Persecution in the New Testament

The Stoning of Stephen

The Stoning of Stephen by Lorenzo Lotto 1

Christians have been the targets of persecution ever since the emergence of Christianity, often to the point of being martyred for their faith. The Persecution of Christians began with Jesus and continues in many forms to the present day. In the first century early Christians were persecuted at the hands of both the Jewish authorities and the Romans.

Early Christianity began as a sect among Second Temple Jews, and according to the New Testament account, Pharisees, including Paul of Tarsus prior to his conversion to Christianity, persecuted early Christians. The early Christians preached the divinity of Jesus, the promised Messiah, and His second coming. These doctrines were rejected by established religious authorities. However, Christians continued to persue their faith in hopes that their countrymen would accept their faith. Despite numerouas individual conversions, the vast majority of Jews did not accept Christianity.

Initially, the Jews did not see Christians as clearly separate from Judiasm. Rather, they persued Christians as an act of needed disciplne, jailing the Christian leaders. Only when they failed to renounce thier faith did the sects grow separate. The Christians were banned from the Sunagogue as the persecution became more intense.

Inter-communal dissension began almost immediately with the teachings of Stephen at Jerusalem, who was considered an apostate. According to the Acts of the Apostles, a year after the Crucifixion of Jesus, Stephen was stoned for his alleged transgression of the faith, with Saul (who later converted and was renamed Paul) looking on.

In 41 AD, when Agrippa I, who already possessed the territory of Antipas and Phillip, obtained the title of King of the Jews, in a sense re-forming the Kingdom of Herod, he was reportedly eager to endear himself to his Jewish subjects and continued the persecution in which James the Greater lost his life, Peter narrowly escaped, and the rest of the apostles took flight.

After Agrippa's death, the Roman procuratorship began. Initially, those leaders maintained a neutral peace. However, when the procurator Festus died, the high priest Annas II took advantage of the power vacuum to attack the Church and executed James the Just (Bishop of Jerusalem). The New Testament states that Paul (now a convert) was imprisoned on several occasions by Roman authorities, stoned by Pharisees and left for dead on one occasion, and was eventually taken as a prisoner to Rome. Peter and other early Christians were also imprisoned, beaten and harassed. A Jewish revolt, spurred by the Roman killing of 3,000 Jews, led to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, the end of Second Temple Judaism, (and the rise of Rabbinic Judaism), and the disempowering of the Jewish persecutors. The Christian community, meanwhile, fled to safety, eventually bringing the message of the Messiah to the whole world.1

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