March 30th, 2013
10:00 PM ET
Christ was persecuted, but what about Christians?
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.
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.
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.
About this blog
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.
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LOL. I think the historians in the future would also believe that history is getting a re-write from CNN that Christians aren't persecuted in today's time in other Muslim countries that CNN does not report. Christians had to worship in secret back then like today because they are being attacked back then by their beliefs as they are being attacked today. More Christians are being persecuted back then than today and trying to re-write history to diminish the importance of these martyr's beliefs is another form or attack to the beliefs to the Christians.
A few years ago, I lived in a small town with a Web site that we all used to keep in touch. When I made an off-hand comment that revealed my atheism, the good Christians came out and egged my house, drew "demonic" symbols on my car, and turned me away from their stores. I didn't cry persecution. I didn't go to the media. I left. I am worth more than subjecting myself to ignorance and hate. Godlessness is on the rise, and as it rises, may hate and ignorance diminish.
We live in a world where everything must be investigated and proved. There are no doubts that Christians were prosecuted under the Roman Law. Faith and religion are two different issues. Churches are created by man... a form of socialization of a belief but faith is within you and you take your faith with you wherever you go in life or after. Faith can not be shared , you can talk about your faith and how much is important to you but you can not prove that you have faith. I believe that at ancient time the word of Christ came to burn the hypocrisy, to burry the idols, to show a new path. Christ is the Son of the Lord... and human kind was not ready to welcome him on this planet. Jesus is the most enlighten spirit who leads all other enlighten spirits in a world that we would see if we can live in compassion, charity, caring and loving one another. We no longer need an explanation if the martyrs were real or not, leave it to the ones who need to something concrete to sustain their faith.
I find religion disgusting and sick. Fraud throughout the ages, lapped up by gullible half-wits.
As an atheist, it may come as a surprise that I love and respect Jesus. His teachings/philosophy were revolutionary and a major step forward in religion. As I read the comments though, I resonate with Ghandi:
"I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."
Revolutionary? Nothing but a collection of unintelligent falsehoods.
The philosophies and teaching were not new, there were only revelutionary in the backwards area he lived in.
I find religion disgusting and sick. Fraud throughaout the ages, lap[ped up by gullible half-wits.
Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine.
that people take these silly stories seriously in this day and age is unbelievable. christians laugh at other religions/mythologies but actually believe their zombie lord came back to life after 3 days of rotting in a cave. soooooo silly...
CNN has inspired much intolerance and bigotry today.
christianity has inspired intolerance and bigotry every day for the last 2K years.
Religion is exactly like hallucinogenic drugs. Once you are hooked you can't stop.
I must have read a different story...The Romans carried out the execution of Jesus because the chief priests and pharisees did not like what he was teaching...and since they could not kill him they got the Romans who ruled the territory to do it....Please read the story again. And if Christians have a martyr complex its the same one Jews have.....good thing I dont believe any of this stuff!
Disgusting CNN, lost another viewer
yet you took time to comment on it
When you get to hell. Do not say "No one told us." We told you and you mocked us for it. God puts sinners in hell but gives you a very easy way to avoid it. Repent and accept Jesus Christ and avoid the worst case scenario before it is "too late."
Too late = after you're dead. Do not delay. You are not a god, and Satan does not fulfill his promises. Only God is good.
Really... god killed all first born children in egypt to teach their parents a lesson. You call that good? God allowed "his son" to be tortured and murdered. You call that good? God has said that if you steal a pencil and aren't sorry for it, you will burn in hell for all eternity. You call that good?
Tell me exactly... how is your god good?
wow....another empty proxy threat. congrats, d-bag
You haven't explained why it will be "too late." If your god is beyond all time, how can anything be "too late'? Why would god create humans and then punish them for eternity for not suspending all disbelief and having faith in something that never appears, never does anything?
spend lots of time on your knees, do you doc? all the better for servicing the savior
Enough with your fairytales and grow up, sir.
Jesus so loved the world he created hell just in case we don't love him back.
Jesus died for our sins on the cross, then changed his mind 3 days later by coming back to life. Be partially grateful folks.
Are you kidding me?? Today, a day that is holy to Christians, CNN runs a "book promo" article as a major headline to slam Christians–how distasteful and wrong! CNN, you would never run this kind of article that bashes other religions such as Islam. Persecution was very real then and is very real today–how about writing an article that brings attention to Pastor Saeed Abedini in Iran and that he is being tortured and our government is doing nothing!
Actually, I find it incredibly amusing. Especially since so many christians are totally freaking out about it like whiny five year olds.
Bad ideas are worthy of persecution.
their father the devil?
Like the president of Iran who denies the reality of the holocaust and even the existence of a minority of gays in Iran, this article and CNN's intent to publish it on Easter demonstrates an extreme ignorance and intolerance.
It is an article about the current perseption of ancient history and why that perception is flawed. You are doing EXACTLY what the article decribes...creating persecution where none exists....
Your Christian beliefs about Jesus are based on the persecution that CHristians perpetrated on other Christians, I would think this would be of immense interest to believers....
Sigh. The article came out yesterday, Sheila. You clicked on it today.
Kill the messenger much?
Thanks for observing this. Persecution is not something to take lightly unless you're the one being persecuted. Today, we look back and say: "they didn't suffer that much". Well, I'd dare the person doubting about persecution to behave one week like a Christian. Let's see...a week passed just telling the truth may "cost" you many things. Now, add to that the mission of a Christian which is to name the wrong when you see it and also call people to repentance....You'll certainly be in trouble in these days. I am unable to be a full Christian who could become a martyr...However, I do try and touch the cross once in a while when the spirit reminds me. Hopefully, we can all be ready and willing to bear the price of a true Christian life. Happy Easter. HE'S ALIVE.
no matter what is said.....we cannot change history....no matter how many times we try to re-write it in our contemporary times....no matter how many times we try and soothe our consciences....that blood calls from the ground ....and it will be vindicated in the end......then i saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of GOD and the testimony they had maintained..they cried out..how long sovereign LORD holy and true until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood......
call upon him while the time is near....do not harden your hearts against so great a salvation..that has been provided by the Lord
lol. You just proved your god isn't loving by talking about vindication. Nice job.
17For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!
Alll God is doing is justifying, redeeming, and forgiving.
Why reject God who forgives?
If you read the bible, your god does no such thing. He is hateful, cruel, and merciless.
Yep. That's pretty much all god seems to do. Wouldn't want to do something like, oh I don't know, eliminate disease, hunger, war, birth defects, etc. God, if you are listening, I have a whole list of suggestions for improvement.
Melissa, you are sick spiritually. You are very sick. You need healing.
And you are sick mentally. Very sick. And there's probably no hope for you.
Actually, I'm just fine and at peace with my life and eventual death. It doesn't bother me in the least that I won't have to sit worshiping at the feet of some egotistical deity for all eternity, or try to make some demon feel good about himself. Its all fiction.
Actually Melissa and MalcolmR, It sounds like you are both very uneducated on what you're talking about. You are allowing your own selfish thoughts and acts to make you think you're above everyone else. You make arguments based on things you don't truly understand, but on things you've probably read in other forums etc. Love you're opinions, but before talking about a God that is hateful, please stop being so hateful yourself. I've read enough of your comments here today to know that you are being hateful, so don't deny it.
"You make arguments based on things you don't truly understand, but on things you've probably read in other forums "
How do you know other forums are their source of knowledge about the christian cult?
Any so-called "God" who allows the level of suffering that we've seen on this earth is, at best, impotent and, at worst, evil or indifferent.
Time to grow up and leave the fairytales to children.
There is such a thing as mythological truth. We humans learn through storytelling. This is to be found throughout all cultures and religious faiths of this world. I believe that God works through all things and is all things. Suffering is a part of life. Buddhism has taught us this. Suffering is not the fault of God but is a natural part of life.
You don't get it, he gave us free will, blame your fellow man.
why would god give men free will to kill children? what about the children? why not make kids bullet proof? shouldn't be hard for an all-powerful god that loves us.
or the simple answer... there is no god so he can't save anyone.
Your talking about heaven. Sorry no free passes.
Jesus wasnt this starlet looking man like bradd Pitt, no he wasn't white.
Other religions are making mistakes,they thought if they persecute Christians,they will not come.But the more christians die,the more sympathy other people give to them.Non-believers may follow them
All religions are a mistake.
lol. Except that christians are losing members, no gaining them. Nice try.
My chruch had 667 people accept Christ as savior. We expanded to another facility. This is the trend here in my city at the non denominational churches. the teach the bible truth, not religious ritual.
good for you, austin. your church convinced 667 more fools
Austin, that's because you prey on the weak, and right now alot of people are having hard times. Instead of actually helping them with, oh I don't know, food, shelter, water, clothing... you know the necessities of life, you religious prey on them to convert them by promising them riches after they die. It's horrible what you do to people.
The Holy Spirit is a truth bearing spirit that reveals the truth. And I have been a witness of a supernatural spirit that has revealed the truth of Gods word through sovereign power.
He is risen.
Jehovah Shammah The Lord is There
The holy spirit wouldn't know truth if it bit him on the butt. Go read your book and learn what it actually says instead of what your religious leaders tell you it says.
Melissa, I can tell you the sixty six books in the bible in order. I learned that when I was 8. that was almost thirty years ago.
I have experienced the power of the holy spirit who is sovereign and all powerful.
You are outside the will of God with your rebellion. I hope you stop .
Making unsubstantiated claims about your god is not convincing.
Austin, there are over 600 books of the bible, not 88. The church decided which books to keep and which to get rid of during the time of Constantine. And not a one of them were written while your jesus is said to have been alive.
I don't care if you learned all of them when you were 8. I've read Star Wars so many times since I was give, I can tell it to you line by line. So what. It's a book. Just like your bible. The difference being that George Lucas admitted star wars is fiction. While you have chosen to believe in a book written by bronze age sheepherders who thought the earth was flat and promoted selling your daughter for a good price, that you'd go to hell for eating shellfish, and that you can eat your children in times of famine.
Oh, and not 66 either. 600.