The Biggest Myths About the First Christians

Did early Christians have Bibles? Hide in catacombs? Oh, and as far as why Peter was crucified upside down...

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

Whether you like it or not, if you live in Western Europe or North America your world is shaped by Christianity. But Christianity was not inevitable. Jesus was not the only Messiah executed by the Romans for sedition. His impact is felt and the religion founded in his name exists today because of the work of his followers—the Apostles and first disciples who spread his message. We know a little about their work from the Bible (Acts of the Apostles) and there are some almost cartoonish portrayals of them in stories composed decades, even hundreds of years after their deaths. But it’s largely a murky period. Most of what we think we know about the earliest Christians comes from later traditions, Hollywood epics and, sadly, The Da Vinci Code.

1. They weren’t Christians.

Jesus and his disciples were Jews: Their scripture was Jewish, their religious rituals were Jewish, and their conception of the Messiah was Jewish. It’s certainly true that in the Gospel of John, a text written at the earliest around 90 CE, Jesus says some pretty vicious things about Jews (spoiler alert: He didn’t actually say those things). And it’s true that Paul discouraged Gentile converts from embracing the full demands of Jewish law, including circumcision. But neither Paul nor any of the evangelists know the name Christian or use it to describe followers of Jesus.

The Acts of the Apostles tells us that the name Christian was first used in Antioch in the 60s. But a growing consensus among scholars maintains that Acts of the Apostles was likely written around 115 CE. And none of the Gospels or epistles written in the 60s, 70s, or 80s, use the word Christian at all.

What this means is that for the majority of the first century, followers of Jesus were known as Jews. Even Paul seems to have agreed. A number of books including Professor Joshua Garroway’s Paul’s Gentile-Jews, have argued that Paul intended even converts to be Jewish. And that when he said for Christ there was neither “Jew nor Greek” he meant because all of his followers were now Gentile-Jews.

The actual split between Jews and Christians, what scholars call the parting of the ways, took place over the course of centuries. As late as the fifth century John Chrysostom, the eloquent Bishop of Antioch, was complaining that Christians would not stop going to synagogues.

2. They didn’t agree with each other.

A modern visitor to Rome would notice all of the Churches dedicated to Peter and Paul and the statues positioning them alongside one another as friends. But the truth is there was friction between the two. According to Paul’s letter to the Galatians, Paul tells a story in which he called Peter a hypocrite for refusing to eat with the Gentiles in front of James and the other Apostles. There seems to have been considerable disagreement between Paul and the original group about the religious requirements to be placed on Gentile converts and the amount of fraternization between Jewish and Gentile converts. It’s an uncomfortable moment and one that the author of Acts of Apostles tries to erase.

The disagreements didn’t stop there. Throughout Christian history, but particularly in the first four centuries, there were heated debates about the afterlife, the role of women, the practice of baptism, the date of Easter, and so on. Some people will present these debates as a tussle between “orthodox Catholics” and “heretics” but the truth is that these groups weren’t as clear-cut in the second century as they are in retrospect. It isn’t the case that the authoritarian Catholic Church clamped down on heresy and suppressed other groups. Maybe some people would have liked to, but there was no organized church hierarchy that had the power to do this kind of thing (sorry, Dan Brown). Moreover, at the time, everyone sincerely thought that they were the only ones who accurately preserved God’s Church. And it’s because of this that people fought so vigorously to defend their position and argument.

3. They didn’t have Christian Bibles.

In the beginning the only Christian scripture was the Hebrew Bible. It took almost a century from the death of Jesus for all of the books that are included in our modern New Testament to be written down. And it took even longer than that for those books to be viewed as authoritative and longer still for those books to be grouped together and identified as canonical. While many of the books in the New Testament gained authority in the second century, it wasn’t until 367 CE that we find a list of books that corresponds to our modern collection. Before then people had different canons. Some of these (like that of second century heretic Marcion), were much smaller while others (like those used by the Ethiopic Church) were larger. People sometimes read other, now non-canonical books including stories about the disciples and martyrs, Cliff’s notes versions of the Hebrew Bible known as florilegia, and sometimes just Torah Scrolls.

4. They never hid in catacombs.

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There’s a popular misconception that early Christians hid in the catacombs to escape persecution. It’s certainly true that Christians did sometimes meet at tombs to celebrate the dead in special meals that they adapted from Roman pagan funerary rituals. And perhaps at the same time they also celebrated the Eucharist in small groups or told tales about the Christian departed. But they didn’t hide in the catacombs or use the symbol of the fish as a covert sign of their illicit presence there. If Christians had tried to hide in the catacombs they would have been easily discovered.

The legend about Christians hiding in catacombs is much much later. For that we have to thank the Roman tour guides who led wealthy young aristocrats and manufacturing scions around the city as part of the Grand Tour. Anytime something ancient is associated with Christianity it becomes more valuable and more interesting to later generations of Christians. Telling lurid stories about Christians hiding in the catacombs made them a more enticing tourist attraction. But it slightly ruins the fish symbols people attached to their car bumpers in the 1980s.

5. Peter wasn’t crucified upside down because he was humble.

If there’s one martyrdom story every Christian knows it is that the Apostle Peter asked to be crucified upside down because he was too humble to be executed in the same way as Jesus. This story isn’t just the stuff of the Catechism it is memorialized in movies like Quo Vadis in which the Roman emperor Nero attacks Christians because he was using them as scapegoats for the Great Fire of Rome.

There are a number of problems with this story. As noted Princeton classicist Brent Shaw has recently argued in the Journal of Roman Studies, there’s very little solid evidence for Nero ever having persecuted Christians. Tacitus, our main source for this idea, wrote around half a century later, and Christian sources for the period hardly gesture toward the fire of Rome.

In fact, our earliest accounts of the death of Peter give a very different version of events. According to the earliest story of Peter’s death, the Acts of Peter, Peter was targeted by Roman authorities because he had persuaded the concubines of prominent Roman men to withhold sexual favors from their partners. This led to his arrest and an aborted escape plan. But when Peter returned to Rome after meeting Jesus on the road and asking him “where are you going?” he wasn’t interested in humility. Instead he gave a different, theological reason for wanting to be crucified upside down. The sin of Adam and Eve, he said, had turned good and evil on its head and he wanted to be crucified upside down as a symbol of the fallen state of the world. The whole story about humility first appeared in the fourth century, over two hundred years after Peter’s death.

The irony here, as I argued in my book Myth of Persecution, is that Christian myths about the martyrdom of the apostles don’t even pretend to use the earliest historical sources. Which is just fine, as long as you recognize that they are morality tales, not eyewitness reports.