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.
It is too bad that the Romans didn't do a better job of stopping Christianity, this country would have been much better.
Yes – you're right – you would all be Muslim you historically illiterate jack***. Google "Ummayad", "Spain", and "Charlemagne". Unbelievable man
America would not exist? Being atheist AND stupid is no way to go through life, son.
We don't have a martyr complex. Now stop persecuting us with these vicious attack stories, CNN!!! Irony...delicious.
Then tell ur people to stop the persecution of those who are different than you! Until then i say " let the persecution of christians begin"
All religions are simply based on made up stories that are meant to get people to do what someone else wants them to. A means of control for the unaware masses.
I do have to agree with the idea that christians have a martyr complex. We constantly see them whining about how giving other people equal rights means taking theirs away. What I don't understand is why they feel that they need to force their religion on everyone by trying to force a theocracy on us all – cant you just practice your "faith" and leave the rest of us alone?
Whining? Oh you mean the lawsuits brought on by atheists to have the government stop allowing cross symbols and 10 Commandment writings on walls in courthouses roght?
Many christians are been killed in this days... or CNN gona say this is an exageration to..???? Viva Cristo....!!!
Care to back that up with evidence?
Meanwhile, christians in the United States are pouring funding into legislation in several African countries that seeks to make gay behavior a criminal offense, punishable by death.
You live in a house made of glass.
Red Cross: 16 killed in attack on Catholic worship service at Nigeria university
Published April 29, 2012
KANO, Nigeria – An official with the Nigerian Red Cross says at least 16 people were killed in an attack on church services at a university campus in the country's north.
Andronicus Adeyemo said there were also a number of people wounded, though the aid agency did not have an exact figure. He said officials canvassed local hospitals to get the figure.
The attack happened Sunday morning at Kano's Bayero University. Police say gunmen attacked a Catholic Mass on the campus, using small explosives to draw worshippers out before shooting those who fled.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, though it mirrored others previously claimed by a radical Islamist sect known as Boko Haram. That group carried out a coordinated assault in Kano in January that killed at least 185 people.
Do your own research, I'm sure is not dificult to find out how many Christians are killed in India, Pakistan Irak.. etc....
"irak" lol...seriously, put down the bible, open an atlas.
Religion and its Repercussions: http://www.nepalnews.com/archive/2013/others/guestcolumn/mar/guest_columns_02.php
How nice, a hit piece on Christianity greats me Easter morning morning when I check CNN for news. Thanks CNN, I now have one less bookmark in my browser. Goodby
How is this a "hit piece"? The article says nothing at all negative about christianity. Although inane comments such as yours aren't doing it any good.
CNN Hits A 20-Year Primetime Ratings Low
CNN's ratings problems just keep getting worse.
The network had its lowest-rated month in over a decade in April. That prompted stern warnings from the top that CNN has to improve its numbers.
Yet Tuesday brought the dispiriting news that CNN had its lowest-rated week in primetime in a staggering 20 years last week. Just 395,000 people tuned in to watch Anderson Cooper and Piers Morgan. The total day numbers were not much better: CNN had its third-worst week since 1997.
I was hoping on the most important Christian holy day that CNN could refrain for 1 day from leading with a story that tries to attack Chrisitianity.
I was wrong. The CNN headline implies Early Christians weren't persecuted, except perhaps 6 cases. Most of the early popes were killed.
Don't believe it's still going on?...check out sites such as Thereligionof peace. Com or..... Persecution.org.
There is no "attack on christianity" in this article.
Knee jerk much?
Correcting the historical record is no "attack" on anyone or anything. To assume so is delusional thinking, and is childish. Put more clearly, I hope: A punch in the face is an "attack." A clarification of history is not.
Prof. Candida Moss = Hottie
When the resurrected Christ is alive in any believer, he becomes a threat to the status quo be it religion, politics, or pop culture fads. As for the devil, "What's confusing you is the nature of his game!"
Bad grammatical form – is the Christ the threat, or the believer?
Oh, and by the way – WHAT???????
Wednesday, October 10, 2012
Priest asks thieves to return sacred items ahead of church reconsecration
A church in Co Louth will be reconsecrated next Sunday after a break-in last weekend.
A priest has asked thieves who stole a ciborium as well as a tabernacle, chalices and other sacred items from a church “to repent and to return what they have taken. What they have done is gravely offensive to people and to their faith.”
Fr Peter Murphy said the theft from the sacristy of the ciborium, “containing the Blessed Sacrament”, had left St Catherine’s Church “desecrated by this act of sacrilege”.
He said the church, in Ballapousta, Co Louth, must now be reconsecrated and until that happens it is closed and cannot be used by the parishioners.
The break-in occurred shortly after Fr Murphy celebrated a wedding in the church last Saturday afternoon.
Wednesday, October 12, 2012
A Catholic Priest ra-pes an alter boy repeatedly. His punishment? Being moved to another parish with no warning to the new parishioners.
A Southern Baptist calls for the killing of g-ays and qu-eers.
Thousands of children are mentally abused when told that they will burn in Hell forever if they do not love Jesus
Lenin the atheist murders millions therefore all atheists are murderers. Whoops! Jesus loves you!
This is revisionist history at its worst intended to further endear those who hate Jesus and those who follow him as part of the cause of social progressiveness. The scholars cited certainly do not reflect critical scholarship or the view of those who truly know the subject matter. Bad form.
How is it "revisionist"? I don't see anything here but widely recognized facts.
LOL "widely respected facts" – I love that so called 'questioning' 'critical' atheists like yourself are so ready to read and accept an article on CNN (of all places!) as "historically accurate". how naive can you POSSIBLY be ?!? Crash course in history – there are always academics arguing a variety of different sides in a debate. Why? Because history has less to do with what actually happened and more to do with the interpretations of modern scholars who often have predetermined ideological stances. See? it's called B-I-A-S. Didn't they teach you that in im-smarter-and-more-critical-because-im-an-atheist school ??
The entire christian history is revisionist. Constantine co-opted pagan rituals and holy dates to try and unite Rome and prevent its downfall by declaring christianity as Rome's official religion. (Obviously, that didnt turn out so well). ALL of the stories in the bible are versions of the same stories dating far earlier to pagan, ancient greek, and egyption stories. Christians are the world's greatest revisionists.
GOD has left this world! He is destroying it- because end of times are near! If you are worshiping the Christian religion-BEWARE! iI use to go to church but no more-To much pain & to much sorrow! God is angry with the world, reigning havoc on its people. NO THANKS! GOD, I Loved you but you let me & so many others down in this life.
there are no gods... that is just mythic salesmen products to keep the ignorant locked in the Age of Supernatural Stupidity.
Two posts and not able to view. I guess that means not even the moderator wants my opinion to get to those who need to hear the truth on this Easter Sunday. I tried.
Wow...I guessed wrong.
It is rather strange, You have to break up words ie. ti-tle or your post will not go through.
Thank you Automatic Filter.
I'm seeing a lot of love, acceptance, and tolerance from atheists on this discussion board. Shame on us Christians – we should be more accepting of "diversity" and be more "inclusive" like you guys (hey look!! I used the buzzwords)
Yes, yes you should be more tolerant of diversity and inclusiveness. How is that a bad thing?
Are you six years old?
Yes, yes I am. Six years old. So you're intolerant of the young as well? Like I said ...
Read Caesar's Messiah by Joseph Atwill... game over for the Roman christian myth...
Let's give the believers on page 4 a go at this, since no believers were able to provide evidence on page 2:
Hey, here's an Easter challenge: are there any believers out there who can post credible, reliable, sufficient independently verifiable evidence that a god (and I don't care which god) actually exists? And remember – the bible is simply a book, so quoting it will lose you marks! Okay, and post .......
The evidence is everywhere.
Saying that evidence is everywhere is not evidence. Please provide it.
I can prove your a sinner...all of mankind is born under the bondage of sin. This is self-evident.
Creation reveals a Creator in so many ways...to argue otherwise would be foolish. This too is self-evident.
Atheists remind me of some of the Pharisees that Jesus of Nazareth confronted...they seek a sign but it would do them no good because of their rejection of the sin in their hearts.
Love is...? God incarnate dying on a cross for fallen humanity. Praise be the Lord Jesus Christ who now reigns in heaven and will return to conquer Satan, judge all of mankind, and renew creation to it's former glory. What hope their is for those in Christ who shed his blood as a payment for sin.
Saying something is self-evident is not evidence. Another fail.
Attack on page 2 you didn't answer my question. Prove love exists, oh and hope too. And remember crickets don't cricket they chirp. Jesus love you.
Attack – Eternal energy (0) + Nothing (0) = God (0)
The reason why i say this is because God is the only one that in emcompasses everything.
Christians are constantly trying to fork their religion over on everyone, including through enacting legislation where they have voter majorities. They ostracize nonbelievers in business dealings. They want to put their prayers and their bibles in public schools, which should be religiously neutral. They cry "persecution" when they can't fork over their religion on others, for example around the time of the winter solstice. And their preachers apparently spur them to do these things, and give them a "righteous" feeling for doing so. They are hypocrites, not martyrs. But this is the common mechanism how religions get spread and entrenched in societies over generations. But it's now an old model and very transparent.
That's true for any religion.
And the fun part is, every religion discusses executing unbelievers. Deuteronomy 17 contains proof of that...
Catholic religion is over with- it may have been good 2000 years ago- not today! Do you really want to worship a GOD who is destrying you! WAKE UP!
read Caesar's Messiah by Joseph Atwill... check out his web site too.
I like the concept behind Jesus – sharing, helping others, forgiveness (you forgive me, I'll forgive you, let's move forward together) et cetera, but it's what people do in Jesus' name, while hiding behind the parts of the religious text that condones bad behavior (while utterly ignoring the other parts in the same book that denounces the same behavior)...
And that's the real problem. People look at these laws and other forms of "regulations" at surface level only. If they looked beneath the surface, especially if they had degrees in psychology, they would figure out some very nasty truths. Like marketing, religion exists to compel people to do things. Sometimes, one has ti gave a certain badge of honor to get somewhere (never mind what has to be done to earn that badge and the heinous costs involved).
But everybody says "regulations are bad"* and claim people can govern themselves. So let's get rid of the bible and everything else. What will take its place? The honor system? While the great tearing down of the world continues, we're seeing how people** are doing horrible things to profit at everyone else's expense. It's too cite to cite specific examples, but anyone can probably find something...
* (social and/or economic, who cares right now)
** corporations are people too
I should have gave up on the Christian religion a long time ago. Here you have a group of people who worships a GOD who makes them suffer, & they keep going back for more to suffer more-
it's about time we stop this jesus crap, grow up and accept reality
the concept of worshiping is a slave driven practice. worship the one who owns you. Very stupid concept.
God makes no one suffer....you do a good job of it yourself.
Have you read the Bible?
But you do have a fair point. Indeed, God does not make people suffer. That's why the bumper sticker "God, please save me from your followers" was created. His followers did the manipulating necessary to make people feel bad...
sorry you are so brainwashed, T&C.. Your post lacks reality. Sounds like kids in a tree house making up stuff
religion and dictators,, both the same- they try to control others. roman catholic church/stalin/mao.. just some examples of mass destroyers
Nazis, communists, socialists, liberals, atheists....you name it, they all bully the people who disagree with them.
You forgot "conservatives", but who said you're objective, fair, or balanced?
Try to get to know some liberals instead of blanketing them all with a one-liner. Get outside the house. You'd be surprised on how many issues people might agree with you on... and, seriously, there are plenty of conservatives that act just like the communists...
Oh, which socialists do you hate? If it's like Norway or Sweeden, you must be loathing the successful because their people are happy, but they're socialist countries. Luv your ignorance, though...
as (I stated,, religions and dictators. In the case of Nazi's, they had both
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.