Evidence for Early Christian Persecution: Reasons to Believe

“The great difficulty is to get audiences to realize that you are preaching Christianity simply because you happen to think it true.” – CS Lewis

In a conversation I had with philosophy professor Tim McGrew, he asked me which place I thought starting a new religion would be successful: Mecca (Saudi Arabia) or Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Given the freedom to practice religion in Milwaukee and the widespread persecution that Christians have experienced in many countries of the Muslim world, I answered Milwaukee. While Christians can freely worship in many countries of the world (especially in the West), this wasn’t always the case. Prior to 313 A.D. when Constantine granted Christians legal status, they had no legal protections. Following Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, Christians were heavily persecuted, especially under Roman emperors such as Nero who blamed them for a great fire in Rome.

Christian Martyrdoms

Life was not easy for early Christians. In the New Testament, numerous reports by authors such as Luke and Paul document early Christian persecution. Acts 7: 54-60 documents the stoning of Stephen, while Acts 12:2 documents the way Herod Agrippa put James, the brother of John, to death by the sword. Paul was also stoned, beaten, jailed, which he documented in his New Testament books. His beheading by Nero was documented by Origen, Tertullian, and Dionysius of Corinth (Habermas & Licona, 2004). The martyrdom of Jesus’ half- brother 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.

Other accounts of the deaths of the disciples are based on tradition. The most commonly accepted traditions are as follows: (https://www.gotquestions.org/apostles-die.html unless otherwise noted).

  • Matthew suffered martyrdom in Ethiopia, killed by a sword.
  • Bartholomew was flayed to death by a whip (Johns, 2014).
  • Andrew was crucified on an X-shaped cross in Greece. The cross is now known as the cross of St. Andrew (Johns, 2014).
  • Thomas was stabbed with a spear in India
  • Paul was tortured and beheaded by the Emperor Nero in 67 AD.
  • Peter was crucified upside-down, in fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy (John 21:18).
  • James the Lesser was either beaten or stoned to death, while praying for his attackers (Johns, 2014).
  • Philip was reportedly crucified upside-down in Hierapolis, Turkey. In 2011, archaeologists in Hierapolis discovered what they believed to be Philip’s tomb (Johns, 2014).
  • Matthias reportedly preached in the “land of the cannibals” (Johns, 2014).

Jesus’ apostles were not the only ones to be persecuted. “The first Christian martyrs to be thrown to the wild beasts died in the arena of the Colosseum and, because of these martyrs, who succeeded the gladiators, the Colosseum was venerated greatly during the Middle Ages. It was considered to be a monument consecrated to the martyrdom of the early Christians. Only for that reason was it saved and for the same reason the vast structure, partially in ruins but still impressive in character, is still revered by many in the civilized world” (Rutledge, 1940).

“Immediately after registering Marcus Aurelius’ succession to Antoninus Pius [in 161 A.D.], Eusebius reports that, at the time discussed, there were great persecutions in Asia (IV, 14, io-i5, I) and that Polycarp was one of the martyrs of these persecutions…. Before telling the story of Polycarp’s arrest, torture, and execution Eusebius makes references to ‘the other martyrs’ with a summary characterization and some gory details of the barbarous treatment of these victims in this round of anti-Christian violence in Smyrna. For Polycarp was the twelfth martyr in this city, all the other martyrs being from Philadelphia (IV, 15, 45). Apart from Polycarp, Eusebius mentions only one other martyr by name, Germanicus (IV, I5,5 (Keresztes, 1968, p. 322).”

“According to the Martyrdom of Polycarp, it was the noonday crowd [at the Colosseum] that reacted ‘with uncontrollable wrath’ when [Bishop] Polycarp confessed to being a Christian. They first cried out to Philip the Asiarch to let a lion lose on Polycarp, but Philip could not do that, for the morning hunts were closed. Then the crowd cried out ‘with one mind that he should burn Polycarp alive’” (Thompson, 2002, p. 33)…. “Polycarp gazed directly at the crowd as he said ‘Away with the atheists’” (Mart. Pol. 9.2 cited in Thompson, 2002, p. 43). He was soon burned at the stake.

“Among the martyrs at Lyons was Sanctus, whose ‘body bore witness to his sufferings, being all one bruise and one wound, stretched and distorted out of any recognizably human shape; but Christ suffering in him achieved great glory, overwhelming the Adversary, and showing as an example to all the others that nothing is to be feared where the Father’s love is, nothing painful where we find Christ’s glory.’ The slave girl, Blandina, after being tortured, was ‘hung on a post and exposed as food for the wild beasts that were let loose on her. She seemed to hang there in the form of a cross … and with their physical eyes they [the other martyrs] saw in the person of their sister him who was crucified for them.’” (Mart. Pol. 1.2 cited in Thompson, 2002, p. 48).

Roman Emperor Decius (201 – 251 A.D.) instituted what was considered to be the first organized persecution of Christians throughout the Roman Empire (Scarre, 1995). Prior to Decius, persecutions of Christians had been more sporadic and local. Decius required that all citizens to perform a sacrifice to the Roman gods and the well-being of the Emperor in the presence of a Roman magistrate. The magistrate then issued a signed and witnessed certificate. Refusal to make this sacrifice resulted in the martyrdoms of some Christians, such as Babylas of Antioch, Alexander of Jerusalem, and Pope Fabian. Others, such as Bishop Cyprian of Carthage, went into hiding (Chapman, 2013). The next Emperor Gallienus paid less attention to Christianity, so the laws went into abeyance.

They were resurrected again with Diocletian, who came into office in 284. In 303, Emperors Diocletian, Maximian, Galerius, and Constantius issued a series of edicts that rescinded Christians’ legal rights and required compliance with traditional Pagan religious practices.

That ended when Constantine came into office in 306 A.D. Constantine restored Christians to full legal equality and returned property to them that had been confiscated. In 313 A.D., he signed the Edict of Milan, which offered Christians a comprehensive acceptance. Constantine himself had converted to Christianity when he had a vision of a Christian symbol, which helped him to win a battle and his seat as the Roman Emperor. Thank God for Constantine!

Gamaliel’s Prescient Statement

In the book of Acts (5: 34-39), Luke records the prescient words of a Pharisee called Gamaliel, who had questioned the wisdom of the persecution of Peter and other apostles:

“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 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.’”

The Triumph of Christianity

“In terms of world-historical significance, few developments can rival the enduring impact of the triumph of Christianity within the Roman world” (Bryant, 1993, p. 303).

Christianity is now the most widespread religion in the world with over two billion followers. It is the only religion that is not centered around the location of its origin. And it is the only religion with an active, personal Lord who loves and forgives His children.

What is also notable is to consider the Bible, which is a collection of 66 books written in three continents and three languages over 1,500 years by forty or more authors. The fact the Bible is so cohesive, compelling, and we have no provable contradictions within it is almost a miracle in and of itself.

The Guinness Book of World Records listed the Bible and the world’s best-selling book. “Although it is impossible to obtain exact figures, there is little doubt that the Bible is the world’s best-selling and most widely distributed book. A survey by the Bible Society concluded that around 2.5 billion copies were printed between 1815 and 1975, but more recent estimates put the number at more than 5 billion” (www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/best-selling-book-of-non-fiction). Furthermore, the Bible has been translated into 349 languages. Such figures indicate strong support for the Bible from all over the globe.

William Lane Craig’s website includes the following comment: “Archaeology is the greatest defender of the accuracy of the Bible. Archaeologists, when in Israel, still rely on the Bible to determine the location of tell sites which reliance has proved to be remarkably accurate. Historians have long acknowledged the accuracy of place names and events recorded in the Bible despite so-called “higher criticism” and skepticism. In fact, the Bible is now a standard historical text for archaeologists in the Middle East, Asia Minor (modern Turkey) and Macedonia. The great names of Archaeology, including Dr. Flinders Petrie, Dr. William Albright, Dr. J.O. Kinnaman, Ira M. Price, Professor Sayce of Oxford, and Sir William Ramsay have gone on record to say that archaeology confirms the accuracy and reliability of the Bible. Dr. William Albright, who was not a friend of Christianity and was probably the foremost authority in Middle East archaeology in his time, said this about the Bible: ‘There can be no doubt that archaeology has confirmed the substantial historicity of the Old Testament.’”

“Sir William Ramsey, one of the greatest archaeologists of all time, spent 30 years of his life trying to disprove the New Testament, especially Luke’s writings. After much intensive research with many expecting a thorough refutation of Christianity, Ramsey concluded that Luke was one of the greatest historians of all time and became a Christian based on his archaeological findings.”

Extensive evidence of the Bible’s historicity exists, derived from the Dead Sea Scrolls, stone inscriptions, and archaeological findings from regions described in the Bible. For a more extensive review, visit http://www.reasonablefaith.org/two-recent-archaeological-discoveries#ixzz4XfDkyKvG

In addition to the support from archaeologists, secular historians support the historicity of the Bible. One example of a history book in which the history of early Christianity and Jesus is documented is “Historical Atlas: A Comprehensive History of the World” written by forty-five academic contributors from prestigious universities from all over the globe.

The Historical Atlas states: “In fact, it came to pass that Jesus’ death was the foundation of Christianity as we know it. Rather than running scared, Jesus’ followers grew into thousands. This early ‘church’ ran into very strong opposition in Jerusalem and around 35CE great persecution took place there. Around this time, one of the most decisive turning points in world history occurred. The early church began to accept those who were not of Jewish origin- the Gentiles” (Wawro, 2008, page 84).

“Despite persecutions for the next 150 years, the new Christian Church spread into France, Spain, North Africa, and Mesopotamia. The once small sect devoted to Jesus Christ grew to between 5 and 6 million by 300 CE. By 350 CE, the number of Christians in the Roman Empire was over 33 million, and Christianity had become a universal religion” (Wawro 2008, page 85). In other words, between 5 and 6 million Christians were willing to worship Jesus illegally in the first few hundred years following Jesus’ resurrection. Early in the fourth century, Constantine had a vision of a Christian symbol, which led to a battle victory and the legalization of Christianity, ending the persecutions of early Christians.

Debunking Skeptic’s Claims

Skeptics believe the early Christians believed in Jesus, but they were mistaken. They often claim they saw either a vision or had a mass hallucination. Does it seem reasonable to determine that millions of early Christians would risk their lives by worshipping illegally to follow a “vision” or “hallucination” by a handful of fishermen, a tax collector, and a tentmaker named Paul? Furthermore, hallucinations are internal, like dreams. They aren’t shared between people. It is the independently-attested claims by multiple people that Jesus appeared to His apostles, disciples and crowds over a forty-day period after His resurrection that compelled early Christians. It is also His miracles. Some are listed below:

  1. Jesus turns water into wine (John 2:1-12)
  2. Jesus heals an official’s son without going to see the boy (John 4:46-54).
  3. Jesus heals a crippled man on the Sabbath (John 5:1-17).
  4. Jesus feeds 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish (Matthew 14:19-21; Mark 6:30-34; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-14).
  5. Jesus walks on water (Matthew 14:22-32; Mark 6:47-52; John 6:16-21).
  6. Jesus heals a man born blind (John 9:1-41).
  7. Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-44).
  8. Jesus heals a bleeding woman (Matthew 9:2-7; Mark 5:25-34; Luke 8:43-48).
  9. Jesus calms a storm (Matthew 8:23-27; Mark 4:37-41; Luke 8:22-25).
  10. Jesus heals a paralyzed man (Matthew 9:2-7; Mark 2:3-12; Luke 5:18-26).
  11. Jesus resurrected from the dead (Matthew 28:5-6; Mark 16:6; Luke 24; John 20).

Paul, the author of between six and thirteen New Testament books, offers one of the most compelling stories of a transformation. Paul (known as Saul) was on the road to Damascus in his effort to identify and arrest early Christians for illegal worship. “Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me.’ ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Saul asked. ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting’ (Acts 9-1-6). Paul immediately converted to the Way and became one of its most ardent followers who was beaten, imprisoned, and eventually beheaded all in Jesus’ name.

In 2 Corinthians 16:26-27, Paul states: “I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles, in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.” 2 Corinthians 12:10 adds: “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” Clearly, Paul was not living an easy life once he decided to follow Jesus.

Some skeptics have argued that the early Christian disciples were mistaken, delusional, or were profiting from Christianity in some material way, yet they fail to consider basic psychology. They also fail to consider the early disciples reaped no material (sex, power, or money) rewards.  We have no indication they were not of sound minds. They were martyred for their beliefs, yet they were in the position to know whether they’re beliefs were true. For this reason, comparing them to modern day martyrs, such as the 9-11 hijackers, is faulty. Muslim extremists believed what others told them – not what they saw. No Muslims have seen Allah. The Quran states that.

Consider the following:

  1. People of sound minds make decisions that maximize their outcomes.
  2. People of sound minds weigh benefits against drawbacks when making decisions.
  3. Early Christians wanted to maximize their chances of going to heaven by following Jesus.
  4. Early Christians weighed the benefits of going to heaven and following Jesus against the risks of imprisonment and death.
  5. Had early Christians determined the risks outweighed the benefits (and considered it all a lie), they would have recanted their testimonies in support of Jesus.

Jesus’ Counterintuitive Approach

Furthermore, Jesus’ chosen disciples speaks to His miracles. If I were going to start a new club or a new business, I would want to enlist the help of powerful and influential people. I would want support from people who had the money and visibility needed to help me get the word out. I would choose the best and brightest.

Rather than choose the powerful Pharisees, politicians, or other leaders, Jesus chose the weak. He chose fishermen, a tent maker, a tax collector, and others. He healed prostitutes, forgave adulterers and elevated women and children. Women, who were considered second class citizens during Jesus’ time were the first to make the most important discovery in the Bible: the empty tomb.

Jesus went against people’s expectations. Rather than appear with power, glory and majesty, He appeared in a manger. Rather than work as an earthly King, Jesus worked as a humble carpenter. Rather than rub elbows with the Pharisees who were considered the most devout followers of God, Jesus rubbed elbows with the sinners. Rather than call on His followers to do great works, He has called on us to have faith in Him. No other religions are like Christianity, which is the way, the truth, and the life.

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Luke 11:28-30.

References:

Belt, D. (2014). Life in the time of Jesus. National Geographic. Jesus and the Apostles. Christianity’s early rise. Special Issue.

Bryant, J.M. (1993). The sect-church dynamic and Christian expansion in the Roman Empire: Persecution, penitential discipline, and schism in sociological perspective. The British Journal of Sociology, 44(2): 303-339.

Chapman, J. (2013). St. Cyprian of Carthage. The Catholic Encyclopedia, 4. Robert Appleton Company, 1908.

Craig, W.L. (2016) Two recent archeological discoveries. Accessed February 3, 2017 at http://www.reasonablefaith.org/two-recent-archaeological-discoveries

Habermas, G.R. & Licona, M.R. (2004). The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. Kregel  Publications: Grand Rapids, MI.

Johns, C. (2014). Life in the time of Jesus. National Geographic. Jesus and the Apostles. Christianity’s early rise. Special Issue.

Miller, S.M. (2007). The Complete Guide to the Bible. Barbour: Phoenix, AZ. USA.

Wawro, G. (2008). Historical Atlas: A Comprehensive History of the World. Millennium House: Elanora Heights, Australia

 

 

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