“I do find it a puzzling quality of liberal Christians that they tend to get excited when something that had been a cherished belief or practice of the Church is shown to have been false,” says Rod Dreher , commenting on a new book by a Notre Dame historian who says that the early Church’s stories of martyrdom were false. According to the Amazon description, presumably supplied by the publisher:

In  The Myth of Persecution , Candida Moss reveals that the “Age of Martyrs” is a fiction—there was no sustained three-hundred-year-long effort by the Romans to persecute Christians. Instead, these stories were pious exaggerations; highly stylized rewritings of Jewish, Greek, and Roman noble death traditions; and even forgeries designed to marginalize heretics, inspire the faithful, and fund churches.

Rod is concerned with the uses to which Candida Moss’s history, true or false, is put — which is of course the same concern Moss applies to the stories of martyrdom — in particular to advance “the perverse joy with which many liberal Christians meet the scholarly dismantling of their religion and religious tradition.” It doesn’t disprove her arguments, as he points out, though it does give one reason to interrogate them, as academics like to say.

What’s sauce for the goose, etc.: if the early Christians exaggerated or invented stories to advance their cause, modern scholars may deny them to advance theirs. HarperOne knows what sells. Neither early Christian nor modern scholar (nor modern publisher) will necessarily be actively dishonest, but simply bending to the pressures their world presents them and reading the evidence through the biases their situation provides them. Scholars, for example, can slip into thinking that because some people could have benefitted, or did benefit, from a story that they made up the story. The method invites the conclusion.

What we do know certainly makes the stories plausible, even if examination may reveal that some of them may not be true. As people are always pointing out, Christians have persecuted Christians a lot through history, especially when political or dynastic or commercial interests were involved. See England in the sixteenth century, for one example of ecumenical killing. And as we know from the news, other ideologies and religions — Communist regimes and Muslim governments and societies in particular — persecute Christians today and have been, in the case of the Communist regimes, doing it for a century. That the Romans would from time to time and in various places have marked out the Christians and locked them up or killed them seems more likely than not.

Update: I should have said in the opening line “ . . . who said (if her publisher is to be believed) that . . . ”. Publishers do exaggerate for effect, but still, authors are also responsible for the publishers they choose.

Articles by David Mills

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