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The Outrageous Immorality of Early Christians (!) (?)

The question I addressed yesterday: could the obvious benefits of the Christian community – a community of love, fellowship, and mutual support – have drawn converts into it, who very much wanted that kind of thing?  The surprising answer, I think, is no, at least in the early centuries when Christianity was trying to establish a foothold in the world.  There’s another reason for thinking what I do, and it’s not one you would expect.

There were reports about the early Christian communities among outsiders.  But it was not that they were a loving and caring group of unusually upright and morally committed people.  On the contrary, the Christians were known to be flagrantly immoral, engaged in heinous, licentious, and murderous behavior.  Hard to believe, but that is the charge we repeatedly find.  Here is what I say about it in my book The Triumph of Christianity.  Brace yourself.



In the early centuries Christians were accused of almost unfathomable outrageous behavior.  Both Justin around 150 CE in Rome and Tertullian some fifty years later in north Africa refer to the charges.  In rather graphic terms, Tertullian indicates the allegations had even been ratcheted up a notch for the Christians, to include not just murder but cannibalism:  “Monsters of wickedness, we are accused of observing a holy rite in which we kill a little child and then eat it; in which, after the feast, we practice incest, the dogs – our pimps, forsooth, overturning the lights and getting us the shamelessness of darkness for our impious lusts….  This is what is constantly laid to our charge” (Apology 7).

An even more detailed and shocking exposition of the charges is set forth in the defense of the faith written by Tertullian’s younger contemporary Minucius Felix who, according to tradition, had earlier been a lawyer in Rome.  His only surviving work is called Octavius, named after its main character, who engages in a conversation with a pagan named Caecilian over the merits of the Christian faith, with Minucius Felix himself serving as the mediator between the two.  The account is allegedly autobiographical, but if not made up wholesale, the back and forth has been heavily edited in Octavius’s favor.  His speech promoting Christianity takes up twice the space as Caecilian’s attacking it, and at the end of the speech the pagan is utterly convinced.  Without further ado, he converts on the spot.[i]

Despite its fictitious features, there can be no doubt that the dialogue contains historically valid information, including the charges that Caecilian levels against the Christians.  These reflect both the suspicions of Pliny from a century earlier and the statements of other writers, such as Tertullian later, even if they are unmatched in their gruesome vividness.  Minucius Felix intimates that the charges derive from the writings of Fronto, the famous rhetorician and one-time tutor of the great emperor Marcus Aurelius.

Caecilian’s emphatic castigation of the Christian religion comes in his description of their salacious nocturnal rituals:

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Did Early Christian Heretics Promote Outrageous Sex Rituals?
Did the Benefits of the Christian Community Win Converts? Readers’ Mailbag.



  1. Avatar
    Matt2239  July 12, 2020

    These allegations were obviously written in a codex, not a scroll. The codex was a form of new media that allowed the reader to skip through the boring genealogies and get directly to the sensational parts of the story found in the back, like Revelations.

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    Poohbear  July 12, 2020

    No scholarly distinction is made here about what is “Christian.” Most of these supposed acts of “Christians” would not have been permitted in the Apostolic Church, nor most breakaway churches. But we can be sure – ALL the 1st Century Christian denominations would never had believed America of the 21st Century.
    2001-2015 Gallop figures on approval rates for moral issues USA:
    Gay lesbian 40 to 63%. Baby outside marriage 45 to 61%. Casual sex 53 to 68%. Divorce 59 to 71%. Polygamy 7 to 16%. Doctor suicide 49 to 56%.Personal suicide 13 to 19%. Gambling 63 to 67%. Abortion 42 to 45%. Married men having affairs 7 to 8%.
    Do these figures condemn Christianity? No, because the people practicing this stuff generally aren’t Christians. It was the same back then.

  3. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  July 12, 2020

    I read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall years ago but I recall Gibbon suggesting that Christian groups were fragmented and slandered each other– in other words, Christians invented these stories as a way of combating groups of Christians they disagreed with, in matters of belief and practice. Unfortunately, nobody in the Roman world had an interest in making fine distinctions and all Christians were painted with the same brush. Seems plausible to me. It’s hard to imagine Christianity without a streak of fanaticism and intolerance from the very beginning. That sort of thing seems to have been characteristic of Christianity throughout its history. There’s plenty of evidence for that, even if we discount Gibbon. Think of pagan temples desecrated, Hypatia’s (?) murder by a Christian mob, and so on. And the later persecutions and murders of “heretics”, destruction of documents, and on and on. Someone should write a book documenting Christianity’s dark side: the long history of bloody and destructive intolerance against Christian and non-Christian alike.

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    jhague  July 12, 2020

    Why were the Christians a hated group?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 13, 2020

      They were anti-social and refused to worship the gods, and so were suspicious to outsiders.

      • Avatar
        jhague  July 13, 2020

        So if the Christians were anti-social, they were not being evangelical at this point, right?

        • Bart
          Bart  July 14, 2020

          It’s the irony: they were trying to win converts while seen as anti-social. But the people they were converting were mainly family, friends, and neighbors — not the outsiders who considered them anti-social.

  5. Avatar
    janmaru  July 12, 2020

    I don’t feel pagan sources were wrong. Let’s take a few centuries later (around 1250 – 1307), Dolcino da Novara, or fra Dolcino who was an Italian millennial preacher, leader, and founder of the Dolciniani movement.
    He became part of the Apostles movement led by Gherardo Segalelli.
    In 1303, preaching in the surroundings of Trento, Dolcino met the young Margherita Boninsegna, a beautiful woman who with her perverse charm brought him to damnation. People in the movement would exert communal love, orgies and bring the meaning of Christian love to the extremes. According to later sources, when they were besieged by the Catholics they fed on the remains of their dead comrades to survive.
    Dolcino was driven on a cart through the city of Vercelli, was tortured several times with red-hot pincers and his nose was torn out along with his penis. Dolcino endured all the torments with uncommon resistance, without shouting or complaining, then he was burned alive (a true Saint or Martyr).
    Dolcino was as ever close to Christ as any other Christian of the first century, so figuratively speaking pagans were right.

  6. Avatar
    Ken Riel  July 12, 2020

    Fake news has been around for a long time, both as a practice and as a projected accusation by the practitioners.

    I continue to learn from you Professor.

    Thanks for this post.

  7. Avatar
    AstaKask  July 12, 2020

    It’s amazing to me how many Christians gripe about persecution when Jesus says they should be overjoyed by it (“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”)

  8. Avatar
    Christian David  July 12, 2020

    Interesting post. Bart, I am wondering how much the diversity of early Christianity plays a role in this subject. Recently, I watched a lecture you gave on YouTube concerning the Gospel of Judas. You mention a group of Gnostic Christians called the Canaanites who believed that an evil deity created the world we inhabit. You go on to speak of how this particular group had an unusual set of morals and ethics that opposed the Jewish law. Wouldn’t such a view cultivate such behavior? I am not implying that these charges are accurate, but maybe certain groups aside from the proto-orthodox communities perhaps did some strange things, and rumors began to spread.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 13, 2020

      I don’t think I was saying that they actually behaved in those ways, but that this is the charge leveled against them by Irenaeus (when I was summarizing his view it may have sounded like I was taking it for fact — but it was just his charge). It’s the kind of thing one typically said about one’s enemies, those immoral reprobates!

  9. Avatar
    avdominello  July 12, 2020

    The English folksong “Little Sir Hugh” was also based on the same allegations made against Jews (or one in particular) enticing a little boy playing outside her yard to come inside to fetch his ball that had accidentally been kicked in. The song details the murder of the child by the woman and his postmortem pleas to his mother to prepare his funeral.

    So this “standard polemic” of which you speak had been recycled and bandied back and forth about various groups basically forever. When I was a Freemason I heard the same thing about Freemasons from fundamentalists as well as passionist Catholics, the last of whom saw the second Vatican council as, “A Masonic plot to destroy the sanctity of the Mass.”

    Rinse, repeat.

  10. Avatar
    Clair  July 12, 2020

    Cannibalistic tribes have (had) theology to support their practice. We only have possibles in the texts, like kissing, but, men still kiss men on the lips in that part of the world. Something set the Romans off, as Romano Jews, even in Rome, were left alone as long as they did not cause trouble? We know that Christians destroyed temples like that of Artemis but, I suspect their big crime was spreading anti-roman sentiments as found in Judea all over the Empire?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 13, 2020

      Actually, that is never mentioned as their crime. It is instead their refusal to participate in the worship of the Roman gods.

  11. Avatar
    tadmania  July 13, 2020

    While you report being dissuaded of the Christian faith by the problem of suffering, I departed because of the very human conduct of its members. I doubt that early acolytes engaged in the activities used to impugn them, and fully understand how rumor and gossip would treat the Eucharist, familial bond, and secrecy of the early church. That said, we have every bit of history to show how Christians conducted themselves in the first two millennia, and the supply of such evidence continues to this very day. There are some dear people who profess faith, of course, but the church as an entity has largely been, and continues to be, a force for oppression and self-serving ambition. They want us to worry about gays and transexuals hurting kids in bathrooms, despite the raft of reports that the confessional and the retreat are the real torture chambers.

  12. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 13, 2020


  13. Avatar
    NonFingo  July 13, 2020

    I’m curious: do we have any evidence of when early Christians — or at least some of them — started believing that their eucharistic bread and wine were truly the flesh and blood of Christ? Does Mark 14:22-24 suggest that the belief was well-established by 70 CE? Are any of Paul’s letters relevant to this?

    The quotations you give from Octavius remind me of some of the accusations against Satanists in our own time. I’ve read that there is not even a single verified case in modern times of a Satanic group sacrificing a child, but nonetheless belief in such evil rituals is widespread. Historically, of course, it’s commonplace for a society to accuse its enemies of human sacrifice. I wonder if the human brain is wired to xenophobically believe such things.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 14, 2020

      No, not in the sense of the later doctrine of Transubstantiation, though certainly the views behind John 6 (eat my body, drink my blood) led to it (as does 1 Cor. 11:22-24 and the passages you mention).

  14. Avatar
    jeffmd90  July 13, 2020

    Mind you Bart, when a Pentecostal service gets going. All the shouting and hallelujahs and speaking in tongues, it sometimes sounds like an orgy. Perhaps the ancient church meetings were just as lively, and people going by in the street thought there was something intense going on.

  15. Avatar
    Silver  July 14, 2020

    Is it possible that there could be some truth in the charges against Christians? I believe I recall you noting that Paul had to castigate certain members of his churches eg the man who was having sex with his mother-in-law. Also, did not some congregations indulge themselves because they felt that being saved they were free from the Law and also, since Christ’s return was deemed imminent, they had no need to hold back?

  16. Avatar
    RiskManager  July 14, 2020

    First I sincerely salute Dr. Ehrman for presenting and discussing about this sensitive article in the most unbiased way possible.

    I just want to present some corollaries I think, that shows the possibility of the accusations brought by the character named Caecilian in this article.

    1. The rituals of Borborites are outrages: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Borborites

    Although pushed aside as heretics, I think there had been a time when some groups of Christians in the first century believed in humanly unsettling doctrines and practiced weirdly hideous rituals.

    2. Josephus writes about Mary of Bethezuba: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_of_Bethezuba

    I’m sorry I can’t verify if this Mary was referred as a christian by Josephus. But the article implies that cannibalism could’ve been a practice among some christian groups in the first century.

    3. Transubstantiation: I think this needs no explanation. If we do a sweeping search, we can still find some christian denominations believe the bread and wine literally turns into Christ’s flesh and blood.

    4. What more? Please look at this article: https://www.cnn.com/2016/03/25/asia/philippines-easter-good-friday-crucifixion/index.html

    It’s a common practice in some countries even today to crucify real people! Hope the pandemic Easter saved them from doing these blood-shedding acts!

    There are plenty more traditions. I think Caecilian’s charges are real sadly

  17. Avatar
    Leovigild  July 16, 2020

    Still, how could anyone credit them?

    We live in a world in which a considerable number of people believe that Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, George Soros, and others are involved in a transnational pedophile ring being run out of a pizza shop.

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