Saturday, November 7, 2015

The Intense Persecution of the Early Church: A Strange View? (So Says Bart Ehrman) - Part 2

In the first article in this series, we looked at the intensity of the persecution that took place against the apostles and the rest of the Church during the first year (to as much as 19 months—until the time that Paul was converted on the road to Damascus). During this period, the apostles (the primary witnesses to Jesus's resurrection) were arrested, flogged and warned by the same powerful Jewish court that arrested Jesus and had him crucified. This was quickly followed by the stoning of Stephen and a very intense period of widespread persecution in which many were hunted down, arrested and even put to death. Yet, in spite of this intense persecution, the apostles and the Church as a whole maintained their testimony that they had seen Jesus risen from the dead.


But what happened after Paul was converted? Was Paul the sole source of this persecution? Did the persecution cease? If not, what did it look like?

First, let's just note from the outset that we do not have a lot of information about the Church for the period between Paul's conversion (34 AD) and the time of his first missionary journey (48 AD). The book of Acts is our only source for this period (other than some very minor details that we can learn from Galatians 1:17-24, i.e., Paul's visits to see Peter and James). In Acts, the only thing that Luke tells us about this period is what happened to Paul immediately after his conversion, a couple of healings, a few minor details, and two other major events (Acts 9:20-12:25).

So what did happen immediately after Paul's conversion? He “immediately began to preach in the synagogues [at Damascus] that Jesus is the Son of God” (Acts 9:20). And this soon resulted in a conspiracy among other Jews to kill him. His response was to sneak out of the city and flee to Jerusalem (Acts 9:23-26; cf., 2 Corinthians 11:32-33). At Jerusalem the situation was the same: Paul spoke the message about Jesus, the Jews tried to kill him, and he fled for his life to Tarsus (Acts 9:26-30). So, we can see clearly that this response to severe persecution was not simply because of Paul. Paul himself experienced it from other Jews after his conversion.

Then Luke tells us that the persecution did generally cease for a period of time: “Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers” (Acts 9:32). How long was this “time of peace”? Luke does not specify. It may have been for as long as nearly a decade (until 44 AD). Or it may have been much shorter. My educated guess is that it was probably about 5 to 7 years. But we don't know. What we do know is that during King Herod Agrippa's reign (41-44 AD), there is more intense persecution. King Herod arrests some believers to persecute them. James, brother of John, is put to death by the sword. Herod sees that this pleases the Jews and Peter is arrested with the intention of putting him to death also, but Peter escapes. (Acts 12:1-3, 21-23).

Here again, the pressure is put on the apostles. Among the Twelve (the preeminent of the apostles), there were three who comprised Jesus's inner circle: Peter, James and John. All three of these experienced the severity of this persecution. James was put to death. Peter was arrested with the intention of putting him to death, also. And John, no doubt, experienced this persecution quite personally on many levels. Not only was he the third of this inner circle but watching his brother (with whom he was apparently very close) being put to death and his close friend Peter's life being threatened would have certainly been a grueling test of his profession of Jesus's resurrection. Once again, in the face of severe persecution, the primary witnesses of Jesus's resurrection do not recant.

This closes our look at this period of persecution. In the next article, we will examine the period of Paul's three missionary journeys (48-56 AD).

(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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