Did Christian Historians Exaggerate Persecution by the Romans?

Historians in the News
tags: archaeology, religion, persecution, Jordan

One of the central themes of the history of Christianity is the persecution of early Christians at the hands of the Romans. In his Church History, Eusebius of Caesarea, the first Christian historian, tells the story of the rise of Christianity from a regional Jewish splinter group to the dominant religion of the Roman empire. Eusebius wrote in the fourth century and was at least acquainted, if not actually friendly, with the Roman emperor Constantine. A main focus of Eusebius’s history was the persecution. But now, for the first time, archaeological evidence suggests that Eusebius’s story may not be entirely accurate. 

Among his many claims about the persecution of Christians, Eusebius writes that Christians were sent “to the mines” at Phaeno (Khirbet Faynan) in southwestern Jordan during the early fourth century. He writes that “it was impossible to tell the incalculable number of those whose right eyes had first been cut out with the sword, and then had been cauterized with fire; or who had been disabled in the left foot by burning the joints, and afterward condemned to the provincial copper mines, not so much for service as for distress and hardship.” He later adds that 40 others were “beheaded … at the copper mines of Phaeno.” His claim that some martyrs and heretics were sent to the mines is supported by the Christian bishop Athanasius of Alexandria as well as some other early church writers.

Recent excavations at the Byzantine mining camp at Phaeno, however, have uncovered no evidence that Christians suffered in the ways that Eusebius described. Megan Perry, a bio-anthropologist at East Carolina University, has spent a number of years analysing excavated human remains from the local cemetery. The results of her analysis were recently published in a series of co-authored articles and essays (with Drew Coleman, David Dettman, Abdel Halim al-Shiyab) for, among others, the Journal of Archaeological Science and the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

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