going above and beyond
- Feb 7, 2004
Sunday school tales of early Christians being rounded up at their secret catacomb meetings and thrown to the lions by evil Romans are mere fairy tales, Moss writes in a new book. In fact, in the first 250 years of Christianity, Romans mostly regarded the religion's practitioners as meddlesome members of a superstitious cult.
The government actively persecuted Christians for only about 10 years, Moss suggests, and even then intermittently. And, she says, many of the best known early stories of brave Christian martyrs were entirely fabricated.
The controversial thesis, laid out in "The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom," has earned her a lot of hate mail and a few sidelong looks from fellow faculty members. But Moss maintains that the Roman Catholic Church and historians have known for centuries that most early Christian martyr stories were exaggerated or invented.
A small group of priest scholars in the 17th century began sifting through the myths, discrediting not only embellished stories about saints (including that St. George slew a dragon) but also tossing out popular stories about early Christian martyrs.
Historians, including Moss, say only a handful of martyrdom stories from the first 300 years of Christianity—which includes the reign of the cruel, Christian-loathing Nero—are verifiable. (Saint Perpetua of Carthage, pictured in the stained glass window above, is one of the six famous early Christian martyrs Moss believes was actually killed for her faith.)
Moss contends that when Christians were executed, it was often not because of their religious beliefs but because they wouldn't follow Roman rul