to curse Christ and prove their renunciation by offering sacrifices at a Roman temple. If they refused, they should be killed.

Moss describes this as an example of prosecution because the Christians were disobeying Roman laws by refusing to acknowledge the emperor as a god in court. She completely ignores a central tenet of the Christian faith, belief in one God, and the command to avoid idolatry. She explains that religious freedom did not yet exist, so we can't judge Roman actions by that standard.

Her approach makes me wonder how Moss would handle the treatment of women under Islamic sharia law today. Women are forbidden to work outside the home, to obtain an education, to dress the way they would like, to be seen in public with any man other than their husbands, etc. Infractions of these laws can result in public floggings and, if severe, even honor killings by the woman's family. Does the West have the right to impose its standards on Islam? My question for Moss is this: Are these women being persecuted or prosecuted?

Pastor Ché Ahn
HRock Church

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