She walked into the Roman arena where the wild beasts awaited her. She trembled not from fear but from joy.
Her name was Vibia Perpetua. She was just 22, a young mother singing hymns as the crowd jeered and a lion, leopard and wild cow encircled her.
One of the beasts attacked, hurling her to the ground. She covered an exposed thigh with her bloody robe to preserve her modesty and groped in the dust for her hair pin so she could fix her disheveled hair.
And when a Roman executioner approached Perpetua with a sword, her last words before collapsing were aimed at her Christian companions: "Stand fast in the faith, and love you all one another and do not let our sufferings be a stumbling block to you."
Millions of Christians worldwide will celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus on this Easter Sunday. But the story of how the church rose to prominence after Jesus' death is being turned upside down.
According to a belief passed down through the centuries, the church grew because of Roman persecution. The blood of Christian martyrs such as Perpetua became "the seed of the church," said third-century church leader Tertullian. It's the Hollywood version of Christianity reflected in epic biblical films such as "Ben-Hur" and "The Robe." Vicious Romans relentlessly targeted early Christians, so the story goes, but the faith of people like Perpetua proved so inspiring that Christianity became the official religion of Rome, and eventually the largest religion in the world.
But that script is getting a rewrite. The first Christians were never systematically persecuted by the Romans, and most martyrdom stories -- with the exception of a handful such as Perpetua's -- were exaggerated and invented, several scholars and historians say. It wasn't just how the early Christians died that inspired so many people in the ancient world; it was how they lived.
"You had much better odds of winning the lottery than you would have becoming a martyr," says Joyce E. Salisbury, author of "The Blood of Martyrs: Unintended Consequences of Ancient Violence."
"The odds were pretty slim. More people read about martyrs than ever saw one."
Do Christians have a martyr complex today?
The debate over exactly how many Christians were persecuted and martyred may seem irrelevant centuries later. A scholarly consensus has indeed emerged that Roman persecution of Christians was sporadic, and that at least some Christian martyrdom stories are theological tall tales.
But a new book by Candida Moss, a New Testament professor at the University of Notre Dame, is bringing that message to the masses.
Moss says ancient stories of church persecution have created a contemporary cult of bogus Christian martyrs. She says too many American Christians are acting like they're members of a persecuted minority, being thrown to the lions by people who simply disagree with them.
Professor Candida Moss, author of "The Myth of Persecution," says most stories of Christian martyrs were fabricated.
She cited former Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum. Romney claimed last year that President Barack Obama was waging a "war against religion," and Santorum said the gay community "had gone out on a jihad" against him. Other Christians invoke images of persecution when someone disagrees with them on controversial issues such as abortion or birth control, says Moss, whose "The Myth of Persecution" was recently released.
The problem with invoking persecution is it implies your opponents are evil -- and no common ground can be found with evil, Moss says.
"When someone is persecuting you" she says, "there is no room for dialogue."
Others say Moss' claim is dangerous.
People such as Perpetua did die because of their beliefs. The first Christians were tortured, reviled and held in contempt by Romans -- and their example helped the church grow, they say.
The Rev. Robert Morgan, author of "On This Day in Christian History: 365 Amazing and Inspiring Stories about Saints, Martyrs and Heroes, " says it's true that some of the accounts of martyrdom were "undoubtedly embellished" and that many of the persecution stories were "handed down in an atmosphere of confusion and pressure."
Still, being a Christian in the first century was a risky move -- persecution was significant. Jesus and most of his apostles were executed, he says.
"To deny the history of the movement is a way of attacking the movement," Morgan says.
Some opposition to contemporary Christians is indeed evil, Morgan says. Christians are being killed today in places such as Nigeria and North Africa.
"Christians do not have a victim's mentality," Morgan says. "They take their stands, they know what they believe and they do good in this world. They are the ones who have established orphanages, hospitals and charitable institutions. For some reason, there's this animosity against them."
Hatred of Christians is woven into much of the New Testament. Jesus constantly warned his followers to expect persecution. The Apostle Paul wrote many of his epistles from jail. And the death of the first Christian martyr, Stephen, is dramatically recorded in the New Testament book the Acts of the Apostles.
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.