In the spring of 177 AD, in the city of Lyons, which was the capital of the Roman province of Gaul, rumors began to spread that members of the Christian religious sect – already regarded as unpatriotic and atheistic – were engaging in horrible acts of criminal atrocity: “the banquet of Thyestes,” i.e. ritual murder and cannibalism, and “the incest of Oedipus,” i.e. parent-child orgies. A tribunal was convened by the Roman officials, and scores of Christians recanted their faith at the prospect of torture.
Others did not. A deacon named Sanctus was tortured by having burning irons applied to his genitals, but he would say only the words, “I am a Christian.” A slave named Blandina had “her body pierced through and through,” but refused to renounce her faith, saying, “I am a Christian, and no evil is wrought among us.” Pothinus, the 90-year-old bishop of Lyons, was beaten to death in front of the tribunal. Christians who refused to apostatize were tortured and killed in the great public arena of the city, while others were suffocated in a municipal prison, and their bodies given to packs of dogs so they wouldn’t receive religious burials from their now-underground brethren.
This comes to us in a contemporary account written by Gallic Christians in a letter to Christians in Asia Minor; it’s a significant episode in Norman Cohn’s famous work “Europe’s Inner Demons” as well. I note this because it’s one of the many, many accounts that could be cited to contradict Notre Dame theology professor Candida Moss’ strange new book “The Myth of Martyrdom,” which uses the tools of literary analysis (rather than, say, historical evidence) to argue that long-accepted tales of Christian persecution amount to pious frauds designed to give believers an advantage in contemporary political debates.
As Ephraim Radner points out in First Things, a lot of what Moss claims to be shocking new information is at least as old as Edward Gibbon’s classic “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” which was, among other things, an anti-Christian polemic:
It’s all here, borrowed from the eighteenth-century master of an English prose far more wicked in its irony than Moss’s: the fraudulent numbers of the persecuted and killed, the “artful pen” of later Christian tricksters who embellished both the past and the inner vices of the early Church’s faithful, the self-serving formation of a culture of righteous resentment and hostility by pusillanimous Christians, and, of course, the proposal that the fictions and attitudes they engendered turned the Church into the world’s worst persecutor.
None of which does much for the people tortured and strangled to death in Lyons by the edict of Marcus Aurelius, or for the multitudes of Christian victims since then. Is Oscar Romero’s story fraudulent? Perhaps Maximilian Kolbe is alive after all, his death at Auschwitz a product of “artful pens.”
Perhaps not. Moss’ confused thinking is aptly demonstrated in a point-counterpoint debate in the pages of a Notre Dame publication with Daniel Philpott, a professor of political science and peace studies. While conceding that Christians around the world face terrible violence, she raises a rhetorical objection: should we really call such sustained and organized violence “persecution”?
“At the same time, we need to exercise good judgment and moderation in the identification of persecution,” she writes, because, sure, that’s going to help people who are being murdered or burned out of their homes. “Not every Christian who dies tragically and violently in a foreign country is the victim of persecution.”
Christians are not the only sufferers of religious persecution. So are Baha’is in Iran, Muslims in Gujurat, India and Hindu Tamils in Sri Lanka. Some 75 percent of the world’s population inhabits countries that deny religious freedom, the Pew Forum reported in 2010. Still, Christians comprise the lion’s share of the lion’s den and are estimated to be 80 percent of the world’s victims of persecution. Contrary to the title and thesis of Moss’ book, there is nothing mythical about Christian persecution.
“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” wrote Tertullian in the 2nd century, and the last 100 years have provided plenty of that seed: more Christians were killed because of their faith in the 20th century than in all previous centuries combined, according to the demographers David Barrett and Todd Johnson. “Close readings” of the Gospel of Luke, such as Moss performs in her book to “debunk” Christian martyrdom, are fine for the seminar room and the online comment box, but they have very little to say to people in the real world.