Were Christians Really Persecuted in the First Century?
by Sean McDowell
“In the first century, Christians were crucified, burned, and thrown to the wild animals simply for proclaiming the name of Christ. This was a period of immense persecution, and if Christians wanted to survive, they had to hide out from the governing authorities.” While there is some truth in this statement, it is certainly an overstatement. Yes, Christians were persecuted, but in the first century, most persecution was local and sporadic.
While there is a temptation to overstate the evidence for persecution in the first century, there is also a pattern of critics who understate the evidence. In my recent book, The Fate of the Apostles, I make the case for the willingness of the apostles to die for their faith, which shows the depth of their sincerity. They really believed Jesus had risen from the grave, and they were willing to give their lives for it. This claim is strengthened if there is evidence that Christians were actually persecuted in the first century. So, what’s the evidence?
- Jesus taught that his disciples would be persecuted: Jesus told his disciples to expect persecution and suffering for the sake of righteousness. He even warned them they would be killed, as Israel had killed the prophets. In his massive book A Marginal Jew, John Meier gives multiple lines of reasoning why these teachings go back to the historical Jesus.
- Paul taught that Christians should expect to suffer: At his conversion, Paul was told that, as part of his mission, he would suffer explicitly before Jews and Gentiles (Acts 9:15-16), and indeed he suffered. Suffering is a central theme of the letters of Paul. He not only suffered deeply for proclaiming the name of Jesus, but expected other believers to suffer as well (Rom 8:35-36; 1 Thess 3:3-4; Phil 1:29; cf. 2 Tim 4:5).
- Persecution is a significant theme in the rest of the New Testament: The expectation of suffering and persecution is not unique to the Gospel narratives or the letters of Paul. In fact, the expectation and importance of suffering is a central theme throughout the New Testament.
Historical Evidence not in the Bible
Persecution against Christians began with the religious leaders of the day, as we see in the death of Stephen (Acts 8:1), which caused Christians to scatter throughout Judea. Tacitus reports the first statewide persecution of Christians (AD 115), under emperor Nero…
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