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.
People today have the belief that their respective choices are better than the other. Religion is also one's choice. Persecution is a subject to be studied. Many people are killed today in the name of religion. 'Scholars and professors' need to travel around the world to really study how people are maimed and/or killed in the name of religion. 'Live and let live'.
Yes, people are killed and tortured in the name of religion. Sadly, that's not what US Christians are referring to when they say they are persecuted. What they mean is that we won't let them use tax dollars to teach about Adam and Eve is state run schools...such is their utter lack of perspective on the realities of the world.
When I think of victims, Christians are the first people that pop into my mind... NOT !
When I think of victims, I think of the people that are the victims of their own decision not follow Jesus Christ that will be in hell for all eternity.
@Christian7 – I will walk in proudly! At least I didn't drown little babies in a Great Flood. I'd rather burn for being a non-believer, than spend eternity with a baby killer.
Why don't you use the same name you've had in the past, Christian7? Why the need to change monikers every day you're here? Or is it every hour?
How ironic? CNN attacks Christians on their holy Easter Sunday and then questions if they are persecuted.
It's only a matter of time before they disappear.
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.
agreed. And the liberals lack of understanding and tolerance are appalling
McLovin, that would be the rethugs, honey. Not the liberals. Liberals don't care what your religion is so long as you butt out of everyone elses lives.
Wow, Joe, a year old story about mainstream media losing its market share in the face of growing internet news options. Pure genius; you must be the first person who ever noticed this trend!
Holy is a another false premise.
"CNN’s second-lowest-rated month in primetime among the 25-54 demographic (114,000) since October 1991."
They are still doing better than Fox rating on March 26, 2013
Nielsen Cable Network Coverage Estimates (as of July, 2012)
CNN/HLN: 99.727 million HHs
CNBC: 97.497 million HHs
FNC: 97.981 million HHs
MSNBC: 95.526 million HHs
Fox Business: 68.407 million HHs
We know from their actions of today how Christians think they're being "persecuted" if they can't festoon their religious holiday decorations all over everybody's property and make everybody else recite Christian prayers at all public occasions or stamp their theology on our money and insert it into our pledge of allegiance. And, of course, they whine like crazy when we don't build their dogma into our laws, like the ones on abortion or gay marriage.
Yeah, that's the deal with Christians — the world's most massive persecution complex, shielding what, in all honesty, we should recognize as an inferiority complex.
I have often been interested in watching Christians say they are under attack as a cover for attacking others. It is no surprise the Republican party has adopted the same techniques over the past decade.
Arrggghhh! Republicans! Must... wash... away... stench. unclean!
I'm curious to know what Moss says about Pliny the Younger and his discussion with Trajan regarding the persecution of Christians. This isn't some discussion regarding one or two Christians...
Pliny...AD 111...seems pretty clear.
I was wondering the same thing. She is an educator and she negates secondary sources? I think her arguement is weak from a historical perspective
*sigh* people have known for decades if not centuries at least that the numbers of Christians martyred was exaggerated. However Christians still were martyred, in public in the Roman empire in the thousands. Its a fact and the events of their martyrdom was a key part of the spread of Christianity, along with the example the early Christians lead with how how they lived. The martyrdom of the early Christians was key because it is what convinced the Roman elites, men and women who would avoid suffering at all costs, that the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ was true. When you see someone die painfully for something they believe in it is very convincing, and their is nothing that can discount that. It did not need to be tens of thousands or thousands of martyrs, but just enough for society to see it and be aware of it.
And? So were many thousands of others of other religions. That doesn't make christians special. Heck, most of the holiday christian covet so much is pagan in nature and they don't even know it.
I am merely pointing out that this "new" information has been around for 200 years and the claims that these people are making that martyrdom was somehow not important to the rise of Christianity is false. What is your point?
then when those christians gained power they took their turn at killing people that did not beleive the same way they did. Look to the trials of heretics ( other christians), the burnings at the stake of "witches"( read pagans), or the crusades.
it is a blood thirsty religion that likes to hide behind a veil of peace loving. Most (90%) of the christians i have ever met are hypocrites saying one thing and doing quite the opposite. There have been a few who are actually what they claim to be, and those few have earned my respect. They are far and few between though, and in general are not the "in" crowd in churches.
Melissa. You fail to understand that there are a lot of people who are Christian but do not adhere to many of the popular "pagan" rituals and beliefs you speak of. Christianity is something that is very personal and defined within each individual. I never have a problem with what people believe about Christianity until naysayers decide to make it their business to attach ill perceived beliefs to everyone who claims to be Christian. There are a lot of examples of people who are bad Christians. There are even more examples of people who live and breathe being good Christians. The secret is to know the difference and not to be all inclusive of the labels.
Peace Lilly, no what I understand are that christians are hypocrites. And no, it's not as personal as you make it. Because they persist in persecuting anyone that isn't christian. If they did, they would understand that others don't agree with them and learn to butt out.
But Melissa...it is YOU who is butting into a conversation about religion. So it is YOU who needs to butt out with your disbelief. This whole article is about religion and yet you read it and are shoving your lack of belief down others' throats. Isn't that what you are accusing Christians of doing? Thought so...you, too, are a hypocrite! Face it. Humans are notorious for stomping their feet to be heard but never willing to do any listening. You are wrong about who I am just like you are wrong about religion.
No, honey. You thought you were living in a nation where people aren't allowed to disagree with your beliefs, but you were mistaken.
"The martyrdom of the early Christians was key because it is what convinced the Roman elites, men and women who would avoid suffering at all costs, that the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ was true."
So you don't think it had anything to do with a belief that said 'be excellent to one another" rather than the capricious Graeco/Roman Gods?
Why would anyone want to spend eternity with something they had to be saved "from"? This god of theirs would gladly throw them into a lake of fire, for the horrible crime of "not believing something".
Here's the thing though... nowhere does it say that their god will. It says its a sin for any god to be above their god, but it doesn't address the fact that there are atheists who don't worship any god so can't be held to that. Christians just don't like to admit it. They like feeling superior.
Wow! Why is everyone so mean here? This comment section smells of hatred. I guess CNN's writers being out the worst in everyone.
Because people who comment to the articles on CNN and sound hateful get their entertainment from being hateful. They are "stoking the fire" so to speak. When I read the hatred, especially for Christians, on places like this I ask myself one question. Why do those who spout hatred in forums like this for another's opinion expect their own opinion to be taken seriously? The answer is alluded to in my first sentence but goes a bit further, I think. People who create upheaval and controversy anonymously can simply sit back and watch the fireworks and smile at their handy work. I dare say these same people are probably very different in the light of being known to others. I have never heard such controversial and hateful language in a public setting. So the answer to why so much hatred here is simply the rantings of people who are 1)ashamed for people to know what they really think when surrounded by their peers, or 2)they just want to see just how passionate and nasty people can get when provoked, i.e. entertainment.
To the Christians who are so upset this was published on Easter: you're proving her right. You have a martyrdrom complex.
And the connection to the article is???
Athy, I can guarantee you a vast majority of the comments posted here today will have nothing to do with the article. Some people will use it to comment on politics; others will simply use it to spread hate. If CNN required an intelligence test before anyone was allowed to post a comment, this forum would have a very limited number of responses.
I, for one, don't believe Christians today are persecuted but to suggest it didn't happen two thousand years ago, is naive and ludicrous.
Always amazed me the Christian god hates the exact same people Christians hate... what are the odds?
Christ came to serve, not to be served. He also said "If any man come after me, he should pick up his cross and follow me". Christians, especially the Prospertiy Gospel Christians keep forgetting that it is "not about us". Jesus said that the greatest commandment is "Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, mind, body, and soul". The second greatest commandment is "Love your neighbor as yourself".– On a lighter note my brothers and sisters in Christ should stop acting like 2 year olds whose parents are trying to take their Pixie sticks away.
"He" didn't say a damned thing. "He" is a construct based on may previous mythological figures who were "born of a virgin", "was resurrected", etc...
@xdrifter, ever seen those late night grifters selling "no evil" oil and prayer cloths? religion is a money making scheme.
not a single word supposedly uttered by the fabled jesus was written down within decades of his death, yet there are thousands of direct quotes attributed to him in the bible. all very likely complete fiction.
The societies of 2000 years ago were much more authoritarian than today. Resistance to power could be fatal. It was in this context that Christianity gradually gained strength in the loyalty of its members to an authority whose kingdom was not of this world. Jesus was asked by Pilate if he was "king of the Jews". The determination of Christians to be loyal to their Savior above all other concerns was what was responsible for the persecutions and martyrdom. Whether there were fewer martyrs than previously thought seems to me to be an irrelevant detail.
Religion is a cancer upon the planet.
Christians we're not thrown to the lions simply because lions don't eat garbage.
Actually, they were. And so were thousands of others.
Jesus is a myth- hail Enki!
If the Christians weren't persecuted, then the "Holocaust" was a hoax.
and how are the two supposed to be connected at all?
@niv, that is a fantastic leap of illogic.
@snow, Of course it is logic. The evidence indicative of persecution of the Christians is certainly as strong as the case for the Holocaust. How could one be denied while the other would cause an uproar like no other?
Is this an example of Christian logic? If so, it is no wonder why the chruches are losing members.
Let's try another one: if creationism isn't true, then science isn't true. How about if the Sun doesn't go around the Earth, then the Moon doesn't exist. Why think? Babbling like an idiot is so much easier.
Yeh, we saw how wonderful Christians were, when they stood in long lines at Chick-Fil-A to punish the gay parents of children. Gee...I felt their love that day... hypocrites.
How do you know they were Christians. ....you don't. Try growing up
"Bestest"? Learn to spell you troglodyte. Your prophet was a pedophile and a murderer. Islam is garbage.
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.