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.
Hello my non believing brothers and sisters, just tuning in today. Been reading a few comments. I see you guys are giving it to the faithheads as usual. They refuse to reason honestly. I see blake delusional butt is still at it. They fight reality like its a disease. I can't understand why the insist on this argument that atheism is a religion no matter how many times it's explained to them along with a proper example refuting the assertion.
It is funny as hell when the faithfull use the term "religion" as a disparaging remark.
@Blessed are the Cheesemakers, Yes it is very funny although im not sure that they even realize it. The kiddie tatic of "I know I am but what are you" is laughable. They are too busy trying to bring us down to their irrational level that it flies over their heads.
Everything about the human condition comes down to one emotion... fear. They are so completely terrified that they will be alone, that they will never receive answers to their questions and that bad people won't get punished that they blindly believe in a deity because they have to.
Personally, I'm not afraid at all, so I don't believe in that complete bull.
There isn't much doubt that the result of the US invasion of Iraq and overthrow of Saddam Hussein has been the relentless persecution of Christians in Iraq by their Iraqi countrymen to the point where while once there was a large population of Christians there, now few if any are left as most have been driven out due to the religious persecution there that did not exist under Saddam.
Christians did that here too to the native Americans .
Any so-called "God" who is supposedly all powerful yet doesn't lift a holly finger to stop all of the suffering in this world, is either impotent or evil.
thanks dorothy. you r right again. those two r the only options.
All holy books were written by the human mammal !
No kidding. The entire bible was fabricated.
like what you just posted
Oh look, It is Easter and attacks on the RCC and Christians are common. Prayed for the evil
You prayed for evil? Do you get it?
Well Spring is upon us and it is good to see things spring back to life as even the Great Sphinx in Egypt is pointed in the direction of the Spring Equinox and has been even before our man made religions today ! I have actually stood beside the Sphinx and climbed inside the great pyramid at Giza . The Spring Equinox has caused many rituals throughout history . One being Easter ! Look up at any search engine THE SPRING EQUINOX . No matter if you are christian or not its where the tradition of Easter began !
Sorry, but you're still wrong.
Apparently, you have Easter confused with Christmas. Christmas, on December 25, falls just a few days after the winter solstice on December 21. Always.
Easter, on the other hand, can occur anywhere from March 22 to April 25, while the vernal equinox you're trying to equate it with occurs on March 20. There's a connection here, but you're missing it entirely by trying to claim that there is an equivalence.
Sorry but no one even knows the date of Jesus birth ! Christians just pick up a rock and throw it on a day instead of people from time to time !
"Sorry but no one even knows the date of Jesus birth ! Christians just pick up a rock and throw it on a day instead of people from time to time !"
Sorry, but that still leave you completely wrong when you claim that Easter is equivalent to the vernal equinox. It isn't. It's movable nature means it can't be.
You don't do yourself any good when you proffer bilge like this. It undermines whatever your message may be.
how is he wrong?
The vernal/spring equinox is in late March – March 20 this year.
The annunciation (March 25) falls on the vernal equinox so that Christmas (December 25) lines up nine months later to the winter solstice.
Yes, Easter has it's traditional date from Passover, but all the rituals associated with Easter (bunnies, eggs, etc) are associated with the pagan fertility rituals of the beginning of Spring, because, like the annunciation, Easter usually falls pretty close to the vernal equinox.
So how is @woody wrong?
blah blah blah
At one time in the Christian tradition New Year's Day was March 25.
By the way, the one ring is destroyed in the fires of Sammath Naur on March 25. Coincidence?
(I don't think so.)
celebrate christmas 365 24/7
Atheism has 2 tenants: 1. There is no God, and 2. I hate him
That's "tenets," not "tenants."
There is no Santa Claus and I hate him
Yep makes perfect sense.....or none at all.
Only an athiest would know such info .
From the list of the most irritatingly stupid arguments religionists make here – number 1:
1. Conflating atheism with belief
eg: “Atheism is a religion” – Ummm, no, really, it’s not!
Atheism is a religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby,
Atheism is a religion like health is a disease,
Atheism is a religion like not smoking is a habit,
Atheism is a religion like bald is a hair color,
Atheism is a religion like off is a television channel,
Atheism is a religion like abstinence is a sex act.
Atheism has no sacred text, no orthodoxy, no rites or rituals, no houses of worship … it is not a religion or a faith. It is the absence of faith in God. Sure there are militant atheists, some of whom act as zealously as believers, but it is not a belief system. Atheism does not require a positive belief in the non-existence of God.
Disbelief is not belief, it is the absence of belief. According to the OED, ‘atheism’ means: “Disbelief in, or denial of, the existence of a God.”
and number 10:
10. Atheists hate (and/or are mad at) God.
eg: You atheists here are so full of hate. – Yeah, right back atcha baby!
eg: Atheists hate God. – A ludicrous notion, how can you resent something you don’t think exists?
Wow, may as well order a big bowl of stupid next time.
1. He doesn't exist.
2. I don't hate something that doesn't exist.
3. You live in a fantasy land.
the reality is that your rejection goes along side with subliminal deceit, calluous heart , hard hearted disdain for a righteous God. You can say you dont believe, but since He is there you clearly and truly detest the idea.
Yesterday someone popped off with this one out of the blue: "How have you disproved the reality of the God of Israel?"
The God of Israel has a way to go before it becomes something that merits consideration, much less an argument for or against its existence.
"the reality is that your rejection goes along side with subliminal deceit, calluous heart , hard hearted disdain for a righteous God. You can say you dont believe, but since He is there you clearly and truly detest the idea."
It's "callous," you dweeb, and "he" isn't "there" or anywhere else. There's nothing to detest.
@Austin: "the reality is"
You shouldn't be allowed to use those words in a sentence
""How have you disproved the reality of the God of Israel?"
Sounds like the Chad.
Becareful, if you say "empty tomb" three times in a mirror, Chad appears.
@I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV
That's possibly the funniest thing I've heard all week.
♫ A tomb is just a tomb,
especially when there's no one there to see you leave the room . .
But a tomb is not a room,
And a room is not a womb,
da da da-da-da . . .
do you have a link to the tune – I don't have the phrasing in my head?
lol – sorry GOPer – I should have picked a different version – but on this one you have to jump to about 2:40 to pick up some lyrics
Thanks – now I get it.
Here's Dusty Springfield and Burt:
Cool version, GOPer! I actually learned to play that from his songbook long before I ever even heard of Luther V.
Testing a better way to reply to GOPer.
OH – looks like the BB doesn't respect the html strike tag to put a line thru the middle of text (was trying to find the most concise way to say "not a GOPer" – lol.
don't worry about it.
While the handle is factually accurate, it's a bit fatuous and all together too long to type. On less vitriolic forums I use a handle that is a bit more autobiographical. I wouldn't dream of doing that here.
not(GOPer) is pretty simple – lol.
Did P, M, M, L and J simply make Jesus 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 this 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?
Uh, you really have no concept of history, do you?
I'll answer that: No you don't.
What does the bible have to do with history?
Wow, there really is a sucker born every minute.
People really believe this nonsense?
Had I watched that in real time, without the music, I think I would have been sick.
Gay Christians got a lot more posts.
Maybe you should come out of the closet, then.
Is that what the "P" stands for, John? "Pansy"?
Probably "Perverted". Gay people would no doubt find him as strange as anyone else would.
5The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”
Elisa asked Elijah to have God place a Spirit in him twice that of the one in Elijah and he replied, "I doubt you could bear it."
what do you mean exactly where in samuel or chronicles where is that?
um, ya like all the prophets would say "and the word of the Lord came to me" and this is the Lord revealing prophecy. Did Elisha want the powerful spirit of prophecy and faith that Elijah had? I remember this.
Elijah was not so popular a fellow in Israel, what with his conflict with the King and Queen. Ater the burning altar incident and the killing of 400 gay priests of Ba'al Elijah, followed by the end of the drought, set out for Jesabel's City to gloat, but she cursed him instead. For two years Elijah was fed by a raven, the messenger bird of Asheroth and Jesabel's religious symbol. By this time Elijah was so depreseed he cried, "Lord just let me die." Not so much fun.
Ya she had him on the run.
The Lord used Elijah in great ways too. Elijah honored God and the price of being such a servant was high. He and Enoch have a lot in common. They both went up in a whirl wind and never died.
Why does everyone have to argue about religion??? Just stick to your own beliefs and leave everyone else alone! Comprendo???
"Just stick to your own beliefs"
Christians in America never have quite mastered this part.
...and atheists are adept at keeping their mouths closed also.
The reason people have to argue about religion is believers claim things as being true about reality that they can't substantiate and then the opposition calls them out on their BS.
what about Christians? they are next on line, for their crime against humanity, for atrocities committed in the name of religion
We're waiting bring it on!
I got your back.
May as well Give Them Up, doofus lol??
Lol – Austin will cover your dream world for you Blablero21.
bring it on! it has already begun, many of them are on run, some are hiding in Mexica, if you don't believe me !!! ask ny cardinal dolan.
I assume you are all joking. I am playing.
who hiding and why?
Jesus blood / Jesus water
Spring sale! 60% off.
4oz / 7 oz gold decorative bottles
UNIVERSAL MAGNIFICENT MIRACLES!
Speak to Jesus and he will reply to you back
Spend time in seeking him.
Love him and he will love you back
Repent and Belive in Gospel
What a bunch of mumbo jumbo.
I think what Aji Joe is trying to say is that if you try really hard, you can make yourself believe anything.
Jesus is not fake,
he was/is a truthful Prophet of a real GOD;
here is the Ultimate Proof now:
UNIVERSAL MAGNIFICENT MIRACLES!
Didn't Paul McCartney have a song "Too Many People" on his RAM album?
I wonder how many times someone has made a "Too many Christians, not enough lions" 'joke' on this thread?
Lions were expensive, like a cnn production.
Too many Christians, too many Whites, Too many African Americans, Too many Hispanics, Too many Asians, Too many Gays,
Too many iPhone owners, Too many Android owners.
Maybe we can all get on the same page on too many that drive slow in the fast lane. :) Be they Christian or Atheist ....
If this bothers you why are you not over in Syria stopping kids from being shot up ?
Normally it would be as easy to say that it was cheaper to go to Chicago and try to stop folks from killing each other there. Now with Newton and other places that are not the inner cities being shooting ranges, it is better just to fight that battle at home here in the States. :(
Oh, brother. What a laugh. The toughest battle you ever fought was trying to resist posting during Lent.
Gave up video games once... that was hard. Recently, gave up sodas, juice, tea and coffee. Only water with every meal. Going to school full time and working full time and a 50 minute drive time... I NEEDED COFFEE !!!!
This year, giving up posting was crazy hard. Not only here. In the gun debate and the Gay Marriage debate. I almost threw my laptop once. :)
But ma'am...I am back... but my fingers are starting to cramp.
Gee, what HUGE sacrifices. I'm sure JEEBUS was really impressed. Especially since you didn't give up anything that was really necessary or painful to live without.
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.