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.
"According to a belief passed down through the centuries, the church grew because of Roman persecution." < This is sickening as a Christian. From a more stoic and historical perception this is also flawed to a marketing technique at best. Although I am sure it is factual and cited it leaves out a lot. What about the 'Holy Roman Empire'? The rewritings that could (the writings and books of the bible), in context, leave different perceptions after the incorporation of Christianity starting with Roman Emperor 'Constatine I' through every emperor till Martin Luther. I will a Latin phrase I think would be appropriate… fallax pictum plena cognitio et pauper in ethicis!
Jewish people will like this story, because they feel that they have a corner on the market of real persecution. "You want persecution? I got your persecution! How about the Holocost! How about the Pogroms!"
The Coptic Christians in the Arabic countries who are being murdered and driven out by Muslims? Pure fantasy? It is hilarious to me that this writer is stating things from 20 centuries ago as if she now magically knows what the truth is. And only occasionally does it say "...some historians now believe.."
The author of the story wastes little time putting her leftist political spin on it, flogging Romney and Santorum for talking about the "War On Religion" in this country as just another made up persecution of Christians. What that gratuitous shot at the Republicans has to do with her premise is not a mystery if you check out her leftist political views.
The key point: Moss wants to have us see a difference between persecution ond prosecution. Namely, Christians were actually killed and imprisoned and tortured because they broke the laws of the land. Breaking the law is prosecution not persecution so it is a myth that Christians were persecuted. DUMB!
And the purpose of the book is.... to take those smug, self righteous Christians down a peg or two. That will make for a fine epitaph, Ms. Moss.
well i would not say that we have a corner on the market, but we do account for a significant amount of the market share. we are the comcast of persecution victims.
"According to a belief passed down through the centuries, the church grew because of Roman persecution. "
Right. People flocked to the church so they could be eaten alive by lions. :-) People that write about religion should at least give the matter some thought. It is indeed a great question. How did we end up with billions of Christians when in the beginning people were tortured and executed for simply being Christians? One should examine the evidence and see if the resurrection account is believable. Romans were pretty efficient at crucifixion and guarding things. Are we to believe a man that was flogged to near death & crucified could roll back a stone weighing tons, overtake 16 roman soldiers and walk out? You either believe it happened or you don't.
I bet Schwarzeneggar could have done that back in the day
i have actually never heard anyone say that "the church grew because of Roman persecution". most people i know believe that it spread simply because people enjoyed the message, their numbers grew, then it was adopted as the official religion of the romans, etc. maybe it's an evangelical thing. or maybe it's a CNN writer needs a story to meet a deadline thing.
God created everything. That shows that God did not create Christianity and the Bible and all the other religions which are tremendously flawed and filled with intercession to humans and other idols which is no way God would allow.
wow.....a whole bunch of speculation
"Cease from anger, and forsake wrath: fret not thyself in any wise to do evil."
"For yet a little while, and the wicked shall not be: yea, they shalt diligently consider his place,
and it shall not be."
"But the meek shall inherit the earth, and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace."
Jesus is Lord. The Catholic Faith is True.
Period. Debate over.
wait...the faith is true?
Don't you mean the religious dogma is true? (which it isn't, read the bible and you should see the myriad of flaws)
Faith isn't true, ever...once you know something as fact, you no longer need faith, so how can faith be true?...it cannot
it is true for those who believe it. whether it is objectively correct is another issue
Look people. John won. The debate is over. He said it clearly in his post. Jesus is lord and catholics rule. Give it up already.
Moss - Gifted novelist.
Oh that is classic!
Holy crap. You actually posted something from Kirk Cameron and his nutbag religious buddies. rofl. Nice job making yourself and your friends look actually crazy. KC is nuts.
This is a classic piece of extreme Christian stupidity. I've seen it before and can't believe it's for real, but it indeed is. Just a small bit of investigation will tell you the bananna of today EVOLVED as a result of human cultivation over thousands of years. The bananna started out as almost unedible and looked nothing like the bananna with the "handle". Lol...Christians can be so ridiculous.
why are all of you spending easter on CNN dot com behaving like angry 15-year-olds who just discovered richard dawkins? don't any of you have families or friends to spend even the secular part of the holiday with? or are you all jews like me?
And you're here...why?
i have 6 cousins
why not? not like i'm doing anything else. everything is closed and even participating in an easter egg hunt is enough to get your jew card revoked. oy!
I'm at work, and its dead dead dead today so I have nothing to do. Since my boss is my husband, he does care that I'm sitting on the computer bickering with children.
doesn't care I mean
I'm just bored. Just a bored atheist, poking at silly believers.
A) Some of us work on sunday, so it is just another day...also dead slow today.
B) even if I was off, I would not celebrate a religious holiday as I do not subscribe to the religion, especially one that steals its major holidays from other religions.
"Jew card revoked". LOL!
Just passing the time for a while, that's all.
If your religion starts with a ghost knocking up a bronze age virgin to create a man-god zombie, well let's just say it's entertainment and leave it at that.
2 AD was significantly post-bronze-age, mate. like... 1000+ years post-bronze-age.
never see you laughin homes
Ah, but I was referring to Sumerian mythology, what were your referring to?
might wanna refresh your readings, frank. no virgins in sumerian mythology. they were all about the nookie, alas.
ask dm murdock
On Easter, you had to post this, right! CNN is a pack of gutless lemmings following the empty, self-important philosophies of Ted Turner and Jane Fonda. Smearing anything smacking of American historical culture, law, or religion, they are the "forever young angry radicals"! Yeah, Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper are genuine revolutionary "heroes", regular Che Gueveras – with millions! They'll smear and put down Christians while talking up the Taliban and treading softly on the Iranians and North Koreans. Such courage! That's why CNN is the lowest rated cable "news" network – consistently. Hire Kim Khardasian and Lindsey Lohan as your anchors to increase ratings! They reflect your values!
I was posted yesterday you christard fool.
It came out yesterday! You READ it today! There is a difference! Love your punctuation!
Derp, it didn't go top of page until today. I'm really sorry for whatever has you so angry with life.
Who says I'm angry?
I take great enjoyment in making light of idiots.
Religious people make it very easy, and fun.
Trust me, there is not an angry bone in my body,
The argument is interesting, but she is stunning. I can see why John Blake included a picture. She should be a model.
Regardles of what you believe or think or whatever. Everyone will eventually find out in the end wont they so laugh it up now.
Actually you find nothing in the end. It's over with. Nothing there. Dead.
everyone will find out in the end?
not necessarily...we could just cease to exist
JC's family and friends had it right 2000 years ago ( Mark 3: 21 "And when his friends heard of it, they went out to lay hold on him: for they said, He is beside himself.")
Said passage is one of the few judged to be authentic by most contemporary NT scholars. e.g. See Professor Ludemann's conclusion in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years, p. 24 and p. 694.
Actually, Jesus was a bit "touched". After all he thought he spoke to Satan, thought he changed water into wine, thought he raised Lazarus from the dead etc. In today's world, said Jesus would be declared legally insane.
Or did P, M, M, L and J simply make him into a first century magic-man via their epistles and gospels of semi-fiction? Most contemporary NT experts after thorough analyses of all the scriptures go with the latter magic-man conclusion with J's gospel being mostly fiction.
Obviously, today's followers of Paul et al's "magic-man" are also a bit on the odd side believing in all the Christian mumbo jumbo about bodies resurrecting, and exorcisms, and miracles, and "magic-man atonement, and infallible, old, European/Utah white men, and 24/7 body/blood sacrifices followed by consumption of said sacrifices. Yummy!!!!
So why do we really care what a first century CE, illiterate, long-dead, preacher/magic man would do or say?
Persecution comes in many forms but even today people are reviled and even killed for being a christian.
"even today people are reviled and even killed for being a Christian"
You have to start somewhere
Today, people are reviled and killed for walking down the street. Whats your point?
or for being gay, white , black, christian, atheist, muslim, serbian, jewish, female, etc.etc. etc. etc.etc.etc.etc.
Guy in Iran jailed and tortured right now for being christians. Take off the blinders
Sounds like you're the one that needs to take off their blinders. Being christian and getting killed does NOT make you special. No, not even being killed for being christian. It happens every single day for any reason under the sun that human beings can think up to every single person and type of people on the planet. I agree, it shouldn't happen, but human beings are naturally horrible to each other.
Yes, Christians are being persecuted in the ME, Africa and Asia.
Not here in America, where the word "persecution" is used in a grossly inappropriate way that undermines what those christians actually being persecuted are going through, strikeit; which was one point of the article.
Denying what RC said is happening to some of our citizens here in the US indicates to me that you need to take your own blinders off.
People are reviled and even killed for being: jewish, black, hispanic, gay, women, muslim, shiite, sunni, bhuddists, sikh, atheist, member of a political party and on and on. Christians like to feel persecuted because it makes them feel special, with conviction to something others "just don't get." In a word: Superior.
In the beginning Man was naked and was not ashamed... But he was dang cold at night and his willy got sunburned during the day so he learned to cloth himself and that that's how we came to know GAP and Old Navy!
Thanks. I'm having wabbit stew.
We are all dirty little selfish creatures. Just read most of the comments on this article. Just look at the world around us. Our faith; not religion, is what gives substance to the things we hope for. It is not my responsibility or privilege to pass judgment on anyone for what they believe, only to see how I can be useful to them. This is the main theme of Jesus message and is something that our world would benefit from. By casting good/bad, right/wrong personal judgment on others, we separate ourselves from them and this is ubiquitous on our planet; a major reason why there are so many violent conflicts world wide. Personally, I embrace and strongly believe in Jesus. It is through His teachings that I can be content with my life and how I can work with all the negativity in this world. All the stories and interpretations of them pale in the light of the thematic message of Christ. Have a Happy Easter!
For most people it's family that is most important, not faith or some religion.
@ JJ.....for those who have loving families, I concur. For some (like me), families might not be a positive force only a biological origin. Also, faith can be held in many contexts, but for the purpose of this article, some can't see the forest for the trees. Thanks for the thoughtful and considerate response.
Happy Easter all. May your dinner be yummy.
Mmm. Bunnies – get in my belly!
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.