The Growth of the Early Church: A Testimony Believed.
This essay was written in response to challenges to demonstrate that the early Christians died because of their testimony, and their unwillingness to reject their testimony. In other words, they believed that they had actually seen certain events, and chose to die rather than deny what they had seen. Contrast with an event like 9-11, where we talk about 19 Muslims flying into the towers ‘because of their beliefs.’ I will contend in this essay that the early martyrs were driven on by what they witnessed with their own eyes- externally- in contrast to mere internal certainty and confidence.
This was written in the context of an Internet debate, so the sources are often links to sites where the reader could have investigated the information. These ‘links’ are listed at the end of the essay. It’s possible that links have become obsolete as of the time of publication. [This was put to the net more than five years ago]
The thesis of this essay is “The early Christians did not die for a set of beliefs, but rather for the conviction that a certain set of events had actually occurred.” Importantly, there will be no attempt to show that the Christians were killed precisely for their testimony, only that they died on account of it. The historical records show that those holding to the testimony of Jesus were killed for many different reasons. In some cases, the honor of local idols were defended. In other cases, especially seen among the Romans, they were killed out of fear the Christians would not be loyal to Rome. In some cases, the status quo had to be maintained. In many cases, we don’t know the real reason why they were killed. But for our purposes, our focus is on the martyrs themselves. Did they die out of nationalistic desires to bring about a new Jewish Kingdom? Did they die in order to honor the law of Moses, or to defend the sacredness of the Temple, the way so many Jews of the time did? If in fact they died rather to defend the proposition that a certain set of events really did happen and they could not behave otherwise, this will do two things for us.
Firstly, it will increase the credibility of these early Christians. A person who is willing to face death rather then deny what they believe is already one that deserves a certain measure of credibility. The problem of course is that many people throughout history have died for what they believe, and many of those beliefs are mutually exclusive. We shall turn to that issue in a moment. Nonetheless, the sincerity of these early martyrs cannot be called into question. Further, other motives that could be ascribed, like ‘fear,’ ‘avarice,’ ‘nationalism,’ etc, cannot be supported, for they obviously were not afraid, obviously if dead, could not enjoy financial fruits, and made no attempt to establish a state. We know, at the minimum, then, that they were sincere.
Secondly, if they died for testifying to a certain set of events, then our confidence in believing those events actually occurred increases. The problem is more easily seen if we consider other similar examples. For example, “2+2=4” is a true proposition but if someone had a gun to his head, he would gladly deny what he knew to be 100% true. If a person was called to testify that he had actually seen a person enter their business but was told, at threat of death, to change his testimony, he is going to change their story. It’s just not worth dying for. If, however, the person refused to change his testimony and went to the grave on account of it, we would have to admit that the person probably told the truth. Only perpetual skepticism (ie, cynicism) could suggest anything else.
Let us keep this before us as a powerful fact about human nature.
The early Christians, when confronted with the “Roman Compromise,” simply could not deny what they themselves had actually seen. For this, they died- either directly (gun to the head style), or indirectly (were in a position of risk because they refused to recant). The “Roman Compromise” was simply the Roman way of preserving national security. A person could believe or even say nearly anything that they wanted, so long as they showed their allegiance to Rome by sacrificing to idols. Since the Caesar himself was considered a god, failure to show such consideration was treachery. The record, as we will see, demonstrates that the “Roman Compromise” was not tenable for people who knew for a fact that Caesar and his silly stones were not gods, at all.
How can our thesis be shown?
The records of history usually raise more questions then they answer. The reason for this is simple: the ancient historians were writing for their own purposes and not to fulfill every inquisitive whim of future generations. As we evaluate some of the historical records on this matter it will be important to keep in mind that a certain amount of interpretation is inevitable and it is our duty to make that interpretation as reasonable as possible. We will do our best with what the historical records have to give us but the reader should understand in advance that this is a question the ancients never thought to address, so it is not fair to expect a direct answer. What we can do is make a cumulative case, and let the chips fall where they may.
There is one great upside to our analysis that circumvents the usual questions about authenticity and canonical questions. We are seeking to investigate a matter that the ancients could not have conceived would be a matter of study. There is nothing magical or mystical or supernatural about a person being tried and put to death. The event may be glorified and put in words complimentary to one side or the other, but the event is not likely to be wholly fabricated or falsified. In a sense, we are eavesdropping on people who have no idea what information we are looking for. Since they do not know what information we are looking for, they cannot contrive to deceive us, even if they contrive to deceive us on other matters.
Our investigation shall involve the following areas of inquiry:
*An investigation into the nature of the testimony of the first generation Christians (actual eyewitnesses), and when possible, the nature of the threats made against them and how those threats were carried out.
*An investigation into the conduct of the generations of Christians immediately following the first generation (people who were not eyewitnesses of the death and alleged resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth).
*An investigation into the attitudes and tactics of the oppressors of the early Christians.
Since the New Testament works are written almost completely by the very same first generation Christians we are investigating, we can reasonably assume that these same authors will not record their own deaths! Such records will have to be found in the writings of later generations of writers. It is unreasonable to expect to hear many stories of martyrdom recounted by the apostles and their comrades. That doesn’t mean that we cannot evaluate the type of testimony the apostles utilized. By looking at the way in which the first Christians presented their testimony, and being reasonably certain that they died for or because of this testimony, we may be able to infer with a certain amount of confidence the circumstances of their death as they relate to our question. Admittedly, this is not as strong as we may like, but it is the best we could expect- and proper expectations are key.
The later generations of Christians were not all that interested in demonstrating the thesis of this paper. That causes a problem in the sense that we will not have as much documentary evidence as we like, but it increases the credibility and the importance of the documentary evidence we do have. With these later generations, we see that having been convinced beyond a reasonable doubt by the testimony of the disciples, they focused more on the message of Christ and living according to that message than they did in offering readers two thousand years later the details of that convincing. Importantly, these later generations behave according to a pattern they claimed they learned from the disciples and witnessed from them. This includes their behavior in the face of death.
The Romans quickly found out that the Christians treasured most the words and documents of those first generation Christians. Christians did not simply die for refusing to deny Christ, but also for refusing to turn over these documents. Those that did were called ‘traitors,’ which means, ‘to turn over.’ These documents had to be carefully hidden. But given this set of circumstances, we can expect that any careful cataloging of documents wouldn’t be until later, when Christians were ‘safe.’ Much of our information in these matters comes from Christians writing in the third and fourth centuries when the Roman Empire became ‘Christianized.’ Skeptics of course object: the documentation is too far chronologically from the events they claim to document.
The skeptics will simply have to choose to have more reasonable expectations; regardless of what the skeptics would like, there simply was little opportunity for the Christian community to invest in such cataloging. They were busy staying alive and protecting the documents that they had. This ‘lapse’ of time between the events and their documentation is exactly what we would expect from an oppressed community, and it is entirely consistent with what we know of the historical circumstances of the day. Where possible, the earliest documents were used. It should be noted, however, that where later documents are consulted, it is not assumed a priori through chronological snobbery that those later documents were not credible- especially when those documents cited other documents, even if we don’t happen (yet) to possess them.
Let us begin our examination by looking at the nature of the evangelism that the apostles and their comrades engaged in.
Luke, the author of the Gospel according to Luke and also of the book of Acts, was written to a certain man named Theophilus. In Luke 1:1-4, Luke points out that by the time he is writing there have already been many attempts to document the “things that have been fulfilled among us.” He is careful to point out that these accounts were written by people who were themselves eyewitnesses. Not content with those accounts alone, he was going to make a careful investigation himself. His stated goal is to provide an orderly account, but he makes no claims to have seen the events himself, only that the events were witnessed (although in the book of Acts, also written for Theophilus, Luke is a witness of some of the events). A helpful and powerful insight is gained when we hear Luke say that his letter is directed to ‘most excellent Theophilus.’
The word translated as ‘most excellent’ is the word, ‘kratistos.’ It is used again in the book of Acts by Luke when he regards both Felix and Festus using the same word. Both men are procurators and mentioned by Josephus in his “War of the Jews” (Book II, chapter 14). When Felix and Festus arrive in the Acts narrative, Paul is on trial before them. It is not an unreasonable conclusion to believe that Luke’s account was written for submission as testimony at another trial, before a man of at least equal power and authority as Felix and Festus. In fact, it stands to reason that since Paul and Luke have moved on beyond Felix and Festus, into Rome, that Theophilus is an even higher rank. In other words, besides perhaps wanting to evangelize, it is obviously in Luke’s best interest to make a careful presentation. No one doubts what the consequences of perjury would have been in a Roman court. It is quite a stretch to believe that any man like Theophilus, Festus, or Felix, would simply take the word of any man without making their own efforts to corroborate what was being claimed in their presence.
Thus we already see a pattern developing in the evangelism patterns of these first generation Christians. Luke is not arguing on the strength of passion or conviction, but rather sets his story in a context that Theophilus is invited to disprove. Luke gives the names of censuses, rulers, and time frames. This is a very dangerous thing to do if one is staking their life on an accurate account of historical events. But it is precisely this approach that we see the Evangelists engaged in.
Paul does not attempt to hijack the story that Jesus disciples used, but rather consistently described the events as they happened to him (for example, Acts 26). He does not do this before country folk or people inclined to believe him, but before Felix, Festus, and King Agrippa. Paul tells Felix to verify his activities prior to his arrest (Acts 24:11). He even goes so far as to throw down the gauntlet with Festus by saying, “I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner.” The book of Acts ends only a few chapters later, but we already see that Paul’s testimony was always in regards to things he’d personally experienced. We also have good reason to suspect that it was in Luke’s best interest to share before ‘most excellent Theophilus’ only that which Theophilus himself could confirm. Surely Festus and Felix and King Agrippa could have contradicted anything Luke went astray on. (Both Festus and Felix, by the way, are discussed by Josephus, providing for the skeptic some corroboration that these men did in fact exist in the positions of authority Luke describes them as being in.)
To the Corinthians, Paul asserts that Jesus appeared to him, but also to Peter and the disciples. He hastens to point out that Jesus did not simply appear to these, but also to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, ‘most of whom are still living.’ This insertion is no accident. In other words, if any of the Corinthians doubt what he is passing on to them in regards to the events surrounding Jesus’ life, they are more then welcome to go and make the examination themselves.
John also engages in such bold claims. For those who doubt his description of Jesus’ death, he states that there was a man who saw the soldier spear Jesus’ side and that this person is prepared to testify further (John 19: 35). It is likely, though it can’t be shown conclusively, that this is the same man who in Mark, when seeing how Jesus died, declared “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39, Matthew 27:54). If so, then we know that this man was the centurion, the highest rank an enlisted man could be in the Roman army. This same man is called to testify to Pilate that Jesus actually died ‘so soon’ (Mark 15:44-45). If anyone disputed these basic facts, the centurion would have been a well known person and could have been consulted. The inclusion of such details greatly increased the risk of being discredited, but the earliest Christian authors included them boldly and unceasingly.
How did the people in power attempt to dissuade the Christians from speaking? Surely, if the first Christians had kept matters to themselves, there wouldn’t have been a need to do so. We need to turn to the documents to see the answer to this question. The New Testament documents, however, only have a handful of examples, most recorded in Acts, which we have shown was very likely carefully investigated and submitted during a formal proceeding.
Shortly after the resurrection, Peter and John were addressing the people and telling them that Jesus had risen from the dead (Acts 4:1-22). Accompanying this proclamation with the healing of the ‘crippled beggar’ (Acts 3:9-10), the Sanhedrin was not pleased and demanded to know by what power the disciples were acting. After some discussion, the Sanhedrin releases them but warns them “to speak no longer to anyone in this [Jesus] name (vs. 17).” Do Peter and John reply by saying something like, “You can’t judge me! We can believe whatever we want! Religion is what man does in private!” Not at all. In fact, they respond according the model that precisely supports the thesis of this essay, “…we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
Though there are many other references to such bold claims, we are up against the problem described earlier. The New Testament books were not written in order to describe in detail the strategies employed by the disciples or against them. To answer the question, “How did people in power attempt to dissuade Christians from speaking?” we will have to look into later manuscripts. However, one thing that is evident even after our short review is that the disciples were brazen in placing their claims in a context which allowed listeners to falsify those claims. These claims led directly to situations where their lives were in danger.
What can we learn about the deaths of these ‘first-generation’ Christians? Keeping carefully in mind the warnings about having proper expectations, we can at least describe what some documents have said in order to at least establish a pattern of persecution. We can see what the Christians do, how the persecutors respond with threats, and how the disciples meet those threats. If this pattern was not commonplace, we would not expect it to surface so frequently. We will end with several more direct instances.
In regards to the martyrdom of the first generation of Christians we have only sporadic accounts. For our purposes, the ones that we do have support the thesis of this essay. Let us begin with Andrew. In a manuscript containing the account of Andrew’s martyrdom, Andrew’s judge Aegeates, makes it clear that if Andrew wishes to escape the cross, he will have to go against his own testimony. In other words, Andrew can say what he wants, but he had better make a sacrifice to the gods. The exchange reads as follows:
“Aegeates said: With these words thou shalt be able to lead away those who shall believe in thee; but unless thou hast come to grant me this, that thou offer sacrifices to the almighty gods, I shall order thee, after having been scourged, to be fastened to that very cross which thou commendest.
The blessed Andrew said: To God Almighty, who alone is true, I bring sacrifice day by day not the smoke of incense, nor the flesh of bellowing bulls, nor the blood of goats, but sacrificing a spotless lamb day by day on the altar of the cross; and though all the people of the faithful partake of His body and drink His blood, the Lamb that has been sacrificed remains after this entire and alive. Truly, therefore, is He sacrificed, and truly is His body eaten by the people, and His blood is likewise drunk; nevertheless, as I have said, He remains entire, and spotless, and alive.” [Link One]
In this exchange we see glimpses already of how the Romans are going to handle the “Christian” problem. This manuscript is believed to have originally been written between 150 AD and 250 AD. It was known to Eusebius, but held in low regard by him. Our oldest copies extant appear to date from the tenth and eleventh centuries.
In this conversation, Aegeates seems to be very knowledgeable about the events concerning Christ’s death and takes them for granted as being true, except, presumably, the resurrection. In one particular example, Aegeates wonders why Andrew and Christians say that Jesus died willingly if in fact he was betrayed and challenges Andrew on the basic facts,
“Seeing that, betrayed by his own disciple, and seized by the Jews, he was brought before the procurator, and according to their request was nailed up by the procurator’s soldiers, in what way dost thou say that he willingly endured the tree of the cross?
The holy Andrew said: For this reason I say willingly, since I was with Him when he was betrayed by His disciple. For before He was betrayed, He spoke to us to the effect that He should be betrayed and crucified for the salvation of men, and foretold that He should rise again on the third day. [italics mine]”
Andrew points out that he was actually there and so was in a position to understand the events. It does not seem as though the question of the resurrection itself arises, since Aegeates would rather argue about whether crucifixion is a mystery or a punishment.
Another disciple that we have an account concerning their death is James the Just, Jesus’ brother. In this account, James is taken to the top of the temple to tell the people below that Jesus, the one crucified, was not the Christ. He is taken to the summit, whether against his will or not cannot be said, and instead gives glory to God. He is then thrown down from the temple, where after praying for his oppressors, is struck down by someone standing by. Here is the account according to Hegesippus (c. 160 AD):
“So, when many even of the ruling class believed, there was a commotion among the Jews, and scribes, and Pharisees, who said: “A little more, and we shall have all the people looking for Jesus as the Christ.
They came, therefore, in a body to James, and said: “We entreat thee, restrain the people: for they are gone astray in their opinions about Jesus, as if he were the Christ. We entreat thee to persuade all who have come hither for the day of the Passover, concerning Jesus. For we all listen to thy persuasion; since we, as well as all the people, bear thee testimony that thou art just, and showest partiality to none. Do thou, therefore, persuade the people not to entertain erroneous opinions concerning Jesus: for all the people, and we also, listen to thy persuasion. Take thy stand, then, upon the summit of the temple, that from that elevated spot thou mayest be clearly seen, and thy words may be plainly audible to all the people. For, in order to attend the Passover, all the tribes have congregated hither, and some of the Gentiles also.”
The aforesaid scribes and Pharisees accordingly set James on the summit of the temple, and cried aloud to him, and said: “O just one, whom we are all bound to obey, forasmuch as the people is in error, and follows Jesus the crucified, do thou tell us what is the door of Jesus, the crucified.” And he answered with a loud voice: “Why ask ye me concerning Jesus the Son of man? He Himself sitteth in heaven, at the right hand of the Great Power, and shall come on the clouds of heaven.”
And, when many were fully convinced by these words, and offered praise for the testimony of James, and said, “Hosanna to the son of David,” then again the said Pharisees and scribes said to one another, “We have not done well in procuring this testimony to Jesus. But let us go up and throw him down, that they may be afraid, and not believe him.” And they cried aloud, and said: “Oh! oh! the just man himself is in error.” Thus they fulfilled the Scripture written in Isaiah: “Let us away with the just man, because he is troublesome to us: therefore shall they eat the fruit of their doings.” So they went up and threw down the just man, and said to one another: “Let us stone James the Just.” And they began to stone him: for he was not killed by the fall; but he turned, and kneeled down, and said: “I beseech Thee, Lord God our Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”
And, while they were thus stoning him to death, one of the priests, the sons of Rechab, the son of Rechabim, to whom testimony is borne by Jeremiah the prophet, began to cry aloud, saying: “Cease, what do ye? The just man is praying for us.” But one among them, one of the fullers, took the staff with which he was accustomed to wring out the garments he dyed, and hurled it at the head of the just man.
And so he suffered martyrdom; and they buried him on the spot, and the pillar erected to his memory still remains, close by the temple. This man was a true witness to both Jews and Greeks that Jesus is the Christ.” [Link Two]
The discerning reader may wonder where the threat of death is in the above account. It seems absurd to think that James didn’t have an idea about what was going to happen to him. The reason the Pharisees have for taking him to the temple summit is to repudiate Christ, something that James most certainly knows he is not going to do. This fact is known, it seems, to all the participants in this story. What else can explain how many were persuaded of the truth of James’ testimony, when that testimony apparently consisted only of saying, “Why ask ye me concerning Jesus the Son of man? He Himself sitteth in heaven, at the right hand of the Great Power, and shall come on the clouds of heaven.” A strange evangelistic pitch, yet Hegesippus records that “when many were fully convinced by these words, and offered praise for the testimony of James, and said, “Hosanna to the son of David.” If James’ words were spoken when all understood that a threat of imminent death hung over him, however, the evangelistic effect makes sense.
Without the details of the actual event, but perhaps important in providing some political context, Josephus confirms that James the Just died at the hands of the Sanhedrin (Antiquities 20. 200-20).
James the Greater, brother of John, also was martyred. The Catholic Encyclopedia Online describes it well:
“James won the crown of martyrdom fourteen years after this prophecy, AD 44. Herod Agrippa I, son of Aristobulus and grandson of Herod the Great, reigned at that time as “king” over a wider dominion than that of his grandfather. His great object was to please the Jews in every way, and he showed great regard for the Mosaic Law and Jewish customs. In pursuance of this policy, on the occasion of the Passover of AD 44, he perpetrated cruelties upon the Church, whose rapid growth incensed the Jews. The zealous temper of James and his leading part in the Jewish Christian communities probably led Agrippa to choose him as the first victim.” He killed James, the brother of John, with the sword.” (Acts 12:1-2).
According to one account we have from Eusebius (Hist. Eccl., II, ix, 2, 3) that he received from Clement of Alexandria (in the seventh book of his lost “Hypotyposes”), the accuser who led the Apostle to judgment, moved by his confession, became himself a Christian, and they were beheaded together. As Clement testifies expressly that the account was given him “by those who were before him,” this account has a better foundation than many other accounts respecting the Apostolic labours and death of St. James, which are related in the Latin “Passio Jacobi Majoris”, the Ethiopic “Acts of James”, and so on. [Link Three]
There are, of course, those that question the validity of anything Eusebius says, mainly for the reason that he wrote three hundred years after some of the events he records. This is really not a fair way to judge information. It may make it more difficult to validate a writer’s information as time goes on, but the information itself doesn’t transform magically into falsehood after a certain amount of time has lapsed. Eusebius used as much primary source material as he could, some of which we have- and matches up reasonably well with what Eusebius recorded- and some of which we do not have, like the work by Clement of Alexandria called “Hypotyposes,” which is lost to us. Thanks to Eusebius, however, we are aware of it and have a notion of what it contained. Furthermore, it is very possible that what was lost will some day be found. “Hypotyposes” may turn up, fully vindicating Eusebius. He cites his sources frequently, and those who challenge his accounts best be careful that they do so rationally as they stand a good chance of having to eat their words.
As to the account of the death of James the Greater as recorded by Clement and documented for us in Eusebius, we again see that death often hinged on whether or not one denied or claimed Christ. Here is the account:
“And of this James, Clement also relates an anecdote worthy of remembrance in the seventh book of the Hypotyposes, from a tradition of his predecessors. He says that the man who brought him to trial, on seeing him bear his testimony, was moved, and confessed that he was a Christian himself. Accordingly, he says, they were both led away together, and on the way the other asked James to forgive him. And he, considering a little, said, “Peace be to thee” and kissed him. And so both were beheaded together.”
The nature of James’ death, beheading, suggests that this trial is a Roman trial. The Jews, when killing a guilty party, would usually use stoning. Beheading was one of several ways the Romans would carry out a death sentence- crucifixion- of course, being another. This brief account does not tell us much about the testimony itself, which would have been wonderful. What we can reasonably infer is that it was a passionate testimony by a person who was a witness, and that the testimony persuaded even the one that had brought him to the trial in the first place. It’s possible this refers not to his accuser, but to the Roman officer escorting James.
It is believed that all of the disciples, save John, died either directly or indirectly, for their belief that they were witnesses to the resurrection. In the accounts considered canonical by the early Christians, we see that the disciples were brazen in their assertion that they were actually witnesses of the events they were testifying about. Some of those examples have already been discussed, and there is no reason to believe that having been brought to trial because of that testimony, that they metamorphosed into mystics and began spouting unfalsifiable mumbo jumbo when they had been intentionally making falsifiable arguments previously.
Despite a paucity of clear documentary evidence of the actual deaths of all of the disciples, the pattern was clearly set, both for the Romans and for the Christians. The next generations of Christians would face dramatic dangers convinced that the disciples would not die for a lie and had in fact died because they were eyewitnesses of a glorious set of events. The Romans, too, had learned that true Christians could quickly be sorted out. The speed in which the Romans learned how to deal with Christians and the manner in which these next generation Christians faced death forms a strong circumstantial evidence that the disciples really did die rather then deny what they had witnessed. It must have been quite a convincing strategy, since later Christians were so persuaded that they too died similar deaths.
We have further and earlier evidence of this pattern emerging. The martyrdom of Ignatius, bears this same pattern [Link Four] as does the martyrdom of Polycarp, who learned from Ignatius. Polycarp not only learned from Ignatius, but also from many of the first eyewitnesses. The martyrdoms of these second generation Christians is notable not only for the courage that these men displayed, but also what that tells us about the martyrdoms of the first generation Christians. Clearly, many of the first eyewitnesses had been killed by the Romans. As we have said, it is also clear that the Romans had quickly determined how to quickly determine who was an authentic Christian. It was an ultimate ultimatum; effective, it seems, only with Christians.
The exchange between Polycarp and his oppressor:
“Now, as Polycarp was entering into the stadium, there came to him a voice from heaven, saying, “Be strong, and show thyself a man, O Polycarp !” No one saw who it was that spoke to him; but those of our brethren who were present heard the voice. And as he was brought forward, the tumult became great when they heard that Polycarp was taken. And when he came near, the proconsul asked him whether he was Polycarp. On his confessing that he was, [the proconsul] sought to persuade him to deny [Christ], saying, “Have respect to thy old age,” and other similar things, according to their custom, [such as],” Swear by the fortune of Caesar; repent, and say, Away with the Atheists.” But Polycarp, gazing with a stern countenance on all the multitude of the wicked heathen then in the stadium, and waving his hand towards them, while with groans he looked up to heaven, said, “Away with the Atheists.” Then, the proconsul urging him, and saying, “Swear, and I will set thee at liberty, reproach Christ;” Polycarp declared, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”
And when the proconsul yet again pressed him, and said, “Swear by the fortune of Caesar,” he answered, “Since thou art vainly urgent that, as thou sayest, I should swear by the fortune of Caesar, and pretendest not to know who and what I am, hear me declare with boldness, I am a Christian. And if you wish to learn what the doctrines of Christianity are, appoint me a day, and thou shalt hear them.” The proconsul replied, “Persuade the people.” But Polycarp said, “To thee I have thought it right to offer an account [of my faith]; for we are taught to give all due honour (which entails no injury upon ourselves) to the powers and authorities which are ordained of God. But as for these, I do not deem them worthy of receiving any account from me.”
The proconsul then said to him, “I have wild beasts at hand; to these will I cast thee, except thou repent.” But he answered, “Call them then, for we are not accustomed to repent of what is good in order to adopt that which is evil; and it is well for me to be changed from what is evil to what is righteous.” But again the proconsul said to him, “I will cause thee to be consumed by fire, seeing thou despisest the wild beasts, if thou wilt not repent.” But Polycarp said, “Thou threatenest me with fire which burneth for an hour, and after a little is extinguished, but art ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly. But why tarriest thou? Bring forth what thou wilt.” [Link Five]
Polycarp and Ignatius were both second generation Christians who were clearly moved by the testimony of the first generation Christians. The third and fourth generation Christians were moved by the testimony and deaths of the second generation Christians. Justin the Martyr, in his first apology, complains that Christians are being killed guilty only of refusing to deny that they are Christians. He also illustrates the Roman response to the “Christian problem.”
“And those among yourselves who are accused you do not punish before they are convicted; but in our case you receive the name as proof against us, and this although, so far as the name goes, you ought rather to punish our accusers. For we are accused of being Christians, and to hate what is excellent (Chrestian) is unjust. Again, if any of the accused deny the name, and say that he is not a Christian, you acquit him, as having no evidence against him as a wrong-doer; but if any one acknowledge that he is a Christian, you punish him on account of this acknowledgment. Justice requires that you inquire into the life both of him who confesses and of him who denies, that by his deeds it may be apparent what kind of man each is. For as some who have been taught by the Master, Christ, not to deny Him, give encouragement to others when they are put to the question, so in all probability do those who lead wicked lives give occasion to those who, without consideration, take upon them to accuse all the Christians of impiety and wickedness. And this also is not right.” [Link Six]
The Romans have apparently devised a litmus test: How do you know if they are truly a Christian? If they refuse to deny Christ, they are a Christian, and can be punished. If they deny Christ, they cannot really be a Christian. Why not? Justin provides us a clue in saying, “For as some who have been taught by the Master, Christ, not to deny Him, give encouragement…” Apparently the Romans themselves have already learned that the Master, Jesus, taught his disciples not to deny him, even upon pain of death. Justin states that this is in fact a teaching derived from Jesus himself.
Writing his ‘Apology’ near 150 AD, we are not very far removed from the first generation Christians. He is writing within the context of second and third generation Christianity. The teaching about denial does not even trace to the first generation Christians, but to Christ himself. Importantly, the Romans themselves are aware of this test. What is the most reasonable inference? The most reasonable inference is that many first generation Christians were faced with a deny or die choice, and apparently quite often chose death. These first generation Christians were witnesses of the events concerning Christ, not recipients of the testimony about Christ as Justin and others were. It is not unreasonable to draw this conclusion because whatever pattern these early Christians set it must have greatly impressed the next generations of Christians. There is no hint that these later generation Christians believed that the first generation Christians were asking of them what they themselves had refused to abide by. Justin, in fact, is martyred exactly in the pattern described above, as recorded in “The Martyrdom of the Holy Martyrs.” [Link Seven]
Fortunately, we have in our hands documentation that predates the documents describing the deaths of Ignatius, Polycarp, and even Justin the Martyr. It demonstrates beyond a reasonable doubt that in less than one hundred years from the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection the Romans had had plenty of experience with Christians. The Emperor Trajan, who grew up during the reign of Nero and himself witnessed firsthand the persecution of Christians in Rome, exchanged letters with Pliny, a man he had appointed to administer part of the Roman Empire. Pliny was a governor between 111 AD and 113 AD, so we can fix with exactness the time period this refers to. Trajan himself was Emperor of Rome AD 98-117.
Pliny to Trajan: “It is my custom, Sire, to refer to you in all cases where I am in doubt, for who can better clear up difficulties and inform me? I have never been present at any legal examination of the Christians, and I do not know, therefore, what are the usual penalties passed upon them, or the limits of those penalties, or how searching an inquiry should be made. I have hesitated a great deal in considering whether any distinctions should be drawn according to the ages of the accused; whether the weak should be punished as severely as the more robust, or whether the man who has once been a Christian gained anything by recanting? Again, whether the name of being a Christian, even though otherwise innocent of crime, should be punished, or only the crimes that gather around it?
“In the meantime, this is the plan which I have adopted in the case of those Christians who have been brought before me. I ask them whether they are Christians, if they say “Yes,” then I repeat the question the second time, and also a third-warning them of the penalties involved; and if they persist, I order them away to prison. For I do not doubt that-be their admitted crime what it may-their pertinacity and inflexible obstinacy surely ought to be punished.
“There were others who showed similar mad folly, whom I reserved to be sent to Rome, as they were Roman citizens. Later, as is commonly the case, the mere fact of my entertaining the question led to a multiplying of accusations and a variety of cases were brought before me. An anonymous pamphlet was issued, containing a number of names of alleged Christians. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians and called upon the gods with the usual formula, reciting the words after me, and those who offered incense and wine before your image-which I had ordered to be brought forward for this purpose, along with the regular statues of the gods-all such I considered acquitted-especially as they cursed the name of Christ, which it is said bona fide Christians cannot be induced to do.
“Still others there were, whose names were supplied by an informer. These first said they were Christians, then denied it, insisting they had been, “but were so no longer”; some of them having “recanted many years ago,” and more than one “full twenty years back.” These all worshiped your image and the god’s statues and cursed the name of Christ.
“But they declared their guilt or error was simply this-on a fixed day they used to meet before dawn and recite a hymn among themselves to Christ, as though he were a god. So far from binding themselves by oath to commit any crime, they swore to keep from theft, robbery, adultery, breach of faith, and not to deny any trust money deposited with them when called upon to deliver it. This ceremony over, they used to depart and meet again to take food-but it was of no special character, and entirely harmless. They also had ceased from this practice after the edict I issued-by which, in accord with your orders, I forbade all secret societies.
“I then thought it the more needful to get at the facts behind their statements. Therefore I placed two women, called “deaconesses,” under torture, but I found only a debased superstition carried to great lengths, so I postponed my examination, and immediately consulted you. This seems a matter worthy of your prompt consideration, especially as so many people are endangered. Many of all ages and both sexes are put in peril of their lives by their accusers; and the process will go on, for the contagion of this superstition has spread not merely through the free towns, but into the villages and farms. Still I think it can be halted and things set right. Beyond any doubt, the temples-which were nigh deserted-are beginning again to be thronged with worshipers; the sacred rites, which long have lapsed, are now being renewed, and the food for the sacrificial victims is again finding a sale-though up to recently it had almost no market. So one can safely infer how vast numbers could be reclaimed, if only there were a chance given for repentance.
Trajan to Pliny: “You have adopted the right course, my dear Pliny, in examining the cases of those cited before you as Christians; for no hard and fast rule can be laid down covering such a wide question. The Christians are not to be hunted out. If brought before you, and the offense is proved, they are to be punished, but with this reservation-if any one denies he is a Christian, and makes it clear he is not, by offering prayer to our gods, then he is to be pardoned on his recantation, no matter how suspicious his past. As for anonymous pamphlets, they are to be discarded absolutely, whatever crime they may charge, for they are not only a precedent of a very bad type, but they do not accord with the spirit of our age.” [Link Eight]
These letters, part of a larger correspondence about other matters, deserve fuller discussion. Pliny asserts that he has never participated in trials of Christians, but his tone is that he is aware of a pattern elsewhere in the Roman Government, and he would like to know more about how to conduct them himself. Implicitly, then, we can infer that these ‘trials’ have been around a while. After a remark such as this, the burden would be on the skeptic to show that the Romans weren’t given to conduct such trials. Pliny says that he himself has never been involved in a legal examination of Christians, but in seeking advice from Trajan, it is implied that Trajan has.
Another thing we gather clearly from Pliny’s letter is that Christians were released when they denied that they were a Christian. There is some concern that being a Christian included other illegal conduct, but Pliny cannot seem to find anything other then obstinacy to charge them with even after torturing two women deacons. He transfers the most difficult cases to Rome with great confidence that Rome would know how to handle them. Trajan does not disappoint. Trajan, though drawing on experiences he does not elaborate on, implies that he has seen many such trials.
Recall that Trajan would have only been 15 during the Neronian persecutions c. 68 AD when it is strongly believed that Peter and Paul were killed. Trajan is insistent that “if any one denies he is a Christian, and makes it clear he is not, by offering prayer to our gods, then he is to be pardoned on his recantation, no matter how suspicious his past” This is really a staggering supporting statement of the main thesis of this essay. Evidentially, during Trajan’s formative years- which, by the way, almost completely overlap the years when the first generation Christians were persecuted- Trajan has learned that a true Christian simply will not sacrifice to a Roman god.
The only reasonable explanation for the development of this criteria so soon among the Romans is that they have learned that it is 100% effective. The “Roman Compromise” appears to be fully intact at the time of this correspondence. Combine that with what we know about the nature of the first generation Christian’s testimony, and we have strong persuasive evidence that these first Christians did in fact die directly for their testimony. Even if we did not have the accounts of James the Just, James the Greater, and Andrew, we would still be justified in drawing this conclusion.
The reader should not believe that the sources cited and discussed in this essay exhausts the examples that could be given. For example, Clement writes approximately 95 AD, beginning his letter reflecting on the troubles they have just endured: “On account of the sudden and repeated calamities and mischances, brethren, that have come upon us, we suppose that we have the more slowly given heed to the things that are disputed among you…” [Link Nine] Later, he points out explicitly that Peter died upon giving his testimony, and briefly describes Paul’s demise:
“But let us pass from ancient examples, and come unto those who have in the times nearest to us, wrestled for the faith. Let us take the noble examples of our own generation. Through jealousy and envy the greatest and most just pillars of the Church were persecuted, and came even unto death. Let us place before our eyes the good Apostles. Peter, through unjust envy, endured not one or two but many labours, and at last, having delivered his testimony, departed unto the place of glory due to him. Through envy Paul, too, showed by example the prize that is given to patience: seven times was he cast into chains; he was banished; he was stoned; having become a herald, both in the East and in the West, he and having preached righteousness to the whole world, and having come to the extremity of the West, and having borne witness before rulers, he departed at length out of the world, and went to the holy place, having become the greatest example of patience.” [italics mine]
The details of the deaths of these two men are somewhat ambiguous, but we can strongly infer that it was their testimony that brought them death, but especially so with Peter. Paul is known to be in Roman custody right up to the abrupt ending of the book of Acts, which records Paul’s trials. Peter, mentioned by Clement in the above text, also died in Rome at the hands of the Romans. The most likely time would have been during Nero. But Clement’s mention of these two and the nature of their death strongly substantiates what the Christian pattern of martyrdom was like, apart from other types of martyrdom that have occurred in history. (The use of the word ‘testimony’ is deliberate. ‘Testimony’ is what a witness gives during a trial, and pertains to what the witness ‘saw’ rather then what the witness believes. The early Christians were so soaked in blood on account of their testimony that the word ‘martyr’ (‘witness’), becomes forever identified with a person who has given up their life for their ’cause.’)
Other ancient accounts exist, some known to us, and others known only because ancient authors quote from them or cite them. Many skeptics have denounced these accounts as being part of an uncorroborated ‘tradition.’ There are several things that should be clear from this essay, however.
There is a vast amount of literature discussing the events of the first century. It is irrational to deny that persecutions of Christians did not begin very soon after the rise of Christianity.
According to the canonical literature, the early Christians appealed to a set of events as the source of their activity. It is irrational to believe that they changed the nature of their appeal once they faced death, and then died anyway, as if their original source of inspiration had somehow failed them.
Both canonical and noncanonical accounts have been included, purposely avoiding accounts with supernatural references.
The accounts describing the Roman response to the Christians are perfectly in agreement with the thesis of this paper. An investigation into the nature of the testimony of the first generation Christians demonstrates beyond a reasonable doubt that many of them died at the hands of Romans on account of their testimony. That they could have been saved by recanting their testimony is strongly shown by Trajan’s awareness that true Christians simply don’t recant.
There is still a great deal more work that can be done to demonstrate the thesis. The works of Origen are not discussed. Eusebius is merely touched on. The Chronicon Paschale is not consulted. An attempt to get ‘behind’ John Foxes’ description of the disciple’s martyrdom is also not made.
Link One: www.newadvent.org/fathers/0819.htm
Link Three: www.newadvent.org/cathen/08279b.htm