Myths of Christian Persecution

I am most indebted to Candida Moss and to Paul Koudounaris for their research and insights into the history of the Catholic Church and its martyr/saints.  This lecture would not have been possible without their books.

There is a great deal of historical correction taking place in the contemporary Catholic Church.  The official sources of Church history, including The Catholic Encyclopedia, have become quite vague concerning the number of early Christians killed for professing their faith. The executions were carried out by officials of the Roman Empire between 30 CE and 313 CE. In 1944, Ludvig Herling put the number of Christian martyrs at 100,000.  Edward Gibbon, the author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1776-1789, estimated there were about 2,000 Christians who perished under Roman persecution.  A search around the web reveals various counts of martyrs. Some sites put the number of martyrs at 3000 to 5000 in the 1st Century and the total count at 100,000. Some sources state the figures for Christians put to death by Roman officials grew with each century because the number of Christians was growing.

The vagueness of contemporary, official Catholic sources concerning the number of early Christian martyrs is most ironic, considering the Church’s former claims about the extensive amount of Christians who bravely professed their faith and were cruelly put to death by the Romans.  Yet the contemporary correction was already anticipated by such early scholars as Dodwell, as early as 1684.  In his dissertation titled “About the Small Numbers of Martyrs,” he correctly estimated that Christian victims represented a mere handful of the total number of believers.  Contemporary scholarship corroborates his work.  As we shall see in the course of this lecture, Dodwell was writing about the modest number of martyrs during the height of the Church’s “discovery” of hundreds of so–called martyrs, or “catacomb saints,” in the ancient Roman Catacomb galleries.  The skeleton saints were forgeries, with no real evidence that they had died as martyrs, but the practice of excavating, decorating and preserving them, and then putting them on display in churches was not discontinued until the 19th and 20th Centuries.

This lecture will discuss the meaning and origin of the word, martyr, as well as the myths and lies told about the persecution of Christians under the Roman Empire until Constantine became emperor. He promoted Christianity as the unofficial state religion. When Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in 313 CE, all persons in the empire were guaranteed freedom to worship any god they pleased and Christians were granted legal rights and tolerance. I shall be glancing at the pagan and Jewish sources from which the Christians borrowed when they wrote of their martyr’s deaths, the imitation of Christ when seeking martyrdom, what martyrs meant to the Church and what the bodies of the dead saints meant to the cities which owned them. The lecture will glance at the invention of martyrs in early Christianity, the truth about the alleged persecution of Christians, some reasons why the Romans disliked Christians and the invention of the “persecuted Church.” I shall also talk about what such notions of persecution and martyrdom have resulted in, both historically and in the present day.

Recent scholars have conducted careful studies into the claims and counter claims concerning the number of martyrs, and which cases of martyrs were likely true. They have in addition made a dispassionate assessment of the cultural exigencies of a time which, like the skeletons of the “catacomb saints,” has become covered over with the jeweled words and embellished myths perpetuated by the Catholic Church. Church history is made up of hyperbole, borrowing from other traditions and outright fabrications.

What was the original meaning of the word, martyr? Glenn Bowersock argues that because there was no concept of martyrs in the ancient world that was associated with the word, there were no pre-Christian martyrs.  But there were pagan philosophers, women, Jewish dissidents and so on, who died for their country, for honor, for their ancient traditions, and for resistance to what they saw as tyranny.  Bowersock’s argument is not robust.

The word, martyr, comes from the Greek, and simply meant “witness” at first.  A martyr would give evidence in court of law about something he or she had observed. The word had connotations connected to law, courtrooms, and truth.  A Christian would be arrested and tried. She was expected to say whether or not she was a Christian.  In other words, a Christian martyr gave evidence against herself, admitting she was a Christian.  Such an admission could lead to fines, imprisonment and even death.

Candida Moss uses the word, martyr, more as a concept rather than merely a word. The Oxford Dictionary defines martyr as a Christian who “chooses to suffer death rather than renounce faith in Christ or obedience to his teachings, a Christian way of life, or adherence to a law or tenet of the Church.” Moss argues that there are certain principles embedded in such a definition. They are (1) that people have a choice to either live or die, and (2) they prefer to die because they value either a way of life, a law, a person or principle more highly than their own life.” I believe that when we look at the evidence about people in the ancient world who died for some of the principles listed, we shall see that Christians did not invent either the meaning or concept of martyrdom.

Suicide did not carry the negative connotations in the pagan world that it did in the later Church or in contemporary times.  Death was pervasive in the ancient world from a great number of causes, and it was considered acceptable, even in some cases, noble, to die a good death, by suicide.  What was meant by a good death was to die calmly, courageously and unhesitatingly. Committing suicide for an important cause or principle, going to battle and facing almost certain death, or being sentenced to death because of principle or resistance, were all acceptable practices.  Many philosophers spoke of the issue of suicide in their treatises and discussions.

Some examples in the classical world of suicides, or going willingly to death inflicted by others, are Socrates, Achilles, Lucretia, and Iphigenia. An important reason for dying courageously by one’s own means or consent was that a person’s reputation was greatly enhanced.  A noble death further assured that the memory of one’s bravery and good character would live on.  Less than 5% of the populace of the ancient world was literate. People believed that by going to a noble death they would achieve immortality because of their story being spread by word of mouth.

The Greek 5th Century BCE philosopher, Socrates, was sentenced to death by Athens but wealthy friends could have arranged his escape.  Many contemporary scholars believe that the city of Athens would have been pleased to have been relieved of the task of putting to death such an eminent citizen.  But Socrates rejected such cowardice. The story of his death, as written by Plato, his pupil and a famous philosopher in his own right, displays Socrates as a strong man, the classical ideal, dispassionate and principled. The method of execution at the time was to take hemlock poison. Socrates unhesitatingly drank the poison and then talked to his friends until he died. 

I would like to point out that although he had been accused of atheism, Socrates did believe in some sort of deity, and entertained some idea of an afterlife.  Some have called him the world’s first recorded martyr.  We do not know how much of his reported death was fiction made up by Plato, but it seems certain that Socrates believed that by accepting death in a noble manner, in defense of principle, he would achieve immortality.  According to Plato, Socrates said that by exercising “self-restraint, justice, courage, freedom and truth,” he hoped to acquire a better afterlife.  We shall be comparing the story of his death with the tale of Jesus’ death for an interesting insight into the story of Jesus’ crucifixion.

Achilles, the famous 4th Century BCE Greek warrior, was lauded in Homer’s 12th Century Iliad. He went willingly, by choice, to his predicted death in battle in the Trojan War, and for the express purpose of gaining immortal fame.  He had a choice, decreed by prophesy, to stay home and live a long life as a king, or to be remembered forever as a great and glorious warrior. Achilles chose glory and died on the battlefield, but not before turning the tide of the war against Troy, Greece’s enemy.

Lucretia was a 6th Century BCE aristocratic Roman who was raped by a tyrannous ruler. After the rape, she told her husband and her father what had happened.  No one held her responsible, but she felt the necessity to remove the stain from her reputation. She pulled a dagger from her clothing and plunged it into her chest.  Her relatives joined with other indignant citizens in a rebellion which drove the tyrant from his throne.  Lucretia’s death helped to establish the forming of the Roman Republic.  To the modern mind, Lucretia’s suicide is a horrifying tale of misogyny and a woman’s acceptance of it.  But, like Socrates, she embraced the concept that dying well and being willing to die for principle, proved the truth of her virtue.

Iphigenia, also a character in the Greek Iliad, was put to death as a sacrifice to assure good winds that would allow the becalmed Greek fleet to sail on to Troy.  Her father, King Agamemnon, insisted on her death, but eventually she, too, embraced the sacrifice.  Instead of the husband and children she had expected to have, she became a heroine of her country and assured the defeat of its enemy, Troy. She trusted that she, too, would live on in people’s memories, like Achilles.

The early Jewish people experienced martyrdom as well.  The story of the Maccabees, Volumes One and Two, relates the tale of the famous Maccabean rebellion against Greek Seleucid rule and cultural absorption by its Hellenistic society. The revolt occurred from 167- 160 BCE. The story of the Maccabees has an ambiguous place in the sacred literature of Jews and Christians.  It is not in the Jewish canon or the Protestant one.  But it is in the Roman Catholic and other Christian tradition canons.  In Cologne, Germany, at St. Andrew’s Church, a gold reliquary can be found, containing the so-called relics from a Jewish mother and her seven sons, who along with an old man, were the first martyrs to die in order to protect the ancient tradition of their people. But they also believed that they would be resurrected after death.  They are considered “Holy Martyrs” by the Roman Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox Church even though they were Jews.

I am going into the stories of martyrs in the ancient world, and these examples are only a few, to emphasize how incorrect Glenn Bowersock’s contention is. Let us keep in mind that he has made the claim that there were no martyrs before the Christian ones because the word was not in use earlier. He argues that there was no system of posthumous rewards for people who gave up their lives for principle, country, virtue and so on.

By pointing out just a few of the stories of ancient suicides, it can be ascertained that Bowersock’s arguments are fallacious.  Just because there was no word for it, does not mean that some people did not die martyr’s deaths. There was a system of posthumous reward, the belief that one would live immortally in people’s memories and stories as a hero or heroine. There were well known accounts of such pagan deaths.  Christianity was not unique and set apart by the acceptance of death by Jesus. Nor was it unique when his followers imitated his example and accepted death rather than giving up their faith. The early Christians wrote accounts of willing pagan sacrifice of life and many of the writers were very familiar with the pagan tradition of giving up one’s life for a higher cause. Candida Moss states: “…Christians adapted, borrowed and even directly copied from these older traditions.”

Now I would like to turn to the Christian Jesus, the martyr whom early Christians tried to emulate when forced to choose between their religion or death.  Some historians have discovered the striking similarity between accounts of Jesus’ and Socrates’ deaths. There is unintentional irony in the fact that Christians strove to die like Jesus.  That is because, according to Candida Moss, “…behind the theatre of the crucifixion was a whole cast of Greek heroes.”

We owe most of the heroic account of Jesus’ suffering and death to the Gospel of Luke.  In Mark’s Gospel, the earliest tale of the crucifixion, written about 66-70 CE, Jesus is unwilling and often conflicted about his upcoming passion and death.  I discount Paul’s Epistles because he did not know Jesus and would not have known most of the people who might have witnessed the crucifixion.  This is despite Paul’s claims that he had met James, sometimes called Jesus’ brother and that he had met Peter, Jesus’ disciple.  In any case, we have almost no proof of a historical Jesus, so it is possible that the gospelists were creating a myth. They were not only embellishing the crucifixion and resurrection, but inventing them.

At any rate, Candida Moss has studied the account of Socrates’ death, and is reasonably certain that Luke’s Gospel tale is modeled, if not on Socrates’ death specifically, on the general stories told about philosopher’s deaths, especially the concept of the good death. Luke wrote his Gospel about 80-100 CE.

As I have said, Mark’s tale, the earliest Gospel crucifixion story, makes Jesus out to be human, all too human. Jesus is reluctant to die, asking that the cup be passed from him, and crying out his sense of having been forsaken while on the cross.  Certainly Christian enemies, such as the 2nd Century philosopher, Celsus, found Jesus weak and complaining. That Luke changed the picture, fortifying Jesus, as it were, is quite obvious.  Luke has provided a calm and composed Jesus in his version, written some years after Mark’s Gospel.  The change was important, because the Church was reaching out to the Gentiles and it needed a Jesus who would appeal to pagan sensibilities. Jesus, dying like a serene and emboldened philosopher, would be a figure worthy of adulation and respect to pagans.

Later writers would emphasize the similarity. Apollonius, the 2nd Century martyr, states in his Acts of Apollonius:  “Just as the Athenian informers convinced the people and then unjustly condemned Socrates, so, too, our Savior and teacher was condemned by a few malefactors after being bound.” This quotation is taken from Apollonius’ trial. But there is a problem. Most scholars agree that it is unlikely Apollonius made this statement at his trial.  The words of Apollonius were for the attention of those listening to an account of what Apollonius said at his trial.  Once again, we encounter a fiction rather than an accurate version of events.

Candida Moss points out, as I have mentioned, that Christians imitated, or were said to imitate, Jesus’ life and death.  Even today Roman Catholics refer to the practice as the “imitation of Christ,” and Protestants ask: “What would Jesus do?” Moss states that the heroic picture of Jesus was based on the model created by Luke. She says: “This means every time someone is referred to as dying like Christ, they are actually dying like Socrates and the Maccabees.”

The attempt to create a picture of Christian martyrs’ deaths that resembled Jesus’ was begun very early.  Moss believes it started with the account of Stephen’s death in Acts 7 of the New Testament. It is most probable that Luke composed the Acts as well the Lukean Gospel, so it is natural to see a similarity between Jesus’ death and Stephen’s. But Christian writers other than Luke were already composing in a similar manner.  Their versions of Christian martyrs were hybrid accounts of defiance and suffering. The practice helped to equate Jesus’ life, death and ministry with the ministry of the Christian Church. But it cannot be repeated enough that the accounts can be traced back to the story of Socrates’ death, the deaths of other ancient philosophers and the Maccabean martyrs.  It is correct to assume that all of the stories, including those of Socrates and Jesus, are creative reimaginings.

There are many tales of Christian martyrs, most of which, we shall see, were not based on actual events.  There is merely fiction piled on fiction from the earliest years of the Church. We shall also see how these images of martyrs extended to encompass the false image of the Church itself, as the persecuted, never the persecuting, Church. That such a picture misrepresented the Church’s true history is a matter of historical record. In earlier lectures, we have seen how the Church was the persecutor and aggressor in most cases, with its condemnation of blasphemers, heretics, and rival Christian sects.  The Inquisition, the Crusades and other atrocities were prominent features of the Church’s crimes. The facts are well known and documented.  I have discussed them in earlier lectures at

Even the accounts of legal affairs- actual trials of Christians that showed up in the Egyptian town of Oxyrhynochus about 1896, reveal that they too, had been embellished.  Some scholars were excited by a cluster of court documents that described Alexandrian trials from the 1st Century CE because they hoped to obtain an accurate picture of historical events. But the Christian trials bore a suspiciously striking resemblance to the collected tales called “Christian Acts.” The accounts went beyond the courtroom procedure, combining the legal process with an ethical agenda. They were most emphatic concerning the righteousness of the Christian offenders and of the injustice of the trial. Even in what scholars had hoped to be true narratives, there had already been borrowing from earlier pagan reports and editing to emphasize the virtue of Christian defendants.

The Christian martyr narratives also borrowed from a new genre of Greek literature, the Romance novel, a sort of early Harlequin Romance. Candida Moss states that the novels always “featured a central pair of young, attractive and well bred lovers who were torn apart by fate, miscommunication or familial interference and who spent the course of the plot faithfully trying to reunite with each other.”  There were lustful rivals, adventures, miracles, shipwrecks and so on in the plots. The couples were reunited at the end.  The novels privileged Hellenization and love between aristocrats.

Christians borrowed from this genre, indeed embellished on the novels.  The Christian version was frequently used to recount tales of what had happened to the apostles after Jesus.  The canonical Acts of the Apostles ended before Paul died in Rome, leaving a gap in the historical narrative.  The stories of the apostles included miracles, shipwrecks, talking animals, magic and flying, walking and talking crosses. The point of such thrilling tales, aside from the vast entertainment Christian audiences derived from them, was quite specific.  Many of the stories turned out to be origin tales, such as how a town or church came to be founded. The town or church which owned the so-called body of an apostle was also said to have been founded by that apostle. A good number of the founding tales were also meant to explain how the remains of the apostles had ended up in particular towns.

Christianity claims to be true partly because of the argument that only Christians have had martyrs.  Martyrdom, Christians insist, is unique to Christianity, a practice wholly new when it began in the early years of the Roman Empire.  It is supposed to testify to the truth of Christianity. But we have seen how ancient people had narratives of martyrdom that Christians pilfered.  There is nothing wrong with borrowing- a great author such as Shakespeare did it, as have others.  However, Christians abjured truth when they claimed they did not borrow from the ancients and from the Jews when they wrote about Christian martyrs.  We shall see the extent of the fictive foundation they erected and protected for centuries.

Many Catholic scholars have been very aware of the problems involving the notable similarities of the recorded saint/martyr deaths to earlier pagan and Jewish tales.  In early 17th Century Belgium, a small group of scholars dedicated to the critical study of saints’ lives formed. It was headed by a Jesuit priest, Heribert Rosweyde, who wrote a 1607 pamphlet called the “Fasti Sanctorum,” an outline for an eighteen volume collection of ancient and medieval saints’ lives.  He planned to use historical and linguistic criteria for the study.  According to Candida Moss, he was the father of critical hagiography.  Rosweyde died in 1629, but others carried on his unfinished work.

A Jesuit superior called the scholar, John Bolland (1596-1665), to Antwerp. The Jesuit Bolland was given the task of sorting through Rosweyde’s papers. Bolland was well organized, asking for and receiving, exclusive use of the papers and two assistants to help. Candida Moss explains that: “In 1643, Bolland and his two students, the founding members of the Societe des Bollandistes, published the first two volumes of the Acta or Ada Sanctorum.”  Bolland’s students spread out to the libraries and monasteries of Europe, gathering stories about the saints.  They planned to compile a definitive work on the historicity of the saints.

Remarkably, the Bollandists still exist, and the Society is now made up of Dutch, German, Italian and French scholars, even a few who are not Jesuits. The Catholic Church was opposed to many of the Society’s findings. Cardinal Bellarmine, a counter-Reformation cleric, was quite justly concerned about the Society. The Bollandists exploded the notion that the Carmelite Order of Monks had been founded by Elijah. That was in the 1670’s. The Carmelites were very powerful at that time and three Bollandist works were placed on the Roman Index of Prohibited Books.  The Bollandists were undeterred. They discovered that Saint George never slew a dragon.  He never even met one. “It was,” states Candida Moss, “Bollandist methodology that revealed the legend of St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, was of dubious origin, thereby turning, in one fell swoop, a hundred thousand religious medals into mere jewelry.”

It has been almost four centuries during which the intrepid Bollandists have researched, studied and examined the saints’ lives.  The huge panorama of stories of saints and their doings has decidedly declined to merely six supposedly authentic accounts of martyrs from before 250 CE, the earliest history of the Church.  Six stories, out of hundreds! It seems impossible, even to the skeptical secular scholar.  These stories were (1) The martyrdom of Polycarp, (2) The Acts of Ptolemy and Lucius, (3) the Acts of Justin and Companions, (4) the Martyrs of Lyons, (5) the Acts of the Sicilian Martyrs and (6) the Passion of Perpetua and Felicity.

The six saints’ stories have been given the approval of the conscientious Bollandists, and their place in the Roman Catholic Church continues to be extremely influential.  However, scholars who are skeptical about the authenticity of saints’ martyrdom narratives, have examined the tales and have found so much inconsistency, editing, hyperbole and other significant flaws that doubt is cast on all of them.

I refer listeners and readers who are interested in pursuing the evidence against the accuracy of the six martyr stories to Candida Moss’s 2014 volume, The Myth of Persecution. She has provided detailed and difficult to refute evidence that the final six accounts were altered, edited and falsified, like the other martyr/saints stories that were previously discarded as untrue.

I would like to glance at one of the six stories, an account of the 2nd Century trial of Justin Martyr, a famous Christian teacher and philosopher. Justin found himself before the prefect Rusticus, a friend and teacher of the Stoic emperor, Marcus Aurelius.  Justin and six of his students were arrested, tried and given the death sentence. The story ends with the martyrs being led away for execution.  Moss states that the story is told in three succeeding versions, each one more detailed and longer. Early Christians apparently rewrote the story twice to emphasize the parts that they deemed most compelling.  The first account was originally believed to be authentic. It was short and dry, and appeared to be a laconic and accurate retelling of a trial.  But in narratives of Christian martyrs, one cannot assume because an account is brief, seems to be boring and does not have a compelling effect on people’s imaginations, that it is not therefore a forgery.

Let us examine what detailed scholarly research has revealed about the trial of Justin and his students.  If you recall, I mentioned a little earlier the cache of ancient texts found in Egypt.  In the 1980’s, the American scholar, Gary Brisbee, analyzed the transcripts of the trials from the Roman period which had been discovered in that cache.  His literary detective work revealed a complicated pattern in most of the written description of trials at that period.  But when Brisbee studied the “Acts of Justin and his companions,” and compared them with the form of the other transcripts, he discovered that the Justin account does not follow the pattern of the other trials.  There is a verdict and sentence, the usual formula of the other transcripts.  But specific elements of the usual form are missing and the account roams from the standard trial reports.  Such close analysis has led Brisbee to conclude that “while it is probable that the Acts of Justin” is derived from a court report, it has been edited to a greater or lesser extent throughout.” He believes, or suspects, that substantial portions of the text have had significant interpretations or been greatly edited.

What has emerged from careful research is that all of the early stories of Christian martyrs have been emended and heavily edited.  The words of each martyr have been significantly changed so that we do not know what they really said.  The inescapable conclusion is that not even the six martyr tales accepted by the strict Bollandists are historically accurate.  The so-called martyrs were supposedly imitating Jesus’ martyrdom story. But many scholars believe that at least part of Jesus’ passion and crucifixion narrative is a myth.  What then is left to accept from such stories, either Jesus’ or the martyrs who were supposedly emulating him? There are no historical facts in the tales that are trustworthy. 

Scholars who have found the yawning discrepancies of the martyr accounts point out that we have no idea what the so-called saints were like. We merely have what later church biographers want us to think their saints were like.  I am not making a claim that no one was tortured or executed for their Christian faith. But I am asking, and this question has been taken up by excellent contemporary historians, how many Christians were persecuted and executed for professing their faith?  We shall see what the impartial historians have discovered.

First, in the very earliest days of the Church, there were no Christians, per se.  There were different sects of Jewish believers, many of whom were in conflict with the others. The Jewish sect that followed Jesus did not call itself Christian. When Stephen was killed by the Jewish temple in 36 CE for being a follower of Christ, Christians were not persecuted because they did not yet exist.  Violence simply broke out between different Jewish sects. Yet Stephen is considered the first Christian martyr.

Then there is the case of the apostles- the reported martyrdom of all twelve of the original followers of Jesus.  The apostles had spread out after the death of Jesus and actively proselytized their new religion. They had allegedly been executed for their faith.  The fact that these men were willing to die for what they believed in is often cited, by Christians, as proof that Christianity is true.  But people die for many reasons- for country, for family, for reputation, for virginity and so on. People died in the past for religions that no longer exist. The fact of people being willing to die for a belief does not make it true.

According to Moss, we do not know how any of the apostles died.  There are, she explains, about fifteen different accounts of the deaths of Peter and Paul that were written before the end of the 6th Century.  All of them cannot be true. The Acts of Peter, the earliest tale of Peter’s death, is dated to about the end of the 2nd Century, CE. Indeed, none of the Apocryphal Acts can be dated by experts before the second century.  We cannot know how the apostles died, what the charges against them were, and in what manner they were executed. Were they at any point given the choice to deny Christ and live? If we cannot know those facts, it cannot be argued the apostles died for Jesus, and we cannot use their deaths as proof of Jesus’ ministry or resurrection, let alone the truth of Christianity.

There is no evidence, except from accounts written by the historian, Tacitus, (56-117 CE) that after the Great Fire of Rome in 64 CE, Christians were blamed for the fire and persecuted.  Tacitus’ Annals dates to about 115 CE or a little later, fifty years after the events described. Christians were supposed to have been dressed in animal skins and torn apart by wild beasts in the Roman arena. They were said to have been drenched with tar and set on fire. There is no evidence that Roman emperors in the first century even knew Christians existed. There is almost no evidence that Nero ordered such a persecution of Christians.

The persecution under the emperor Decius, in January 250 CE, is also quite questionable.  Decius decreed that all subjects in the Empire must sacrifice to the divine spirit of the Emperor.  The sacrifice had to be performed in front of a magistrate and the subjects then received a libellus, a little book, to prove they had participated. This was a disaster for Christians because their religion did not allow them to sacrifice to any pagan gods, and if they did sacrifice to the emperor cult, they would be damned perpetually. If they did not sacrifice, they would be executed by the Roman government.

I have discussed, in earlier lectures, how many Christians broke their promise to their god and sacrificed. Many Christians fled to other areas; others stayed at home and were luckily unnoticed by the authorities. (Please see “The Early Christian Church and Its War on Reason” at The different types of apostasy practiced by so-called Christians infuriated those faithful who had suffered or had endured the execution of friends and relatives who remained true to their religion.  But there is absolutely no evidence that Decius was deliberately targeting Christians.  There were many political and military threats to Rome when Decius became emperor. He was trying to make his subjects believe he would take Rome back to its days of glory, and he was also trying to consolidate his position.  The classics scholar, James Rives, argues that the issue of Christianity did not loom anywhere as importantly as Christians and some later historians imagined it did.

It was under the Emperor Valerian that Christians were specifically targeted.  In 257 and 258 CE, Valerian sent two letters to the Senate.  The first letter stated that Christian church leaders must participate in pagan ceremonies and that Christians must stop meeting en masse in cemeteries. His second letter decreed that Christian bishops, priests and deacons were to be put to death immediately, that Christian senators and high-ranking officials were to lose their rank, status and property and be executed if they did not renounce Christianity.  Christian women of high rank were to lose their property and members of the imperial household who embraced Christianity should be shipped off to the imperial estates so they would not be embarrassingly visible.

How interesting it is, as Moss points out, that if Christians were as hidden and downtrodden as their history claims, there were already many Christians in positions of power in Rome.  Valerian’s decree confirms that fact. Only a handful of Christians actually died as a result of his decree.  After his death, Valerian’s son, Gallienus, revoked the Valerian decree and Christians enjoyed over forty years of peace. They built churches, accumulated wealth and had services in full view.

According to historians, Rome, between 268 CE and the ascension of Diocletian in 284 CE, had no fewer than eight emperors who were assassinated.  Diocletian consequently appointed three more emperors to rule with him in different areas in order to promote military stability and order.  The Roman Empire was suffering under civil war, barbarian invasions, inflation and debased coinage.  Unity and loyalty to Rome became the order of the day, in an attempt to assure societal and governmental stability. Diocletian had religious concerns and whether from policy or belief, made a point of being depicted sacrificing to the gods on many occasions.

Christians saw their legal rights rescinded under Diocletian.  By 303 CE, a decree made Christian meetings illegal, ordered the destruction of Christian places of worship and the confiscation of Christian scriptures.  All subjects, including Christians, had to sacrifice before engaging in any legal or official matters. Christians were not allowed to respond to legal challenges against them or petition the government. Highly placed Christians lost their rank and imperial freemen were enslaved. Further decrees made the position of Christians dangerous.  In 304 CE, there was a very severe decree issued. Everyone, men, women and children, were supposed to gather in a public place and sacrifice or be executed. But it is unclear how many Christians died during these persecutions.  The Church historian Eusebius (263-339 CE) claimed in his book, Martyrs of Palestine, thatninety-nine Christians had been executed as a result of Diocletian’s decree.  According to historians, only sixteen of them seem to have been actively sought out by authorities. Another historian from that era did not mention the persecutions at all.  Additionally, many Western Christian writers never mentioned the so-called persecution either. Candida Moss, who has studied the matter closely, says that the period of persecution did not last more than ten years and in many regions of the empire for no more than about two years.

The classicist, St. Croix, appears skeptical about martyrdom accounts during that ten year period. He states that the stories show: “…an increasing contempt for historicity.” Some scholars make the point that Christians perceived they were persecuted rather than actually experiencing a general sustained persecution for several centuries.  Perceived persecution rather than literal- if that is the case, how much can be trusted concerning the stories of the martyred saints or of the tales of the persecuted church?  Until Diocletian, there is not much robust evidence for Christians being targeted for any sustained period by the Roman government.

Scholars like Candida Moss have also looked into the issue of the “Persecuted Church,” and have found it, too, to be part of Roman Catholic mythology.  William Bramley-Moore stated in his 1867 introduction to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs: “The history of Christian martyrdom is, in fact, the history of Christianity itself.” We now know how little historical evidence there is for the notion of the persecuted church. Apparently the seeds of this myth were laid in New Testament accounts and also the writings of some of the early Church fathers. But Moss places the most serious responsibility on historians such as Eusebius of Caesarea, “considered the Church’s first great historian.” There were also anonymous authors who contributed to the hagiographical literature of the martyr/saints.

Eusebius lived in a period of peace and composed his 4th Century Church History during the reign of Constantine.  Constantine promoted the Church to a position of semi-official religion of the Roman Empire, beginning in 315 CE. Eusebius even spoke of a period of peace before Diocletian’s Great Persecution when Christians did attain positions of power and authority. Then why, ask historians, did Eusebius write so histrionically and inaccurately about Christian persecution?

Moss has an interesting theory. She states: “… the development of a history of martyrdom was a deliberate and strategic attempt to improve the image of Christians, to bolster the position of the Church hierarchy and to provide security for orthodoxy.” What we think is the truth about persecuted martyrs from the early Church is in fact a retrojection of issues about orthodoxy from the 4th Century when the Church was more powerful and more centralized.  Eusebius, according to Moss, was assuming that readers would come away with “…the impression that the heretics and demons were in league with one another.  The orthodox Church was conflated with the Church’s martyrs. The heretics that Eusebius denounced were conflated with the demons that attacked Christians.”

Eusebius attempted to establish what we have come to see as a major and successful goal of the Church- to secure the perception of an unbroken chain of history and authority from the 4th Century back to the earliest days of the Church in the beginning of the 1st Century.  Most of the Christian historical writers were at pains to establish two points- the continuous succession of the Bishops in particular regions, and a picture of order and harmony within the Church against the chaos of the demonic heretics and wicked Roman pagans.

But the image contained very little truth.  The real picture is that the early Church was extremely disorganized and the early bishops had to struggle for power.  What Jesus is claimed to have said to Peter: “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church,” was not quoted in full until the 3rd Century by the Christian father, Tertullian.  Yet this phrase is often used even in the present day as a legitimization of the papacy.

Eusebius was a major factor in helping establish the image of the Church as an institution threatened by heretics, pagans and demons.  Such writers, argues Moss, began to establish the “us versus them” mentality that still plagues not only the Catholic Church, but the Christian religion in general. “We are the persecuted,” Christians of today cry and whine. “It is our rights that are being trampled upon.” But in truth, as we have seen, the history of Christianity is an invention, a construction, and one that is very troubling in terms of its long range consequences, which we shall be discussing shortly.

Before I continue with why the Romans disliked the Christians, I would like to turn for a short while to a later period of the Catholic Church’s history.  It is nearly forgotten and I believe the Church may well wish that it could be completely eliminated from its past.  By the 16th Century the Protestant Reformation had taken a firm hold in Germany and Northern Europe, with many of the local leaders embracing and protecting Protestant movements. The Lutheran and other Protestant faiths became well-funded, ensconced, and flourishing. Such a turn of events was a bitter blow to the Catholic Church, which had previously achieved an uneasy hegemony in earlier times. Its reign as the ‘Church Triumphant’ was diminished as the 15th and 16th Centuries saw the spread of the Reformation.

But a new balm for the Northern Catholic Churches appeared, almost as if by a miracle.  A source of skeletons from the Roman Catacombs in Italy had been discovered, which I shall discuss in a few moments. From the late 1500’s to a peak in the late 17th Century, hundreds of skeletons from Rome were shipped to Southern Germany, Switzerland and Austria.  The bony saint/martyrs were decorated, embellished and finally set in places of honor in the local churches which had received them, bringing prestige to the Church and the community which housed them. By the 19th Century, the practice waned and the saints were ingloriously disposed of.  Their sad fate was just, however, because they were, most likely every one of them, imposters.

A minority of the skeletons might have been pagan Roman or Jewish citizens. The rest were probably Christians.  Since they came from the catacombs in Rome, they were able to be dated from the early Christian era.  Since the Church had exaggerated the number of its martyrs, nearly all the skeletons from the catacombs could be regarded as saints who had died professing their faith. There was a specific name for them, “catacomb saints.” Saints of this type were placed in a special category, as they had not undergone the Church’s process of canonization. But they were believed to have been early martyrs in the struggle to establish the spread of Christianity.  The Church decided the skeletons had refused to adjure their faith and chosen death instead. 

Aside from attracting pilgrims who would spend money while visiting the town and the churches which held the relics and providing balm to the wounded Catholic congregations which witnessed and experienced the spread of Protestantism in their areas, the catacomb saints provided an additional important function.  Their chief purpose was to reify and function as a symbol of ‘unbroken’ heritage that had passed from the early Christian world to the post-Reformation Church.  We have seen this type of propaganda in the works of such Church historians as Eusebius in the earlier centuries of the Church.  It continued through the various eras. 

The unbroken heritage the skeleton saints testified to affirmed the eternal truth of Catholic doctrine. The bony martyrs’ display, decked with costly robes, gold and precious gems, was consciously meant to evoke the description of the Heavenly Jerusalem in the New Testament’s Chapter 12 of Revelation. It was an earthly proclamation of the rewards members of the Catholic Church would receive from god. According to Paul Koudounaris, the display was a reminder of the glory reserved for those of the true faith.

Relics, such as the bones, hair, blood, skeletons and clothing, of canonized saints and/or martyrs, have been revered since the early days of the Church, but from the first there has been some ambiguity about their origin.  There is no clear prescription in Scripture to venerate them. Then there are rather subtle theological distinctions made about their function that many lay people misunderstand.  This confusion has traditionally led to significant abuse of the saint cult. The same ambiguity was discussed in an earlier lecture with regard to the cult of the Virgin Mary. (Please see “The Virgin Mary’s Image Alterations” at As with the Virgin, saints were supposed to be revered but not worshipped.  Their power was supposed to emanate from god alone, not from their physical relics.  They were merely suppliants to god on behalf of the worshipper and they were to function simply as a devotional aid.

As I mentioned, such distinctions were too subtle for many of the lay members of the Church and abuse of the practice of revering relics occurred from the very beginning of their history. Very early on, the relics were believed to have magical properties and were frequently the object of fetish worship.  Such practices were deemed heretical but very little was done to curb them. The 2nd Century Greek writer, Celsus, spoke about the practice disdainfully. He was an outspoken foe of Christianity, but other less vitriolic historians and thinkers were puzzled by the Christian practice of collecting bones and making them out to be gods.

The eminent Bishop of Hippo and important theologian, Augustine, railed against the early corruption of selling sacred relics.  In 401 CE, he inveighed against the people who sold bits of animal bones or petrified plant matter to the gullible. The fraudulent relics were then often placed in churches and worshipped by the congregations.  Augustine said the fraudulent sellers were inspired by Satan.

Relic worship and the sale of them was one of the prime targets of the Protestant Reformers of the 16th Century.  Protestant theologians constantly pointed out that relics had no scriptural basis. Calvin ( 1509-1564),was given to explaining that relic worship was in opposition to god’s will, who had sentenced man to being flesh from dust, and to dust, he said, humans would return. The reformers pointed out how easily a relic worshipper slipped into the veneration of the relics. Protestant theologians insisted that Jesus was then deprived of the honor he was due from Christians.  It was Jesus alone who should be venerated, they claimed. The theologians found the dubious sale of and origin of relics an easy target to vilify. Many Protestant worshippers attacked churches which housed saints’ bones and sacked them, selling the skeletons or pieces of relics, but they also frequently burned them.

The Council of Trent, begun in 1545 CE and lasting twenty-five years, was the lynchpin of the Counter-Reformation. The Church tried to address the Protestant charges against it and respond in a manner that would pave the way for the restoration of the Catholic faith.  The hierarchy of the Church addressed relics, acknowledging past mistakes, but reaffirming the ability of canonized saints to intercede with heaven for humans. They promised strict guidelines in the future, both for authenticating relics and instructing the faithful against falling into superstition.

As a practical matter, the Catholic Church decided to reaffirm relics as a way to reaffirm its authority.  Protestant reformers hated relics with a passion.  The Catholic Church now was the sole arbiter of relics, so the laity who loved and venerated relics, and there were many of them, had to turn to the Catholic Church.  Relics would be an anchor for the devotion of the Catholic faithful.

The Church was faced with a difficulty, however. It was in short supply of canonized saints’ relics, such as skeletons, hair, pieces of clothing, pieces of bones, blood and so on.  The shortage was especially severe close to the Protestant German-speaking regions.

On May 31, 1578, when vineyard workers accidently opened a portal in time, finding one of several dozen underground burial sites from the 1st to 5th Centuries CE, and in them the bones of what were assumed to be the earliest Christian martyrs, it seemed god had provided for the Church.  In the catacomb galleries, there were hundreds of skeletons, bones of those who had presumably given their lives for the Christian faith. According to one well-regarded study, the total for all the catacomb galleries was between 500,000 and 750,000 skeletons.

Authentication was absurd- in the 5th Century the Goths had plundered the galleries of the catacombs and then the Lombards had sacked almost everything in the 8th Century. So it was decided the letter, “M” could stand for the word, “martyr,” “sa” could stand for the word, “blood,” sangue, and so on.  Palm fronds, doves and other decorations left near a skeleton were other “proofs” that it was the remains of a martyr. Plaques were often reproduced but had certificates of authenticity attached. Unknown relics without a name would be “baptized,” and receive a new name, which too often was the name of an already popular saint, and led to a great deal of confusion.  There were skeptics, even among the Church officials. A Custodian of Catacombs in the 17th Century expressed the idea that perhaps ten percent of the catacomb saints were authentic. According to Paul Koudounaris, in 1643 the Sacred Congregation of Rites and Ceremonies, the catacombs’ governing body, began to question baptizing anonymous bones.

Once shipped to the churches or sometimes, the homes of wealthy people, the martyred catacomb saint underwent a resurrection. In Germany, Dominican sisters were especially skilled at decorative and textile art and were well known for their ability to take care of a saint’s skeleton. But there were also Franciscan nuns and a famous lay brother, Adalbart Eder, who excelled at these arts as well.  The bones of the skeletons were treated with wax to strengthen them and missing pieces had substitutes inserted that were made of wax, wood or paper mache. Many skeletons were given artificial skulls fashioned from ceramic, wood or plaster. Many of their bones, including the skulls, had gauze placed over them.  That way they would be protected from dust and from being touched. For contemporary researchers, the style of gauze helps determine where the skeleton came from. I must say, the grisly skulls look better to the contemporary viewer when covered with gauze.

The skeleton then was bedecked with costly robes, gold and jewels. Even if cut glass jewels were used, they, too, were expensive. Real jewels, though, sometimes a thousand or so, decorated some martyred skeletons.  One church noted that 898 guilders were allocated to its saint, Clement. A guilder coin was worth 3.6 grams of gold. Gorgeous breastplates, rings, bracelets and necklaces- all parts of the skeleton were covered by sumptuous materials and jewelry. Sometimes the face was treated with painted wax features which gave the illusion of a real person.  But most of the skeletons had waxed and gauzed skulls, along with gaping teeth. The catacomb saints were a gruesome sight, or seem gruesome to the contemporary sensibility. They were objects of reverence to the faithful during a past time. Everything about the skeleton was fashioned to emphasize its martyr image, including instruments of torture, palm fronds, swords and laurels placed in the shrine or in the saints’ hands. Such articles all reinforced the central notion of the martyr’s laying down his or her life for god and the Church, along with the saint’s consequent triumph over death.

When a martyred saint was ready for what was called “translation,” to the church which would house the body, there were huge festivities in the town, with tolling of bells, cannons being fired, dramatic presentations, parades and crowds of people.  Once in a while, a town would have a crowd that numbered around 5,000. Indulgences for seven years removed from an after-death stay in Purgatory were frequently offered to people as incentives to attend.  Local pride, and often income from wealthy travelers who came to view the saint, bound the community together with the love of their local catacomb saint. Many of the skeletons were reputed to work miracles of healing.

However, the powerful magic and healing ability of the catacomb saints were apparently no use when it came to protecting themselves.  By the late 19th Century, the Protestant critics continued their outcry against the superstitious veneration paid to the skeletons.  But now they were not alone. Modern people who visited a church and saw a bony relic were aghast at the blinding jewels adorning and covering the saint, except for the skull. Lamps burning around the skeleton and faithful people kneeling to pray in front of it frightened and disgusted many visitors.

The Church itself became suspicious of the catacomb saints, who had been deemed its former revered martyrs. The Cardinal Vicar decreed in 1878, or shortly thereafter, that Bishops should be suspicious of all sainted skeletons which came out of the catacombs and should not display them. As the Church abandoned its former saints, the monasteries and churches who owned them began to sell them off, or banish them to obscure sides of the church or even to the basements. By the 20th Century, thieves would sometimes break into churches and steal the jewelry from the disgraced and neglected skeletons. Some saints remained in their former places of honor, but were temporarily sent out to have painted masks or painted wax faces placed over the original unadorned skulls. The skulls were given real or fine textured synthetic wigs.

Some of the unadorned skulls and bodies were sent to museums, where they were often a frightening sight to visitors. Paul Koudounaris’ two volumes, one titled The Empire of Death, 2011, a fabulous coffee table book, and the other titled, Heavenly Bodies, 2013, both contain numerous pictures in color of hundreds of catacomb saints. For people with an interest in learning more about the saints, please see the Bibliography at the end of the written lecture at

The Church began with lies about its great persecutions and numerous courageous martyrs, and then proceeded to elevate unknown skeletons into martyrs during the 16th and 17th Centuries, another carefully crafted fiction.  It was not one long sacred chain of Holy Doctrine that had proceeded, unbroken, from the early Church to the Church Triumphant, but one long chain of mendacity and deceit.

I would now like to shift back to the early years of the Church and take up the issue of the dislike Romans and their government had for Christians.  There is a serious error about the character and behavior of Christians which influence the way they are perceived.  Many religious people today, inculcated with the propaganda of the Church, find any sort of persecution of early Christians unintelligible. So let us, first of all, keep in mind that the legend of meek and just Christians going bravely to fulfill cruel death sentences passed by a wicked Roman judges or prosecutors, is merely a fairy tale version of historical truth.

Christians were seen as people who were socially reclusive, refusing to join the military and unwilling to swear oaths of loyalty to the government.  They were not tried as heretics, blasphemers or fools, however, Moss explains.  Romans saw Christians as people who were a threat to the security of the Empire, and the ancient world was a world in which treason and sedition were capital offenses.  Indeed, our own relatively open American society has laws on the books that allow for capital punishment for treason.

Christians were sometimes unjustly accused as cannibals and people who committed incest. Such notions about them seem to have come from them calling each other brother and sister, and their religious practice of partaking of the Christian Eucharist, the ingestion of their god’s body and blood.  Christians were more objectively, if not correctly, viewed as seditious once they were brought into the Roman courtroom. They said things which sounded like sedition to the Roman people. “They were,” states Moss, “rude, subversive and disrespectful. “ They were threatening, not meek. We need to remember that religion and government were blended with each other in the ancient world, including the Roman government. The Romans believed they were morally and politically correct in condemning Christians to death.  They felt they were protecting the Empire from the wrath of the gods. They viewed most foreign religions as superstitions and the Christian one was no different to them.

Let us keep in mind that the Romans did persecute Christians, but very rarely. I am not justifying their policies. Even one person undergoing unjust suffering and death is egregious.  But looked at from a Roman perspective, we can begin to understand the Empire’s desire to quell the unruly and threatening Christians.  The Church has painted a clever picture about itself versus the Roman Empire in histories, tales, legends, and more recently, in books, movies and television.  There is one problem about these versions- they are all untrue.

It is obvious that Christians, since their earliest days, through the 17th and 18th Centuries until the present day, have not only exaggerated their persecution at the hands of pagans, but have created outright fictions and myths about Jesus, their founder, his putative apostles, and about the so-called martyrs who died for Jesus.  Christian saints imitated Jesus’ willing martyrdom.  However, it is very apparent that the story of Jesus’ passion and death, as related by Luke, was not literal truth, but an imitation of earlier Greek stories about noble-minded philosophers, such as Socrates.  Christian tales of widespread persecution by the Roman Empire have been revealed as highly exaggerated, with relatively few victims sentenced to death for professing Christianity over a short period of time, about twelve years.  We have seen that in addition to the early martyred saints, the Church used the so-called catacomb saints’ skeletons from the early years of its history to help counter the charges of the Protestant religion in later centuries.

I am not pointing a finger at Christians exclusively.  All religions are based on fictions from their very beginnings.  The difficulty with Christians, however, is that much of their fictive history is based on the concept of martyrdom. It has not, I am sure, escaped anyone’s notice that Christians have not changed their tactics in the present day.  They continuously charge that they are being persecuted, their values denigrated and their religious rights restricted and in danger of being rescinded any day.

This outcry, as we have seen, is an ancient practice.  When the Church viciously attacked heretics and blasphemers, it claimed it was being threatened by them.  When the Church launched several unnecessary Crusades, it claimed it was being attacked. (Please see both the lectures on the Inquisition and the Crusades at When the Church attacks women’s right to their own reproductive choices, it claims that its religious freedom is in danger.  The Christian religion, Protestant as well as Catholic, is composed of many people who have the notion that it is they against the world.  Such persecution fantasies are dangerous. Christians begin to feel that they have the right to interfere and try to restrict the rights of others. Their sense of being “picked on” justifies, they believe, their vicious actions and fraudulent charges against those who disagree with them.

Perhaps even more egregious is their attempt to conflate the genuine contemporary persecutions of Christians in many nations around the world with their imagined persecution in the West, particularly in the United States.  This practice seems to energize and justify them in attempting to restrict other peoples’ civil rights. It has been noted that Christian accusation is loud, continuous and completely unjustified.  It is also somewhat arrogant and delusional to equate the genuine tragedy of persecuted Christians throughout the world with not wanting to tolerate other United States citizens of different beliefs, who are seeking such benefits as contraceptive devices or pills, and sometimes abortion as a last resort. Do fundamentalist Christians believe in such lies?  I suppose a large number of them, the rank and file does. Maybe a few leaders do.  But religion has once again begun engaging in a war against secularism, interfering with and trying to limit other lives and rights.  Christians repeatedly try to restrict or rescind the rights of people of other faiths with the childish excuse that it is they who are being persecuted.

We owe a debt of thanks to scholars such as Candida Moss and Paul Koudounaris for exposing Christian mendacity and shining the light of reason on the facts.  They are also producing robust evidence against the lies and false allegations of religion. They have, in the interest of truth and scholarship, produced ample proof to enable the secular community to give religion the lie about its beginnings and later history.  It was Dominican nuns who, while I attended their excellent school, did not tell me about the Dominicans’ chief role in the Inquisition and who did not tell me many other things, such as the German Dominican nuns’ role in treating and embellishing the skeletons of the false catacomb saints, the hundreds of false catacomb saints. Now we have learned the truth. 

The nuns did teach me an old-fashioned rhyme: “Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.  We in the secular community need to work to unweave religion’s tangled web. The modern world needs to cut through the strands that bind people with lies, with superstition, with falsehood.  Religion is a lie through and through. The atheist philosopher, Nietzsche, said: “Faith means not wanting to know what is true.” Let us combat faith with truth until it is seen that religion is a vicious and false construction. It has been since its beginning. It is slowly dying.  Let us do all we can to hasten its overdue end.



Bowersock, Glenn W. Martyrdom and Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Gibbon, Edward. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. New York: Putnam, 1962.

Koudounaris, Paul. Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs. New York, New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013.

____________. Empire of Death. New York, New York: Thames and Hudson, 2011.

Moss, Candida. Ancient Christian Martyrdom: Diverse Practices, Theologies and Traditions. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2012.

_________. The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom. New York: Harper Collins, 2013. This volume contains excellent notes, with listings of many important reference works on the topic of Christian martyrdom and persecution.

_________. The Other Christs: Imitating Jesus in Ancient Christian Ideologies of Martyrdom. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Ste. Croix, G.E.M. de. “Why Were the Early Christians Persecuted?” Past and Present 26 (1963): 6-38.