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Martyrdom—an urban legend?

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Kevin Baldeosingh

Every religious group in this country claims to be persecuted. It started with the Shouter Baptists, was taken up by Hindus, and now continues with Muslims. But this complaint is also regularly voiced by Christian groups who have radio programmes, schools, and the ears of politicians. But is this obviously false claim of minority status self-deception or strategy?

“Persecution has always been part of being Christian, and it always demands the same response,” writes religion professor Candida Moss in this historical analysis of Christian tradition. 

The idea obviously starts with the crucifixion of Jesus, and is solidified by the supposed fates of the apostles who with one exception were killed in various ways: Peter was crucified upside-down; Matthias and Barnabas were stoned; James was thrown from a cliff then beaten with clubs; and Bartholomew was flayed alive. 

“The drama of these stories made them wildly appealing; they were the campfire stories and bestselling novels of their day,” Moss writes, noting that “The fact that the Son of God willingly embraced death for the salvation of others meant that death for God must be good—otherwise why would he have done it? The death of Jesus and the promise of resurrection became a model for Christians.”

But, she shows, this self-image of Christians has little or no basis in fact. Historical or archaeological evidence for the widespread persecution of Christians is scarce. Indeed, for the first 250 years of Christianity, only six martyrdom accounts can be considered as reliable and even those cannot be called historically accurate. Yet there are hundreds of martyrdom stories but, says Moss, nearly all of them are legendary. 

“The reason these Christians invented martyrdom stories and saw their history as a history of martyrdom was because then, as now, martyrdom was a powerful tool,” she notes. And there was also another, more prosaic motive: tourism. 

If a village became known as the resting-place of a saint or martyr, pilgrims then began to flock to the site, bringing money to spend on food and accommodation and other goods and services.

However, Moss cites ample evidence showing that Christians were not constantly persecuted, hounded or targeted by the Romans. 

“Very few Christians died and, when they did, they often executed for what we in the modern world would call political reasons…the prosecution of Christians was rare and the persecution of Christians was limited to no more than a few years,” she says.

Moss considers this self-image of Christians as politically pernicious in her own country, the United States. “When all areas of modern society and politics are recast as a battle between God and Satan, good and evil, ‘us’ and ‘them’, then people are compelled to fight,” she writes. 

In T&T, this same phenomenon was well-displayed in the last general election on Port-of-Spain based talk radio stations, where callers condemned the previous administration for not being just corrupt but evil – ie not Christians.

And, even outside politics, Christian groups have a motive for portraying themselves as outsiders in a majority Christian country: “Martyrdom is easily adapted by the powerful as a way of casting themselves as victims and justifying their polemical and vitriolic attacks on others,” Moss writes.


​The Myth of Persecution

Candida Moss

HarperCollins Publishers, 2013

ASIN: B0089LOOF4; 323 pages.