For the first three hundred years of its existence, tradition maintains, Christianity was a persecuted and suffering religion. Members were hunted down and executed, their property and books burned by crusading emperors intent on routing out the new religion. Women and children were thrown to the lions and boiled alive in caldrons, as maddened crowds bayed for blood. Jesus, Stephen, and the Apostles were only the beginning.

As Christianity grew, so did the ranks of martyrs. According to the fourth-century historian Eusebius, early Christians were racked, whipped, beaten, and scourged. Tens of thousands were condemned to the amphitheaters to face wild animals, forced to fight gladiators, beheaded, strangled quietly in jail, or burned publicly as a mark of shame.

The history of early Christianity, as we have received it, is a history of victimization and pain. It underwrites the idea that Christians are at odds with their world, engaged in a continuing struggle between good and evil.

But that narrative has very little basis in the documentary record.

There is almost no evidence from the period before Constantine, traditionally called the Age of Martyrs, to support the idea that Christians were continuously persecuted. That idea was cultivated by church historians like Eusebius and Sozomen and by the anonymous hagiographers who edited, reworked, and replicated stories about martyrs. The vast majority of those stories, however, were written during periods of peace, long after the events they purported to describe. Even those that are roughly contemporaneous with the events have been significantly embellished.

Early Christians, like virtually everyone in the ancient world, expanded, updated, and rewrote their sacred texts. The problem lies not with the use of these texts as religious stories­—but with their acceptance as historical records. The account of persecution and martyrdom encoded in these texts makes claims about the motives of non-Christians and the place of Christians in the world. It is easily adopted to justify vitriol and polemic in other contexts.