The Tablet publishes a book review that dismisses and ridicules the early Christian martyrs

The Tablet, ‘The International Catholic Weekly’, has published a book review that dismisses and ridicules the early Christian martyrs. Teresa Morgan, a fellow of Oriel College, Oxford, where she teaches ancient history, reviewed Candida Moss’ ‘The Myth of Persecution: how early Christians invented a story of persecution.’

Teresa Morgan writes:

‘On the contrary, the claim at the heart of this book has been carefully researched by several generations of scholars and is orthodox in academic circles, if not beyond. Christians under the Roman Empire were neither constantly persecuted nor martyred in huge numbers for their faith. They were prosecuted from time to time for alleged sedition, holding illegal meetings or refusing to sacrifice to the emperor. They were, like other convicts, sometimes tortured and executed in horrible ways. They seem to have been regarded by many Romans with distaste as a particularly silly superstition. But Christian stories of thousands of individual and mass martyrdoms over centuries have at best a limited basis in historical fact, and in many cases are sheer fiction. [...]

She does not gloss over the negative aspects of martyrdom, showing that some Christian martyrs look, in our terms, very like terrorists, attacking
and killing other Christians who disagreed with their views; others look frankly suicidal, while a few went to their deaths prophesying eschatological torments for their persecutors with disturbing relish.

The myth of persecution, Moss argues, really established itself in the fourth century, mainly because it was good business. To be associated with a martyr gave status to a city, church or bishopric. Tombs and shrines attracted pilgrims, who needed places to stay, food, drink and souvenirs, all of which helped to boost local economies. In addition, as Moss suggests, stories of martyrdom were, and remain, popular because they are exciting, providing the faithful with strong, colourful narratives of good and evil in which good always wins in the end.

Moss begins and ends by describing occasions in recent history when individuals have been hailed in the media as Christian martyrs, or
when the claim that Christians were being persecuted has been used to sharpen public debate. She proposes that Christian martyrdom should cease to be invoked in public discourse, and concludes that if we refrain from mentioning it, political and religious conflicts over everything from terrorism to abortion will be neutralised. People will learn to discuss their differences calmly and reasonably, discover common ground and solve their problems in peace.’

Protect the Pope comment: A quote from the Divine Office: ‘In the first persecution against the Church, that of the Emperor Nero, after the City of Rome had been burnt in the year 64, many of the faithful suffered death after terrible tortures. Testimony to their deaths is found in the writings of the pagan Tacitus (Annales, 15, 44) as well as in the letter to the Corinthians of Pope Saint Clement (cap.5-6).’

At secular universities where scepticism, doubt and suspicion are fundamental preconceptions it is unsurprising that academics would seek to de-construct the Church’s testimony to the sufferings of the early Christian martyrs. However, scepticism, doubt and suspicion naturally create a stunted, distorted view of history and human behaviour, which we clearly see in this book review. With God and the working of grace excluded a priori, both author and book reviewer are only capable of offering mundane or self-serving motives for the cult of martyrs.

Sadly, it is also unsurprising that The Tablet would publish a review of a book that both equally seek to dismiss and ridicule the memory of our early Christian martyrs. This after all is the Tablet’s stock-in-trade now, rubbishing the sacred Traditions of the Catholic Church all in the name of ‘the spirit of Vatican II’.


25 comments to The Tablet publishes a book review that dismisses and ridicules the early Christian martyrs

  • Andrew Hall

    ‘rubbishing’? unfortunately, the Tablet seems to only have one string to its bow these days. it amuses me in a rather morose way that their ‘critical’ stance doesn’t enable the Tablet’s writers to accept criticism of themselves. Reading Dr Joseph Shaw’s accounts of Mgr Loftus I see in the good Mgr a similar one-way critical street. Am I alone in wondering why these individuals remain in a Church which they so obviously despise, when they could find their tastes and attitudes catered for elsewhere? After all, if you don’t like golf, why join, and remain in, a golf club?

    • Wake up England

      Hear Hear Andrew Hall:

      I do so wish that the Secretary and Membership Committee of the RCC Golf Club would withdraw their joint membership.

      I for one am fed up with hearing them going on and on and on in the bar and being so vile about the other members their worthy achievements. Just think how much more agreeable the club house would be without them.

  • Isn’t it just like the Tablet to Protestantise everything. (And that was rhetorical by the way.) Save that now, the Tablet have gone on a new level of Protestantising — they’ve even rejected what the ‘Reformers’ of five hundred years ago at least accepted.

  • Matthew Booth

    I haven’t read the original article or the related book. I have no opinion on it. I can however, see how it would be controversial at least for the Tablet to publish it.

    I’d like to pick at a point in your response, though:

    “At secular universities where scepticism, doubt and suspicion are fundamental preconceptions…”

    Scepticism and doubt are noble virtues in academia. I feel like you’ve thrown in suspicion there to case the first 2 in a poor light. Suspicion can be a natural consequence of scepticism. It is not, however, a first resort.

    “…it is unsurprising that academics would seek to de-construct the Church’s testimony to the sufferings of the early Christian martyrs. However, scepticism, doubt and suspicion naturally create a stunted, distorted view of history and human behaviour,…”

    No, scepticism and doubt (I’ll ignore the repetition of suspicion) lead wherever they lead. “Prove it” is about as honest as it gets.

    “…which we clearly see in this book review. With God and the working of grace excluded a priori, both author and book reviewer are only capable of offering mundane or self-serving motives for the cult of martyrs.”

    No, they are capable of offering motives in addition to those of God.

    As I said at the top, I have no opinion on this specific matter. However, it’s important when contradicting any argument to contradict the facts or the reasoning presented. Your first paragraph of comment was perfectly reasonable, and if you’d kept it up you might have been convincing. Your second paragraph revealed that you had no interest in the argument as its conclusion was contrary to your own.

    I would also argue that this work shouldn’t be beyond the pale. The motivations and actions of early Christians may be inspirational, but they are not the basis of faith.

    • Wake up England

      Oh dear, Matthew Booth there you go again:

      I disagree with practically everything you say; although I admit your presentation is constructive and well-put.

      May I take up your last paragraph please?

      “The Motivations and actions of early Christians may be inspirational, but they are not the basis of faith”

      Many (not all, of course, but many) of the “Early Christians” are honoured by The Church as martyrs. The Church recognises them as saints. Whether by traditional acceptance, or by the process of Canonisation, the Church declares them to be saints. When the Church recognises someone as a saint it is an infallible truth. They’re a saint. No ifs and buts.

      That is very much a basis of faith, Matthew.

  • Joseph Matthew

    “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”. These anti-Christians can’t have it both ways. They condemn us for our opposition to suicide and then make the utilitarian claim that there is no real moral difference between suicide and martyrdom.
    To think that this rubbish is sold in churches.

    • tro

      The persecution and martyrdom of Christians continues on a global scale. We see this amply documented in, for example, ‘Persecuted and Forgotten?’, published by ‘Aid to the Church in Need’.

      But there are many other such works.

  • tro

    “Scepticism and doubt are noble virtues …”

    You should be sceptical about scepticism and doubtful about doubt, then.

  • Tim

    Testimony to their deaths is found in the writings of the pagan Tacitus (Annales, 15, 44) as well as in the letter to the Corinthians of Pope Saint Clement (cap.5-6).’

    This after all is the Tablet’s stock-in-trade now, rubbishing the sacred Traditions of the Catholic Church

    Do you not see the contradictions between these two statements?

    Either you take everything on tradition in which case sceptical academic study has no place in your world view (you are free to do that if you like – just don’t expect to be taken seriously by me). OR you engage with the evidence, start reading the writings of Tacitus and others, look at the acheological evidence too – looking for contradictions, coroboration etc which is exactly what Candida Moss is doing.

    What you can’t do is look at evidence which supports your world view and dismiss that which does not.

    Either you keep your faith uncontaminated by evidence of reality. Or you engage with evidence of reality whereever that journey takes you.

    Jumping on evidence which supports your position makes you a pseudo-intellectual unless you are also willing to examine contary evidence.

  • As a priest and as an historian of Church History I agree that your criticism of the book on the early martyrs is at least partly quite unfair. The writer points out that many so called martyrs were as it were “made up” by local churches particularly in Italy in order to provide a centre of pilgrimage where no martyr really lived. Another point she makes is that persecution was by no means continuous during the pre Constantine era. Indeed there were only a relatively few bursts of persecution in this period and the Church was able to grow quite freely honouring the true martyrs of this time who are now honoured for instance in the Tridentine Missal.

    • Wake up England

      Never heard of you, Father.

      Please may we know what you have published; when you published it and who the publisher was (is)?

      • Jadis

        Father Clifton has published a number of erudite books – here is one sample.

        He was the archivist for Southwark as well as being a parish priest – and still does the work of several men in helping out in his retirement parish.

        He is notorious for winding up windbags, and had to shut down his blog after one of them bullied him relentlessly. That said – although fully orthodox himself and traditional, he is widely admired for his fairness – he is not a kneejerk reactionary.

        He used to provide a public service to all blog readers by printing a precis of the drivel in the Tablet, every Friday – with pithy comments – but also gave credit for anything which was interesting and challenging – and his comment here reflects that.

        And today he is 78 years young. Ad multos annos!

  • Scepticism and Doubt are not good motivators for research. This sounds very much like the historical-critical approach to the Bible which was prevalent in the eighties. If you can give a nbatural explanation for the feeding of the five thousand then do so. So they all shared their sandwiches. A true researcher is sceptical and doubtful of nothing, for such motivation would cloud their judgement. A true researcher follows the evidence from all sources, critical of none but in the end weighing up such evidence to reach an educated conclusion. A priori judgements at the start cannot be easily overcome.

    • Peter


      The historical critical method was not an ’80′s thing’. It is used widely by serious scholars today.

      From the The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church by the Pontifical Biblical Commission 1993

      The historical-critical method is the indispensable method for the scientific study of the meaning of ancient texts. Holy Scripture, inasmuch as it is the “word of God in human language,” has been composed by human authors in all its various parts and in all the sources that lie behind them. Because of this, its proper understanding not only admits the use of this method but actually requires it. [...]

      A second conclusion is that the very nature of biblical texts means that interpreting them will require continued use of the historical-critical method, at least in its principal procedures. The Bible, in effect, does not present itself as a direct revelation of timeless truths but as the written testimony to a series of interventions in which God reveals himself in human history. In a way that differs from tenets of other religions, the message of the Bible is solidly grounded in history. It follows that the biblical writings cannot be correctly understood without an examination of the historical circumstances that shaped them.

      An interesting article by the UK’s leading biblical scholar Dom Henry Wansbrough OSB you could look at The Bible in the Church since Vatican II

      The Catholic Biblical Association of GB has a number of great resources for any interested readers.

  • Trisagion

    The historical record is not Sacred Scripture and little “t” tradition is not entitled to the same favourable presumption as either Sacred Scripture or big “T” Tradition. The tools of suspicion and doubt are useful tools for the historian, and particularly the Ecclesiastical historian. As Fr Clifton correctly points out all the credible evidence points to the conclusion that persecution was neither constant not universal. It was, much like the persecution of Catholics in England and Wales during the penal times, confined to definite periods of time or particular localities. Pointing this out is not to deny the reality of martyrs nor to hold their sacrifice cheap. Carrying a review of a book that says this is not anti-Catholic.

    Of course, calling into question the motivation of martyrs and imputing to them base motives may not be easy for pious souls to hear and is something that ought be done with great care but it seems almost certain, from the historical record, that some of those to whom the title of martyr has been popularly ascribed might have difficulty satisfying the more forensic processes of the modern process of canonisation.

  • Peter

    I really don’t understand the fuss. An academic writes a paper/book and it is published. Some reviews will be critical others will be complimentary. Surely this is the nature of how we should study our church. Peer review is considered the norm in all other academic subjects, why should church history be different?

  • Joseph Matthew

    But Trisagion, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that Candida Moss of the once Catholic University of Notre Dame does have a political agenda, one that is hardly favourable to Catholic orthodoxy. This is not an objective work of history. We already knew that the persecution of early Christians was neither constant nor universal. And, much to my disappointment, St George may not have encountered a real dragon. A work like this reminds me how truly inspiring the martyrs are.

    • Trisagion

      But that isn’t the complaint made in Nick’s post. It would be perfectly valid to complain that Teresa Morgan’s review wasn’t sufficient critical of Candida Moss’s book – which I think is pretty sub-standard for the reason at which you hint: her ideological position predetermines the manner in which she interprets the data without so much as a hint that she is even aware that her prejudices might be distorting the analysis. Nick’s complaint is that The Tablet contained a review of the book at all. Whilst I am prepared to think any wickedness possible of The Tablet, this time the mud won’t stick.

  • Funny how this book was published to coincide with the 1700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan! Which apparently, at least according to the musings of La Moss, was wholly unnecessary as Christians in the first three centuries Anno Domini were entirely free to worship God in following Christ in whatever public or private manner they wished. There is an excellent review of this book at First Things, May Edition ( Ephraim Radner begins thus: “The tedium of repeated déjà vu in this sad little volume did at least send me back to Gibbon’s Decline and Fall.”

    According to The Tablet’s chosen reviewer, Teresa Morgan: “…the claim at the heart of this book has been carefully researched by several generations of scholars and is orthodox in academic circles”. So there you are. Academics have spoken: causa finita est. Or not as the case be. For Ephraim Radner points out: “The rule is apparently to read sceptically the writings of the past, but not to doubt the imaginations of present-day scholars.”

    Moss was interviewed for UCA News on May 17 about her book. She said: “President Obama is not trying to harm Catholics or Christians generally; he is trying to provide health care. Catholics can disagree with him very strongly, but unless he’s trying to attack Catholics, as long as we believe he is interested in health care, we can continue to have a discussion with him.” (See:

    Why does it come as no surprise to learn that La Moss is a Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Notre Dame? And by the by, that Ephraim Radner is an ordained Episcopalian vicar, Professor of Historical Theology at Wycliffe College, Toronto, and his views would be entirely anathema to the Catholic Tablet. (Only joking about that Catholic bit.)

  • Nicolas Bellord

    I really liked this bit: “She proposes that Christian martyrdom should cease to be invoked in public discourse, and concludes that if we refrain from mentioning it, political and religious conflicts over everything from terrorism to abortion will be neutralised. People will learn to discuss their differences calmly and reasonably, discover common ground and solve their problems in peace.’”

    I suppose if we could persuade the Jews to forget about the Holocaust all their problems could be solved.

    • Wake up England

      Well said Nicholas Bellord:

      If we’re to cease to invoke Christian martyrdom the 1st Eucharistic Prayer (in use at least since the Council of Trent) will have to be heavily pruned; so will the litany of the saints. The Old Rite of Mass will need a total overhaul too. LET’S RE-WRITE HISTORY! And who better to do it than Mrs Pepinster, Mzz Beatie, and dear old Ephraim!

      Next thing, of course, these dreadful people will be downplaying the death of Our Blessed Lord on the cross as an unhelpful example in the modern world. And they’ll be taken seriously too.

      (And Diocletian wasn’t probably all that bad. Just misunderstood.)

      Saint Peter, we all beg you, pray
      these heresies will go away.

      Where’s long Skirts gone by the way? We’re missing you.

  • Gregory Murphy

    The problem with Ms Moss, I fear, is only just starting. I see, in her case, similar trends to that which emerged shortly after Christopher Hitchens first aired his toxic revisionism (on Channel 4, in autumn 1994) about Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Less then three years later, many of the obituaries in the immediate wake of Mother Teresa’s death were couched in very careful language: a direct result of Hitchens’ poisoning minds and his new-found status as a repeated TV guest from 1994 onwards, holding court on all manner of controversial subject (usually attacking the Catholic Church). Over and above his obvious intellect and scholarly standing, Hitchens was a boon to a fawning media because he also possessed one very vital asset: he could charm the birds from the trees and was a great watch, whether one liked his views or not. He could beguile. Moss – who also has a good mind – is already proving herself to be a “go to” favourite of many TV studio teams, researchers and producers. I wonder why? Is it because, like Hitchens, she also has that “something extra”? One hardly needs to be a so-called “red blooded male” to see what it may be (link below). We’ve not heard, or more pointedly seen, the last of Ms Moss, I suspect.

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