This Friday, May 19, The Da Vinci Code is scheduled to debut in theatres across the nation. The book has sold more than any fictional work in U.S. history and the movie is expected to place among the top 20 feature films of all time.
Although much of The Da Vinci Code is based on factual errors, none of its assertions is more egregious than the claim that Emperor Constantine of Rome financed a staff to manipulate existing biblical texts to make Christ divine. The Da Vinci Code advocates that before the Council of Nicea in 325, "Jesus was viewed by his followers as a mortal prophet ... a great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless."
One should understand, however, what prompted the persecution of thousands of Christians in the Roman Empire, long before the Council of Nicea. Major, empire-wide persecution was in full force by the mid-second century, and often the followers of Christ were led to the arenas to face horrific deaths for their faith in one great concept -- that Jesus alone was Lord.
Two such persons were Vibia Perpetua, a young wife and mother of noble descent, and Felicitas, a slave girl who was eight months pregnant. Both lived in Carthage at the end of the second century; both were part of the rapid growth of Christianity in North Africa.
Although historically accurate, Linda Holland in her book, Alabaster Doves, explains with some artistic license the dangers Christians like Perpetua and Felicitas readily faced:
"The clip clop of horses' hooves on the stone street signaled the crowd of approaching Roman legionaries. People dashed from the center of the street, leaving a path for the equestrian procession, as three soldiers bearing the insignia of the proconsul prance their steeds into the center of the market place and reared to a stop. The lead soldier unrolled a scroll, and holding it before him, shouted a decree:
'Ye men of Carthage, be it known to you that the divine Imperator has commanded that all men everywhere be loyal citizens. There has arisen in the Empire a superstition endangering the peace, prosperity, and happiness of our subjects. Be it known to you that throughout our land ignorant fellows have made a god of a malefactor condemned by Roman law. They are despisers of our laws. They will not sacrifice to the throne and crown. For years, in patience, we have waited that these childish people might return to the obedience due the state, but they refuse, and so we now decree that they be brought to judgment.
'You are commanded that wherever you may find them to take and hold them, and to bring them to the consul. Let it be done. Farewell.'"
Perpetua, Felicitas, and many other Christians were rounded up under such orders, imprisoned, scourged and eventually condemned to die. While in prison, Felicitas reportedly gave birth just before she and Perpetua were sent to the arena. The great church father, Tertullian, recorded the story of their incredible martyrdom, along with other Christian brethren:
"The day of their victory dawned and they marched from their prison with calm faces, trembling, if at all, with joy rather than fear. Perpetua went along with shining countenance and calm step, as the beloved of God, as a wife of Christ, putting down everyone's stare by her own intense gaze. With them also was Felicitas, glad that she had safely given birth so that now she could fight the beasts, going from one blood bath to another, from the midwife to the gladiator, ready to wash after childbirth in a second baptism. For the young women, however, the devil had prepared a mad heifer. This was an unusual animal, but it was chosen that their sex might be matched with that of the beast. So they were stripped naked, placed in nets and thus brought out into the arena. Even the crowd was horrified when they saw that one was a delicate young girl and the other was a woman fresh from child-birth with the milk still dripping from her breasts. And so they were brought back again and dressed in unbelted tunics.
First the heifer tossed Perpetua and she fell on her back. Then sitting up, she pulled down the tunic that was ripped along the side so that it covered her thighs, thinking more of her modesty than of her pain. Next she asked for a pin to fasten her untidy hair for it was not right that a martyr should die with her hair in disorder, lest she might seem to be mourning in her hour of triumph.
Then she got up. And seeing that Felicitas had been crushed to the ground, she went over to her, gave her hand, and lifted her up .... Then she called for her brother and spoke to him together with the catechumens [persons who had professed Christ, but had yet to be baptized] and said: 'You must all stand fast in the faith and love one another, and do not be weakened by what we have gone through'. All of them were thrown in their usual spot to have their throat cut. But the mob asked that their bodies be brought out into the open that their eyes might be the guilty witnesses of the sword that pierced their flesh. And so the martyrs got up and went to the spot of their own accord as the people wanted them to, and kissing one another they sealed their martyrdom with the ritual kiss of peace. The others took the sword in silence and without moving .... Perpetua, however, had yet to taste more pain. She screamed as she was struck on the bone; then she took the trembling hand of the young gladiator, and guided it to her throat. It was though so great a woman, feared as she was by the unclean spirit, could not be dispatched unless she herself were willing."
Think of it. In a religiously pluralistic and liberal-minded society like Rome, Perpetua could have returned to her wealthy family and comfortable surroundings. Felicitas could have been released to raise her newborn baby. If only they were willing to take a pinch of incense and place it on a fire before a graven image of Caesar, they would have been set free. Instead they chose to die of unspeakable tortures rather than deny Christ by reducing Him to just another god in a Roman pantheon. To them He was more than a god -- more than just "a mortal prophet ... a great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless." To them He was none other than the one and only true God, the King of kings and Lord of lords. For that belief and confession, which was considered seditious by Roman authorities, they were willing, if necessary, to suffer the loss of everything.
Moreover, the sacrifice of Perpetua and Felicitas is a smack in the face of that damnable notion perpetuated by The Da Vinci Code which argues the church has smeared and degraded the role of women in the church for centuries. For heaven's sake, the Catholic Church venerates Perpetua and Felicitas as Saints, along with many other women. Even the largest and most conservative Protestant denomination, Southern Baptists, have named two of their annual missions offerings after two highly esteemed female missionaries, Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong.
What has driven thousands upon thousands of men and women to give their lives in sacrifice for Christ since Christianity's beginning, century after century, has always been one all-consuming conviction: Jesus is the Lord of life and death. (Romans 10:9) He is God in human flesh and whatever one loses or gives in obedience to Him, whether life, liberty or lands, shall ultimately be returned by Him with incredible interest (Matthew 19:29). No other confidence could ever possibly motivate innumerable masses throughout the ages to so terribly, willingly, patiently, confidently and even happily suffer without retaliation at the hands of their oppressors.
Indeed, the voice of the martyrs, sealed with the testimony of their own blood, cry out well before the Council of Nicea -- "Jesus is the Lord God Almighty."
This article originally appeared on May 16, 2006.
Rev. Mark H. Creech (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the executive director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, Inc.