For the first three hundred years of its existence, tradition maintains, Christianity was a persecuted and suffering religion. Members were hunted down and executed, their property and books burned by crusading emperors intent on routing out the new religion. Women and children were thrown to the lions and boiled alive in caldrons, as maddened crowds bayed for blood. Jesus, Stephen, and the Apostles were only the beginning.
As Christianity grew, so did the ranks of martyrs. According to the fourth-century historian Eusebius, early Christians were racked, whipped, beaten, and scourged. Tens of thousands were condemned to the amphitheaters to face wild animals, forced to fight gladiators, beheaded, strangled quietly in jail, or burned publicly as a mark of shame.
The history of early Christianity, as we have received it, is a history of victimization and pain. It underwrites the idea that Christians are at odds with their world, engaged in a continuing struggle between good and evil.
But that narrative has very little basis in the documentary record.
There is almost no evidence from the period before Constantine, traditionally called the Age of Martyrs, to support the idea that Christians were continuously persecuted. That idea was cultivated by church historians like Eusebius and Sozomen and by the anonymous hagiographers who edited, reworked, and replicated stories about martyrs. The vast majority of those stories, however, were written during periods of peace, long after the events they purported to describe. Even those that are roughly contemporaneous with the events have been significantly embellished.
Early Christians, like virtually everyone in the ancient world, expanded, updated, and rewrote their sacred texts. The problem lies not with the use of these texts as religious stories—but with their acceptance as historical records. The account of persecution and martyrdom encoded in these texts makes claims about the motives of non-Christians and the place of Christians in the world. It is easily adopted to justify vitriol and polemic in other contexts.
There is no doubt that Romans executed Christians, just as they executed other social and political subversives. There is even evidence to suggest that there were brief periods (AD 257-58 under Valerian and 303-5, Diocletian's tetrarchy) when Christians were deliberately singled out by Roman legislators and administrators. But Christians were not the victims of sustained persecution by the Romans, as has been mythologized in popular imagination. For the vast majority of the pre-Constantinian period, Christians flourished.
They were, as the third-century Christian writer Tertullian tells us, able to succeed in politics, law, and business. They were not hiding, either in the catacombs in Rome or in general. On the eve of Diocletian's Great Persecution—which, beginning in 303, outlawed Christian scriptures, prohibited Christians from meeting, and razed places of worship—a newly erected church nestled across from the imperial palace in Nicomedia in Turkey, a symbol of the confidence of Christians living in the Roman Empire.
Even when Christians were killed by Romans, it was in numbers far fewer than is usually posited, and for a complicated blend of reasons, some social and political, that cannot be straightforwardly described as "religious." In the view of some Roman governors, like Pliny the Younger, Christianity was not a religion at all, but a politically subversive superstition.
Eusebius, and generations of Christians since, have decried the Emperor Decius for his "wicked" and vicious persecution of Christians around 250. Yet none of the Roman evidence for the so-called Decian persecution even mentions Christians. It appears that Decius' attempt to reform the empire was about social uniformity, not about Christianity. Before Decius, the prosecution of Christians was occasional and prompted by local officials, petty jealousies, and regional concerns.
That Christians saw themselves as persecuted is understandable, but it does not mean that the Romans were persecuting them. There is a difference between persecution and prosecution.
The shaky foundations of the myth of persecution will not come as a surprise to most scholars of early Christian history or the classics. Ever since the publication of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the idea that Christians were systematically and continuously persecuted has been eroded by a succession of scholars. But how and why did the mythology develop?
The explosion in martyrdom literature from the fourth century on was due both to the popularity of martyrs and to the ease with which these heroes could be adapted by skilled authors to speak to later theological and ecclesiastical concerns.
It was said in late antiquity that when martyrdom stories were read aloud, the saints were truly present. Martyrs became enshrined in their legends, in texts and architecture. Local stories were solidified in the cult of saints, and the centers of worship that sprang up around those saints attracted worshipers—and thus revenue. The institutionalization of martyrs, and competition among religious centers, required ever more gruesome and dramatic stories.
The visions and miracles that were often added drew the Christian faithful to obscure towns and out-of-the-way shrines. In exchange they offered communion with the memory of victorious heroes; for a brief moment, the divide between heavenly and earthly affairs would disappear. If the shrines presented the opportunity for personal contact with a martyr, the stories provided the narrative and conceptual map for those physical experiences. Claiming friendship with the martyrs led to more pious exaggeration and well-intentioned forgery.
Martyrs were such seductive figures because their willingness to suffer and die made them unimpeachable witnesses and persuasive representatives of the church. Later authors reshaped their saintly protagonists into representations of orthodoxy and proper religious conduct. An anecdote in which a famous martyr denounced a heretic was worth a hundred rational arguments about why that heretical position was wrong. A martyr's support for an individual's candidacy for the episcopacy offered the strongest kind of endorsement.
In the fourth century, for example, Eusebius described how the early Christian bishop-martyr Polycarp once denounced the Roman heretic Marcion as the "firstborn of Satan." The historian later reports how a group of martyrs from Lyons wrote letters to other churches condemning the views of an ancient group of Christians called the Montanists and endorsing the candidacy of Irenaeus, the future bishop of the city. Those anecdotes allowed Eusebius to legitimize the succession of bishops in France and to demonstrate the proper attitude toward religious subversives.
Scholarship, however, has failed to leave a lasting imprint in popular consciousness. Many Christians continue to interpret individual and communal struggles as part of the traditional history of persecution and the conflict between good and evil. Sometimes that self-concept inspires great courage and heroism, or provides comfort to the suffering. And there are places in the world where Christians—and members of other religious and political groups—face real violence. In such contexts, the language of persecution can prove helpful.
But the rhetoric is too often bandied about in news broadcasts and newspaper articles, proclaimed in political debates, and invoked in sermons. Persecution is easily adapted by powerful individuals and groups as a way of casting themselves as victims, gaining support, and justifying their attacks on others.
The malleability of martyrs is especially acute when they are treated en masse. Christians can claim to be oppressed as long as they feel opposed. In terms of the Christian narrative shaped around martyrs, if you are persecuted, you must be right. It's a rather easy trick: If anyone claims to stand in continuity with the martyrs, and if that authenticates their message, they can claim to be right.
The recent presidential election highlights that point well. At a time when politicians choose their words carefully to galvanize support, Rick Santorum was widely quoted for having once said that "Satan is attacking the great institutions of America"; Rick Perry vowed to "end Obama's war on religion." On January 26, 2012, the day that Newt Gingrich said in a debate that he had entered the race for the Republican nomination in order to fight the "war against religion and in particular Christianity," a report emerged of 35,000 people, many of them Christians, being forced to leave their homes in Nigeria by an Islamic group. The mass exodus received far less coverage than Gingrich's statement. Some of that is the result of the American news media's (and people's) interest in national affairs, but it also reflects the extent to which rhetoric has trumped reality.
The rhetoric of war and persecution is not limited to a particular political allegiance. Opinion articles in The Washington Post and The New York Times have accused the GOP and Vatican, respectively, of launching crusades against women. A column by Maureen Dowd last June, for example, described "the Vatican's thuggish crusade to push American nuns—and all Catholic women—back into moldy subservience." In like fashion, a Post columnist decried "the judicial jihad against the regulatory state."
Nor is this only Election Day banter. Cardinal Marc Ouellet, one of the current front-runners for the papacy, has described the church in secular Quebec as persecuted "for telling the truth."
In this understanding of what it means to be a Christian in the modern world, a lot of weight rests on the history of the early church. Even though Jesus predicted the suffering of his followers, it is the belief that his prophecy was proved in the early church that helps give it power.
It is this idea that Christians are always persecuted that makes sense of the argument that disagreement is identical to persecution. It provides the interpretative lens through which to view all kinds of Christian experiences as a struggle between "us" and "them," and elides the difference between hatred and injustice, and sincere disagreement.
It makes collaboration, and even compassion, impossible.
If the ancient story isn't true, then the polarizing modern rhetoric of martyrdom and persecution is rendered highly problematic. Perhaps it is time to embrace the virtues that martyrs embody, without the false history that has grown up around them.