The Death of Jesus and the Rise of the Christian Persecution Myth
For Christians, the crucifixion is the event that changed everything. Prior to the death of Jesus and the emergence of Christianity most ancient people interpreted oppression, persecution, and violence as a sign that their deity was either irate or impotent. The crucifixion forced Jesus’s followers to rethink this paradigm. The death of their leader was reshaped as triumph and the experience of persecution became a sign of elevated moral status, a badge of honor. The genius of the Jesus movement was its ability to disassociate earthly pain from divine punishment. As a result Christians identified themselves as innocent victims; they associated their sufferings with those of Jesus and aligned the source of those sufferings with the forces that killed Jesus. From the very beginning, victimhood was hardwired into the Christian psyche.
The enduring impact of this idea is evident in the rhetoric of modern-day Christians. In the weeks that followed the recent papal resignation, Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles, who was accused of participating in the coverup of sexual abuse by priests, described himself in terms appropriate to a martyr: as a scapegoat who suffered like Jesus. Because of the nature of the crimes for which he is suspected, Mahony’s claims that he is being persecuted have been universally dismissed, but other similarly hyperbolic instances of American Christians crying “persecution” slip into the public square.
The belief that Christians are continuously persecuted has a basis in Scripture. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus instructs his followers to take up their cross and follow him and predicts that his followers will be persecuted for his name. Then again, in the very same passage he predicts that some of those standing before him will not taste death before the arrival of his kingdom in glory. Why do we accept the prophecy of persecution when the statement about the disciples living until the last judgment clearly failed? The reason why Jesus’s statements about persecution have had such a pronounced impact on the formation of Christian identity is that this prophecy is believed to have been proven in the experiences of the early church. The Church has suffered since the beginning, the argument goes, and we are persecuted now as we have always been.
But what if Christians were not always persecuted? What if there never was an “Age of the Martyrs”? When we look at the evidence, it becomes clear that the stereotype of cruel Roman emperors persecuting innocent Christians is a myth. From the Roman side, there is scant evidence for the persecution of Christians. It is not even clear that the Romans knew about the existence of Christians until the early second century. Even then they didn’t see Christianity as a religion. They describe it, rather, as a foolish superstition that could potentially harm local economies. Christians undoubtedly died as a result of legislation passed during the reign of the emperor Decius (ca. AD 250), but not because he was targeting them. Intriguingly, not a word of our Roman evidence for his legislation refers to Christians.
With the exception of the Great Persecution of Diocletian (AD 303-305), when Christians were indeed actively persecuted, it is difficult to find any examples of Roman emperors behaving as Christians typically portrayed them. Apart from this comparatively brief period, and an even briefer one during the reign of Valerian in 257-58, Roman emperors never targeted Christians for attack. At the beginning of the second century, the emperor Trajan actually stipulated that Christians were not to be sought out. Roman emperors simply don’t appear to have been that interested in Christians. For most of the first three centuries of their existence Christians flourished: they held lofty political positions, and were so comfortable under the Romans that they even constructed a prominent church across the road from the imperial palace in Nicomedia.
The overwhelming majority of Christians idealized martyrdom and suffering like Jesus, but very few of them died violently—and even fewer died as the result of the kind of persecution described in Sunday school. Romans had good reason to be concerned about Christians. Scandalous rumors of Christians participating in incestuous orgies and practicing cannibalism were widely circulated. More important, Christians sounded a lot like revolutionaries. In courtrooms they stated that they were unable to respect anyone but Christ, their new emperor. Roman officials had no problem executing political subversives—this was a world in which Jon Stewart would be executed for his institution-challenging satire. Ancient empires were accustomed to reshaping the religious identities of those they bested in war. The Romans magnanimously allowed conquered groups to maintain their own religious traditions and implement their own law at their own discretion. But this generosity ended when it became socially disruptive or politically subversive. Christians threatened the stability of the empire, and when we look at their interactions with Roman authorities, we might even find ourselves sympathizing with the Romans.
Given that the Roman evidence for persecution is so thin, the origin of our misunderstandings about the early church must, and does, lie with the early Christians themselves. There are literally thousands of stories of Christians martyrs being brutally tortured and killed, but the overwhelming majority of these were written long after the events they claim to describe. Who is responsible for these misunderstandings about history? And why did they alter the historical record? One of the reasons is the explosion of the cult of the saints, the passion for collecting and displaying holy relics, in the fifth century and beyond. Everyone wanted a piece of the action and innumerable stories about martyrs were fabricated to support local churches and to attract pilgrims to particular towns.
Even the earliest, most ostensibly trustworthy, martyrdom stories have been edited and reworked. The authors of these accounts borrowed from ancient mythology, changed the details of events to make the martyrs appear more like Jesus, and made the Roman antagonists increasingly venomous. Peeling back the layers of editorial work is like watching textual plastic surgery; even small changes radically alter our understanding of the subject. Legend maintains that the Apostle Peter asked to be crucified upside down out humility, but comes from a sixth century rewriting. Fascinatingly, the earliest version of the story gives a very different and almost mysterious explanation. Other ancient authors were less artful. Lazy biographers of the saints sometimes pasted together the story of a martyr’s death from the writings of his colleagues and we can pull these apart without difficulty. We need not accuse the priest-scribes who created these accounts of any malicious deception, as these kinds of literary practices were fairly common at the time, but nor, certainly, can we conclude that they’re giving us the historical facts. Even if Christians choose to venerate individual martyrs—regardless of whether the stories are true or not—we should not leap to the conclusion that ancient Christians as a collective whole were constantly persecuted. We simply lack the necessary evidence to support such a claim. Faith in martyrs is one thing; historical claims about persecution are quite another.
Claims about violent persecution may not be historically accurate, but in the hands of ancient Christian writers they did valuable work shoring up the authority of the church. The fourth-century historian Eusebius was able to use the stories of the martyrs to combat heresy and to establish the succession of bishops in the early church. When the origins of the episcopacy in France were clouded, Eusebius invented an anecdote in which Gallic martyrs wrote to the bishop of Rome recommending a particular candidate. When he wanted to demonstrate the errors of a particular heresy, he would cleverly tell a story in which a martyr denounced the schismatic group’s leader. This fascinating invention of the history of persecution set a precedent. Later generations of medieval copyists would do the same—inserting doctrinal formulae into the mouths of expiring martyrs.
Eusebius began a long-lived tradition of equating dissent and disagreement with persecution. He argued that the church is fundamentally under attack and that, just as Roman officials attacked her in the past, now heretics attack her in the present. The essential idea is polarization: us against them, good against evil. Once Constantine allowed Christianity to become a state-sponsored religion in the fourth century, some Christians went on the offensive. They sought out pagan temples to destroy, with high hopes of dying and becoming martyrs. The memory of authentic persecution under Diocletian did not make Christians forgiving and generous toward the now disenfranchised pagans. The rhetoric of persecution perpetuated by early Christian writers, rather, created a polarized view of the world that only heaped violence on top of violence.
This idea of constant attack and Christian victimhood is grounded in the myths of the early church, but it endures to this day. It is evident in the rhetoric of modern American media pundits, politicians, and religious leaders who proclaim that there is a war on Christianity in modern America. The problem with identifying oneself and one’s group as a persecuted minority is that it necessarily identifies others as persecutors. It is certainly the case that Christians—and members of other religious groups—around the world endure horrifying violence and oppression today. But it is rarely those voices or calls for action on their behalf that reach our ears. On the contrary, these experiences are drowned out by louder, local complaints.
Instances of oppression, violence, and persecution do not need a history of persecution or a commitment to victimhood to support them. The mistreatment of Christians in modern India, for example, is not wrong because it is part of a history of persecution. It is just wrong. Nor is it somehow more outrageous than violence against Muslims or Hindus there.
Most importantly, the myth of persecution can actually generate violence. At the beginning of the first Crusade, Pope Urban II promised Christian soldiers the rewards of martyrdom if they died in the conflict. The historical factors are complicated, and medieval European Christians did see themselves as under attack, but their actions cannot be dismissed as “self-defense.” This is a cautionary example for us. There is always the possibility that we have no sense of our own position in a conflict. Even though we cast ourselves as martyrs, we might be crusaders.
The example of Jesus that hangs at the center of Christianity encouraged his followers to embrace suffering and to stand firm in times of persecution. But even if Christians are called to embrace suffering and victimization, we can do without a story of persecution that is inaccurate, unproductive, and polarizing. Nor should we build our interpretation of the present on errors about the past.