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.
Paul Davies (British astrophysicist): "There is for me powerful evidence that there is something going on behind it all....It seems as though somebody has fine-tuned nature’s numbers to make the Universe....The impression of design is overwhelming."
Design? Galaxies smashing into each other? Stars going Nova and destroying planetary systems. On a much smaller scale, only a tiny portion of the Earth is habitable. Crappy design.
So you post a bunch of opinions of other men...still lends no credibility to the theory of god.
No, it's not. If you look at what is considered design, nature looks distinctly (especially life) like a patchwork of trial and error with many of the errors being carried forward in the "design". If it is design, it sucks monkeys.
Ah, and underwear presumes to know what a good design for the universe is? Please enlighten us.
Design? Really. What about the appendix? Or wisdom teeth? And you know, putting the tes tic als on the outside kinda seems like a bad idea.
Actually that keeps sperm cool, but you don't have them and wouldn't know. Why do atheists think they jnow better than God? They only know what science tells them, and that's not much.
End Atheism, yes I know that. But if it was intelligent design, then why would they even need to be kept cool? I went to college for biology, I know exactly what it is and does.
And you think you have one? Quoting one scientist who thinks there's such a thing as "fine tuning" is meaningless. Quoting 59 others who agree doesn't make "fine tuning" a fact.
End, why do you imagine that sperm are kept cool? It's because all the organisms that had no mechanism for keeping sperm cool DIED OUT. That's what evolution does.
Alexander Polyakov (Soviet mathematician): "We know that nature is described by the best of all possible mathematics because God created it."
"Santa Claus is real" – most kids under 6
Therefore, he must be real.
I will believe in the easter bunny before I would any Roman myth god.. AKA bejeeebus.
That's because you're a moron.
I think it's good for CNN to continually mock Christians. CNN is a true hero.
Ancient Christian so-called persecution at the hands of Romans is also used today as an excuse to persecute others who don't adhere to their beliefs, even by violent means. They feel justified, even feel it's "payback" for some alleged persecution they think they endured because of their faith.
That's the biggest bunch of hooie I've ever read. Now get back to your corner and resume your rocking.
read Caesar's Messiah by Joseph Atwill and learn the real history of your Roman mythic joke book.. AKA bible.
Atwill probably doesn't even believe what he wrote. Certainly most scholars do not. Why are you so gullible? Well, that's atheism, anything you can latch onto...
it was the Flavians who did not believe in their myth.. because they knew it was really a joke.
there is no one more gullible than those that believe in the supernatural
Judaism was a faith for the chosen people, and joining was difficult. It's success lies in the innovation of the written tradition. Christianity accepts all and encourages proselytization. The innovation that drove Christianity was inclusiveness, and it's success is the combination of inclusiveness and written tradition.
and that burning at the stake and other gods tools to weed out the intellectuals also worked pretty we;; at convincing people to accept the myth..
history note: Jews were not allowed in the UK for a very long time, look up Dark Lady Players to learn who was the true author of Shakespeare's works...
Does the author think that Christians have a martyr complex in Saudi Arabia? How about Iran? How about Libya? If someone converts in these (and dozens of other countries) the price is often imprisonment and even death.
This is the type of persecution that is REALLY persecution, not the whiny Rick Santorum misuse of the word.
OK, this is supposed to be news? It's in Gibbon's "Decline and Fall" clearly and convincingly, so it's been well know for more than 200 years that persecution was quite limited. You can get to be a Professor at Notre Dame writing this drivel, really?
She can write this drivel and get away with it because John Blake looked at her picture and said Wow! She's got great...credentials.
You don't know a lot of Christians do you? They still take pride in those persecutions and frequently bring it up. This article will get under their skin because they love to base their religion on the mistruths built around it. They hate it when real facts shines a light on the churches false teachings.
It is no longer enough that we pray that God may be with us on our side. We must learn again that we may be on God's side.
— Wernher von Braun (chief architect of the Apollo Saturn V rocket that successfully made it to the moon and back)
Do you ever think for yourself, or just align with whatever/whomever you think knows more than you do?
MagicPanties, Yes I think for myself. I think that heaven, hell, Jesus, and Satan all exist.
@ the good doctor. You're certainly ent-itled to believe all of that. Just curious. Why do you believe what you do? Serious question.
Read Caesar's Messiah by Joseph Atwill so you will "know" the truth of your chosen myth.
"Science brings men nearer to God." - Louis Pasteur (French microbiologist, chemist, pioneer of the "Germ theory of disease", and inventor of the process of Pasteurization.)
"god is a load of crap" – Einstein. I win.
We always, always count on CNN to mock Christians. I love CNN for this. hahahahhaha.
Christians, and their dellusional brainwashed ritualistc beliefs are so easy to mock.......though I admit, the softer side of me feels it is painful to watch them struggle to justify thier beliefs in sky faeries and myths.
Today we celebrate the Easter Bunny dying for our sins, and with a wiggle of his nose banishing our sins in camouflage painted eggs and hiding them so that the devil won't find them. Then in his long-eared grace he breaks into our homes and blesses us with delicious chocolates and also peeps, whose marshmallowy goodness sustains us
Eggs were part of the traditional Seder. The hiding and then removal of yeast was also. The idea of bunnies stems from pagan myths combined with the new hope or fertile hopes that occurred with the Seder and God's salvation to the Jews from Egypt and later to Christians through Christ.
But no matter what the commercialized idea of Easter is, to Christians it is still regarded as a holy day to remember the salvation God extends to all who believe in and accept Him.
Allah will have his revenge upon the Christian oppressors .
Looking forward to the fight, as*hat.
"The rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God" – John F Kennedy
I'm gonna bang Marilyn til neither of us can walk – John F Kennedy
he banged a lot more than just Marylin...
watrch the atheists scatter
on your mark
how did the new testament arrive on the scene?
Some old dudes adapted it from previous myth-stories, between sessions of sheep-shagging?
The NT? You mean that plagiarized retelling of Joseph from the Old Testament, which along with the story of Moses and creation and just about everything else in both books were lifted directly from Egyptian and Sumerian mythology, that New Testament?
It was compiled over hundreds of years after the supposed death and resurrection of Jesus by various religious authorities, translated, retranslated, revised and modified thereafter on an ongoing basis.
Being a human-written compilation of stories, this is not in the least surprising.
The Catholic Church cherry picked whatever BS was laying around, written generations after the time of the supposed Christ and stuffed it into a book with contradictions on every page. How's that?
its a political tool created by the Roman Flavian family..read Cease's Messiah
“God existed before there were human beings on Earth, He holds the entire world, believers and non-believers, in His omnipotent hand for eternity." - Max Planck (Founder of Quantum Mechanics)
"I have a fundamental belief in the Bible as the Word of God, written by those who were inspired. I study the Bible daily."– Issac Newton
"I believe in unicorns" – MagicPanties
Therefore, you should too.
"If I am capable of grasping God objectively, I do not believe, but precisely because I cannot do this I must believe." – Soren Kierkegaard
The one true goddess.. IPU.. Invisible Pink Unicorn..
So, the front page Easter message is, "Christians weren't really persecuted as much as we thought," and "modern Christians use the concept of martyrdom as a crutch?" Awesome. I can't wait to see an equally dismissive article on Ramadan.
aw, did Fred get is wittle feellings hurt?
When a religion ceases to have any direct legal authority over its members of society, then isn't it really just a philosophy at the point? So quoting the Bible or Jesus is no more valid than quoting say Shakespeare or Voltaire. But Islamic countries that practice Sharia Law, they actually have TRUE religious legal authority, wouldn't Islam be the only one true religion left on earth?
Which is why Islam is frightening, and which is why atheists continue to fight organized religion in this country, so that it doesn't regain the grip it used to have.
Atheists don't fight mythology.. it just fun to bl0w holes in it on a easter Sunday. afternoon.
All hail the goddess Eastre !
(look it up)
And Happy Day of the Walking Dead to all of our zombie worshiping freaks!
I don't have to look it up. I know what the word Easter stands for. I also know there is a lot more to the traditions of Easter that are based on the Seder then you probably realize. Regardless of some pagan uses in the past, Easter today is the day to remember and be thankful for a God who sent is only begotten son, who was without transgression, to die for our sins and then be raised from the dead that all who believe in Him may have eternal life.
those who do not know mythology and how it was created.. are the ones who believe in it..
I tell the truth. I have always been one to try to watch all the various cable news networks. MSNBC lost me last year with their continued one-sided hatred (and it is hate). Fox as all but lost me from its pitiful performance of covering the Joplin Tornado and its biased opinions. Now CNN can be effectively removed from my list of channels to view.
Very Poor Taste CNN. Very sad.
don't let the door....
Prayer changes things ,
my invisible pink unicorn is praying that you get a clue
The only prayer available to you is the sinners sincere prayer of repentance, without turning from your filth you have nothing not even your pink unicorn.
My invisible purple dodo bird is praying that you know the difference between a period and a comma.
(No. The dodo bird is not you.)
hmm...is there a couple-thousand year old book proclaiming the IPU? Does the IPU have a standard of morality for all atheists to follow? What a gullible weak-minded lot atheists are. They're so deluded they actually think they smart.
well I have to agree.. on that.. it puts gazillions of tax free income into the pockets, hidden bank accounts and the purchase of luxury trinkets into the control of the myth salesmen....
IPU is real... she has her royal place in the christian bible too.
God has "the strength of a unicorn." Oh heck, I bet he's even stronger than a unicorn. Numbers 23 23:22, 24:8
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.