CNN examines the tumultuous early years of Christianity in a special narrated by Liam Neeson. Watch “After Jesus: The First Christians,” Sunday at 8 p.m. ET.
By John Blake, CNN
(CNN) – She walked into the Roman arena where the wild beasts awaited her. She trembled not from fear but from joy.
Her name was Vibia Perpetua. She was just 22, a young mother singing hymns as the crowd jeered and a lion, leopard and wild cow encircled her.
One of the beasts attacked, hurling her to the ground. She covered an exposed thigh with her bloody robe to preserve her modesty and groped in the dust for her hair pin so she could fix her disheveled hair.
And when a Roman executioner approached Perpetua with a sword, her last words before collapsing were aimed at her Christian companions: “Stand fast in the faith, and love you all one another and do not let our sufferings be a stumbling block to you.”
Millions of Christians worldwide will celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus on this Easter Sunday. But the story of how the church rose to prominence after Jesus’ death is being turned upside down.
According to a belief passed down through the centuries, the church grew because of Roman persecution. The blood of Christian martyrs such as Perpetua became “the seed of the church,” said third-century church leader Tertullian. It’s the Hollywood version of Christianity reflected in epic biblical films such as “Ben-Hur” and “The Robe.” Vicious Romans relentlessly targeted early Christians, so the story goes, but the faith of people like Perpetua proved so inspiring that Christianity became the official religion of Rome, and eventually the largest religion in the world.
But that script is getting a rewrite. The first Christians were never systematically persecuted by the Romans, and most martyrdom stories – with the exception of a handful such as Perpetua's – were exaggerated and invented, several scholars and historians say. It wasn’t just how the early Christians died that inspired so many people in the ancient world; it was how they lived.
“You had much better odds of winning the lottery than you would have becoming a martyr,” says Joyce E. Salisbury, author of “The Blood of Martyrs: Unintended Consequences of Ancient Violence.”
“The odds were pretty slim. More people read about martyrs than ever saw one.”
Do Christians have a martyr complex today?
The debate over exactly how many Christians were persecuted and martyred may seem irrelevant centuries later. A scholarly consensus has indeed emerged that Roman persecution of Christians was sporadic, and that at least some Christian martyrdom stories are theological tall tales.
But a new book by Candida Moss, a New Testament professor at the University of Notre Dame, is bringing that message to the masses.
Moss says ancient stories of church persecution have created a contemporary cult of bogus Christian martyrs. She says too many American Christians are acting like they’re members of a persecuted minority, being thrown to the lions by people who simply disagree with them.
Professor Candida Moss, author of "The Myth of Persecution," says most stories of Christian martyrs were fabricated.
She cited former Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum. Romney claimed last year that President Barack Obama was waging a “war against religion,” and Santorum said the gay community “had gone out on a jihad” against him. Other Christians invoke images of persecution when someone disagrees with them on controversial issues such as abortion or birth control, says Moss, whose "The Myth of Persecution" was recently released.
The problem with invoking persecution is it implies your opponents are evil – and no common ground can be found with evil, Moss says.
“When someone is persecuting you" she says, "there is no room for dialogue."
Others say Moss’ claim is dangerous.
People such as Perpetua did die because of their beliefs. The first Christians were tortured, reviled and held in contempt by Romans – and their example helped the church grow, they say.
The Rev. Robert Morgan, author of "On This Day in Christian History: 365 Amazing and Inspiring Stories about Saints, Martyrs and Heroes, " says it’s true that some of the accounts of martyrdom were “undoubtedly embellished” and that many of the persecution stories were “handed down in an atmosphere of confusion and pressure.”
Still, being a Christian in the first century was a risky move – persecution was significant. Jesus and most of his apostles were executed, he says.
“To deny the history of the movement is a way of attacking the movement,” Morgan says.
Some opposition to contemporary Christians is indeed evil, Morgan says. Christians are being killed today in places such as Nigeria and North Africa.
“Christians do not have a victim’s mentality,” Morgan says. “They take their stands, they know what they believe and they do good in this world. They are the ones who have established orphanages, hospitals and charitable institutions. For some reason, there’s this animosity against them.”
Hatred of Christians is woven into much of the New Testament. Jesus constantly warned his followers to expect persecution. The Apostle Paul wrote many of his epistles from jail. And the death of the first Christian martyr, Stephen, is dramatically recorded in the New Testament book the Acts of the Apostles.
The Easter message itself is a story of martyrdom – Jesus, unjustly executed by the Romans. The idea that Christians are at war with demonic forces in the world is reflected throughout the New Testament, says Bryan Litfin, a theology professor at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.
“If Jesus was just a soft moral teacher who taught us to love one another and petted little babies, the Romans wouldn’t have crucified him,” Litfin says. “Jesus is a polarizing figure, then and today. The early Christians weren’t foisting a narrative out of the blue about being martyrs. ”
'Like the action heroes of the ancient world'
If the first Christians pictured themselves as waging war against the world, the martyrs were their version of the Navy SEALs. They were the elite Christians who inspired and united others of their faith.
There was a purpose behind spreading stories of persecution: Nothing brings a new group closer together than a common enemy, Moss says.
“The idea that you are persecuted forges a concrete identity,” Moss says. “It really solidifies your sense of group identity.”
The stories of Christian persecution were so popular that they spawned a market during the first centuries after the crucifixion. The places where martyrs were born and died became early tourist stops. Towns competed with one another to draw rich pilgrims seeking martyr memorabilia, Moss says.
“People would go and buy the equivalent of a T-shirt,” Moss says. “You’d have all these little combs with saints on them that people would buy, and lamps with saints on them. People would also buy fruit from trees that grew in the vicinity of martyrs’ graves. Of course, the prices were completely jacked up.”
Church leaders began to embellish and invent stories of martyrdom to inspire the faithful but also to settle theological feuds, Moss says. If, say, a bishop wanted to denounce a rivals’ theology, he spun a story in which a martyr denounced the same doctrine with his last breath, Moss says.
“Martyrs were like the action heroes of the ancient world,” Moss says. “It was like getting your favorite athlete endorsing your favorite brand of soda.”
But how often did Romans force Christians to endure torture or die for their faith? Christianity took roughly 300 years to conquer Rome. The emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 312 and gave Christians religious freedom. Christianity became the official religion of Rome by the end of the fourth century, scholars say.
For the first 300 years of the church, Christians were often ridiculed and viewed with contempt. But Roman leaders spent about "less than 10 years" out of the first 300 actually persecuting Christians, Moss says. There are only six reliable cases of Christian martyrdom before A.D. 250 out of “hundreds of stories,” including Perpetua’s, she says.
Many scholars have greeted Moss’ contention that Roman persecution of Christians was exaggerated with a shrug. They say it was common knowledge in the academic world.
“There weren’t that many Christians who were persecuted,” says Gail O’Day, dean of the Wake Forest University School of Divinity in North Carolina. “When you actually read the Roman historical records, the Christians just weren’t that important to them. Most Christians just got along with empire.”
When Roman persecution did occur, though, it was vicious. The Emperor Nero covered fully conscious Christians with wax and used them as human torches. Other Christians were skinned alive and covered with salt, while others were slowly roasted above a pit until they died.
One of the most famous martyrs was Perpetua.
She lived in Carthage in North Africa (modern-day Tunisia) and was arrested in March 203 with four others as they prepared for baptism. The Roman Emperor Septimius Severus had decreed that any new conversion to Christianity would result in death.
History remembers Perpetua because she kept a diary during her imprisonment. It’s called "The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity" (Felicity was a slave girl arrested with Perpetua). It’s the oldest-surviving document from a Christian woman. The emotion in the diary is almost unbearable. Perpetua describes the pain of leaving her infant son, who she was still nursing. She describes a prison visit from her weeping father, who kissed her hands while trying to get her to renounce her faith.
Perpetua's father visited her in prison, begging her to think of him and renounce her faith.
A narrator picks up the story in the diary after Perpetua was sent to her death. He says in the diary that Perpetua’s faith was so inspiring it caused the prison’s warden, a man called Pudens, to convert. The narrator also describes Perpetua's death.
While she was imprisoned, Perpetua says God gave her visions to reassure her. After one, she wrote:
“I understood that I should fight, not with beasts but against the devil. But I knew that mine was the victory.”
You can’t discount the power of such stories, even if persecution “wasn’t extremely common,” says Litfin, the Moody Bible Institute professor.
Persecution was central to the rise of the early church, he says.
“How many people in your church would have to be pulled out and executed and tormented for it not to have a tremendous effect for many years on your memory and self-perception,” Litfin says. “The early Christians are not foisting a narrative out of the blue about being matyrs.”
The early Christians' secret weapon
Other scholars say it wasn't simply persecution that helped the church grow. Instead, they say, Christians had a secret weapon.
The martyrs may have gotten all the press, but it was ordinary Christians who got it done by the way they treated friends and strangers.
Life in ancient Rome was brutal and nasty, says Rodney Stark, author of "The Triumph of Christianity." Stark’s well-regarded book gives one of the most detailed descriptions of the early church and ancient Rome.
Forget those antiseptic portraits of Roman cities you see in biblical moves such as “The Robe.” Roman cities were overcrowded, raw sewage ran in the streets, people locked their doors at night for fear of being robbed and plagues were rampant. Soap had not yet been invented, Stark says.
“The stink of the cities in the summertime must have been astounding,” Stark says. “You would have smelled a city miles before you got to it.”
Christians stood out because they created a “miniature welfare state" to help the less fortunate, Stark says. They took in infant girls routinely left for dead by their parents. They risked their lives to tend the sick when plagues hit and others fled in terror. They gave positions of leadership to women when many women had no rights, and girls as young as 12 were often married off to middle-aged men, he says.
Ordinary Romans might have thought Christians were odd but liked having them for neighbors, Stark says.
“If people had really been against them, I don’t think they would have grown like they did,” Stark says.
Christianity became so popular that when Rome did unleash one of its sporadic waves of persecutions, the empire couldn’t stop the church’s momentum, Stark says.
“If you knocked off a bishop, there were 20 guys waiting to be bishop,” Stark says
Christian belonging, not blood, is what drew many people, another scholar says.
The Easter story of a risen savior wasn’t distinctive in Rome’s competitive religious marketplace. Dying for one’s beliefs wasn’t considered heroic; it was expected in the Roman world, says Selina O' Grady, author of "And Man Created God: A History of the World at the Time of Jesus."
The early church, though, was radically inclusive. First-century Rome was undergoing globalization. The peace of Rome had made travel easier. People left homes and tribal ties for Rome. The empire was filled with rootless and excluded people: immigrants, traders, slaves.
The Christian message offered guidelines for living in this strange new world, she says.
“Its universal message, its proclamation of equality, unconditional love, offered everyone in the Roman Empire a new family, a new community, and a way to live,” O’Grady says.
Roman rulers eventually found reasons to support the church, she says.
The Christian message of obeying earthly masters – “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and unto God what is God's" – reduced the potential for social unrest, O’Grady says.
“Christianity told the poor and lowly that their status was noble and that there would be recompense in the afterlife,” O’Grady says. “It was a wonderful recipe for creating good, obedient Roman subjects.”
A turning point for the early church was the conversion of Constantine. Scholars still debate Constantine’s motive. By that time the empire was rife with division, and Christians had become a major political bloc with members in the highest reaches of Roman society, says Stark, the sociologist.
“Constantine was interested so much in church affairs for the rest of his life, but I don’t think there’s a reason to not think he was a sincere Christian,” Stark says. “But he was also an egomaniac and an emperor.”
The growth of Christianity was too complex to be attributed to any one factor – whether it be Constantine, persecution or Christianity's message of compassion and inclusion, Stark says.
“I don’t think there was a primary reason,” he says. “It was a collection of things. It was all part of a package.”
Wrapped in that package, though, were the persecution stories of people such as Perpetua.
Today, churches have been named after Perpetua; films and graphic novels have been made about her life. She is considered a saint.
Her words still inspire. People still read her diary. There’s probably a Christian somewhere in the world now facing danger who is taking courage from Perpetua’s ordeal.
One passage in Perpetua’s diary is particularly luminous.
Perpetua stopped keeping her diary just before she was sent into the arena. No one knows for sure what she felt when she faced her moment of death, but she did write what she expected to see afterward.
She wrote that God gave her a reassuring vision while in prison. In the vision, she saw a great bronze ladder ascending to heaven. At the foot of the ladder was a great serpent surrounded by swords and knives.
Perpetua said she ignored the serpent and climbed the ladder. When she arrived at the top, she saw a great garden and a white-haired man in shepherd’s clothing milking a sheep. He was flanked by thousands of others Christians dressed in white.
“And he raised his head and beheld me and said to me: Welcome child.”
The man gave Perpetua curds from the milk of the sheep, and she said it tasted sweet.
She then wrote:
“And I took it with joined hands and ate it up: and all that stood around said, Amen.”
Centuries later, millions of people who look to Perpetua are still saying amen.
Christians are whiny babies.
“If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. However, because you do not belong to the world, but I chose you out of the world, for this reason the world hates you. Remember what I told you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they obeyed my word, they will obey yours too. But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know the one who sent me.
Try thinking for yourself instead of inanely quoting fairy tales.
wow, joe....a cut and paste....congrats on gettting them synapses to fire
hold up christians. dorothy makes a lot of sense on this one. the son of god, through whom the universe was made, could not be resurrected. that would be a little tough for god
When I die I will die with the happiness and excitement of knowing that I will be passing on to go where God intends me to be. Atheists when you die you will die clinging to life on this earth or maybe die believing this is as good as it's going to get and when I close my eyes and take a last breath it's all over. Have fun with that. I hope and pray that you soften your hearts and let God in your lives.
food for worms
Pray for me Locus... Kneel and pray... All Christians, kneel and pray.. Yes... for me... Damnage97, King of the Christians.....
When I die I will know that I have been generous to friends, family and society. I will know that I am not a theif, murderer or any other type anti social person. I will leave in peace knowing of a life well spent. And I will leave knowing that there are no gods, but if there are gods, it will take a long time to meet them all, there are thousands of them.
I also will have no delusions about what happens when we die.
As an Atheist I believe in Science, which suggests that when we die we just die. You see we don't fear death because that is a natural thing in life. We don't hide behind a religion saying that there is another life to get to after death even though there isn't.
I am a Christian and I believe in science too bro.
i hope you get off your knees and stop being such a subservient gash
Science is constantly evolving and in large parts consist of theories which are accepted until proven wrong . I'm curious If science were to prove that there is a God would you " believe " that God exists then or choose to no longer " believe " in science? Food for thought
Science, more specifically, M Theory points to the existence of the Multiverse ( Other realities that exist literally on top of other infinite possibilities ) So When you die here, you still exist in the other. There is Life after Death even for a scientist. Matter just changes phase and form.
When WE die, WE will be nothing any longer. However, while I live, I will enjoy every minute and not waste time praying to non-existent beings.
You on the other hand will waste around 1.5 years of your life doing activities that have no use or meaning.
This estimate is based on the following:
1. go to church every sunday
2. spending 3 hours a week in preparation, attendance, and transit on average,
3. happen to live to age 80
3hours * 52 weeks * 80 years = 12,480 hours /24 = 520 days /365 = 1.4 years
A more appropriate article would be about the Christians "stealing" Easter.
The goddess Eastre (oh notice that name and spelling?) was a Pagan goddess of spring and fertility, and a celebration/feast in her honor was held on the first full moon following the vernal equinox. Hmmm, when does that occur?
The religious also don't want to realize that "Christmas" was stolen from the Pagan holiday of 'Winter Solstice'. I do find it amazing how the death of their Jesus man changes every year.
Uh – Easter is derived directly from Passover. Similar dates, using a luni-solar calendar in both cases. Similar theological message, too.
@Six – Wrong! Sorry – but it was most definitely a pagan holiday ALSO. Both celebrations occur around the spring equinox (which makes sense, in the northern hemisphere, the changing from winter to spring is a big deal). "Easter" definitely derives from the name of the local diety (we get the word "East" from the same root). It was a very common tactic for christians to "repurpose' pagan holidays and rituals to meet christian needs.
Its easier for me to believe in the Easter bunny than a Jewish zombie."
good for you dorothy. no one cares, you moron
Love this day. The day someone performed a magic trick and fooled billions of people.
Evangelical Christianity, Jihadi Islam and Communism are all the same – vying for the soul and to leverage it for political influence and then on to covet natural resources. Afterall doesnt the bible claim that everything else on this planet is for your enjoyment! Evangelism and Jihadis have destroyed variety in human culture and diversity of human beliefs like nothing else damaging this planet has seen.
Happy Zombie Day !!!!
To all of you quoting scripture, your not supposed to read a sentence in the bible and look for meaning to understand it's meaning you need the context which is the entire bible. Furthermore, I know Christians are easy targets, you chastise Muslimsand you get death threats you cchastise any other religion and your a racist. Anyway, come today or tomorrow we will all meet our maker and as a Christian I welcome the scorn and ridicule of secularist because I believe I will be rewarded ten fold for standing for my god. Happy Easter to all. (secularism is a cult)
not alot of room for "context": You must kill those who worship another god. Exodus 22:20
Tons of room for context, but this isn't a religion class so I'll let you Google it and figure it out on your own. Let me clarify something for you. Being a Christian means having faith and having faith does not equal believing god is real it means following his commands regardless of your opinion or feelings. If your opinion or feelings mattered then Abraham would not have come so close to killing his own son. Christians are always bated into arguments in having to defend and explain gods commands in the bible when as a Christian we should except that our opinion matters none and that our faith is to do as we are told.
I am blogging off of my galaxy note two which despite its size is still snug for these thumbs so excuse the grammar
True – but reading the bible from start to finish isnt reading it in context either. You have to be aware of the chronilogical order the books were written in, when those times were and who the most likely authors were. It it NOT a contiguous story. It is a collection of stories, written by very different people in very different times for very different reasons. It is only in trying to read it backwards (i.e. having a presumption – the divinity of jesus) that most christians gain their theology. And that's why they are WRONG most of the time.
SHEEPLE: Wake up, there is no god, no jesus, no afterlife. The Easter Bunny is just like me, created for convenience.
I pity you. you're such a pathetic person that you feel the need to go around and bash other people for their faith. Perhaps once you stop stewing in your own hate and learn how to live and let live you may find some shred of happiness.
Karla Faye Tucker was one of our great, modern-day Christian martyrs. She received her lethal injection praying and preaching to those persecuting her. Had those unwashed but heeded her words, they might have received eternal life through Salvation.
Another shining example of modern christianity would be Jim Jones.
"Tucker would later tell friends and testify that she experienced intense multiple orgasms with each blow of the pickaxe."
what a saint.
She died because of her crimes not because of her faith. I would not consider her a martyr.
Religion ... the savior and downfall of humanity ... they knew what they were talking about when they called it ..... THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD!
Christian persecution is happening today in Egypt, Iraq, Iran you name the Muslim country and nothing is said and now this ridiculous article on Easter. Jesus death and resurrection changed the world for the good forever so all of you liberals Christian haters should live with it or go live in societies that show no tolerance. Thats China and all those wonderful communist states that suppress free thought. Why you all don't understand that Chrisianity gave humans dignity in the belief of free will and our obligation as Christians to forgive then you avoid reality. I would suggest that on this holy day you all put aside your hatred and respect others with differing beliefs..
"put aside your hatred and respect others with differing beliefs". I can do that. Can you?
"...changed the world for the good forever..." Vapid. We have no way of knowing how the word would have worked out if another path had been followed. There may have been no "dark ages" and we'd all be Zoarastrians.
This article was nothing short of crap, and it's really pathetic that CNN would post this on Easter day. I don't care what all the secular humanists and their ilk think, there IS an agenda to discredit Christianity in America and the rest of the Western world. First they try to discredit the Gospels and Christian doctrine with a never ending parade of disingenuous books on the bestseller lists, and now they try to pull stunts like this.
Academia at this point is not producing true scholarship but rather, subjective trash that simply reflects the spirit of the age and tries to impose contemporary understandings on history.
It sickens me that our once Christian country is slowly but surely turning into a secularist hell hole. May God have Mercy.
congrats on your darwin award
Another believer unable to come to terms with his dying religion. Don't worry, it will all be over soon.
Kill and slaughter everyone who has religious views that are different than your own. Deuteronomy 17:2-7
Thanks Barfly – The barbarians are everywhere preaching blood to the masses.
Will true Christians teach their children about the true meaning of Passover?
I doubt they will tell their children they are celebrating the event of their God sending the Angel of Death to passover non-believers homes and kill the first born male child.
and would you please enlighten me, why did that happen?
er, sorry Rad, but the 'passover' was a flyover, not of non-believers', but of believers' homes.
The true meaning of Passover is that it is different from other nights. Aussi, sweet wine has a terrible taste.
The Pasover was God's judgment upon Pharoah and upon Egypt for refusing to allow the people of Israel to leave Egypt. it followed numerous and increasingly severe plagues which were to impress Pharoah with the fact that God really meant it. it also was the passing over (saving from judgment) of all who would avail themselves of the sanctuary of the blood on the door posts.
The "all" included Egyptians as well. God is merciful. But there should be no mistake, God is God; and he is to be taken seriously. It is dangerious to do otherwise.
You mean after god "hardened his heart".... yeah. So much for free will...
The whole concept of religion is based on believing a premise (there is a god, and it affects us) that is the most unlikely scenario, and based on zero evidence.
Easter isn't even a Christian holiday. It's a Pagan holiday celebrating the Spring equinox and a fertility festival (the rabbit and egg being leftover symbols that exist today).
Christians have stolen many celebrations from other faiths to ease the transition into Christianity.
The entire christian history is revised history. Constantine co-opted pagan rituals and holy dates to try and unite Rome and prevent its downfall by declaring christianity as Rome's official religion. (Obviously, that didnt turn out so well). ALL of the stories in the bible are versions of the same stories dating far earlier to pagan, ancient greek, and egyption stories. Christians are the world's greatest revisionists.
But resurrection day is a Christian holy day. That is what we celebrate.
It is also funny how their bible which is suppose to be the word of god, was actually put together by a council adding in what fit best to keep the empire united best they could. Even to this date they pick and choose what parts to believe.
christians, muslims, jews, all children of abraham, killing each other. Brilliant. Please, just kill each other already.
The world would be more peaceful if all the religious nutcases would just kill each other.
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.