Were the Early Christians Really Persecuted? by James Warner Wallace

Were the Early Christians Really Persecuted? by James Warner Wallace

In Cold Case Christianity, I discuss the evidential value of the martyrdoms of the original eyewitnesses to the Resurrection of Jesus. When evaluating the reliability of these witnesses, their potential bias can be assessed on the basis of their willingness to die rather than recant their testimony. Many skeptics, however, doubt these martyrdoms occurred in the first place. The deaths of the Apostles are recorded by a variety of ancient authors; some of these accounts are, admittedly, more thorough and reliable than others. Critics of Christianity have accused early Christians of inventing these apostolic martyrdom stories. In fact, some skeptics have denied the systemic persecution of early Christians altogether in the first two centuries. Candida Moss, professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame, has written a book, (The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom) challenging the early persecution of Christians (including the Apostles) prior to the 3rd Century. I think her task is daunting, however, given the impressive cumulative case demonstrating the dramatic mistreatment of the earliest Christians:

The Persecution of the Apostles Was Anticipated by the Gospel Authors
The New Testament Gospel authors (writing the earliest accounts of the life of Jesus and his followers) described the threat of persecution even while Jesus was alive. They documented Jesus’ repeated warnings to his followers related to persecution (i.e. Matthew 24:9, John 15:18-21, John 16:1-4, Luke 14: 25-33).

The Persecution of the Apostles Was Described by the Author of Acts
Luke described the immediate persecution of the disciples following the Ascension of Jesus in his Book of Acts (written in the 1st Century):

Peter and John were arrested (Acts 4:3 and Acts 5:18),

Stephen was stoned to death (Acts 6 and 7),

The believers were persecuted as a group (Acts 8:1),

Members were pulled from their homes and taken to prison (Acts 8:3),

King Herod put James (the brother of John) to death and arrested Peter (Acts 12).

The Persecution of the Apostles Was Described Personally by New Testament Authors
Paul (writing again the 1st Century) described his consistent persecution (i.e. 2 Corinthians 11:24-28) and Luke corroborated Paul’s suffering:

In Jerusalem, Paul spoke openly and challenged the Hellenists. They, in turn, tried to kill him (Acts 9:28-30)

In Antioch, the Jewish leadership encouraged persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and eventually expelled them from the area (Acts 13:48-52)

In Iconium, both Jews and Gentiles attempted to stone Paul and Barnabas, forcing them to flee to Lystra (Acts 14:5-6)

The Jewish residents of Lystra convinced the citizenry to stone Paul as well. He nearly died from this stoning but was rescued by the disciples (Acts 19-20)

Paul and Silas were beaten openly and thrown into prison in Philippi (Acts 16:19-40)

In Berea, the Thessalonian Jewish believers incited the crowd and forced Paul to flee by sea (Acts 17:13-14)

Paul was eventually arrested in Caesarea and taken Governor Felix (Acts 24:1). He was ultimately taken to Rome where he was placed in house arrest under guard (Acts 28)

The Persecution of the Apostles Was Described by the Second Generation of Christian Authors
The early students of the Apostles described the martyrdom of their teachers in ancient non-Biblical documents. They also described the persecution of other early Christians.

Clement of Rome (80-140 AD) confirmed Peter “endured not one but many labors, and thus having borne his testimony went to his appointed place of glory” (1 Clement 5:4). Clement also confirmed Paul “had been seven times in bonds, had been driven into exile, had been stoned” (1 Clement 5:5) and “when he had borne his testimony before the rulers, so he departed from the world and went unto the holy place, having been found a notable pattern of patient endurance” (1 Clement 5:6). Clement also described “sudden and repeated calamities and reverses which are befalling us” (1 Clement 1:1).

Ignatius (105-115 AD) described Paul as a martyr (The Epistle of Ignatius to the Ephesians, Chapter 12). He also described himself as a “a condemned man” and anticipated his martyrdom in Rome, where he would “become food for the wild beasts, through whose instrumentality it will be granted me to attain to God” (The Epistle of Ignatius to the Romans, Chapter 4). Ignatius also referred to the persecution of the Church in Antioch (The Epistle of Ignatius to the Philadelphians, Chapter 10).

Polycarp (110-140 AD) described the martyrdom of Paul “and the rest of the Apostles” in addition to the martyrdom of “Ignatius and Zosimus and Rufus” along with “others also who came from among yourselves” (Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians 9:1)

The Persecution of the Second Generation of Christians Was Described by Subsequent Authors
Followers of the Church Fathers wrote about the martyrdom of these early Church leaders, claiming they were following the examples of the Apostles.

Clement was banished from Rome by Emperor Trajan and forced to work in a stone quarry reportedly drowned as a martyr (c. 99AD)

Ignatius was reportedly martyred in the Roman Colosseum under Emperor Trajan (c. 117AD)

Polycarp was reportedly martyred (along with six others) by Antoninus Pius (c. 160AD). After refusing to recant his faith, he told his persecutors, “Eighty and six years have I served him, and he never did me wrong, how then can I blaspheme my king who hath saved me?”

Justin Martyr was prosecuted (together with his companions) by Junius Rusticus. Justin was ultimately beheaded as a martyr (c. 165AD)

The Persecution of 1st and 2nd Century Christians Was Described by Ancient Non-Christians
Early non-Christian sources confirm the persecution accounts of the early Church.

Tacitus described the persecution of Christians in Rome (c. 64-68AD) within 30 years of Jesus’ crucifixion. “Nero falsely accused and executed with the most exquisite punishments those people called Christians.” According to Tacitus, some Christians “were seized who admitted their faith, and then, using the information they provided, a vast multitude were convicted, not so much for the crime of burning the city, but for hatred of the human race.” These early Christians were brutally executed, “and perishing they were additionally made into sports: they were killed by dogs by having the hides of beasts attached to them, or they were nailed to crosses or set aflame, and, when the daylight passed away, they were used as nighttime lamps.” (Annals)

Suetonius (69-122AD) also described the persecution of the early Christians. He said Emperor Claudius (41-54 AD) “expelled them from Rome,” (The Lives of the Twelve Caesars; Claudius 25) and reported that, under Nero, “punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition” (The Lives of the Twelve Caesars; Nero 16)

Pliny the Younger (Governor of Pontus / Bithynia) confirmed the persecution of Christians in his letter to Emperor Trajan (c. 112AD). He asked the Emperor “whether pardon is to be granted for repentance, or, if a man has once been a Christian, it does him no good to have ceased to be one; whether the name itself, even without offenses, or only the offenses associated with the name are to be punished.” Pliny told Trajan, “I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed.” Pliny excused those who rejected Christ and proved their allegiance to the Roman gods: “Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ–none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do–these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.” Trajan, in his response to Pliny, confirms the means by which early Christians could avoid persecution: “If they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it, that is, by worshiping our gods, even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance.”

The Persecution of 1st and 2nd Century Christians Was Described by Ancient Christians
Early Christian leaders wrote about the ongoing persecution of believers

Justin Martyr (100-164AD) described the continuous persecution of the Christian community in a letter to Emperor Augustus Caesar. He wrote, “You can kill us, but cannot do us any real harm” (The First Apology of Justin Martyr)

Tertullian (160-225 AD) described the suffering of the early Christians as he wrote to Roman governors in an attempt to stem the persecution of Christians in his era (Apologeticus)

Even the most skeptical critics of Christian history typically accept the 3rd and 4th Century records of large scale persecution of Christians under Emperor Decius (c. 250’s AD), Valerian (c. 260’s AD), Diocletian (c. 280’s AD) and Galerius (early 300’s AD). These four emperors persecuted Christians vigorously. Under Valerian alone, many well-known known Christian leaders were martyred, including Cyprian (Bishop of Carthage), Sixtus II (Bishop of Rome) and Saint Lawrence.

The evidence for the early persecution of Christians is robust, including the 1st Century Biblical record, the 1st and 2nd Century Christian non-Biblical record, and the accounts of ancient 1st and 2nd pagan historians and writers. Like any cumulative case, the strength of this evidence is compounded by the diversity of the sources. Is the early persecution of Christians simply a myth created by Christians to advance the cause of Christianity? Those who propose such a theory must account for the following:

The records of persecution originate over the entire course of Christian history, from New Testament era to the 2nd, 3rd and 4th generation of Christian believers

The records of persecution originate in geographically diverse locations

The records of persecution originate in culturally diverse Christian communities

The records of persecution originate from both Biblical and non-Biblical authors

The records of persecution originate from both Christian and non-Christian authors

The records of persecution were unopposed by ancient objectors

While skeptics in our day may deny the ancient Christian claims of martyrdom, the opponents of antiquity were silent. The Christian record remains the one unopposed, dominant voice from antiquity, describing the persecution of ancient Christians and identifying this persecution with their refusal to “[reject] Christ and [prove] their allegiance to the Roman gods.”




14 thoughts on “Were the Early Christians Really Persecuted? by James Warner Wallace

  1. fsan92 September 1, 2014 / 7:33 pm

    Even if christians weren’t so persecuted in the first centuries, we can see them being persecuted today, just check the killings of christians made by Boko Haram, the persecutions made by communist dictatorships, the persecutions made by Kim Jong-il and Un, the constant attack of nowaday atheists on the internet (what is actually verbal bullying) Myself have suffered attacks when streetpreaching, insults, spits, etc.

    • charles September 5, 2014 / 1:48 am

      I’m not denying that Christians are mistreated, and I am not excusing persecution. But much of what atheists are criticized for is simply disagreeing with Christians. The same rights that allow you to preach allow others to disagree with you. Everyone should be civil, of course.

      Also, it goes both ways. In some settings, it is intimidating for a Christian to be open about their faith for fear of being ridiculed. However, in some settings, atheists are wary of being open about their lack of belief for fear of being harassed and discriminated against. Everyone likes to think they are in the persecuted minority. The better way forward is for everyone to think about how they treat those who disagree with them.

  2. charles September 5, 2014 / 1:41 am

    I’ve heard that many (all?) of the 12+Paul were martyred. Do the writings of the early church mention what happened to any of them other than Peter and Paul? What are the historical sources for the lives and deaths of the other apostles?

      • charles September 5, 2014 / 2:15 am

        Thanks! Just read it. There were no sources given for any martyrdoms other than what is recorded in the New Testament. Did the early church fathers ever mention any of the 12 other than Peter? I’m guessing they mentioned John. What about the others?

        “While we can have more confidence in the martyrdoms of apostles such as Peter, Paul and James the brother of John (and probably Thomas and Andrew), there is much less evidence for many of the others (such as Matthias and James, son of Alphaeus). This evidence is late and filled with legendary accretion. This may come as a disappointment to some, but for the sake of the resurrection argument, it is not critical that we demonstrate that all of them died as martyrs.”
        My concern here is not the resurrection argument, but the question of how much of the Bible I can really trust. It seems odd that the apostles (other than Peter and John) seem to just disappear from history. There seems to be evidence that Thomas went to India. Perhaps the others disappear because they traveled long distances?

      • chab123 September 5, 2014 / 1:45 pm

        I guess I don’t understand why it matters so much. As the Wallace article says, it is clear there was an early persecution-some of them were dying. What is it that the Bible is wrong about regarding that issue?

      • chab123 September 5, 2014 / 1:47 pm

        Go back and read the Wallace article again. He discusses the evidence of the later writings outside the Bible.

  3. charles September 5, 2014 / 2:07 pm

    Nowhere in Wallace’s article are any of the twelve other than Peter mentioned by name. I’m not denying Christians were persecuted, which is what the article is talking about.

    I want to know if there are any sources that mention the other 11 by name. What happened to those guys?

    It is important because if the gospel accounts are factual, it would be odd if 11/12 of the original set of leaders were never mentioned again. I should say 10/12 as I think John is mentioned by Iraneus, right?

    Do you know of any sources that mention any of the others by name? (Not just “the apostles”)

    • chab123 September 5, 2014 / 3:02 pm

      I don’t think it really matters that we have solid documentation for all 12. If we don’t, does this mean they didn’t die or were persecuted? As Sean said,” While we can have more confidence in the martyrdoms of apostles such as Peter, Paul and James the brother of John (and probably Thomas and Andrew), there is much less evidence for many of the others (such as Matthias and James, son of Alphaeus).”

      Arguments from silence are tricky. Kind of like silly Jesus mythers who think we should have all kinds of documents about Jesus outside the NT. Even if we don’t have 100% documentation of all 12, it doesn’t mean Jesus didn’t rise from the dead. The key is not to shoot for 100% exhaustive knowledge of every single issue. If that’s what you’re going for, you wont get it. And you won’t get in skepticism as well. You will always have some gaps of knowledge.

      • charles September 5, 2014 / 4:07 pm

        I think you are conflating the concepts of proof and evidence. Documentation of the apostles matters in that lack of their mention weakens the evidence for the historical reliability of the NT. Even in the NT the 12 apostles are barely mentioned outside of the gospels and the beginning of Acts. This doesn’t *prove* anything, but it is one piece of information that someone deciding whether or not to trust the Bible should take into account.

      • chab123 September 5, 2014 / 6:37 pm

        Charles, do you have a background in epistemology? I don’t use the word ‘proof’ because it generally means we need to have certitude:

        In order for a judgment to belong in the realm of certitude, it must meet the following criteria:
        (1) It cannot be challenged by the consideration of new evidence that results from improved observation

        (2) It can’t be criticized by improved reasoning or the detection of inadequacies or errors in the reasoning we have done. Beyond such challenge or criticism, such judgments are indubitable, or beyond doubt.

        Now, regarding the exhaustive evidence for the 12, let’s apply these same principles elsewhere:
        Josephus who was a Pharisee doesn’t mention Paul (who was a Pharisee) at all. So maybe Paul didn’t exist? The Teacher of Righteousness that has come to us in the Qumran writings is not mentioned by Josephus or Philo. Maybe he didn’t exist? He was invented? Rabbi Hillel, the founder of the school of Hillelites is never mentioned by Josephus. But Josephus is a devout Pharisee. Maybe Hillel did not exist? Bar Kochba, the messianic leader who led the Jewish revolt against the Romans is not mentioned by Dio Cassius in his account on the revolt. I could go on and on.

        If you are going to apply these principles and use arguments from silence, you need to be consistent with everything in antiquity. If you do, you will find you cant’ know much at all. So if the 12 are not mentioned in some sort of perfect documentation outside the NT, does this mean they are made up-they are fiction? That wouldn’t work because that goes against the genre of the Gospels.

        You can read Credo Houses’s info on the matrydom issue.


        You may say you don’t need proof, but evidence. But then you are shooting with probabilities with history. So you may never be satisfied. Just try to be consistent with the NT and everything else you deal with in antiquity. Apply the same historical method demands to everything else.

  4. charles September 5, 2014 / 7:50 pm

    I may not have been entirely clear, and I may have misunderstood some of your statements.
    You wrote both
    “The key is not to shoot for 100% exhaustive knowledge of every single issue.” and
    “You may say you don’t need proof, but evidence. But then you are shooting with probabilities with history. So you may never be satisfied.”
    That sounds inconsistent, but I might just not be understanding what you mean.

    I started with a question: “What are the historical sources for the lives and deaths of the other apostles?” because I honestly did not know what those sources were. I had heard that there was very little, but was not sure and hoped you might know the answer.

    I just looked at the last link you provided. There are lots of statements about what happened to them, but no sources other than for James (Clement and Eusebius), Peter (Eusebius), Andrew (Hippolytus), and Matthias (Eusebius, regarding where he preached). Where do the other stories come from? This is certainly the most information I’ve seen on this so far, but it would be nice to know where these stories came from.

    You wrote that you don’t think that question matters. I agree that it does not matter in the sense that whether or not there are such sources does not prove anything with 100% certainty one way or the other. However, it does matter as evidence. If there were such sources, I suspect apologists would be touting them as highly relevant. Thus, their absence is noteworthy. Not as proof of anything, but as a piece of information.

    I totally agree that I should be consistent in how I apply standards of evidence. To the extent that I fail to do so, I appreciate being called out on it.

    Thanks for the help tracking down this information!

    • chab123 September 5, 2014 / 9:29 pm

      Thanks man. I do think the Credo article is a pretty good summary. But I think that in the end, we wont be able to find much else. As I said, just don’t think it is necessary (at least for me) to have much else on the apostles and martyrdom. In the end, as the Wallace article said, we have enough in the NT alone to know they were persecuted and some martyred like Stephen. It doesn’t make or break the resurrection for me. But maybe we will have to see what Sean MacDowell comes up with. He is writing his dissertation on it.

    • chab123 September 5, 2014 / 9:30 pm

      Like I said, when it comes to proof, many people are thinking in the certitude category though they generally don’t know what that is.

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