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.
An appropriate day for a favorite blog quote:
"Religion is for the ignorant, the gullible, the cowardly, and the stupid, and for those who would profit from them."
If you want to worship a zombie, hey, have fun with that!
Non-Christians will b.urn in hellfire
Your "loving" god threatening torture again. How pleasant.
Thanks for the heads up.
God Bless all Christians
If there was no power in the word of God you wouldn't have anyone trying to debunk it! How many posting on debunking Buda do you see? I bet before the month is out you see more post like this, they all come to nothing, people like this are nothing here today gone tomorrow. Wasn't long ago there was some nut wrote a book call the God Delusion millions ran out and bought it look how many copy's of that book sold today. It to came to nothing!
If the world hates you, know that it hated me before it hated you.
Jesus was the original hipster. He was totally hated before it was cool.
John was an obnoxious nincompoop too?
Psalm 137:9 – Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.
I hate it when furballs stick in my craw. But my cat hoard is vast and sometimes needs culling.
I've added 'Ph.D.' to my name, as someone else used it, and I think it adds a level of credibility.
I was born with it. Elmer PhuD.
Cats can be Phud too. In a manner of digesting.
I saw the Easter Bunny this morning, so he must be real, don't you think? Just like me!
I dreamt of a satanic demon-bunny last night, and this morning I found a dead bunny smooshed onto my radiator. God is talking to me again, for how else could I know that there would be a dead demon-bunny on my car? Truly it must be God talking to me, for last night was a total black-out for me, like the night of the squish-kitty dream.
Ms. Moss' time could be better spent finding some moral compass for her own life and ALLOWING others to determine theirs. I am not a Christian, am not a devotee of any religion, but I do believe in God, and beyond that believe in everyone's right to believe what they will, as long as they are not hurting anyone else. Ms. Moss would be wise to do the same. Who is she to determine what part of a person's religion they ought to believe or not?
Your time would be better not spent here.
CNN promotes a story on Easter that Christian persecution is a lie. It is akin to Foxnews promoting a story on the Holoclaust anniversary and that the jewish persecution was a lie. Years and years ago I really respected CNN. Not anymore. F you CNN.
"CNN promotes a story on Easter that Christian persecution is a lie."
Really? Where? I thought you might be referring to the article just above, but I can't find anything at all in it that makes such a claim. So please provide a link to the article you're talking about.
All religion is time that could be better spent dealing with reality instead.
CNN posted an article yesterday, you read it today.
Simmer down, now, Tom.
Easter: A day for the believers to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus and a day for the overly-threatened liberal atheists to urinate all over the festivities. In the meantime the agnostics, like myself, sit back and watch the not so civil war with amusement.
And you like peeing all over everyone. How smug your hypocrisy!
If you don't think there are conservative atheists, you'd be mistake. And you have a golden shower fetish.
The Romans were the most tolerant of other religions. They even incorporated deities from countries they conquered into their own religion. Isis (or Auset her real name) is on example. The Egyptian deity became Io in the Roman pantheon. The only reason I can come up with for any "persecution" is that the early christians brought it on themselves.
Or more to the point, it was a convenient fabrication, like quite a bit of the early Christian story.
Judy, that is really brilliant. I guess six thousand Jews brought the Holocaust on themselves by your reason of thinking or lack of reason in your case. I guess Americans brought 9/11 on themselves by your reasoning. To all you people who take such pleasure in rewriting history....when will you ever be satisfied that no one believes in anything other than their own elite status on the planet?
mcwreiole What do the Romans have to do with the Nazis? Nothing. I never mentioned the Nazis.. Your comment is irrelevant..
So true, Howard...Most of the stories in the bible about Jesus were written approx 80 years after. Most if not all of the disciples would have been dead by that time. I do think most of the persecution stories were either for sympathy or to get people to join.
anyway, back to work for me. enjoy easter, those who celebrate. enjoy sunday, those who do not. and enjoy your self-righteousness, everyone else. g'day!
I respect your beliefs, as I am no one to judge you.
The Reply button deserves your respect too.
If Christians were never really persecuted then why did Paul run around persecuting them? Are all this lies being told about how Romans put Christians on stakes and fed them to lions? Is this all a joke and a lie according to you? What is the truth and where can if be found out about how many Christians were killed and persecuted in the days of the Romans?
We are talking about huge numbers of them. Yes, they were persecuted, but it was never as bad as we thought. And Christians also drew attention to themselves by being different and breaking Roman laws.
That isn't gist of the article, John. I don't think anyone really denies there were Christian martyrs.
Not even Moss denies that.
The reason atheism is a faith is because it is a belief in something that cannot be proven or disproven. In this case it a belief in a godless universe.
Incorrect assertion. You do not understand NOT believing does not require faith.
Just stop it already.
Not universally. I don't know if it's a godless universe. And so what? What is it you hope to prove? That atheists have a belief system? What if you succeed? Will you get the Nobel?
But you are not simply not believing in something. You are believing in something-that the universe has no god.
Saying that atheism is a belief is like saying that not collecting stamps is a hobby.
Saying that atheism is a belief is like saying that bald is a hair color.
Do try again, though. You're good for a laugh, barely.
Such a parlor game..... Ok if belief is the wrong word, give us the right word
The correct analogy is that you believe that since you do not have hair or have ever seen hair, you then believe that hair does not exist.
You're obviously a troll for no one's that stupid.
That is not a belief, and you are incorrect there too.
First...I do not believe there is a god, as there is no evidence anywhere that backs up the claim.
Second...you argument is similar to the fact that my neckalce is magic...it keeps away vampires...You don't see any vampires around so it must be working.
You are attemptinig to twist the argument around to try to make atheists prove a negative, and that is silly.
You claim that god exists. Prove it. I claim that I do not believe there are any gods..again, it puts the burdon on the claimant to prove the claim.
otherwise, prove that the wind is not made by invisible dragons flying around. You MUST have faith that it is not true ( you see how ridiculous that is? ( no you probably don't)
"Such a parlor game..... Ok if belief is the wrong word, give us the right word"
It's only a parlor game because you idiots are making it one. Look up the definitions of "belief" for yourself. Then answer the question: why is it SO very important to you to "prove" something about what atheists think?
You're obviously attempting to make a point but you're too much of a coward to make it straightforwardly.
False analogy. Specific claims are being made for characteristics of your god that are testable and are clearly false.
Give it another try, stupid.
In other words
Not believing does not then mean you have faith in not believing. You are attempting to twist logic, which I know, is necessary for you to have faith in things that there is no evidence for, but twisting logic is not going to advance your argument.
Jj for somebody who seems to consider himself so intelligent you have not offered one intelligent counter argument. Only insults. For a group of people who pride themselves on their logic and reason, they seem to have a very difficult time recognizing the logical consequence that a belief that there is no god is a belief in an idea that cannot be proven or disproven and is then, by definition, faith.
Edward. Have you proven the non existence of god. no you haven't .So give another try stupid
Richard. Dickie. What is your point? Neither you nor your little sock puppet seem capable of an honest answer. Why do you have such an interest in proving that atheists have a belief system? What is it you think you'll be able to do if you can prove it?
What will it achieve if you can trap an atheist into saying any such thing? It's not likely to happen, given that your debating skills are on a par with Elmer Fudd's hunting skills.
By the way, you are doing a stupendously bad job of disguising yourself. Your writing is giving you away.
"how hard would it be for you to take the higher road and say something intelligent with compassion..."
Apparently this is your first time on the internet...
I think that one problem in this view is that it puts martyrdom in contrast to the Christian way of life, as if it was the second, not the first, that allowed Christianity to flourish in those first centuries, and even throughout history. If the portrayal of Moss is accurate, what she seems to fail to do is to see the reason that the Martyrs were so significant. Why were they significant? 1) They lived the Christian way of life, even when it meant the end of their own. That is how important it was to live in charity, justice, purity, and integrity. 2) That if they have become a saints, they still continue to love others with their prayers in heaven. In turn, Catholics hold that these works of prayer in heaven have effects on earth, including helping others to find the love God has for them. He has sacrificed his Son for us. This love and then the response of human beings to it equals the growth of the Church and of Christianity. This second point is crucial and more important. Catholics hold that the growth of the faith is not only or even primarily due to reasons found on earth, but that it is due first and foremost to the action of God through the Holy Spirit, which springs from the entire Kingdom of God formed of the angels and of the saints who pray and work for God. To an informed Catholic and theologian, Christianity grew because people were willing to become martyrs to live this way of life and because those who did join and live this to the end, then joined with the chorus of heaven in bringing the love of the Holy Spirit into this world, which moves hearts and brings men, women, and children into union with Christ, which in turn brought them to follow him to the Cross out of love for their neighbor and for God.
We now know that some of these people sought martyrdom–they wanted to die for their "cause." Excellent propaganda, don't you think? We also now know that the Romans did not persecute the Christians so zealously and in such large numbers as Christianity has advertised. When Pliny wrote to Trajan asking what to do about the Christians, the emperor told Pliny to leave them alone as long as they did not break Roman laws. Trajan even expressed a dislike for persecuting them.
Sam, well, we have known that for a long time and many before us have known these things. Nothing surprising. It still does not change the meaning of martyrdom when attached to any cause. And it does not change it when it is linked with living a life of faith, hope, love, charity, purity, justice, etc. The piece was about the place of martyrdom, not merely persecution or its frequency, though this was part of the argument I suppose. The frequency simply is not so relevant.
If you are a writer, and you want to make millions of dollars, then come out with something controversial about Christianity at Easter. What better way to sell your book.
I think it is also very sad that CNN and other "news" organizations exploit any religion in the name of "the people have the right to know" so they can gain higher ratings and thus more dollars through paying sponsors.
And to all you who do not have any respect for any religion except for your own, organized or not, if you at least have respect for yourself then how hard would it be for you to take the higher road and say something intelligent with compassion...
Because, Peter, their only belief is in their (pseudo) intellect that allows them to marginalize that of which they are ignorant and that which they fear.
I think that CNN has made a wonderful contribution to mankind's progress by providing a forum for the free expression of atheists' and agnostics' views on myths, as well as the continued insistence of believers that these myths are true.
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.