The Ultimate Martyrdom Myth

My interview with Notre Dame Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity Candida Moss, author of “The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom” (buy here) for Minnesota’s Atheists Talk radio show is now available streaming on this site, downloadable, or subscribable via podcast or iTunes.

I did miss the opportunity to press a little bit further on the discussion around how Biblical scholars determine that some martyrdom stories are myths. In essence, they seem to use questions such as the following to calculate the level of trustworthiness of a given story:

– Were the stories written by non-eyewitnesses, long after the event?
– Do the stories seem to be retellings, recastings or appropriations of older mythic stories from other cultures?
– Do the stories contain anachronisms? References to ideas, institutions, people or places that were not current at the time of the events but were at the time of the writing?
– Are there multiple, inconsistent versions of the story, changing over time?
– As the stories change, do they become more hagiographic? Do they make the “star” of the story even more saintly, the acts even more miraculous?
– Do we lack confirming testimony from other, independent sources, of the events or people in the story?
– Do the stories seem designed to push a specific orthodoxy, perhaps against an idea of the time that was becoming popular but others wanted declared heretical?

Now my question (which I did ask in the show) was that all of these issues above, when asked of the traditional 4 Gospels, have an affirmative answer. Consider for example the transition from Mark to Matthew to Luke to John, where Jesus goes from a suffering, questioning crucifixion (“Why hast thou forsaken me”) to a stoic, accepting death (“It is finished”) over the years between which the books were written, multiple decades after the events in question.  A stoic death was very admirable among martyr myths in antiquity, as we see in Socrates’ case or in the disgust over the sniveling death of a Trojan prince at Achilles’ hand in Homer’s Iliad.  This example easily covers 4 or 5 of the points above, with a potential 6th depending on how much of the crucifixion story was addressed specifically at, e.g.,  the Marcionites and Ebionites.

So why did scholars (such as the Bollandists), trying to weed out whether the martyrdom myths were true or not using the criteria above, not end up casting an eye towards the Gospel books and deciding that there was probably as little proof of those being true as there is of many of the apocryphal martyrdom stories?  Was it only because the “original” Christian martyrdom story was untouchable by definition?  It would seem to me to be a prime candidate for this kind of analysis and (given the results from scholarly responses to the questions above) eventual rejection as apocryphal, for the exact same reasons the Bollandists reject so many martyrdom stories from the first centuries.

I really enjoyed having Professor Moss on the show, and I’d love to invite her back to talk about this.

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