The Easter message itself is a story of martyrdom -- Jesus, unjustly executed by the Romans. The idea that Christians are at war with demonic forces in the world is reflected throughout the New Testament, says Bryan Litfin, a theology professor at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.
"If Jesus was just a soft moral teacher who taught us to love one another and petted little babies, the Romans wouldn't have crucified him," Litfin says. "Jesus is a polarizing figure, then and today. The early Christians weren't foisting a narrative out of the blue about being martyrs. "
'Like the action heroes of the ancient world'
If the first Christians pictured themselves as waging war against the world, the martyrs were their version of the Navy SEALs. They were the elite Christians who inspired and united others of their faith.
There was a purpose behind spreading stories of persecution: Nothing brings a new group closer together than a common enemy, Moss says.
"The idea that you are persecuted forges a concrete identity," Moss says. "It really solidifies your sense of group identity."
The stories of Christian persecution were so popular that they spawned a market during the first centuries after the crucifixion. The places where martyrs were born and died became early tourist stops. Towns competed with one another to draw rich pilgrims seeking martyr memorabilia, Moss says.
"People would go and buy the equivalent of a T-shirt," Moss says. "You'd have all these little combs with saints on them that people would buy, and lamps with saints on them. People would also buy fruit from trees that grew in the vicinity of martyrs' graves. Of course, the prices were completely jacked up."
Church leaders began to embellish and invent stories of martyrdom to inspire the faithful but also to settle theological feuds, Moss says. If, say, a bishop wanted to denounce a rivals' theology, he spun a story in which a martyr denounced the same doctrine with his last breath, Moss says.
"Martyrs were like the action heroes of the ancient world," Moss says. "It was like getting your favorite athlete endorsing your favorite brand of soda."
But how often did Romans force Christians to endure torture or die for their faith? Christianity took roughly 300 years to conquer Rome. The emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 312 and gave Christians religious freedom. Christianity became the official religion of Rome by the end of the fourth century, scholars say.
For the first 300 years of the church, Christians were often ridiculed and viewed with contempt. But Roman leaders spent about "less than 10 years" out of the first 300 actually persecuting Christians, Moss says. There are only six reliable cases of Christian martyrdom before A.D. 250 out of "hundreds of stories," including Perpetua's, she says.
Many scholars have greeted Moss' contention that Roman persecution of Christians was exaggerated with a shrug. They say it was common knowledge in the academic world.
"There weren't that many Christians who were persecuted," says Gail O'Day, dean of the Wake Forest University School of Divinity in North Carolina. "When you actually read the Roman historical records, the Christians just weren't that important to them. Most Christians just got along with empire."
When Roman persecution did occur, though, it was vicious. The Emperor Nero covered fully conscious Christians with wax and used them as human torches. Other Christians were skinned alive and covered with salt, while others were slowly roasted above a pit until they died.
One of the most famous martyrs was Perpetua.
She lived in Carthage in North Africa (modern-day Tunisia) and was arrested in March 203 with four others as they prepared for baptism. The Roman Emperor Septimius Severus had decreed that any new conversion to Christianity would result in death.
History remembers Perpetua because she kept a diary during her imprisonment. It's called "The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity" (Felicity was a slave girl arrested with Perpetua). It's the oldest-surviving document from a Christian woman. The emotion in the diary is almost unbearable. Perpetua describes the pain of leaving her infant son, who she was still nursing. She describes a prison visit from her weeping father, who kissed her hands while trying to get her to renounce her faith.
Perpetua's father visited her in prison, begging her to think of him and renounce her faith.
A narrator picks up the story in the diary after Perpetua was sent to her death. He says in the diary that Perpetua's faith was so inspiring it caused the prison's warden, a man called Pudens, to convert. The narrator also describes Perpetua's death.
While she was imprisoned, Perpetua says God gave her visions to reassure her. After one, she wrote:
"I understood that I should fight, not with beasts but against the devil. But I knew that mine was the victory."
You can't discount the power of such stories, even if persecution "wasn't extremely common," says Litfin, the Moody Bible Institute professor.
Persecution was central to the rise of the early church, he says.