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Richard Carrier Improbable Persecuted

Was Christianity Too Improbable to be False? (2006)

[See Introduction]


Richard Carrier


8. Who Would Want to be Persecuted?

8.1 Social Foundations of Martyrdom

8.2 Paul and Tertullian

8.3 Where Holding Gets It Wrong

8.4 Where Holding Gets It Right


8.1. Social Foundations of Martyrdom

James Holding rightly downplays the issue of martyrdom, since legend and fiction abound in that arena. The actual evidence from the first century does not support the conclusion that martyrs needed, much less had, what we would consider reliable evidence that Jesus rose from the dead. I have already addressed this in enough detail elsewhere.[1] Contemporary scholarship agrees: in the first century the persecution of Christians was much smaller in frequency and scale, and very different in nature, from that of later centuries. Moreover, the Church itself, as well as the social, political, and economic circumstances of the Empire as a whole, were all notably different in later periods.

As David DeSilva remarks, “rarely in the first century were Christians killed” and “far more rarely were they executed on official orders.” Acts attests there was no formal Roman opposition to Christianity in any legal sense until after 62 A.D. at the earliestand even then it was not as strong as it would become in subsequent generations. The only known Roman actions against Christians in the 1st century were the extralegal acts of emperors whom even the Romans themselves declared as formally damned (i.e. the decisions of Nero and Domitian lost all legal force). Later, around 110 A.D., the Emperor Trajan instructed Pliny the Younger that declaring political allegiance to Christ over the Emperor was effectively a crime (treason, no doubt); yet he says there was no specific law against Christianity, and Christians were not to be hunted down. Pliny himself reveals that he knew of no laws against Christians and had never had to deal with the problem before, so his response had to be improvised.[2]

At the same time, it may well be that the earliest Christians faced death more for the moral cause than any historical claim, which was not a novel idea. As W. H. C. Frend notes, “In the first two centuries C.E. there was a living pagan tradition of self-sacrifice for a cause, a preparedness if necessary to defy an unjust ruler, that existed alongside the developing Christian concept of martyrdom inherited from Judaism.”[3] And Christian martyrdom particularly made sense from a cultural and sociological perspective. Alan Segal and others have found a common sociological underpinning of martyrdom movements throughout history, from aboriginal movements in the New World to Islamic movements in the Middle East and beyond. In every well-documented case, Segal observes, a widespread inclination to martyrdom “is an oblique attack by the powerless against the power of oppressors,” in effect “canceling the power of an oppressor through moral claims to higher ground and to a resolute claim to the afterlife, as the better” and only “permanent” reward. “From modern examples,” Segal writes, we can see that what produces martyrdom,” as well as the corresponding “exaltation of the afterlife,” is “a colonial and imperial situation, a conquering power, and a subject people whose religion does not easily account for the conquest.” Some subjects are “predisposed to understand events in a religious context,” and are suffering from some “political or economic” deprivation, or even a social or cultural deprivation (as when the most heartfelt morals of the subgroup are not recognized or realized by the dominating power structure).[4]

The Roman Empire was tailor-made to breed exactly such resentment and deprivation. This was prominent among the middle and lower classeswho were completely disenfranchised, abused, exploited, callously ignored, and all too often denied justice or even the means to live. But it was also present among even the higher echelons of societyfor under the imperial system, having wealth and status increasingly became no guarantee at all of real influence or control, much less of safety or justice. Democracy was gone. Even the Senate itself could hardly take the initiative against the will of emperors, whose will was all too often anything but just, wise, or compassionate. Those of the Senatorial class serving administrative posts abroad would be even more distant from the base of imperial power. Regardless of your rank, at any moment, without warning, an emperor could decide you were a threat and have you eliminated, demoted, or stripped of your dignity and propertyas happened frighteningly often, a fact Tacitus documents in deliberate detail. Even beyond this ever-present fear, Tacitus also documents how the emperor could interfere with a governor’s control of a province in any number of ways, often through intermediaries of substantially lesser rankwhich produced a regular state of intolerable insult. For example, though a proconsul was far the social superior of a procurator (who was often a freed slave, or at most a member of the equestrian class), to cross the will of an emperor’s procurator amounted to crossing the will of the emperor himselfand since the emperor was not there to see what was actually happening, his procurators held a tremendous amount of power over any proconsul, and could easily abuse that power, upsetting the proper social order.

At every level of social rank, the same insult, injustice, insolence, and disenfranchisement could be found somewhere, affecting someoneeven within the imperial army and administration. You basically had only two options: you could just “take it,” or you could decide not to take it any more. Those who preferred the latter option would form that segment of the population from which Christianity successfully recruited, especially in its first century. And this selection bias would have significant ramifications for the attitudes and behavior of Christians, who would inevitably differ markedly from non-Christians precisely because they already differed from their peers, in attitude and behavior, before converting. And indeed, they would differ in exactly that respect relating to martyrdom and suffering that Alan Segal describes above. Christians represented those who weren’t going to take it any more. The behavior of Christians, and the attractiveness of Christianity as a movement, can only be understood within this context.

Moreover, the logic of the Christian situation (as with all other comparable movements in history) is impeccable: if sinners go to hell or oblivion, and the faithful go to eternal heavenly bliss, then nothing else matters, for everything else is temporary and insignificant compared to the eternal future. The faithful will even inherit the earth itself, gaining all the power and plenty they always longed for, while watching their oppressors and exploiters suffer utter downfall and defeat. In other words, “everyone gets what they deserve.” Anyone convinced of this will suffer anything. Period. They will endure any death, any torture, any discomfort, any indignity. And all the while they will smile inside, knowing their abusers will “get it” in the end, while they themselves will get twice the reward for having carried such a burden, remaining strong in the face of every effort of those evil powers to knock them down. In human history there has never been so powerful a motivator as thisa point well-taken by the Islamic authorities who found a way to exploit this motivation en masse to command entire armies, and mollify oppressed and exploited populations. The very same motivation led Buddhists to set themselves on fire to protest the Vietnam War. Yet Holding cannot claim this entails there has ever been “irrefutable proof” that Islam and Buddhism were true. Indeed, he must deny they are true at all. So evidence of a willingness to endure brutal fates and enormous hardships cannot establish the truth of any belief.

Instead, combine the eschatological ideology with the scale of deprivation endured by the subjects of Rome, and all you will get is a powder keg. Had Christianity not arisen of its own, it would have been necessary to invent itor something like it. For such a movement was all but inevitable under the sociocultural conditions of the Roman Empire. It is human nature to long for peace, love, justice, and the control of your own life. Take all of that away from millions of people, and it is just a matter of time before rebellions break out. And there can only be two kinds of rebellion within a system like that of the Empire, which lacked true democracy or even a sufficient scale of freedom of speech: the violent or the cultural. Violent revolution is always an economic contest of military resources, which Rome would always win. And Rome always did. Therefore, the only rebellion that could succeed was a cultural revolution, which meant a war of ideasand that was a war the rebels could win, so long as they had the better ideas and employed the right tactics on the battlefield of the mind. Such a war still had casualties (martyrs) and hardships (persecution), but it was still a war, and like all well-motivated wars, soldiers didn’t give up simply because of the prospect of dying or suffering. Indeed, as in any righteous war, dying and suffering is exactly what soldiers are willing to pay for victory.[5]

Clearly the sociocultural conditions of the early Christian willingness to endure persecution and martyrdom fit exactly those of every other comparable movement in history, matching every element of the above analysis perfectly. Yet it follows, since it holds in every other case known to man, that their motivation was not some particular historical claim or esoteric dogma. As in every other case, their motivation was rebellion against a corrupt social order in defense of a superior vision of society. The motive was a moral system, a view of the way society should function and structure itself. That was what attracted recruits to the Christian movement, that is what they suffered and died fornot “proof” that Jesus stepped out of a tomb. As far as motivation and attraction are concerned, that was incidental. It mattered only when it came to the particulars of dogma or theology, and as one can observe, the Christians themselves were hotly divided about the nature of the Resurrection and the evidence for it.

Instead, as long as a missionary could convince someone already receptive to the Christian social message that their movement had the Backing of God, that was all they needed to win a convert for Jesus. Holding has not proved that “irrefutable” evidence of any sort of resurrection (much less a particular kind of resurrection) was necessary to achieve such persuasionfor there were scriptural proofs, miracles, proofs of sincerity, personal charisma, evidence of the Church’s ability to meet social needs, and any number of other arguments that would have been sufficient, alone or in conjunction with each other, for quite enough people to account for the actual scale of Christianity’s success in its first century (as we have seen in several chapters already, especially Chapter 6; and we will see more direct evidence in Chapter 13).


8.2. Paul and Tertullian

We can see all this in two representative Christian sources on suffering and martyrdom: Paul and Tertullian. Paul, because he is the earliest Christian to write anything down (as far as we know); Tertullian, because he is the first Christian to articulate so well the actual psychological underpinning of Christian martyrdom. The Epistles often describe the Christian mission as a war, and missionaries as soldiers (Philippians 2:25; Philemon 1:2; 1 Timothy 1:18; 2 Timothy 2:3-4). But Paul wrote of his own persecution even by fellow Christians:

I know this shall end up in my salvation, through your prayers and the additional help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, according to my earnest expectation and hope, that in nothing shall I be put to shame, but in all boldness, as always, now Christ, too, shall be made greater in my body, whether by life, or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if to live in the flesh, this shall bring fruit from my work. What I will choose I don’t know, for I am stuck between the two, having the desire to depart and be with Christfor that is far, far betteryet to remain in the flesh is more necessary for your sake (Philippians 1:19-24).

Thus Paul cannot be put to shame, and doesn’t fear struggle or death at all. To the contrary, he longs for it: death, to achieve his own reward in the future life; and struggle and shame, to satisfy his compassion by saving others before he goes. Longing for paradise and reward, and loving one’s fellow man (with a desire to make sacrifices for the common good) are natural human attributes, not culturally specific ones. Paul struggles for others, not for some historical claim as to the nature of Christ’s resurrection. Paul is willing to die for the reward, not because he thinks one ought to die simply to uphold a true proposition about an historical event. Paul’s Christians believed in some historical event, surely, but we must ask why they believed, and what they believed, and the answer to both questions does not support Holding. They did not believe for the reasons he thinks, nor can we prove they believed in a resurrection of the kind he has in mind.

Thus, for an attitude like Paul’s, which was no doubt typical of early Christians, and admirable even to many pagans, all that was necessary was the belief that preaching Christ would procure a heavenly reward, for him and others. And yet as far as we can tell, very little was needed for Paul to be convinced of that. In his letters, he only mentions three kinds of evidence that persuaded him or anyone else: a private “revelation” (which even Acts describes as an amorphous vision), the unlocking of secrets in scripture, and the working of miracles within the Church community.[6] Therefore, it cannot be maintained that Paul or any first-century Christians had any other evidence, or even needed it. They might have had more evidence than Paul mentions, but the evidence we have is insufficient to prove this. As far as we can prove, visions, scripture, and miracle-working were sufficient for every actual convert to the faith in the first century. Their willingness to suffer and die tells us nothing about any other evidence, and therefore cannot establish that there was anything like “irrefutable” evidence that Jesus rose from the dead, much less that he did so in any particular sense.

Paul also wrote:

For if I should want to shout aloud, I will not be a fool. For I will tell the truth. But I fear someone might hold me in greater esteem than what he sees of me or hears from me. And because of the great magnitude of my revelations, so I would not be esteemed too greatly, God gave me a thorn in my flesh, an Angel of Satan, so he might slap me, that I would not be esteemed too greatly. Three times I called upon the Lord about this, that it would go away. But he said to me, “My grace is enough for you. For power is fulfilled in weakness.” And so I most gladly shout aloud all the more in my weaknesses, so the power of Christ will rest upon me. Therefore I delight in my weaknesses, in injuries, in frustrations, in persecutions and difficulties, for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am powerful (2 Corinthians 12:6-10).

Paul never says he endures all this hardship because the tomb was empty or Thomas put his fingers in Christ’s wounds or any such thing. He endures it because God told Paul directly, by revelation, that it was worth it. Period. Paul does not say he isn’t worried because he has a ton of evidence, enough to be sure he’s right. He doesn’t need a ton of evidence. All he needs is a direct revelation from Godand all fellow Christians need is Paul’s assurance of that fact, which Paul proves by his own behavior: his willingness to endure all these things! In fact, it is precisely that willingness that demonstrates Paul’s powerthe strength of his convictionthus proving he deserves God’s reward, and persuading others to find God’s salvation.

This motivationthe achievement of salvation and favor from Godwas the very thing that made the hardships of conversion an actual blessing rather than a liability. All this suffering was worth it, and could even make the destined blessings of God all the greater, just as a crippled veteran might revel in his medals and honors. And the only proof that prospective Christians apparently needed here was evidence of a missionary’s conviction, which in turn rested primarily on private revelations from God (as far as we can tell from the letters of Paul), not “evidence” in a modern sense, and certainly not “irrefutable” evidence. Visions and revelations from the gods were a common cultural phenomenon among pagans and Jews of the day, and thus not peculiar to Christianity. They also have known biological causes and therefore do not entail supernatural origin.[7] Of course, for most people even back then this was not enoughwhich is why most people didn’t convert. Rather, Christianity won over those for whom this was enoughbecause they had nothing better, and were fed up with their state of desperation and deprivation, and thus were ready for any hope.

A century and a half later, in chapter 50 of his Apology, Tertullian would summarize the whole case, drawing the very analogy that social historians have found in every other suffering movement:

It is quite true that it is our desire to suffer, but it is in the way that the soldier longs for war. No one indeed suffers willingly, since suffering necessarily implies fear and danger. Yet the man who objected to the conflict, both fights with all his strength, and when victorious, he rejoices in the battle, because he reaps from it glory and spoil.

Exactly. To understand converts to Christianity in the 1st century, one need only understand the soldiers who volunteered for every just war in human history. The psychology is the same. The motivation the same. Tertullian lists numerous examples of pagans engaging in self-sacrifice and enduring hardship and torture, admiring those who do, or exhorting others to do so. He represents self-sacrifice as the admirable height of moral wisdom, thus proving this was a cultural ideal widespread at the time. Tertullian continues:

Go zealously on, good presidents, you will stand higher with the people if you sacrifice the Christians at their wish, kill us, torture us, condemn us, grind us to dust. Your injustice is the proof that we are innocent….Nor does your cruelty, however exquisite, avail you. It is rather a temptation to us. The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow. The blood of Christians is seed. Many of your writers exhort to the courageous bearing of pain and death…. And who that contemplates it, is not excited to inquire what is at the bottom of it? Who, after inquiry, does not embrace our doctrines? And when he has embraced them, who doesn’t long to suffer that he may become a partaker of the fullness of God’s grace, that he may obtain from God complete forgiveness, by giving in exchange his blood? For that secures the remission of all sins.

Every element is here: the motivation is a war, of the oppressed against the oppressor, and their suffering is their victory. It proves the oppressed are right, courageous, and deserve every good thing. And it proves their abusers are evil, and therefore wrong. And the very fact that Christians were willing to die for this moral ideal was already a potent proof that their ideal was worth suffering forand therefore it won even more converts. And those converts endured all abuse because the cause was just, and serving a just cause secured for them the eternal reward of God.

Of course, for Tertullian, the “doctrines” he spoke of were “supported” by the evidence of the Gospels. But that means he had at hand no more evidence than we do now. Yet the Gospels do not necessarily represent the beliefs of most Christians of the first century, or those of the first two generations. Nor can Holding’s argument, which pertains only to the origin and early success of Christianity, be sustained for Christians so far removed from the original evidence. By then, for example, “checking the facts” was simply not a possibility, while converts could be won over not only by exaggerated evidence, but by the very conviction of Christians themselves, as Tertullian himself observes, rather than by anything we would regard as reliable proof.


8.3. Where Holding Gets it Wrong

So when Holding points out that “the Jews would dislike you, the Romans would dislike you, your family would disown you, everyone would avoid or make sport of you,” this doesn’t really argue for there being “irrefutable evidence” of the resurrection of Jesus. For we’ve seen there were many other motives available to potential and actual converts to endure such things. And, of course, I think Holding is overstating the case, as often he does. There is no evidence in Acts or Paul that being Christian led to “Romans” disliking you, and the evidence there is, in both Acts and Paul, demonstrates that not all Jews shared the hostility of those factions that pursued and harassed the Church. I am also not aware of any evidence from the first century of any convert actually being “disowned” by his family (maybe in later centuries, but too many things had changed by then to draw any definite analogy). So it could not have been too common, whereas there is evidence that at least some families remained intact even when divided by faith (it was a contingency Paul specifically responds to: 1 Corinthians 7:12-16, 10:20-32). And it is certainly not true that “everyone” avoided Christiansit is not even clear that anyone avoided Christians in the first century. Shunning never happens in Acts and is not a problem Paul ever had to deal with in the epistlesto the contrary, if anything, he had to resolve quite the opposite problem (e.g. 1 Corinthians 8:7-13). And Paul had no apparent difficulty enjoying the company of non-Christians himself (e.g. 1 Corinthians 9:20-23), while Christians were exhorted to treat outsiders with kindness and humility (1 Thessalonians 3:12 & 5:15; Titus 3:2). Were Christians ridiculed in the first century? Maybe by some people. So were Jews. And even some pagans (the Roman satirists made no end of sport of popular cults). Did that mean everyone ridiculed members of all these religions? No. And I am not aware of any evidence supporting such hyperbole. Nor did such social conflict prevent all those other cults from winning converts.

Holding also claims “men like Paul and Matthew, and even Peter and John, gave up lucrative trades for the sake of a mission that was all too obviously going to be nothing but trouble for them.” Nothing but trouble? Anyone who reads Paul’s letterseven from our quote of Philippians abovecan see missionaries like Paul believed there were positive gains worth far more than any losses. Love of one’s fellow man is a natural human attribute, and every culture has those who despise wealth. So “nothing” but trouble is more hyperbole. And did Paul and his peers really give up “lucrative” careers? There is no evidence regarding how successful they were at their respective trades. It may well be they found an easier job they were better at, as many a preacher has done since. And there was certainly money in the Church, so much in fact that Paul had to defend himself against charges of profiteering (e.g. 1 Corinthians 9:11-18; Acts 20:33-34). But money was not so highly regarded by devout men anyway (e.g. 1 Timothy 3:3, 6:10; 2 Timothy 3:2), and all the Apostles were no doubt such devout men even before they met Jesus. They probably despised money just like the Essenes, and sought a greater good, which became the very reason they followed Jesus in the first place.

Surely a man like Paul saw winning souls as a far more valuable use of his time than winning cash, so the prospect of giving up the latter for the former would present no deterrent. Conversely, most entering the Church would materially benefit from the loving, communist society it provided, while we already discussed the available motives of the few who would be giving anything up by entering (in Chapter 5). Finally, it was also possible to serve both careers: when in Corinth, Paul returned to his trade as tentmaker (Acts 18:1-3), and may have done so in other towns (Acts 20:34), as often as possible, thereby sustaining himself and his mission. Peter, John, and Matthew may well have kept regular jobs on the side, too, and certainly most actual Christians did. As far as we know, only those who were financially supported by the Church gave up paying jobs for missionary work.

Holding then confuses historical periods when he quotes Robin Lane Fox’s discussion of events in the 3rd and 4th centuries. That can have no bearing on the state of affairs at Christianity’s origin, or its development in its first hundred years. When Holding cites Fox for the claim that “Christians could expect social ostracization if they stuck by their faith,” including “rejection by family and society” and “relegation to outcast status,” Holding neglects to mention that Fox does not in fact demonstrate this, but only the existence of social tension between pagans and Christians within the same community, or even the same family, and only in some cases, in later centuries. Thus, Holding’s quotation is three times off the mark, not only referring to the wrong period, but far overstating what his source actually claims. The evidence does not support any kind of culture-wide “shaming” of Christiansfor not everyone was their enemy, and their values were not as contrary to the higher ideals of most Greeks, Romans, or Jews as Holding implies. Many among all three groups did not like the inequities produced by the values of the dominant elite. Even where Christians differed from their peers among the lower and middle classes, those differences were not the sort to cause resentment or disgust, but more likely admiration or, at worst, indifference. Indeed, the values of Christians were very close to the moral ideals of Greco-Roman philosophers, legendary sages, and revered Rabbis (for examples see Chapter 5 and Chapter 2).

In like fashion, none of the passages Holding cites from the New Testament support the conclusion that the entire pagan society was dead set against the Christians. All of his verses refer to specific occasions of persecution, which were not representative of the way Christians were normally treated in the first century. But those passages do support my argument that these persecutions were willingly born because of an expectation of future reward, and a commitment to the moral ideals of compassion and justice. Hebrews 10:26-39 is a classic example (and suggests a time in the Church at least a generation or two after the conclusion of Acts), where assurances that the evidence is “irrefutable” never come up, only assurances of the Christian apocalyptic hope, with its attendant fear of hell and longing for heaven. In fact, the letter then immediately goes into why this hope should be trusted without evidence (Hebrews 11). This is not a verse that helps Holding’s case. There is nothing here about a universal pagan antipathy to Christian values, nor any reference to having strong evidence as the reason for persevering.

Philippians 1:27-30 also speaks only of specific adversaries, not the whole society in which Christians lived, and says nothing of Christians being hated for their values. And Paul declares there that those who persecute them will go down to destruction while they, by persevering, will be saved, another example of the real motivation behind Christians enduring every attack. 1 Thessalonians 1:6 says nothing at all beyond that the Thessalonians suffered some great oppression that made them a model for other congregations to follow. It does not say what that oppression was, or from whom it came, or why. And since it refers to all this in the past tense, Paul cannot have meant a persistent cultural problem. In fact, when he elaborates in 2:13-16, it is clear that Paul means the Thessalonians were persecuted in a past incident by their own neighbors in a manner similar to the way certain factions of the Jews persecuted the Church in Judaea. According to Acts, these persecutions were not actions representative of the general population, but of a minority faction of adversaries. Moreover, Paul’s analogy entails they were persecuted for theological doctrines, not their moral values. Similarly, 2 Thessalonians 1:4-5 doesn’t say what persecutions or oppression, from whom, or what for. But it does give the usual reason for enduring: the righteous gain heaven, their oppressors gain destruction (1:5-11). The reason given is never the strength of any evidence.

1 Peter 2:11-18 (which also comes from the later part of the 1st century) actually says the opposite of what Holding claims. It says Christians should win the praise of outsiders by their good behavior, thus refuting by their actions the false charges against them, and this entails fulfilling (not defying) the values of the wider culture (including obeying the government and the entire social order outside the Church).[8] And 1 Peter 3:16 completes the thought begun at 3:13, which is exactly the opposite of what Holding leads us to believe: “Who will harm you if you are zealous for what is good?” Only then does the letter go on to talk about those who are persecuted anyway, so already the letter is denying this was the norm. That is the context of the verse that exhorts Christians to be good “so when those people who blab disparage your good manner of life in Christ, they will be ashamed.” Does that sound like Christian values were at odds with popular values? To the contrary, the fact that the author expected this disparagement to be unusual, and the fact that he expected persecutors would be ashamed to resort to it, both imply that Christians were living by values widely respected in Greco-Roman (and Jewish) society. And this is explicit in Titus 2:7-3:8, where Christians are specifically exhorted to follow popular values so outsiders will think well of them. Likewise, 1 Peter 4:12-16 says if Christians are to be persecuted, let it be for the name of Christ only, not for any evil deed. And, again, the motivation is immediately given (4:17-19) as the fate of heaven and hell, not the strength of any evidence. So none of this supports Holding’s point.[9]

One continual theme in these passages is that those who suffer ought to suffer because Christ did, and Christ is the best of men, the ideal all should emulate.[10] Yet we know from the Gospel stories (and the predicted fate of the Messiah in scripture, as examined in Chapter 1) that Jesus was not persecuted because his values were unpopular, but for precisely the opposite reason: they were immensely popular, and it is only the wicked elite who attack him, and in so doing are charged as hypocrites. Hence Jesus was not executed because his values were despised, but because the elite had rejected the popular values of justice and compassion that Jesus represented and upheld. By being called to emulate him in their persecution, the message conveyed is that Christians are being persecuted by the same sorts of hypocrites who pervert popular values (e.g. 1 Thessalonians 2:13-16), not by a society cherishing different values. And that was the point: Christians won converts because they were upholding the values that many cherished but their leaders did notor, worse, rendered lip service to, but trampled in practice.


8.4. Where Holding Gets it Right

For all that, there is one thing that persecution and scorn did do to the Church: it changed it. Everyone who could find the same hope and moral vision in more accepted pagan philosophies and mystery cults would certainly prefer the easier road. It is only the desperate and fed up, who did not find these alternatives satisfying, who would find Christianity attractive at any price. And that gradually changed the character of the Church itself. Only the most radical or the most desperate filled the bulk of the movement. This included those who actually wanted martyrdom or weren’t afraid of it but impressed and encouraged by it, those who found in Christianity something absent from philosophy and paganism but that they badly wanted, and even those who (like Tatian) had actually grown disgusted with those alternatives and took to Christianity as a backlash against elite arrogance. This may well be why Christianity so quickly became radicalized into a predominately Sarcicist religion (see Chapter 3). Since that sect was the only religion guaranteeing a resurrection of the flesh on easy terms (Judaism offered it on very hard terms, while other Christian sects offered something different or more complicated), all the people in the Roman Empire who wanted that (regardless of their beliefs) would have flocked to Christianity, while many others would find a better deal on even easier terms in pagan philosophy or salvation cults.

This selection effect in successful recruitment may also be a reason why Christianity was a slow starter. Because it appealed to a psychologically select segment of society, it never gained a very large following until centuries after its origin, after social conditions (and the Church itself) had changed enormously. To that extent Holding is certainly correct. Had Christianity won over a majority of the Empire in a single century, then maybe he would have an argument (contrast, for example, the fantastically rapid and remarkably complete success of the Scientific Revolution). But Christian success came nowhere near that, least of all within its first hundred years (we shall examine its actual scale of success in Chapter 18). Persecution no doubt played a part in that poor showing. But it was not enough to keep the Church from growing, even to the extent that it did. There were plenty of deprived and disgruntled people it could appeal to, and it didn’t need proof of the Resurrection to win them over.

In the end, Holding is right to say that the hardships, though they mustn’t be so exaggerated, were nevertheless enough that “it is quite unlikely that anyone would have gone the distance for the Christian faith at any timeunless it had something tangible behind it.” This is always true. It has been true of every morally demanding idealistic movement in history, whether we’re talking about the dawn of Islam or Soviet Marxism. But as we have seen, here and in several other chapters, that “something tangible” did not have to be “irrefutable” evidence of an historical event, such as Jesus rising from the dead. In none of the mass movements throughout human history involving a widespread willingness to suffer and sacrifice, has the motive ever been anything like that, but always a sociomoral ideal. Christianity was surely no different. Indeed, its social program was the one truly tangible thing it had to offer, and that was attractive and alluring all on its own.

Once the battle lines were drawn in this cultural war of compassion against insolence, brotherhood against exploitation, justice against corruption, and equality against inequity, there would surely be plenty of volunteer soldiers fighting for the Christian side. And like all volunteers for every just war in history, they would be fully prepared to assume the burdens of battle, with all its attendant miseries, sacrifices, and risks. It’s simply human nature. The shame is that the Christian Church eventually succumbed to the very corruption, villainy, and injustice it began its faith fighting against. Ultimately, however, even for its claim to divine backing, there was ample evidence to meet the standards of those who actually converted (as we shall see in Chapter 13 and Chapter 17). So evidence of the Resurrection itself needed to be no better than the sincere devotion of missionariesand nothing more (see Chapter 7)which in turn required no more than biologically and culturally explicable visions of the divine, or a passionate, compassionate belief in a greater social good (see Chapter 10).


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[1] See Richard Carrier, “IV. A Digression on Witnesses Being Willing to Die,” in Chapter 2 of “Why I Don’t Buy the Resurrection Story” (5th ed., 2004).

[2] Quote from David DeSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (2000), p. 44. For a summary and bibliography of the scholarship, see Caroline Bynum, Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity: 200-1336 (1995), p. 44. For a more thorough discussion of the issue, see: W. H. C. Frend, “Martyrdom and Political Oppression,” The Early Christian World, ed. Philip Esler, vol. 2 (2000): pp. 815-39; Mary Beard, et al., Religions of Rome: Volume 1, A History (1998), pp. 236-44; and Robin Lane Fox, “Persecution and Martyrdom,” Pagans and Christians (1987): pp. 419-92.

       On the voiding of the legal acts of Nero and Domitian, see “damnatio memoriae,” The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd ed. (1996): p. 427. For the Pliny-Trajan exchange, see Pliny the Younger, Epistles 10.96-97.

       Holding claims to find evidence Paul executed Christians in Philippians 3:6, but I don’t see how. In the passage he cites, Paul gives a list of his qualifications in parallel structure, such that the context does not fit that of Maccabees, which never uses either relevant word in the way Holding implies anyway. Diôkô is used 11 times in 1 and 2 Maccabees, always in the sense of “chase,” not in any context relating to persecution (1 Maccabees 3:24, 4:9, 4:16, 7:45, 9:15, 11:73, 12:51, 15:39; 2 Maccabees 2:21, 2:31, 5:8; all are military actions); and zêlos appears only 4 times, none in any context relating to persecution (1 Maccabees 2:27, 2:54, 2:58, 8:16). As for Paul, he says only that “with regard to zeal” he “pursued” the Church, just as “with regard to the law” he was a Pharisee, and “with regard to obedience” to the law he was “blameless.”

       The word for “pursue” here is ambiguous, with positive and negative meanings, from “follow” to “hunt”though in formal terminology it means “prosecute a case” (cf. diôkô in Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott’s A Greek-English Lexicon). Even if we assume Paul is using the term formally, he does not tell us what charges he brought, or what penalties he sought, or even whether he succeeded in winning any of his cases (so also for 1 Corinthians 15:9, 1 Timothy 1:13, and Galatians 1:13 & 1:23, where Paul also “besieged” or “endeavored to destroy” [portheô] the Church, which are just as ambiguous in their meaning, telling us neither what he actually did, or why, or whether it succeeded). Likewise, the word for “zeal” means “jealousy,” though usually in a positive sense, as in “eager rivalry” or a “longing to emulate.” In this case, Paul would mean emulating his fellow Pharisees, unless he is actually referring to rivaling the Jewish ecclesia and is not speaking of persecuting the Christian Church here at all (the context does suggest he meant to list only his positive traits here). By extension, the word means “fervor,” hence “zeal” (cf. zêlos in the lexicon), which says nothing about whether Paul wanted or sought to kill anyone, much less that he did kill anyone. Conclusion: Paul may well have been partly responsible for some executions of Christians (as Acts claims). But we cannot prove this from anything Paul said in his letters.

[3] W. H. C. Frend, “Martyrdom and Political Oppression,” The Early Christian World, ed. Philip Esler, vol. 2 (2000), p. 818.

[4] Alan Segal, Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion (2004), p. 314. His entire chapter on millennial and apocalyptic movements covers the evidence and scholarship, and links it to both Judaism and Christianity, as well as Islam and several indigenous religious movements.

[5] All of this is apparent to any attentive student of human history. But Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951) is still a best-selling discussion of it.

[6] For example: 1 Corinthians 12 & 15:1-8; 2 Corinthians 12:12; Galatians 1:11-12, 15-19 & 3:5; Romans 16:25-26; Acts 9:3-9. This point is thoroughly examined from several angles in Chapter 13 and Chapter 17. See the entirety of 1 Peter 1 for the exact same reasoning, that Christians should endure persecution for future reward simply because scripture says so.

[7] On the cultural context, see: Robin Lane Fox, “Seeing the Gods,” Pagans and Christians (1987): pp. 102-67; Alan Segal, “Religiously-Interpreted States of Consciousness: Prophecy, Self-Consciousness, and Life After Death,” Life after Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion (2004): pp. 322-50; Peter Green, Alexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age (1990), pp. 408-13, 594-95; E. R. Dodds, “The Blessings of Madness” and “Dream-Pattern and Culture-Pattern,” The Greeks and the Irrational (1951): pp. 64-101 and 102-34.

       On the scientific background, see: John Horgan, Rational Mysticism: Dispatches from the Border between Science and Spirituality (2003); Eugene D’Aquili and Andrew Newberg, Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief (2001); and Eugene D’Aquili and Andrew Newberg, The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience (1999).

       See also: Richard Carrier, “Craig’s Empty Tomb and Habermas on the Post-Resurrection Appearances of Jesus,” which is Section 4e of my Review of “In Defense of Miracles” (1999); Richard Carrier, “From Taoist to Infidel” (2001); and Richard Carrier, “Do Religious Life and Critical Thought Need Each Other? A Reply to William Reinsmith” (1996).

       The debate between Origen and Celsus (Origen, Contra Celsum 2.60) reveals this reality: reasonable people seeing apparitions while awake was enough to “prove” those apparitions real. Note that Origen says these apparitions are therefore astral bodies, not flesh. Origen did not believe Jesus rose in the flesh, but had switched bodies, leaving the corpse behind and donning a new astral body. Cf. Contra Celsum 5.18-24, 6.29, 7.32; Caroline Bynum, Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336 (1995), pp. 63-71; and Richard Carrier, “The Spiritual Body of Christ and the Legend of the Empty Tomb,” Jeff Lowder & Bob Price, eds., The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave (2005): pp. 105-232.

[8] In fact, contrary to Holding’s claim, Christians were always told to uphold the values and social institutions of the wider society: Romans 12:17-18 & 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:12-17 & 4:15; 2 Corinthians 8:21; Galatians 6:10; Colossians 3:22; Hebrews 12:14.

[9] I have not examined Holding’s citation of Revelation, because the entire treatise is a prophetic vision. But in the section Holding cites (the mention of tribulations in Smyrna and Pergamum in chapter 2), only very specific persecution events are mentioned, not a general state of cultural opposition (one synagogue of “false Jews” in Smyrna and the execution of one man, Antipas, in Pergamum: 2:8-10, 2:12-13).

[10] e.g. Hebrews 12; Philemon 1:29; 1 Thessalonians 1:6; 1 Peter 3:18, 4:1, 4:13.

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