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In Theory: Were early Christians persecuted for their beliefs?

May 24, 2013

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.

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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.

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