Here's an interesting article from The Chronicle of Higher Education:
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.
Martyrs are big in the Catholic Church, I know, but I don't remember ever hearing about them in Methodist services. Well, it's been a long time.
But persecution is still just as popular as it always was. I mean, the idea that your group is being persecuted. Heck, we see that in the "war on Christmas" at Fox 'News.' Christians are supposedly being persecuted in America, a land where they're the overwhelming majority at all levels of society.
Similarly, 'men's rights' activists complain about persecution, since not every government official, judge, and corporate CEO these days is a man (just the vast majority). White supremacists complain about how white people face discrimination, since we've elected one non-white president in the past 200 years. I guess this is just human nature.
Certainly, the idea that early Christians were martyrs for their faith has long been popular in Christianity, so the elaborate stories developed in response are certainly no surprise. Most Christians just assume that everything they've been taught is historically true,... though only when it comes to Christianity. Obviously, the traditions of other religions are just tall tales, right?
Well, most people, centuries ago, were illiterate. Without television or movies, they relied on storytellers - often, religious storytellers. And storytellers know what their audiences want to hear. Even if there was a grain of truth in a story, it's likely been embellished a lot. And sometimes, it's just been invented whole cloth, especially if the teller has a religious motive for doing so.
Awhile back, I blogged about Steve Shives reading, and commenting on, Lee Strobel's The Case for Christ. Apparently, Strobel's "case" boils down to "because it says so in the Bible." You see, according to Strobel, it takes centuries for legends to become established, so beliefs only a few decades after the fact just must be true.
Shives points out how stories about Elvis Presley still being alive were common even very shortly after his death. Tall tales about George Washington's wooden teeth or his chopping down the cherry tree didn't take centuries, either. Good stories are good stories, and that's not even considering the strong motivation of religious believers in trying to persuade others.
Anyway, I thought this was a very interesting article. It's not that Christians weren't killed, sometimes (or that they didn't kill others when they got the power). It's just that church traditions aren't an unbiased source. And the bias is all in one direction:
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. ...
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.
I must admit that I'd never given this much thought. I'd assumed that these stories of martyrdom were... basically true, just not the magic parts of them. Funny, isn't it? Even as an atheist, some things were just too common a part of my environment to really question.
I do know - because I've been interested - that the Bible's stories about Jesus aren't backed up by anyone or anything else. They were written after the events they purport to describe, and they were also, much later, edited to suit whatever the various editors wanted people to believe.
Some of the stuff can't be true, since it conflicts with the historical record; some of it is clearly borrowed from other cultures, other myths; and some of it - like the dead rising from their tombs en masse and walking around Jerusalem - beggars belief, especially that no one would think it unusual enough to record.
Not even letters to friends and family about such things? Yeah, I guess zombie outbreaks were just too common to mention, huh?
The funny thing is, most people won't believe similar stories from today. We've got countless eyewitnesses to aliens and other bizarre events - eyewitnesses, not just stories written down decades later - which no one with any sense believes. But ancient stories are somehow believable, just because they're old.
Well, ancient stories which back up your own religion, at least. No one has any problem dismissing the similar stories from any other religion, do they?
Edit: I just saw this article about the same topic (the author of the first article has written a book about it), and it includes some interesting details, including this:
In the immediate aftermath of the Columbine High School massacre, a modern myth was born. A story went around that one of the two killers asked one of the victims, Cassie Bernall, if she believed in God. Bernall reportedly said “Yes” just before he shot her. Bernall’s mother wrote a memoir, titled “She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall,” a tribute to her daughter’s courageous Christian faith. Then, just as the book was being published, a student who was hiding near Bernall told journalist Dave Cullen that the exchange never happened.
Although Candida Moss’ new book, “The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom,” is about the three centuries following the death of Jesus, she makes a point of citing this modern-day parallel. What Bernall truly said and did in the moments before her death absolutely matters, Moss asserts, if we are going to hold her up as a “martyr.” Yet misconceptions and misrepresentations can creep in so soon. The public can get the story wrong even in this highly mediated and thoroughly reported age — and do so despite the presence among us of living eyewitnesses. So what, then, to make of the third-hand, heavily revised, agenda-laden and anachronistic accounts of Christianity’s original martyrs? ...
One of the most enlightening aspects of “The Myth of Persecution” is Moss’ ability to find contemporary analogies that make the ancient world more intelligible to the average reader, such as the Cassie Bernall story. But that story has an additional lesson to offer, about the true believer’s imperviousness to unpalatable facts. Bernall’s family and church are unmoved by the schoolmates who were present at the shooting and who have debunked the “She said yes” legend. “You can say it didn’t happen that way,” the Bernalls’ pastor told one reporter, “but the church won’t accept it. To the church, Cassie will always say yes, period.”