The late first to early fourth century were particularly challenging for Christian faithfuls in the manner in which they were universally persecuted across the Roman world. The christian claims, particularly of a resurrected Christ/Massia, were considered absurd to be true. But absurdity would be laughable at best, its consequent attraction of severe threats and persecution is what is rather absurd. The second century Roman senator, orator and historian Cornelius Tacitus appropriately captured the word probably used by most Roman elites, which group he was part of.
“Neither human effort nor the emperor’s generosity nor the placating of the gods ended the scandalous belief that the fire had been ordered [by Nero]. Therefore, to put down the rumor, Nero substituted as culprits and punished in the most unusual ways those hated for their shameful acts … whom the crowd called “Chrestians.” The founder of this name, Christ [ Christus in Latin], had been executed in the reign of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilate … Suppressed for a time, the deadly superstition erupted again not only in Judea, the origin of this evil, but also in the city [Rome], where all things horrible and shameful from everywhere come together and become popular’- Annals of Rome imperial Rule.
‘Deadly superstition’ it was so called. That’s a modern equivalent of “nonsensical or idiotic claims’. But how deadly is this superstition or belief system? How deadly? Perhaps, it appear much more stupid to them than we in the modern world presently hold. Plinius Secundus, (Pliny the younger) Governor of Syria, who was a contemporary of Tacitus, but had a separate dealings with Christians from Nero’s, while writing in correspondence between Emperor Trajan and the provincial governor of Pontus/Bithynia, made reference to Christians for the first time. Pliny famously reports to his emperor:
“Christians … asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so.” – Pliny to Trajan, Letters 10.96-97.
Note that Pliny is relaying what those arrested said they believed. Pliny had convened trials of Christians likely because of their belief and worship system which he deemed strange from the state’s and must need be repressed by arresting and torturing them with the end of recanting such superstition. He continues:
“Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition, some of those arrested recanted, worshipped the imperial image and state gods, and cursed Christ.
Pliny went further to ask for direction on numerous other Christians whose belief he claimed was widespread, vast becoming rather contagious. Here is Emperor Trajan’s response:
“They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it — that is, by worshiping our gods — even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance.”
Recanting and ultimately worshipping “our gods’ according to him would amount to a christian means of receiving pardon from the state. And as Pliny the Younger himself pointed out, some did recanted their faith, cursed Christ and even worshipped idols to show their disconnect from the fold of Christ.
This however is a more broader response of the Roman world to the Christian community. There is an imperative subject which is much more specific. It is of the persecution and eventual martyrdom of actual witnesses of Jesus’s life, death and acclaimed resurrection. An average Roman or Syriac Christian would at best recant his/her faith in the exclusive Christian claims. For them, denying Christian proposition as not true may be about the same range as when a person who clocked 20 year in 2017 is denying the Holocaust. More like an ideological shift. After all he isn’t an actual witness.
But the implausibility of the claim to an event becomes serious if so called eyewitnesses of that event recant empirical claims they once held as true. Meanwhile most of those denying the faith in 112AD weren’t chief witnesses of the life of Jesus. In other word, they were but severing themselves from allegiance to an ideology or system of beliefs. If they deny the resurrection, their denial can’t be evidence to disprove the resurrection (which was the central theme of the Apostles) as when compared with the denial of folks who claimed to have witnessed the event. On the contrary however, the early Apostles of Jesus(to restrict ourselves to accounts of some of them at least) appeared willing to die for their testimony, while, if the resurrection were likely not to be true, they wouldn’t be as persistent as they were to stand through in the face of death threats, imprisonment, and outright state execution. Luke particularly reports the unwillingness of the Apostles to keep mute about what “they have seen and heard’ despite been threatened by the Sanhedrin (Act 4:19-20).
The Apostle Paul in the same vein wouldn’t do as much as back down from his itinerary to Jerusalem, despite been fully aware of the implication, rather he was enthusiastic to be led to slaughter for the testimony(Act 21:8-14). The martyrdom of James, Stephen, and consequent arrests of other Jesus’s disciples would’ve naturally wane down the insistence of the Apostles about a resurrected Christ if their proclamation of resurrection of Jesus was merely a “cleverly devised fable’. It would be hard to persist for what isn’t genuine or you aren’t sure of in the first place. Something more than a conviction would’ve made them not to recant. It would be safe to assert that they indeed had experiences of the resurrection of Jesus.
Most critical is the argument from some quarter of how the Christians couldn’t have envisaged the outcome of the turn out of those believing resurrection claim (which according to them may not be true), but they would have been solemnly devoted to the course of the proclamation(even to the point of risking their lives) just as to maintain their reputation, as also their hold on the teaming converts as typical of certain cult groups. While this may appear plausible, its not taking into consideration folks who weren’t original disciples of Jesus, but were said to have resurrection experiences (Paul, and James the brother of Jesus) makes it fail at arrival.
How likely is it for someone who was apathetic to the gospel, and another, an avowed enemy of faith to have all of a sudden join the bandwagon of those making proclamation of a resurrected Messiah. James could well have easily been lured into this game, but, how’d Saul of Tarsus, someone who was arresting and jailing those committed to “the way’, all of a sudden put away what he deemed as a noble course just as to join those loathed for being anti-mosiac? If anything, he was more than ready to expose their lies and deliver them up for rightful punishment. At least, he wasn’t with them when they were “cooking up those fable’ to have all of a sudden agree to save their face when there’s not the slightest of gain for doing so.
The martyrdom of some Apostles is worth noting. Although few things were said of the manner of martyrdom of the Apostles and other chief witnesses in the new testament, Clement of Rome who was the bishop (or overseer) of the church in Rome towards the end of the first century A.D and was known to the Apostle Paul, and is actually mentioned in the Philipians 4:3 wrote of the martyrdom of both the Apostle Paul and Peter. In a letter addressed to the church in Corinth called 1 Clement, he states:
But not to dwell upon ancient examples, let us come to the most recent spiritual heroes. Let us take the noble examples furnished in our own generation. Through envy and jealousy the greatest and most righteous pillars [of the church] have been persecuted and put to death. Let us set before our eyes the illustrious apostles. Peter, through unrighteous envy, endured not one or two, but numerous labours; and when he had at length suffered martyrdom, departed to the place of glory due to him. Owing to envy, Paul also obtained the reward of patient endurance, after being seven times thrown into captivity, compelled to flee, and stoned. After preaching both in the east and west, he gained the illustrious reputation due to his faith, having taught righteousness to the whole world, and come to the extreme limit of the west, and suffered martyrdom under the prefects’
Though Clement as also Dionysius, Ignatius, and Tertulian didn’t state in detail how both Paul and Peter were martyred, except that Tertulian stated that “Paul wins his crown in a death like John’s (John the Baptist), that’s, he was beheaded.
Tigellinus and Sabinus were the prefect during the last year of the reign of Nero (A.D. 68) and given a date for 1 Clement of around A.D. 97, and Ignatius’ letters at around A.D. 107, the reign of the Emperor Nero (A.D. 54—68), would’ve been responsible for the martyrdom of Paul and Peter who according to Dionysius were executed in Rome.
Flavius Josephus, a first century Jewish aristocrat, favoured by Emperor Vespasian, in Book 20, Chapter 9 of Antiquities of the Jews , reports of “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James”, and that this James was put to death by stoning:
“Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned’.
According to Josephan account, James along with some of his companions were matured. We are left with doubt as to who and who those companions are notwithstanding. Eusebius the fourth century church historian quoted Josephus on how James died, he records that some Jews blamed the siege of Jerusalem on execution of James, who many referred to as “the just’ for his piousness in the observance of the law. Seeing Jerusalem was destroyed around 70 AD, we can plausibly assert that James the just was executed around 69 AD.
There are accounts of the martyrdom of some other Apostles of Jesus which this article will not make mention of, we can however say on the authority of John’s disciple, Papias, that it was only the Apostle John who died peacefully as an old man.
Interestingly enough, non of the Apostles who died actually died to prove their ideology right, they didn’t die to show that christianity is true, rather, what they died for is way more than that, seeing a devotee of another religion could well have done same, but, they indeed died for what they claimed to have experienced, rather than idealized. It was for the death and resurrection of Jesus which non of them recanted, but uphold until death. We indeed can safely say they had resurrection experiences since there are no plausible way to explain the event better.
To in the word of Charles Colson end the note:
“I know the resurrection is a fact, and Watergate proved it to me. How? Because 12 men testified they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, then they proclaimed that truth for 40 years, never once denying it. Every one was beaten, tortured, stoned and put in prison. They would not have endured that if it weren’t true. Watergate embroiled 12 of the most powerful men in the world-and they couldn’t keep a lie for three weeks. You’re telling me 12 apostles could keep a lie for 40 years? Absolutely impossible’
Yours in Christ