Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Intense Persecution of the Early Church: A Strange View? (So Says Bart Ehrman)

(Editor's note: this entry is longer and more complex than our typical fare here at Chicken Fried Apologetics. However, welcome Brad Cooper to our author lineup with this piece on the history of the New Testament.)

I'm writing this series of blog articles specifically as a response to a statement made by Dr. Bart Ehrman in the second half of his online Debate with Dr. Tim McGrew on the Premier Christian Radio show "Unbelievable?" hosted by Justin Brierley (back on July 25, 2015). But my interest in this issue precedes that and goes far beyond it. It relates to what I think is one of the most important evidences for the truth of Christianity and an issue which I have spent a lot of time studying over the last couple of years.
That being said, I will use a section of their debate to introduce this issue, break it down, and then explore it somewhat comprehensively. The debate can be found here, and I would encourage you to listen to it.
This half of the debate continues for about an hour and twenty minutes, but I want to zero in on an important issue that comprises just a few minutes of the total debate. Below is my transcription of the pertinent segment of the conversation beginning at the MP3's 51 minute mark. You will want to back up to at least the 49 minute mark to get a better idea of the context of these remarks. And please note how Bart appears to be shocked by the idea that the early Christians were actually persecuted for proclaiming the message of Jesus's resurrection--either he is pretending because he knows that this is a knock down argument against his assertions, or he is truly out of touch with basic facts that pervade the New Testament and other literature of which he is supposed to be a scholar:
McGREW: ... Were these stories circulated at the time that the events were supposed to have occurred, among people who fervently hated the very idea, and who crucified people by the authority of the regional and omnipotent government for putting forth such stories?
[Back and forth between Ehrman and McGrew that I am not transcribing.)
EHRMAN: You have a very strange view of early Christian persecution! Where are you getting this from? You imagine that the early Christians were all being martyred the year after Jesus died?
McGREW: No. I imagine that they were facing imprisonment....
EHRMAN: Really? What's your evidence for that?
McGREW: ... and that on account of their repeated assertion that Jesus had risen from the dead after being crucified by the Jewish rulers in Jerusalem where they were speaking.
EHRMAN: I'm not talking about Baal Shem Tov being crucified or raised from the dead.
[This conversation was part of a larger context that included comparing the story of Baal Shem Tov to Jesus.] 
McGREW: No. I know. But what I am pointing out is that when stories of miracles circulate only among people who would not be expected to subject them to any scrutiny, then that is--prima facie--a reason to doubt whether they happened. Whereas when they circulate among people who are violently inclined to disprove them, that is more interesting and puts it on the map for serious discussion. So what I am saying is that the cases are not at all analogous.
EHRMAN: You have a very odd view of early Christian history; I have to say. If you imagine that most people who knew Jesus were being subjected to imprisonment and torture and crucifixion, I don't know where you're getting that. Most people who knew Jesus are simply telling stories about him to friends and family.
McGREW: I am talking about the people who are talked about in the book of Acts. Come on. This is pervasive throughout the book of Acts.... That looks to me like you're explaining away the book of Acts.
[Misc. back and forth between Ehrman, McGrew and Brierley that I am not transcribing]
EHRMAN: In the book of Acts, the people who tell stories about Jesus are not telling them to Jewish authorities who are looking and standing on every corner finding out if you're telling a story of Jesus because if you tell a story of Jesus we are going to throw you in prison. They're telling them to their friends and family in private homes. And, they're not telling them on a street corner where someone is going to crack their head open and throw them in jail. So I don't know where you're getting this idea that the people telling stories about Jesus are doing so in threat of being imprisoned.
McGREW: Maybe your Bible doesn't have Acts chapter 2 in it.
The conversation about this continues for a bit after the break and Ehrman makes the assertion that in Acts there are 8000 converts and only two people are thrown in prison. It is as if Bart has not read past the first four chapters of Acts (and did not read them very carefully, as Dr. McGrew then shows).
So let's break down Bart's main assertion here. Bart is really asserting two very mistaken claims:
A. Stories about Jesus were told only in homes and NOT in public preaching.
B. Persecution of Christians was rare....just a couple of people.
What is the evidence that stories about Jesus were told only in homes and NOT in public preaching? Where does Bart get such an idea? Answer: There is no such evidence. The evidence that we do have is that the message of Jesus's death and resurrection was being preached quite publicly from the very beginning and in the very city in which Jesus had been crucified ... and by people who claimed to be eyewitnesses of his resurrection (see Acts, chapters 2-5, etc.). More importantly, we have very solid evidence that the most important leaders of the early church suffered persecution and martyrdom for their testimony that they were eyewitnesses of Jesus' resurrection.
The evidence against Bart's second assertion is quite overwhelming. The early church was under intense persecution for nearly 300 years (until the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, in which an agreement was reached between the emperors Constantine and Licinius that Christianity should be tolerated). A basic summary of some of the evidence can be found in the timeline attached at the end of this article. For the purposes of this article, though, we will focus on the first three decades. These were the formative years of the early church. This is the time period during which the message of Jesus' resurrection was first being preached, Christianity spread throughout most of the Roman empire, most of the New Testament was written, and the most important leaders of the church were martyred.
We will look very carefully at the overwhelming evidence against Bart's second assertion, but first ...
Before we get started looking at the evidence for the intense persecution of the early church, it is important that we get a basic understanding of the chronology for this period in order to better understand the weight of the evidence, judge the intensity of the persecution, and see how this history all hangs together. So let me establish a few important dates around which we will construct this study:
A. THE DATE OF JESUS' CRUCIFIXION: According to Luke 3:1, John the Baptist began his ministry in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius, which would have been 29 AD. Jesus's ministry begins after that time and lasts a little over 3 years. Astronomical considerations determine that the year of Jesus's crucifixion must have been 30, 33 or 36 AD. It could not have been 30 AD, which would have been too soon after John the Baptist's ministry began (as well as several other reasons given by Hoehner). And it could not have been 36 AD, because (among other reasons) an examination of the chronology of Paul's life gives us a great amount of certainty that his conversion to Christianity took place in 34 AD. Therefore, it is nearly certain that Jesus's crucifixion took place on Friday, Nisan 14 (April 3) of 33 AD. [See chapter 5, Hoehner, Harold W. Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977, 2010); and pages 24-25, Barnett, Paul. The Birth of Christianity: The First Twenty Years. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2005).]
B. PAUL'S CONVERSION: Paul's conversion took place in 34 AD. If Paul's conversion took place at the very end of the year (for example December of 34 AD), that would still be no more than 19 months after the apostles' first declaration of Jesus's resurrection on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2. Jesus rose from the dead on the day in which Jews celebrated Firstfruits (see 1 Corinthians 1:20). Pentecost took place 50 days after Firstfruits, which would place Pentecost in the third week of May, 33 AD. Therefore, the events of Act 2:1 to Acts 9:2 cover a very short period of 19 months or less--and probably less. [For the dating of Paul's conversion, see pages 24-25, Barnett, Paul. The Birth of Christianity: The First Twenty Years. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2005).]
C. THE BEGINNING OF PAUL'S MISSIONARY JOURNEYS: Paul's missionary journeys began in 48 AD. His letter to the Galatians was probably also written during that year. [See pages 122-23, Alexander, L.C.A. "Chronology of Paul" in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, edited by Hawthorne, Gerald F., et al (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1993).]
D. THE END OF PAUL'S THIRD MISSIONARY JOURNEY & PAUL'S SECOND LETTER TO THE CORINTHIANS: Paul most likely wrote 2nd Corinthians around 56 AD, which corresponds closely to the close of his third missionary journey. [ See Page 283, Carson, D.A., Douglas J. Moo and Leon Morris. An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992).] I have chosen this date because of the abundance of information on persecution that is contained within both of the letters to the Corinthians and because it is the end of a significant period in which the message of Jesus' resurrection and life had been proclaimed.
E. THE MARTYRDOMS OF PAUL AND PETER: The apostles Paul and Peter were both martyred during Nero's reign (along with many other Christians) and the most likely year is 64 AD (though some scholars have argued for a slightly later date).
So then, a basic chronology of the Church's first three decades looks like this (and we will use this chronology to divide our study of the subject into 4 sections):

33 AD Jesus is crucified on Friday, Nisan 14 (April 3)
34 AD Paul is converted after seeing Jesus on his way to Damascus
48 AD Paul and Barnabas set out on their first missionary journey
56 AD Paul's third missionary journey ends; Paul writes 2nd Corinthians
64 AD Paul and Peter (and many others) are martyred at Rome under Nero
With that chronology in mind, we'll divide our study into the following four periods:
A. 33-34 AD: The first 19 months
B. 34-47 AD: Between Paul's conversion and his first missionary journey
C. 48-56 AD: The period of Paul's three missionary journeys
D. 57-64 AD: The period leading up to the martyrdoms under Nero

As we saw in the transcript earlier, Bart Ehrman is quite adamant that Christians were not being thrown into prison and being martyred in the first year after Jesus's death and resurrection: "You have a very strange view of early Christian persecution! Where are you getting this from? You imagine that the early Christians were all being martyred the year after Jesus died? ..." But the first Christians were in fact being imprisoned and martyred within a year after Jesus died. It began with just a few leaders, but within that year there was an organized campaign to destroy the Church, and that campaign was being carried out with great intensity. Not only were the leaders being attacked but anyone who dared to follow Christ.
In April of 33 AD Jesus was crucified. The "chief reason" for using crucifixion was "its allegedly supreme efficacy as a deterrent" (p. 87, Hengel, Martin. Crucifixion. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977; also see p. 49-50). For this reason, it was done publicly on busy roads or in arenas. In Jesus's case, it was done along a busy road entering Jerusalem while hundreds of thousands of Jews were there to celebrate Passover from all over the Roman empire. And as the Romans practiced this form of torture quite regularly and freely, it was indeed seen as more than an empty threat. In other words, Jesus was crucified not only to bring shame to him but to deter anyone from continuing what he started. This is the situation in which the Apostles find themselves in Acts chapters 2-8, when they begin to declare publicly that Jesus is alive.
Then the following events happen in relatively quick succession in the wake of Jesus's crucifixion--in a period of 19 months or less--and probably less:
1. The first event involves Peter and John. Peter and John had followed Jesus from the very beginning of his ministry. They were chosen by Jesus to be among “the Twelve”; and even among “the Twelve,” they were among the three who were closest to Jesus. For three years, they had traveled with Jesus all over Galilee and Judea. They had watched him heal and perform many miraculous signs. And they boldly declared that they had watched him die and that he had appeared to them alive again afterwards (see Acts 1:21-22). And it was for this testimony that they were dragged in before the Sanhedrin: "The priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to Peter and John while they were speaking to the people. They were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people, proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead. They seized Peter and John and, because it was evening, they put them in jail until the next day" (Acts 4:1-3, NIV; compare with Acts 3:15).
Being arrested and put in prison is a scary thing, but those who arrested Peter and John were no less than the "Feds." The Sanhedrin was the most powerful body among the Jews. They were the Supreme Court & the Executive Branch all wrapped up in one. They had control of their own military. And, these were the very same people who had arrested Jesus and had him crucified just a few months earlier. They concluded their hearing of Peter and John by commanding them "not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus" (Acts 4:18, NIV).
2. The Apostles refused to remain quiet about Jesus's resurrection and things heated up. This time the whole group of the Apostles (apparently “the Twelve”) were arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin (Acts 5:17-18) and this time they were all flogged (whipped a maximum of 39 times each) and once again ordered "not to speak in the name of Jesus" (Acts 5:40).
3. Persecution quickly reached full intensity in Acts 6:9-12: Members of one of the Hellenistic synagogues at Jerusalem began to argue with Stephen (a newly chosen leader in the church). In their anger, they plotted against him and had him brought before the Sanhedrin. And, by their authority, Stephen was stoned to death (Acts 7:57-60).
4. On that very day, "great persecution" broke out against the church and Christians fled the city of Jerusalem (Acts 8:1). And "Saul [who would later become an apostle known by his Roman name, Paul, as he preached to Gentiles] began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison" (Acts 8:3).
If we look no further than Acts 8, we might get the impression that the persecution was serious but not really that serious: that people were being imprisoned and that is about it ... and that Saul is trying to destroy the church--whatever that means.
But if we keep on looking, we will find out another key fact about this persecution (which I will emphasize with bold italics). Acts 9:1-2 (NASB) states: "Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, and asked for letters from him to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem." Acts 22:4-5 concurs: “I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, as the high priest and all the Council can themselves testify. I even obtained letters from them to their associates in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished.” And finally Acts 26:9-12: “I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the Lord’s people in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. I was so obsessed with persecuting them that I even hunted them down in foreign cities. On one of these journeys I was going to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests.” [NIV is used except as noted]

So we see that people were in fact being put to death for their faith in Jesus within a year to a year and a half after Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection--and not just Stephen, but many others.

There are a few other things to notice about the intensity of this "great persecution" (literally "mega persecution"): (a) People were so afraid for their lives that most of them fled their homes in Jerusalem and moved away (8:1). (b) They were being hunted down. Saul was going "house to house" (Acts 8:3). (c) It did not matter what your position or gender was (Acts 8:3; 9:2; 22:4). (d) Even though people were fleeing Jerusalem, Saul was hunting "them down in foreign cities" (Acts 26:11). And notice that the last city he went to was Damascus. Do you know how far away Damascus is from Jerusalem? It's a long trip! It's about 150 miles northeast over rugged terrain (think: mountains). It was probably about a 2-week trip just to get from Jerusalem to Damascus. Saul was truly going to great lengths to exterminate the Church.

And Paul confirms the intensity of this persecution throughout his letters: “For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it....' The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.'” (Galatians 1:13, 23; also see 1 Cor. 15:9; Phil. 3:6; 1 Tim. 1:13). The Greek word that Paul uses in Galatians 1:13 and 1:23 for “destroy” (which, by the way, is the same Greek word used of Paul's activities in Acts 9:21) literally means to "sack, ravage,...lay waste" (Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament), “annihilate” (Bauer's Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament). It is “used of soldiers ravaging a city” (p.501, Fritz Rienecker and Cleon Rogers. Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976, 1980).

But this 19 months was just the beginning. In the next article in this series, we'll take a closer look at the rest of this 30 year period. In the articles that follow, we'll consider why this issue is so important. I hope you will check out the remainder of the series. I plan to publish them at a rate of about an article each week.

(Note: If you wish to download the timeline, you will want to watch for the last article in this series, as I hope to make a few revisions/additions--if time permits).


Brad Cooper's bio: I began passionately following Jesus Christ as a young child. And I am so thankful that in Jesus God has provided such a clear revelation of himself that a young child can understand. Yet the more one seeks to understand that revelation, the more he realizes he is just beginning to glimpse the greatness of God's love and wisdom and power.

I have been teaching the Bible and apologetics for 35 years. I have a B.A. from Fort Wayne Bible College and an M.Div. from United Theological Seminary, Dayton, Ohio. I was a full-time pastor for nearly a decade and have pastored part-time for nearly another decade of the last 30 years.

I'm also husband to a wonderful woman, and a proud homeschool dad and grandpa. :)

And since 1997 I have been working in a factory to support all of this--currently building RVs. And I sell on Amazon and eBay focusing on used books and vintage items that I find at auctions and other sales.

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