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.
Professor Moss is hot.
This is a part of continuing effort from the anti Christians in CNN.. This is another effort from Satan trying to push his agenda through its people in CNN and the author like this one. But CNN was not the one to do thse things first, we have seen these kinds of efforts throughout the history from Devil... Beware of the anti Christians in CNN folks
The article says that Christianity spread through the good works of wonderful Christians who cared for those who could not care for themselves. How dare CNN post an editorial with such vile defamation!
Pretty funny if meant to be a parody, pretty scary if not.
It's great all the findamentalist types responding here is exactly the way this article would predict. Any discussion about their religion that straus from perfection is immediately defined as persecution.
'Candida Moss, a New Testament professor at the University of Notre Dame'
anti-christian satanic huh? from this religious scholar?
you know bearing false witness is a huge no-no right?
Denying Christianity is vile??? I'm an atheist and believe in equal treatment for everyone...and if your ideas/arguments don't withstand the rigor of doubt, then they are meaningless, worthless positions to maintain. I guess that means I'm going to hell. LOL
The overriding message of Jesus' parables is a universal axiom that all people probably can understand and even accept. Treat people well, don't rush to judgment, and be an all around good person. I can respect that and even agree with it. The problem with Christianity, Islam, and Judaism is not so much the message of these religions and has EVERYTHING TO DO with some of it's followership. People who think non-Christians are vile because they aim to cast doubt on your beliefs should really learn to cope with a big world out there. Grow up.
As very clearly stated in the Bible (Job, for example), SATAN can only work his evil with the PERMISSION OF and SUPERVISION of GOD. Therefore, everything Satan does has God's approval. If this were not the case, then Satan would have the powers of an independent omnipotent being, something Christian doctrine doesn't allow. So IF CNN is a "tool" of Satan, then GOD must approve So there! (cc: Ted Turner and God).
THE ANSWER , WATCH
Christians today who whine about being discriminated against and what not make me sick. Seriously. Most Christians are just like everyone else...they keep their private beliefs PRIVATE. It's the 0.001% of them who hold rallies, blow themselves up, and go on television/radio (in the case of Fox News, start their own network) who HATE the fact that there are those of us out there who do not accept the idea of God or Jesus or Allah and think it is unacceptable. I can count on 1 hand the number of Christians I have met in the last 5 years who think there is a systematic conspiracy to undermine the Bible or whatever. They're insane. The fact that most people simply ignore their concerns because they are, in fact, make believe drives them even more crazy because they want sooooo badly to be validated...but they never will be.
Oh, and to clarify, by "...them who blow themselves up..." I mean religious simpletons. Christian fundamentalists don't blow themselves up...they use social tactics to get what they want. Muslims kill themselves. But I do find it odd how the Islamists' cousins, the Bible-thumpers, love to talk about how great heaven is but none want to expedite their arrival there. Makes you wonder.
More nonsense to try to sell books. They apparently dismiss the persecution carried out by Saul of Tarsus, the martyrdom of 11 of the 12 apostles, and the Christian graffiti in the catacombs under Rome.
These authors should check the website of Voice of the Martyrs if they don't think Christians are being persecuted today–along with all the nasty comments that will surely appear after mine.
Yes, because we all know if its on the Internet it's true!
have you read her book?
I didn't think so.
Great. Now, all you have to do is provide some, you know, evidence of your claims.
I had no idea months or years of academic study on a subject could be replaced by visiting a BLOG. Someone should let everyone in the intellectual community that they've been wasting their time fact checking and researching.
you know simply responding to a post on a forum doesnt equal persecution right?
Nasty comments surely do not equal persecution. And I think this is the problem. Most Christians think that if someone disagrees with them then they are persecuted. That is silly and not the case. This is the exercise of free speech, not persecution. LGBT in the US are persecuted, most often by the same Christians who say they are. You know, since they are legally denied rights that Christians enjoy. It's quite sad really.
Being persecuted rarely leads to a growing organization. The inclusiveness built a base, but what made the Church was Constantine the Great's reunification of the Roman Empire and wresting control from the Roman Mob, the Senate, and the Pagan Priests by moving the capital to Byzantium (renamed Constantinopolis [Constantinople] and later Istanbul) and by replacing the ancient Roman Gods with Christianity. He had -or invented- the dream where he saw the Christian Cross in the sky and heard the words "By this sign you will conquer," had his soldiers draw the cross on their shields, and won the last battle needed to become sole emperor (the empire had been divided into three parts to facilitate governing). This brilliant stroke gave him enough power to counter the priests of Jupiter, etc. Constantine convened the councils that led to a standardized Church with standardized Gospels, Epistles, etc. But, though Constantine's mother Helena was a Christian he NEVER became a Christian, though it's alleged he was baptized on his deathbed. As many politicians since Constantine learned, you can use religion – be it Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, etc.- to influence and control people.
This is a disappointing choice by CNN for Easter. It is designed to be controversial and offensive.
I am not saying that academics shouldn't have this discussion, or that it shouldn't be reported upon, but to run this as your too story when it is clearly not a consensus view is little more than internet trolling.
Try reading the article instead of just looking at the pictures. There's nothing offensive here.
Posting an article on persecution of Christians on a day when people are thinking about persecution of an early Christian. Yeah, that's just crazy stuff.
If you're offended you might want to try Islam where you can whine about even a picture of your prophet and all your buddies will pat you on the back.
Saraswati, this could have been run next week or last week. They chose Easter Sunday because they knew Christians would find it annoying and respond.
And for the record, I am not a Conservative or a practicing Christian. This is not about my personal belief. It is about sensationalistic journalism.
Soon after gaining DOMINANT status in the Roman Empire, the CHRISTIANS began PERSECUTING their rival religions and putting them to death for HERESY. Fortunately, after 300 years of brave efforts by LIBERAL CHURCH LEADERS, SKEPTICS, and NON-BELIEVERS, we no longer have to fear being hauled down into the BISHOP'S PRISON and whipped for 1) not attending church 2) refusing to pay the church tax 3) refusing to believe in fairy tales. The EVANGELICALS & FUNDAMENTALISTS would love to get the power back to punish us for refusing to believe in magic spirits and gods who live in the sky.
Thanks. I was just typing the same thing but you said it much more eloquently than I.
It looks like one of the major underlying points of this article is to hock someone's book. "Jesus Was a Badass!" would be a subject much more interesting, festive, historically accurate, and true to the Christian bible. Then again, in a time when political right wingers are erroneously viewed as synonymous with Christianity, I guess the choice makes cents.
Godlessness in the Last Days
2Ti 3:1 But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days.
2Ti 3:2 People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy,
2Ti 3:3 without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good,
2Ti 3:4 treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God—
2Ti 3:5 having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them.
2Ti 3:6 They are the kind who worm their way into homes and gain control over weak-willed women, who are loaded down with sins and are swayed by all kinds of evil desires,
2Ti 3:7 always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth.
People have been saying the last day was tomorrow for some 2000 years . We are still here !
too funny, quoting scripture proves your laziness to think for yourself.
Humanity is killing itself off but that could take 1000's of more years. You'd think if your imaginary friend gave a damn, it would make an appearance, stop being so cowardly and fix 'its' creation but nope, instead it remains as evasive as it has for the last 2000 years.
Typical leftist trash on CNN. No wonder Fox News continues to stomp you in the ratings
But CNN's CEO said it's not a liberal network.
How do you know what Dr. Moss' political affiliation is?
Well, Fox IS known for lies, so I suppose that whatever the people choose to swallow will win the day.
Then you'd best get off here and limit yourself to Fox, AA.
Fine, go comment at the Fox News site.
Or...they shut it down didn't they? Apparently all that open communication collided with their propaganda message of the day.
Two things to do a search of is THE HUMAN MAMMAL and THE SPRING EQUINOX . They both are very real . The Christian bile was written 300 years after Jesus , in Greek . Jesus too would have not been a white man since where he came from was the continent of Asia at Asia minor ! Syria is there too !
I will go to hell, with Gandhi, with many other wonderful people who read the "wrong" book.
Eternal damnation doesn't seem that bad. At least I will suffer alongside good company.
Gandhi recognized that most Christians weren't behaving like the Christ they purported to be following (as he took on the British Empire, a so-called Christian nation that was persecuting his nation, Africa, etc.).
This editorial is highly insulting on Christianity's holiest day. I do not argue for censorship and would defend CNN's "right" to publish this at any time throughout the year. However, to publish it on Easter is nevertheless impolitic and demeaning. CNN would never publish an article like this against Islam during Ramadan or against the Jewish faith during Hanukkah.
CNN certainly may publish this, but the fact they did disgusts me. Shame.
The article just says that Christianity spread through the good works of wonderful Christians. How dare they!
And he pulls out the martyr card immediately....
A cheep shot to be sure. It kind of makes me wish I had gone to church with my mom this morning.
There's nothing insulting here.
Nice of you ro immediately reach for the whole persecution thing, though. Thanks for proving the author's point.
They should probably change the headline, because there are too many "persecuted" Christians getting all persecutie and can't be bothered to read the article.
Hope was what Christianity had to offer and that is why it grew; Jesus and his Apostles lived no better if not worst off than the rest of the 99% of the people in the Empire, people could relate to this from there own day to day existence; Martydom in public executions particularly if the victim stood to there faith also caused Christianity to grow.
"For some reason, there’s this animosity against them.”
Uh, yeah; maybe the fact that many Christians are hell bent on forcing their beliefs and laws on everyone else has alot to do with it...? The fact that they can't or won't mind their own businesses and let individuals decide for themselves what's best for them? They're no different from muslims out to convert everybody.
In the picture, it looks like Bart or Homer Simpson looking over the little castle-like structure.
My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a
fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded
by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and
summoned men to fight against them and who, God’s truth! was greatest
not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian
and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord
at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the
Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was his fight
against the Jewish poison. Today, after two thousand years, with
deepest emotion I recognize more profoundly than ever before the fact
that it was for this that He had to shed his blood upon the Cross. As
a Christian I have no duty to allow myself to be cheated, but I have
the duty to be a fighter for truth and justice… And if there is
anything which could demonstrate that we are acting rightly, it is
the distress that daily grows. For as a Christian I have also a duty
to my own people. And when I look on my people I see them work and
work and toil and labor, and at the end of the week they have only
for their wages wretchedness and misery. When I go out in the morning
and see these men standing in their queues and look into their
pinched faces, then I believe I would be no Christian.
Too bad this article is wrought with political error. Just because Mitt Romney is Republican doesn't make him Christian. He's Mormon! Foolish article trying simply to ruin the amazing day of Christ's Rising. He rose for all of you too, CNN. Happy Easter!
Correct me if I'm wrong here, but don't Mormons follow the same bible the rest of you christards do? The just have one extra book.
"Just because . . . . doesn't make him Christian."
This is actually what Christians do best.
You must forgive me. I'm not very bright. Matter of fact, I'm quite an idiot.
Notice second Pablo is not a hyperlink – fake name-stealer.
The really scary thing is, if your foolish enough to believe any human being woke from the dead and floated away to some fairytale heaven your naive enough to be persuaded into believing almost anything, which can be extremely dangerous.
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.