“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” – St. Paul in Romans 12:2
One of the most well-attested and undisputed facts of Christianity is the fact the early Christian martyrs (such as Peter, Paul, and James) preached for decades that Jesus is risen, despite severe persecution and eventual martyrdom. They refused to recant to spare their lives and persevered, following Jesus’ example. The intention of this article is to strengthen this point to provide solid support for Jesus’ resurrection.
The vast majority of Biblical scholars concur that the New Testament was written in the first century by multiple independent authors – and most books were written by St. Paul before the Romans destroyed the Jewish Second Temple in 70 A.D. Paul was beheaded by Nero between 64 and 67.
1 Corinthians 15, where Paul documented the 500 witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection, was based on a creed Christians had memorized between 1 and 5 years after Jesus’ resurrection in 33. Atheist and agnostic scholars such as Michael Shermer and Bart Ehrman have also acknowledged this dating. In other words, the New Testament was written during the lifetimes of many who either knew Jesus or knew people who knew Jesus and who were witnesses to His resurrection.
In 66 A.D., the Roman historian, pagan and skeptic of Christians named Publius Cornelius Tacitus documented early Christian persecution in his Annals. He wrote of the way Nero shifted the blame of the great fire in 64 to the Christians as follows: “Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind.” Tacitus further stated “Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to flames and burnt to serve as nightly illumination…Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle” (Annals, 15:44).
In Tacitus’ extra-biblical report, we learn (1) a group of people were labeled Christians; (2) this group was mocked and persecuted due to their beliefs in Christianity; (3) rather than recant their beliefs to save themselves for persecution, they pled guilty and were brutally tortured; (4) their leader was called Christus (which is the Roman word for Christ); and (5) Christ suffered “the extreme penalty” under Pontius Pilate.
They stood out from the pagans of the time, having chosen to honor Christ by living morally upright lifestyles (Schmidt, 2004). In Pliny’s report to the Emperor Trajan (Pliny Letters), he states that the Christians “bound themselves by a solemn oath not to do any wicked deeds, never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up. In 126 A.D., the pagan Greek physician Galen observed that Christians practiced “self-discipline and self-control in matters of food and drink, and in their pursuit of justice a pitch not inferior to that of genuine philosophers” (Benko, 1984, 142).
Why didn’t these early Christian martyrs recant to avoid mocking and “exquisite tortures?” This group of people lived during the lifetimes of those who had witnessed Jesus’ ministry and resurrection and perhaps some among them had known and witnessed Jesus’ resurrection, so rather than deny that truth, they chose to be martyred. In other words, they were not only believers who had chosen to die for our Savior; they were witnesses to our Savior’s resurrection.
In the same decade in which Tacitus wrote Annals, Peter, James (Jesus’ ½ brother) and Paul were martyred, as documented by early Church fathers and historians. They also chose not to recant. Paul’s beheading by Nero was documented by Origen, Tertullian, and Dionysius of Corinth (Habermas & Licona, 2004). The martyrdom of James was documented by Josephus, Hegesippus, and Clement of Alexandria (Habermas & Licona, 2004). Peter was crucified upside down, as confirmed by Eusebius, the first church historian, in his book “Ecclesiastical History” and also by Dionysius of Corinth, Tertullian, and Origen.
Interestingly, Peter, James, and Paul weren’t always such ardent believers. In the gospels, we learn that Peter denied Jesus 3 times just before Jesus was crucified. He and Jesus’ other disciples went into hiding just after His crucifixion. The apostles and Jesus’ family members did not even bury Jesus. Instead a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, Joseph of Arimathea, buried Jesus in his own tomb because he chose to go against the group who had demanded Jesus’ crucifixion.
Jesus’ family also questioned His divinity during His ministry (Matthew 12:46-50; Luke 8:19-21). But after Jesus appeared to his ½ brother James, James became an ardent follower and early Church leader in Jerusalem. James was certainly in the position to denounce the claim that Jesus had not sinned if Jesus had sinned, but James said nothing of the sort.
James (1:2-5) writes “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that testing your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.”
Paul was a very zealous early persecutor of Christians known as Saul, who witnessed Christianity’s first martyr Stephen’s stoning. Then Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus and Paul became one of Christianity’s greatest advocates. He was stoned, beaten, shipwrecked, and jailed, yet never recanted.
“That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” – St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:10
Jews accused early Christians of turning “the world upside down” (Acts 17:6) at that time. Nothing could stop them.
“The apostles were brought in and made to appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. ‘We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,’ he said. ‘Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teachings and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.’ Peter and the other apostles replied: ‘We must obey God rather than human beings!’ (Acts 5:27-30).
“When they heard this, they were furious and wanted to put them to death. But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a little while. Then he addressed the Sanhedrin: ‘Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in a revolt. He too was killed and all his followers were scattered. Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”
Before Christianity was finally given legal status by Constantine in 313 A.D., the movement had grown to between 5 and 6 million people! (Wawro, 2008). With God, nothing is impossible.
Thank you for your time.
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.” – CS Lewis
If you’d like to hear more about the Good News, you might find this debate between a Christian and an atheist interesting and educational: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AgVCo5Jeq3U. The Christian Luuk Vandeweghe debated Michael Shermer by employing a novel, yet brilliant approach to build a strong case for Jesus’ divinity. His approach implicitly utilized Aristotle’s art of persuasion, focusing on establishing credibility (ethos), appealing to emotion (pathos) and appealing to logic (logos).
Benko, S. (1984) Pagan Rome and the Early Christians. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Habermas, G.R. & Licona, M.R. (2004). The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications.
Lewis, C.S. (1952). Mere Christianity. New York, NY: Harper Collins. CS. Lewis Pte. Ltd.
Schmidt, A.J. (2004). How Christianity Changed the World. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Wawro, G. (2008). Historical Atlas: A Comprehensive History of the World. Millennium House.