Persecution of Christians in the New Testament

The persecution of Christians in the New Testament is an important part of the Early Christian narrative which depicts the early Church as being persecuted for their heterodox beliefs by a Jewish establishment in what was then the Roman province of Judea.

The New Testament, especially the Gospel of John (c. 90–100 AD), has traditionally been interpreted as relating Christian accounts of the Pharisee rejection of Jesus and accusations of the Pharisee responsibility for his crucifixion. The Acts of the Apostles depicts instances of early Christian persecution by the Sanhedrin, the Jewish religious court at the time.[1]

Walter Laqueur argues that hostility between Christians and Jews grew over the generations. By the 4th century, John Chrysostom was arguing that the Pharisees alone, not the Romans, were responsible for the murder of Christ. However, according to Laqueur: "Absolving Pilate from guilt may have been connected with the missionary activities of early Christianity in Rome and the desire not to antagonize those they want to convert."[2]

Basic contextEdit

This account of persecution is part of a general theme of a polemic against the Jews that starts with the Pharisee rejection of Jesus's ministry, the cleansing of the Temple, and continues on with his trial before the High Priest, his crucifixion, and the Pharisees' refusal to accept him as the Jewish messiah. This theme plays an important part in a number of Christian doctrines ranging from the release of Christians from obeying the Old Testament Law to the commandment to preach to "all nations" (meaning to gentiles as well as Jews) to the concepts of supersessionism.

Depictions in Luke–ActsEdit


Luke–Acts contains numerous references to and episodes of persecution against Christians, carried out primarily by Jews and Roman authorities. As historiography, the scholarly consensus is that Luke–Acts presents a skewed picture of the hardships faced by the early Church. While evidence for isolated incidents have been found[3][4] there exists a great deal of historical evidence for persecution of early Christians by the Jews[5][6] or the Romans.[7][8][9][need quotation to verify] These opposing views do not present difficulty to asking what purpose persecution serves in the narrative and what Luke–Acts' presentation of persecution suggests about the author's motivations. The suggested purpose of persecution in Luke–Acts have included: to portray Christianity as a non-threat to the Romans by contrasting the movement with a disruptive Jewish community;[10] to craft a polemic to discredit critics of Christianity;[11] and to provide encouragement in times of hardship.[12]

Examples of persecution in LukeEdit

Compared with the Acts of the Apostles, the Gospel of Luke contains few explicit examples of persecution against Christians.[citation needed] There are, however, several passages that mention coming difficulties for Jesus' followers and Jerusalem, which scholars believe foreshadow the hardships Christians will face in Acts.[13] For instance, while Matthew (13:53-58) and Mark (6:1-6) have versions of the rejection of Jesus in his hometown, Luke (4:14-30) devotes much more time to the episode than the other gospels. S. G. Wilson suggests that this might give a glimpse of later persecution by Jews and rejection of the Jewish mission for a gentile mission in Acts (13:46).[14] In Luke, Jesus speaks of "people [who] hate" and "defame you on account of the Son of Man" and likens his followers' suffering to that of earlier prophets (6:22-23 NRSV).[15] Jesus later says to "not fear those who kill the body and after that can do nothing more" (12:4 NRSV).[12]

The major exception to these less direct references to persecution is the Passion narrative in 22:1-23:56. Jewish chief priests and scribes plot to kill Jesus (22:1-6), arrest him (22:47-52), question him before the Sanhedrin and then take him to the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate (22:66-23:1). Jesus is questioned by Pilate (23:3-5), "Herod" (believed to be Agrippa I) (23:6-12), sentenced to death (23:21-25), crucified, died, and buried (23:26-56). Luke's depiction of Pilate is thought by scholars to be key to understanding the author of Luke–Acts' opinion of the Roman Empire.[16]

Examples of persecution in the Acts of the ApostlesEdit

The Acts of the Apostles, which tells the story of the early Christian church, contains a multitude of episodes highlighting persecution. The majority of these conflicts occur between Christians and Jews, though there are examples of persecution by Gentiles (such as the diviner-slave's owners in 16:16-24) and Romans (28:16). While Kelhoffer and Wilson have argued there is a purposeful pattern of Jewish-led persecution in Luke–Acts,[11][17] there is significant doubt over how historically accurate Luke–Acts' portrayal of Christian-Jewish relations is and how wide reaching (whether directed at specific Jewish groups or 'Jews' as a whole) and seriously this polemic was meant be taken.[18] Secondly, the Roman court system features heavily in the later chapters when Paul is brought to trial before several different officials. Paul is tried through the procedure of cognitio extra ordinem, wherein the Roman magistrate participates in all parts of the trial, from evidence gathering, to inquisition, to judgment.[19] A similar system can be seen in Pliny the Younger's letter 10.96[20]

  • 4:3-22, 5:17-42: Peter and John arrested by Sadducees, questioned by the Sanhedrin, and flogged (5:40 only)
  • 6:8-8:1: Stephen is arrested by "the people…the elders and the scribes" (6:12 NRSV), questioned before the Sanhedrin, and stoned to death, supposedly sparking a "severe persecution against the church in Jerusalem" (8:1).
  • 8:3, 9:2: Saul (whose Roman name was Paul) imprisons many Christians
  • 9:23-24, 20:19, 23:12-14: Jews plot to kill Paul
  • 12:1-5: King Herod (believed to be Agrippa I) executes James and imprisons Peter
  • 13:44-51: Paul and Barnabas being driven out of Antioch of Pisidia.
  • 14:5-6: Jews and Gentiles attempt unsuccessfully to stone Paul and Barnabas
  • 14:19-20: Jews stone Paul nearly to death
  • 16:16-24: Paul and Silas are flogged and imprisoned by Gentiles in Philippi.
  • 17:1-15: Paul and others are chased out of successive towns by Jews
  • 18:12-17: Paul is made to appear before the Roman proconsul Gallop in Achaia, who dismisses the case as an internal dispute.
  • 19:23-41: Worshippers of Artemis in Ephesus riot against Paul and his companions, but they are not harmed.
  • 19:27-28:30: In his final journey to Rome, Paul is taken by Jews in Jerusalem to be killed, but is rescued by Roman soldiers who imprison him. He testifies before the Sanhedrin (22:30-23:11), and the governor Felix at Caesarea (24:1-27) before using his status as a Roman citizen (22:29) to have his case heard by the emperor.

Luke–Acts' opinion of Romans and JewsEdit

While evidence has been offered both to argue Luke–Acts' positive view of the Roman Empire and the opposite,[21] scholars tend to see Luke–Acts as pro-Roman[22] and analyze it as though it was written with a Roman (though not exclusively) audience in mind.[10][12][23][24] Larger Lucan themes like the Gentile mission, which sought to spread Christianity beyond the Jewish diaspora, support this reading.[25] Even as scholars point to passages sympathetic to Jews,[26] there is wide agreement that a strong anti-Jewish streak runs through Luke–Acts, even if it is not always consistent.[14][22] Because these passages have been used throughout history to justify anti-Semitism, scholars like Luke T. Johnson have attempted to nuance the portrayal of the Jews both by presenting a less homogenous dichotomy of 'Christians' versus 'Jews' and by contextualizing the polemics within the rhetoric of contemporaneous philosophical debate, showing how rival schools of thought routinely insulted and slandered their opponents. These attacks were formulaic and stereotyped, crafted to define who was the enemy in the debates, but not used with the expectation that their insults and accusations would be taken literally, as they would be centuries later.[6][27] Furthermore, Luke–Acts certainly holds Jewish texts in high regard, repeatedly referencing them in relation to Jesus and others, complicating interpretations that Luke–Acts is trying to completely divorce itself from its Jewish heritage.[28]

Purpose of persecutionEdit

If Luke–Acts is not an accurate catalog of every Christian persecution during the first century,[22] scholars have offered a variety of interpretative frameworks to understand what motivated the author of the books and how the author uses persecution to argue their claims. These interpretations include:

Persecution used to contrast Jews and ChristiansEdit

S. G. Wilson has argued that Luke–Acts was composed to portray Christianity as a more peaceable form of Judaism to the books' (in part) Roman audience.[10] He points to Luke–Acts' deep reverence for and reliance on Jewish scripture to legitimate Jesus and the mission of the church (cf. Luke 3:4-6, Acts2:17-21) as evidence for the author's continued connection to Jewish heritage, even as the author sees as Christianity's future goal to spread to the Gentiles.[29] Wilson argues that in Acts, Jews repeatedly stir up trouble for both Christians and Roman authorities (cf. 17:6-7, 18:13, 24:12-13), and the accused Christians are repeatedly found innocent by the Roman authorities, often by showing how they uphold both Roman and Jewish law (cf. 23:6, 24:14-21, 26:23, 28:20) and are therefore morally superior to their accusers.[17]

Persecution as a rhetorical weapon against critics'Edit

Kelhoffer spends part of his book Persecution, Persuasion and Power arguing that persecution in Luke–Acts is used by the author to accomplish three things: (1) question the legitimacy of the accusers, (2) confirm the legitimacy of the faithful accused, and (3) derive legitimacy for the author's Gentile audience who might be suffering their own persecution.[24] For example, in the story of Stephen's martyrdom, Stephen links his accusers to those who resisted Moses (Acts 7:51-53), and his death is paralleled with Jesus' (Acts 7:59-60).[30] Acts 28:25-28 also provides strong encouragement and validation for Gentiles readers, while Acts 9:4-5 makes a direct link between the persecuted and Jesus, which further indicts any critics or persecutors of Christianity. Kelhoffer sees the author of Luke–Acts as turning the dishonor of persecution into an honor, placing those who suffer "on account of the Son of Man" (Luke 6:22 NSRV) in the legacy of Old Testament and Israelite salvation history.[11]

Persecution as a tool for example and encouragementEdit

Robert Maddox interprets Paul's experiences in Luke–Acts as the model example for its audience, not only as a devout believer but also as one who suffers repeated persecution. Passages like Luke 12:4-7 and Acts 14:22 are read by Maddox as warning Christians of the hardships they will face. Evidence for the deep value early Christians put on persecution may also be found in Acts 5:41 and Acts 8:1-4 (which states that even as Christians were persecuted, they spread the word).[12] Additionally, in Luke 6:26, 40, Jesus speaks of coming hardship not just for himself, but for his followers. Touching on a theme that will be later explored more fully by Stephen in his final speech in Acts (7:1-53), Jesus and his followers are likened to the Jewish prophets of old, who were rejected by the Israelites despite being sent by God. Therefore, to follow Jesus is to suffer greatly as he will later in Luke. Through his crucifixion Jesus becomes the most important and potent example of suffering for which every Christian must prepare; those who do will be justly rewarded (Luke 6:22-23).[4]

Elsewhere in the New TestamentEdit

In the Gospel of MarkEdit


Mark was probably written after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD and contains multiple references to persecution of Christians. There is a great deal of argument in the scholarly community about to whom it is addressed. When looking at persecution in this text, it should be remembered that the provinces were largely autonomous and that the governors had complete legal control under cognitio extra ordinem, meaning that while there was no empire wide persecution when Mark was written, it is possible that Christians were being executed in various provinces. It is also important to realize that there was probably persecution of Christians, especially Jewish Christians by Jews because they were seen as disturbing the peace, which could lead to retribution by the Romans.[31]


In his Epistle to the Galatians, Paul indicates several times that the Jews have persecuted Christians, beginning with his admission of his own persecution of the Christians prior to his conversion (Gal 4:29) and ending with his suggestion that he is presently being persecuted because he no longer preaches circumcision (Gal 5:11). This may be one of the stronger proofs of such persecution, as Paul's admission of guilt would be foolish if there were not actually a widespread persecution of Christians by Jews. Few people seeking converts to their cause, would do so by falsely admitting to a crime.

2nd CorinthiansEdit

In the Second Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul the Apostle asserts that he had been persecuted by the Jews on numerous occasions:

...I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers.


Leonard L. Thompson argues that the Book of Revelation was written during the reign of Domitian (81–96 AD).[32] From the middle down to the last quarter of the first century,[33] extensive persecutions were carried out throughout the Empire, although they were sporadic. Most were initiated by local governors, who were expected to keep their cities pacate atque quita ("settled and orderly"). As pressure from the demands of the citizens to get rid of the Christians became harder to ignore or control, they were driven to acquiesce.[34]

The author, "John", found himself "…on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus" (Rev. 1:9 NRSV), and it was there that he wrote the Book of Revelation. In several of his messages addressed to the Seven Churches of Asia, John makes references to past and future times of persecution, trial and death, and calls upon their endurance and faith.

In his letter to Ephesus, he writes: " I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance… I also know that you are enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of my name…" (2:2-3 NRSV).

To Smyrna: "I know of your affliction and your poverty… Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Beware, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested… Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life" (2:9-10 NRSV).

And to Pergamum: "I know where you are living, where Satan's throne is. Yet you are holding fast to my name, and you did not deny your faith in me even in the days of Antipas my witness, my faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan lives" (2:13 NRSV).

There are also passages in which John refers to martyrs. Revelation 6:9-11 and 20:4 seem to indicate that many Christians were tortured and killed for their beliefs,[33] and, in his vision, they "…cried out with a loud voice, 'Sovereign Lord…how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?'" (6:10 NRSV). John portrays the Roman Empire—called "the great whore Babylon"—as "being drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses to Jesus" (17:6 NRSV). The Book of Revelation progresses with the wrath of God poured upon the Earth as retribution for the sufferings of the faithful Christians. It ends with the Fall of Babylon and Christ's defeat of Satan, after which there is "new heaven and a new earth" (21:1 NRSV).

Basis in sectarian conflictEdit

One perspective holds that the earliest examples of Jewish persecution of Christians are examples of Jewish persecution of other Jews, that is, sectarian conflict.[citation needed] Prior to the destruction of the Temple, Judaism was extremely heterodox; after the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, early Christians and Pharisees (the Second Temple group that would become Rabbinic Judaism) vied for influence among Jews.[citation needed]

According to Douglas R. A. Hare, "it has long been recognized that in the Gospel according to St. Matthew the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees has been intensified and it has often been suggested that this intensification reflects the continued struggle between the Church and the synagogue." Hare asserts that prior to the first revolt, Jewish persecution of Christians was more frequently directed at Christian missionaries to synagogues in the Jewish diaspora than against the church in Jerusalem. Organized opposition to Christianity appeared during the first revolt (when nationalist sentiment was high) and after it (when Pharisaic dominance of the synagogue was established). Few Christians were martyred prior to the Bar Kokhba revolt. Most of those who were killed were victims of mob violence rather than official action. None were executed for purely religious reasons although individual missionaries were banned, detained and flogged for breach of the peace. According to Hare, the numerous New Testament references to persecution reflect early Christian expectations of persecution based perhaps on the pre-Christian "conviction that the Jews had always persecuted the messengers of God".[35]

G. Fox asserts that Jewish persecution of the followers of Jesus started only when Christianity started spreading among Gentiles and when the Jews realized the separation between themselves and Christians.[36][37] Paul E. Davies states that the violent persecuting zeal displayed by some Jews sharpened the criticisms of the Jews in the Gospels as they were written.[37]

Fox argues that the hostile utterances of rabbis were towards those Christians who did not support Bar Kokhba and was due to anti-Jewish feelings which were caused by Gentile converts to Christianity. This however is controversial as only certain segments of the community ever accepted Bar Kokhba as the messiah, while many rabbis scorned such a proposition. Fox also argues that the persecution accusations and stories of early Christians martrydom are exaggerated by the Church.[38] He asserts that it is unhistorical to assume that the matrydom of Stephen was representative of a widespread persecution of Christians because events of this nature weren't uncommon in that time. In support of this assertion, Fox argues that thousands of Jews were killed by Romans and it wasn't something new or novel.[38] Thus the persecution hardly started before 70 AD and when it was started by Bar Kokhba, it wasn't not on purely theological grounds but also because of the disloyalty of Christians in the rebellion against the Romans.[38]

Claudia Setzer draws a distinction between Jews and Christians (both Jewish and Gentile) as to when the perception of Christianity as a Jewish sect was replaced by an understanding of Christianity as a new and separate religion. Setzer asserts that, "Jews did not see Christians as clearly separate from their own community until at least the middle of the second century." By contrast, "almost from the outset Christians have a consciousness of themselves as distinct from other Jews." Thus, acts of Jewish persecution of Christians fall within the boundaries of synagogue discipline and were so perceived by Jews acting and thinking as the established community. The Christians, on the other hand, being a new movement, worked out their identity in contrast and opposition to the Jewish community and saw themselves as persecuted rather than "disciplined."[39]

According to Paula Fredriksen, in From Jesus to Christ, the reason was that Jewish Christians were preaching the imminent return of the King of the Jews and the establishment of his kingdom. To Roman ears, such talk was seditious. Romans gave Jews at that time limited self-rule (see Iudaea Province); the main obligations of Jewish leaders were to collect taxes for Rome, and to maintain civil order. Thus, Jewish leaders would have to suppress any seditious talk. In cases where Jewish leaders did not suppress seditious talk, they were often sent to Rome for trial and execution, or in the cases of Herod Archelaus and Herod Antipas merely deposed and exiled to Gaul.[40]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Acts 4:1–22,5:17–42, 6:8–7:60, 22:30–23:22
  2. ^ Walter Laqueur (2006): The Changing Face of Antisemitism: From Ancient Times to the Present Day, Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-530429-2. p.46-48
  3. ^ De Ste Croix 107
  4. ^ a b Reasoner 915
  5. ^ Seaver 6
  6. ^ a b Reasoner 913
  7. ^ De Ste Croix 145
  8. ^ Downing 113
  9. ^ Reasoner 909
  10. ^ a b c Wilson 70
  11. ^ a b c Kelhoffer 351
  12. ^ a b c d Maddox 81
  13. ^ Kelhoffer 276
  14. ^ a b Wilson 57
  15. ^ Kelhoffer 283
  16. ^ Walton 20
  17. ^ a b Wilson 69
  18. ^ Johnson 441
  19. ^ "law and procedure, Roman"
  20. ^ Mar
  21. ^ Walton 20-29
  22. ^ a b c Reasoner 907
  23. ^ Walton 35
  24. ^ a b Kelhoffer 344
  25. ^ Wilson 60
  26. ^ Wilson 58
  27. ^ Johnson 421, 441
  28. ^ Wilson 59
  29. ^ Wilson 59, 66
  30. ^ Kelhoffer 345
  31. ^ name=purpose The Purpose of the Gospel of Mark in its Historical and Social Context, G. N. Roskam, Brill Leiden, Boston. 2004
  32. ^ Thompson, Leonard L. "Ordinary Lives: John and His First Readers. In Barr, David L. Reading the Book of Revelation: A Resource for Students. 25–47. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003. Print.
  33. ^ a b Porter, Stanley E., and Westfall, Cynthia L. Empire in the New Testament. Eugene, Or.: Pickwick Publications, 2011. Print.
  34. ^ Geoffrey De Ste. Croix, Michael Whitby, and Joseph Streeter. "Why Were the Early Christians Persecuted". 105-152. Christian Persecution, Martyrdom, and Orthodoxy. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006. Print.
  35. ^ The Theme of Jewish Persecution of Christians in the Gospel According to St Matthew by Douglas R. A. Hare. Series: Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series (No. 6) ISBN 0-521-02045-X p. 61
  36. ^ G. George Fox, p.83
  37. ^ a b Davies, p.74
  38. ^ a b c G. George Fox, p.84
  39. ^ Claudia Setzer (1994). Jewish Responses to Early Christians: History and Polemics, 30-150 C.E. Minneapolis: Fortress.
  40. ^ Catholic Encyclopedia: Herod: "He [Archelaus] soon aroused opposition by marrying his brother's wife -- a crime like that of Antipas later -- and having been accused of cruelty by his subjects, "not able to bear his barbarous and tyrannical usage of them", he was banished to Vienne, Gaul, A. D. 7 in the tenth year of his government (Jos., "Ant.", XVII, ix, xiii, 1, 2)."; "Contrary to his better judgment he [Antipas] went, and soon learned that Agrippa by messengers had accused him before Caligula of conspiracy against the Romans. The emperor banished him to Lyons, Gaul (France), A. D. 39, and Herodias accompanied him (Jos., "Ant.", XVIII, vii, 2). Josephus (Bel. Jud., II, ix, 6) says: "So Herod died in Spain whither his wife had followed him". The year of his death is not known. To reconcile the two statements of Josephus about the place of exile and death, see Smith, "Dict. of the Bible", s. v. "Herodias" (note)."


  • Douglas R. A. Hare. The Theme of Jewish Persecution of Christians in the Gospel According to St Matthew. Series: Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series (No. 6) ISBN 0-521-02045-X
  • De Ste Croix, G. E. M. Geoffrey, Ernest Maurice, Michael Whitby, and Joseph Streeter. Christian Persecution, Martyrdom, and Orthodoxy. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2006
  • E G. Downing, "Pliny's Prosecution of Christians: Revelation and 1 Peter," Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 34(1988) 105-23
  • Lillian C. Freudmann. Antisemitism in the New Testament, University Press of America (1994); ISBN 0-8191-9295-3
  • W.H.C. Frend, 1965. Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1965
  • Luke T. Johnson. "The New Testament's Anti-Jewish Slander and the Conventions of Ancient Polemic", Journal of Biblical Literature, 108.3 (1989): 419-441.
  • James A. Kelhoffer. Persecution, Persuasion and Power: Readiness to Withstand Hardship as a Corroboration of Legitimacy in the New Testament. vol. 270. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010.
  • "law and procedure, Roman", Oxford Dictionary of the Classical World. Ed. John Roberts. Oxford University Press, 2007. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. University of Chicago. 28 May 2012 <>
  • Robert Maddox. The Purpose of Luke-Acts. Vol. 126. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1982.
  • Paul Halsall Mar. Medieval Sourcebook: Pliny on the Christians. Fordham University. Accessed 5/29/12 at <>
  • Mark Reasoner. "Persecution", In Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids (eds.). Dictionary of the Later New Testament and its Developments, Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1997. 907-913
  • James Everett Seaver. The Persecution of the Jews in the Roman Empire (300-428). University of Kansas Publications, 1952. Humanistic Studies, No. 30
  • Claudia Setzer. Jewish Responses to Early Christians: History and Polemics, 30-150 C.E. Fortress. Minneapolis. 1994 254pp.
  • Steve Walton. "The State They Were In" in Peter Oakes (ed.), Rome in the Bible and the Early Church. Carlisle, Cumbria, UK :Grand Rapids, MI: Paternoster Press; Baker Academic, 2002. 1-41
  • S. G. Wilson. Related Strangers: Jews and Christians, 70-170 C.E., Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1995.

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