Tales of Roman Emperors Feeding Christians to the Lions Are Titillating to Christians… and Wholly Made Up

Cracked‘s J. Wisniewski  just published an entertaining article headlined 5 Ridiculous Lies You Believe About Ancient Civilizations.

Lie #3 is the tale of Christians being thrown to the lions by hard-hearted Roman emperors. In truth,

There are zero authentic accounts of Christian martyrdom in the Colosseum until over a century after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. In fact, not a single legitimate record exists of the Romans executing any Christians in the Colosseum. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

Early Christian writers made up the entire narrative, starting in the second century A.D.

The “Martyr Acts” were stories about the church’s beginnings, when heroic men and women professed their faith in spite of terrible torture and suffering. This “sacred pornography of cruelty” was hugely popular — if you were a literate Christian living in Imperial Rome, the Martyr Acts were your Harry Potter. With symbolism even less subtle than Dan Brown’s novels, the Martyr Acts told stories of good and pure Christians being trampled to death or decapitated by violent Roman officials. The Martyr Acts satisfied the desire of early Christians to: 1) read faith-affirming literature filled with heroes exemplifying pacifism, love, and forgiveness and 2) read faith-affirming literature overflowing with the violence, death, and destruction that made a story readable to Romans.

Call it persecution porn. Plus ça change…

You don’t have to take it on Wisniewski’s say-so. There’s ample academic proof for Cracked‘s claim, most notably in Candida Moss‘s 2013 book The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented A Story of Martyrdom. Moss, an Oxford- and Yale-educated professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame (of all places), writes that

“…the prosecution of Christians was rare, and the persecution of Christians was limited to no more than a handful of years.”

In an interview with Religion News Service, she explains what she finds especially problematic about Christianity’s ongoing persecution complex as it exists in the modern-day U.S.:

 When people talk about being persecuted in modern America, I think it’s dangerous. I’m talking about everyone from Rick Santorum to Mitt Romney to Catholic bishops, and Bill O’Reilly talking about a war on Easter. The problem with this is that it destroys dialogue. Persecutors don’t have legitimate complaints so you can’t really have productive discussions.

But you can disagree with someone sharply on the basis of your religious beliefs without accusing them of persecution. When you say they’re persecuting you, you’re basically accusing them of acting with Satan.

No one is saying that Christians don’t face actual, provable persecution. They do — in countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and China. In the West, however, the same allegation is absurd, perhaps nowhere more so than in the United States, with its 76% Christian majority and its 95% Christian Congress.

When American Christians yelp about being discriminated against, it is doubly galling: for one, because the whole thing is so obviously spun out of thin air; and also because such claims make light of Christians elsewhere who really do get a raw deal from their governments.

Says Moss:

It’s a “boy who cried wolf” situation. One of the reasons we are not hearing about them is because of all of the cries of persecution here — and local cries about persecution overshadow the global ones. We do need to hear those stories about Christians in other parts of the world, but we need to make sure that instead of talking about the global war on Christianity — which a lot of Christian and Catholic reporters have done — that we tell the story in a way that doesn’t do violence to other persecuted groups.

In the words of the Daily Beast, Christians link their sufferings to those of Jesus,

and align the source of those sufferings with the forces that killed Jesus. From the very beginning, victimhood was hardwired into the Christian psyche.

After 2,000 years, it’s time to give up the act.

About Terry Firma

Terry Firma, though born and Journalism-school-educated in Europe, has lived in the U.S. for the past 20-odd years. Stateside, his feature articles have been published in the New York Times, Reason, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Wired. Terry is the founder of Moral Compass, a now dormant site that poked fun at the delusional claim by people of faith that a belief in God equips them with superior moral standards. He joined Friendly Atheist in 2013.


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