St. Stephen & Christians in the Roman Empire

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  • 0:00 Pentecost
  • 1:07 Death of Stephen
  • 2:12 Issues with Last Supper
  • 3:02 Nero & Domitian
  • 4:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

For much of the early history of Christianity, worship was heavily persecuted. In this lesson, we look at the beginning of that persecution with Saint Stephen, as well as the changing relationship between Rome and the Church.


When discussing the persecution of the early Christian church, the name Stephen is sure to be mentioned. However, according to both Biblical and secular history, Stephen was just the first of many who would lose their life for the cause of Christ.

To explain, according to the New Testament Bible, Christian persecution began very shortly after the Day of Pentecost, the day in which the Holy Spirit of God descended on the followers of Jesus Christ. At this time, these followers began fervently preaching the message that Jesus Christ, being God, died for the sins of humanity; that He was buried; and that He was raised from the dead on the third day.

This alone was enough to make the Jewish leaders of the day very angry. After all, Jesus's claims to be God were the main reason they had orchestrated His execution in the first place. Now His followers, most of whom were Jewish, were picking up His mantle. Making matters worse, they were amassing a pretty big following, performing miracles and convincing many that Jesus truly was God.

Death of Stephen

Fearing that these Jesus followers were really getting out of hand, the Jewish rulers of the day began arresting and even torturing them for their beliefs. When arrest and torture were unable to quiet them, martyrdom, or execution for one's beliefs, began. As stated earlier, the Bible tells us that sometime around the year 35 CE, Stephen became the first martyr of the Christian faith. Not only did he proclaim that Jesus was God, he went a step further and laid the blame for His death squarely at the feet of the Jewish leaders. Being outraged, the powerful Jewish rulers dragged him outside the city and actually threw stones at him until he died.

With the martyrdom of Stephen, who by the way was also a Jew, many historians say the divide between Christianity and Judaism began, and the Jews began persecuting anyone who claimed that Jesus was God. However, it would be a mistake to think that the Jewish leaders were the only ones who had it in for the followers of Jesus Christ.

Issues with Last Supper

Adding to the Jewish leaders of the day, the Roman Empire, which ruled over Israel, was also not a fan of the new Christian faith. For starters, Roman officials were disgusted with the Christian commemoration of the Last Supper, the final meal Jesus had with His disciples before He died. At this meal, Jesus instructed His disciples to remember His death by eating bread, which symbolized His body, and drinking wine, which symbolized His blood.

Misunderstanding this practice, which is known today as the Eucharist, as the actual eating of human flesh rather than as a symbol, Rome began accusing the Christians of cannibalism. The followers of Christ also refused to recognize the many gods of Rome as divine which made Rome despise the new Christians even more.

Nero & Domitian

This not only made the Romans angry, it gave them reason to blame the Christians anytime something went wrong. If there was a flood, they said it was the gods displaying their anger against the Christians. If there was an earthquake, it was the gods proving they were in charge.

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