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.
Look at the atheists chasing after Christians like little doggies. Arf arf arf!! There is no God! There is no God! Arf arf arf!! LOL.
There isn't actually troll. Aren't you supposed to be in church?
Hey! That's rude! I am in no way "little".
I think a better analogy would be "Look at the atheists, acting like guard dogs against ignorance".
No. My Easter isn't until May. We are celebrating the protestant/Catholic Easter with family today.
Atheism is a "lose-lose" situation... and yes, it is a belief. We ALL believe and have faith in something. I used to say there is no God because of the pain and suffering in my personal life as well as what I saw in the world. Now, there are *numerous* reasons why I believe that Jesus is the ONLY Messiah and son of God. And the pain and suffering in the world actually help support my belief in Jesus and in the validity/truth of the Bible.
Again, this isn't why someone should choose to believe, but it's an interesting point that Atheism is a total lose-lose faith because no matter if you're right or wrong you lose on both counts! If you're right, then there's no God and no hope. If you're wrong and there is a God as defined in the Bible, then the lose is worse than can be imagined.
Why would any rational human being choose to believe something that's a lose-lose??
I guess that, if you are invested in believing in Christ beforehand, anything could serve as a reason for believing in him, even something as terrible as all the pain and suffering in the world.
Atheism is not a "lose-lose" situation. If we are right, then we lived our lives to their fullest in intellectual honesty, without the fear of some tyrant getting their hands on us after we die, and without having taken some stupid stand against the validity of sound science, or basic human rights. If we are wrong, then any of the thousands of gods could be waiting for us after we die, and the odds are that you will get it worse for believing in a false god. If you're happens to be the correct god waiting in the afterlife, then he's still a tyrant for wanting to punish us for thought crimes, and never deserved our worship in the first place. Choosing to serve the tyrant your whole lives just to weasel out of his unjust tortures is just cowardly, and why would any freedom-loving person with an ounce of integrity wish to follow that example?
Pascals wager is the worst reason ever to believe, and is false belief.
Zeitgeist the movie.
Gimme a break...
Read up on the objections to the movie and how the movie is flawed. Simply because you saw the movie, doesn't mean it's true. It's rather flawed.
How much blood has been spilled in the name of Christianity? Muslims and Christians are no different.
You'll want to read up and see that millions more people have been murdered by atheist than Muslims and Christians, combined.
Yours is a common lie and the facts are different.
Many people have been killed in the name of various religions.
When you make the claim like that of atheists, the onus is on you to show that atheism was the REASON behind what happened, and the link is not there in most instances.
People will put up names like Stalin and Pol Pot, but what they did was politically motivated, and to gain more control of the populous..
You will find there are very very few instances where an atheist killed BECAUSE of someones beliefs.
At one time or another we have all been persecuted. Christian, Jew or Muslim- Black or White- Asian or Hispanic.
You would think we would have learned something over thousands of years.
As the world gets smaller perhaps we will
any religion that advocates slavery should be persecuted.
So all of them then? Oh, don't forget about the religion of atheism too!
What all religions do in general and what Christianity does to perfection is to keep people ignorant, keep people scared (after death punishments) and keep them brainwashed (Virgin birth, resurrection etc).
All these factors were instrumental in Bush-Cheney selling their Iraq war..Christian people have a natural propensity to fear the unknown and easily believe in things without any proof.
The ironic part of the "Christians being persecuted by evil" argument is that the Evangelical's that often make this claim are some of the most wicked and vile people that walk the face of the earth. Then again doesn't the bible warn of this. You have to love self fulfilling prophesies.
Everyone – make sure you sin today, so he didn't die for nothing.
I can't sin...sin is a construct of religion, and since all religions are false, it is not possible to sin.
@Richard – good post !
Come to Islam .... Forget Christianity!
Now what would make me trade my fairytale for your fairytale?
You want people to drop their belief in their zombie lord in favor of following a deranged pedophile.....wow that would be so much better...(not)
Come to Chritianity... you will love it...!!!
Is-lam(e). HaHA! Pretty sure I'm the first in the world to notice that...
you really have to laugh at any doctrine offering martyrs some number of virgins in heaven. talk about pandering to the most narcissistic human traits.
East Hinduism is best, west Christianity is best
CNN, the Communist News Network. Once they destroy religion and ethical behavior, it's easier to take over the population. We're watching the Progressive/Marxist model being jammed down the American's throats. It's time to revolt, take direction action against these people, get in their face, call them out, expose their lies and real agendas. Their attempts to destroy our society will not be tolerated.
lol. thanks for the laugh.
Uh – how does discussing historical fact manage to do any of that?
Next time, try actually reading the article instead of letting your knee start jerking uncontrollably.
eat the barrel of yur shotgun
Blah blah and more blah. Run along now troll.
Bubba, you need to work on your plural possessives.
Bubba you're so cute!! I want to squeeze those fat cheeks!
Ahahaha! Yah, and what are you going to do about it, bubba? Type a call to action on an anonymous blog no one even reads?
Destroy religion and ethical behavior?
Religion has little to do with ethics...for example...is it right for you to allow someone else to accept your just punishment...of course not, we do not allow that in our legal system, because it is not ethical.....but your religion is based on that one unethical behavior.
Do to try to preach ethics from a religious standpoint, the two are most often diametrically opposed.
what happened to my not?
Do NOT try...etc.
I will bet my life you have never read Marx, such is the clear level of your ignorance on the topic.
But the "They" you speak of that you would revolt against is actually society at large.
"Christians stood out because they created a “miniature welfare state" to help the less fortunate, Stark says."
These are great things to do and should always be cmmended. The problem is that the religious powers in places like Saudi Arabia and the United States are well aware of the power of being the providors of welfare (charity) and fight tooth and nail to monopolize that right and to keep people dependent on their own services.
Got an example? Maybe you tried to give $5 to some beggar at a freeway exist and the police stopped you? I think you are making this up.
cjacja, You completely misread what I wrote. I was talking about the Churches working to prevent charity by the state.
CNN Hits 20-Year Monthly Rating Low In May
By DOMINIC PATTEN | Wednesday May 30, 2012
The news just went from bad to worse at CNN. After the cable news network delivered its lowest-rated month in total viewers in over a decade in April, May became CNN’s worst month in primetime among total viewers in over 20 years. From April 30 to May 27, the cable news network attracted an average of 389,000 viewers in primetime. It was also CNN’s second-lowest-rated month in primetime among the 25-54 demographic (114,000) since October 1991.
This is 2013 buckshot. Get into the times.
@ Joe Giardina:
Paisano, CNN's image in my house just went way up with this truthful discussion.
Has anyone ever heard of Pastor Youcef Nardakhani?? Pastor Saeed Abedini??
Being a Christian means loving your persecutors just as Jesus did. In Him "We live and move and have our being." Acts 17:28
We love despite the fact that we are not loved. We are to pray for those who speak falsely against us. We are to be salt and light.
Ms. Moss is to be loved and prayed for that the false beliefs will be exposed and she will herself come to Christ in spite of herself.
Jesus didn't "love" his persecutors; there is nothing whatsoever in the bible that supports such a claim. In every single case, when confronted by them, he was, at best, simply indifferent to them.
The number one rule given by your prophet was to love your neighbors as you love yourself, so by leading in example he would love his enemies.
To most Christians, "persecution" = "You've pointed out a truth that disagrees with me beliefs."
Only pirate christians, matey.
Islam is the bestest religion. Christianity is trash.
conservatives in any religion have held back progress for millenia.
Hinduism is the bestest. We ave thousands of gods that can beat your puny god any day. Nananana.
Hinduism is the bestest? ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha thats a joke just like Christianity!
So is Mohammad now that's trash worthy of burning.
Try thinking for yourself instead of inanely quoting fairy tales.
Religion – Debating the details of nonexistent beings, and how they affect mostly mythological characters.
you have proof.
Why yes, yes I do.
Christians persecuted? Bah, Tim the Destroyer of Worlds laughs are your silly whiny narcissism. Ferretianism is the one true religion. Repent and secure your purple energy bubble! (banjoferret d c)
you should know as a devout christian
As others made note, how interesting that CNN posted this story on Easter. WOuld they have posted a story about how it was impossible for Mohammed to travel out of Mecca and proselytize the Middle East in the little time he had left during Ramadan? Certainly NOT!!
And would they publish a story about the numbers of Jews that were killed/persecuted during the Inquisition was falsely over exaggerate during Yom Kippur? It would never happen.
So why run this story on Easter? Because it demonstrates CNN anti-Christian position. And as a recovering Catholic, I see no difference from what CNN is doing here than what Stalin did in Soviet Union in the early 30s (first discredit, then harass, then persecute, then eliminate). Yeah, we all know who else did that to religious groups in history.
If you don't like the opinion article then don't answer at all. That simple clueless one.
CNN has seen the light that Islam is the bestest religion. Christianity and Judaism are funny sets of beliefs that dont work. Come to Islam!
Most media outlets are Agnostic...
Funny, the article mentioned a thing or two about Christians whining over some false sense of persecution whenever someone disagrees with them
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.