Christian Persecution

Christian Persecution

Since this is so powerful for me, I want to reexamine the Christian persecution and death that was such a dramatic part of early Christian history. Like me, any skeptic who holds to a notion that the resurrection of Jesus Christ was a man-made legend created after-the-fact by a group of religious zealots, should sincerely check out the legacy of Christian persecution and martyrdom. Eleven of the 12 apostles, and many of the other early disciples, died for their adherence to this story. This is so spectacular, since they all witnessed the alleged events surrounding Jesus and his resurrection, and still went to their deaths defending them. Why is this spectacular, when many throughout history have died martyred deaths for a religious belief? Because people don't die for a lie. Look at human nature throughout history. No conspiracy can be maintained when life or liberty is at stake. Dying for a belief is one thing, but numerous eye-witnesses dying for a known lie is quite another.

OK, I guess I've made my point...

Here's an account of early Christian persecution, as compiled from numerous sources outside the Bible, the most-famous of which is Foxes' Christian Martyrs of the World:1

Around 34 A.D., one year after the crucifixion of Jesus, Stephen was thrown out of Jerusalem and stoned to death. "On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria" (Acts 8:1). About 10 years later, James, the son of Zebedee and the elder brother of John, was killed when Herod Agrippa arrived as governor of Judea. Agrippa detested the Christian sect of Jews, and many early disciples were martyred under his rule, including Timon and Parmenas. Around 54 A.D., Philip, a disciple from Bethsaida, in Galilee, suffered martyrdom at Heliopolis, in Phrygia. He was scourged, thrown into prison, and afterwards crucified. About six years later, Matthew, the tax-collector from Nazareth who wrote one of the Gospels, was preaching in Ethiopia when he suffered martyrdom by the sword. James, the brother of Jesus, administered the early church in Jerusalem and was the author of a biblical text by his name. At age 94, he was beat and stoned, and finally had his brains bashed out with a fuller's club.

Matthias was the apostle who filled the vacant place of Judas. He was stoned at Jerusalem and then beheaded. Andrew was the brother of Peter who preached throughout Asia. On his arrival at Edessa, he was arrested and crucified on a cross, the two ends of which were fixed transversely in the ground (this is where we get the term, St. Andrew's Cross). Mark was converted to Christianity by Peter, and then transcribed Peter's account of Jesus in his Gospel. Mark was dragged to pieces by the people of Alexandria in front of Serapis, their pagan idol. It appears Peter was condemned to death and crucified at Rome. Jerome holds that Peter was crucified upside down, at his own request, because he said he was unworthy to be crucified in the same manner as his Lord. Paul suffered in the first persecution under Nero. Paul's faith was so dramatic in the face of martyrdom, that the authorities removed him to a private place for execution by the sword.

In about 72 A.D., Jude, the brother of James who was commonly called Thaddeus, was crucified at Edessa. Bartholomew preached in several countries and translated the Gospel of Matthew into the language of India. He was cruelly beaten and then crucified by idolaters there. Thomas, called Didymus, preached in Parthia and India, where he was thrust through with a spear by a group of pagan priests. Luke was the author of the Gospel under his name. He traveled with Paul through various countries and is supposed to have been hanged on an olive tree by idolatrous priests in Greece. Barnabas, of Cyprus, was killed without many known facts in about 73 A.D. Simon, surnamed Zelotes, preached in Mauritania, Africa, and even in Britain, where he was crucified in about 74 A.D. John, the "beloved disciple," was the brother of James. From Ephesus he was ordered to Rome, where he was cast into a cauldron of boiling oil. He escaped by miracle, without injury. Domitian afterwards banished him to the Isle of Patmos, where John wrote the last book of the Bible, Revelation. He was the only apostle who escaped a violent death.

Christian persecution didn't slow the growth of the Christian faith during the first few centuries after Jesus. Even as its early leaders died horrible deaths, Christianity flourished throughout the Roman Empire. How can this historical record of martyrdom be viewed as anything but powerful evidence for the truth of the Christian faith - a faith grounded in historical events and eye-witness testimonies?

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1 John Foxe, Foxe's Book of Martyrs, Ed. by W. Grinton Berry, Reprinted by Fleming H. Revell, 1998.

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