Were the Early Christians Really Persecuted?
by J 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).
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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…