The Myth of Christian Persecution during the Roman Period

In Re: Christians Were Fed to Lions and Martyred in the Colosseum  -via

The Myth:

Whenever the ancient Romans needed more trident-stabbing fodder for the pleasure dome’s gladiators or more kibble for the Colosseum’s big cats, Roman authorities simply rounded up another group of Christians and herded them into the arena. Reserve your seats now! Bring the kids!

Splatter guards available for the first three rows.

The Reality:

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.

“Those Christians wish they were cool enough to get into our lion parties.”

But how do we know not one lion picked his teeth with the bones of a faithful believer in the Colosseum? Because back when Emperor Nero was busily persecuting early Christians as arsonists, the Colosseum hadn’t even been built yet. And by the time construction was completed decades later, Imperial Rome had reverted back to its standard policy of “Jesus, Yahweh, Zeus — whatever, just pay your taxes, K?”

But there’s an entire tradition of martyrs, saints, and apostles who were eaten by lions, burned at the stake, or murdered to appease the crowds of the Colosseum! So where did all those pleasant bedtime stories come from? Brace yourself for a touch of deja vu, because the short answer is: early Christian writers.

So the Left Behind books are really a step up.

In the second century A.D., a whole new genre of fiction cropped up. 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.

Instead of blaming the Christian writers for creating a millennium’s worth of misconceptions, though, we should really be thanking those guys for helping to preserve a historic landmark. That’s because, starting in the 18th century, various popes used this spurious history to declare the Colosseum a site sanctified with the blood of martyrs in order to stave off its destruction.


“Were Christians persecuted the way that the Christian Churches explain it today?” This is a valid question since Christian tradition teaches that Christian’s came under heavy persecution throughout their early existence. Being martyred and being thrown into gladiatorial battles is often envisioned and cited whenever I ask my students (I’m a teaching assistant at a university) what they thought the early years were like. However, this isn’t the most reasonable assessment nor is this belief held by most scholars.

A truly excellent book on this topic was by historian Candida Moss, who wrote The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom. Here, Moss (a professor of New Testament Studies at Notre Dam) argues that there was never a widespread persecution of Christians as most people believe. Of the over 250 years of Early Christian history, Moss presents evidence that at most there were only 12 years (at most) where people were harshly persecuted for their faith by orders of the Roman Empire (none of them coming in the first century, during the early conversion times). For it’s first few decades, Christians probably went relatively unnoticed. Small churches were known to have sprung up throughout the eastern Mediterranean and even at least one in Rome by 70 CE (this is about when and where Mark wrote his gospel), but it is unlikely Christians faced any real threat yet since they weren’t converting huge percentages of people in their populations.

As Christianity became more popular, most likely by the end of the first century, it is likely that this is when they started facing harsher criticism. Most were simply scorned or disliked, similar to hows Jews were treated once they left the Levant. For most early Christians, “the vast majority of Christians never stood before a Roman judge, paid a fine, or experienced torture,” [Moss, page 129] however, some did. Moss (and other historians) have pointed out that persecution did take place in several locations around the Roman Empire, but again, this is more the exception to the rule. The reason for this is simple, “For almost all of the first century, it’s unclear that Roman emperors even knew that Christians existed,” [Moss, page 139] meaning that you can’t persecute and hate something that you didn’t even know existed.

I will add that there were some specific areas and period of persecution where select numbers of Christians were tortured or even killed, but this didn’t happen until the second century, and was rare and didn’t last for very long. For the most part, Christianity was a small sect that didn’t expand considerably until Constantine, and for the most part, they didn’t really pose as a serious threat to Rome.

Now for those Christians who were unlucky enough to face serious persecution, there were several ways that they met those ends. One of the ways would be to be fed to large beats, but they could also face torture, crucifixion, or any of the dozen or so other ways that the Romans typically killed their oppositions.

While it is likely that some Christians were killed by lions or other similar beasts, it rarely happened over the first two and a half centuries of Christianity’s existence.

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