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.”

Read the rest here.


Lately, I can't help but notice all the claims of persecution made by christians in the US.  No prayer in schools, no 10 commandments in the courtroom, not even the ability to cut off someone's access to birth control because they don't like it.  Yet while christianity's population is dropping, it remains the dominant plurality religion here (if not the majority), if not elsewhere, with a distinct impact on a great deal of American culture.

If persecution is a recurring theme in how 21st century American christians react to adverse attitudes toward their belief, I submit that is for two reasons:

  1. It is emphasized in how they are brought up in their religion - "Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake." -- Matthew 5:11
  2. It's a GREAT way to look like the underdog when you are among the most dominant cultural influences.

There are even sects of christianity which think that suffering has to be part of the mix - witness Calvinism.

Even as faith and virtue need to be separated from each other to hold religion to account, so too does the concept of pseudo-persecution also need to be exposed as a false reason to side with the majority against the minority.

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Just downloaded the book on my Kindle..Thanks Lorne

have you heard the near universal claims of persecution of christianity regarding the gay marriage debate?  they're claiming their first amendment rights are being trampled on b/c they cannot openly disparage gays. what's amazing is the cognitive dissonance at play - of course they can still say awful things about gays (no one is locking them up in prison), but they cannot do so without being criticized anymore.  and to them this is an affront on their religious freedom and a broach of their constitutional rights.  

are they really this stupid, or are they trying impossibly hard to jam a round peg into a square hole?  i lean towards the former.

Matthew, I have said it many times: believers want the right to discriminate and indeed to be BIGOTED ... because of their faith.  They also like being on top demographically ... and they are losing that status even as we speak, slowly but surely.

As to the round-hole/square-peg question ... you want my $0.02 worth, I think they're trying to do BOTH.

The role of the martyr requires persecution. If one assumes the role of the martyr then persecution will manifest. That isn't to say that they will necessarily BE persecuted, but rather that they will EXPERIENCE persecution. It's basically confirmation bias. Their experiences which could be attributed to persecution, are, while those which would contradict their persecution are ignored and forgotten. Additionally, many Christians, being taught that they will be persecuted for their faith, might interpret the lack of persecution as evidence of a lack of faith. That is, if they aren't being persecuted, then they're heading down the wrong path. Unable to bear the thought that they've wasted their whole life on the wrong path (see "sunk cost" and "loss aversion"), they MUST manifest persecution. Thus any trivial opposition is interpreted as persecution and the cycle reinforces itself.

That's the toughest part about all of this. The teaching and behavior is an example of memetic evolution. This doctrine supports its own existence and thus it persists. It is a trait that many religions successfully use to increase their chances of survival. If it didn't work, then it wouldn't be used and it wouldn't be so persistent.

The annoying thing is that there isn't much we can do about it other than attempt to shift the social climate such that the martyr complex is maladaptive. Basically, the only way for religions to stop using this trait would be if the trait itself decreased that religion's chances of survival. The religions which adapt, shedding that doctrine, would survive while those which refused to adapt would die out. Now, as for how to make that happen... I haven't the foggiest. It's also going to be painfully slow.

Thanks Loren for linking to this CNN article. I think it's important for several reasons.

It was mainstream and front page on the CNN site
It was scholarly.
I thought it was balanced, offering difference of opinion. and even then the differing opinion was it not so much that the author was wrong, but rather the interpretation needed nuance.

The article shows how the myth of persecution was a useful fraud to early Christians. That is in addition to showing the persecution was likely no more than for other reiligions.

Christians love the passive-aggressive utility of the exaggeration and fraudulent claim of persecution. They feel it gives them credibility.

Meanwhile what they don't say is most likely Christians have experienced far more persecution by Christians than by others, and they have persecuted countless others - Jews, pagans, breakaway Christians, conquered peoples, enslaved peoples..... And they continue to do so.

The problem is that any opposition to their point of view or desired actions can and frequently will be taken as persecution.  Poor little them, they don't get their way, they're SO persecuted!

I call bullshit ... and others should as well.


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