Early Christians Put to Death for "Cannibalism"?

Hello all,

I have heard time and time again by word of mouth that early Christians were put to death for “Cannibalism” when they proclaimed they were truly eating the body and blood of Christ when they partook in the Eucharist.

I am trying to find a historical document to show this to use as a citation - I’ve heard it is visible in at least one Roman Document, but I can’t find anything!

Would anybody know of any good sources?

Thank you!


I don’t have any good sources, but I see that any judge or tribunal which used that argument would be putting themselves in the risky position of effectively validating the belief that it is truly the Body and Blood of Christ. I think any court or judge worth its salt would avoid this risky position, and furthermore would in general have certain standards of evidence, namely physical evidence, a dead body, or some such.

That’s not to say it never happened, but to use alleged cannibalism as an excuse to torture and kill Christians would, I suspect, more likely have happened in the context of a “witch hunt” or vigilante justice than in a formal trial.

The early Christians were accused of many things, including ‘atheism’ (i.e., they didn’t believe in the ‘old gods’) and ‘cannibalism’ (since they professed to consuming the body and blood of Jesus). Justin Martyr addressed the charges of cannibalism in his discussion of the Eucharist in his First Apology (and, if memory serves, in his Second Apology as well).

To say that Christians were executed for cannibalism, per se, is a bit misleading. They were killed for being Christians; these other charges – which are what the enemies of Christianity saw as what made Christians so odious – might have been part of the justification of why it was necessary to execute them, but they wouldn’t have been what they were charged with as a crime.

This article may point you to more sources:
The first real blow to this interpretation came when I read Peter Brown’s book, The Cult of Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity.
Brown challenged my view that the place of saints and relics in the church was a mere holdover from paganism, and that the practice was somehow peripheral to true Christianity. Instead, Brown painted a picture of ancient Christianity and paganism in which relics were indispensable to the former, and repulsive to the latter. Far from a holdover from paganism, the place of relics in the Church appeared as something intensely Jewish, Hebraic, and Old Testament. Pagans, like Julian-the-Apostate, found the practice revolting and legislated against it. (Paganism, with its notions of ritual purity, had strictly delimited the realm of divine worship and neatly separated it from the realm of corpses and the dead.)

Most historians agree cannibalism and incest was the reason why people would persecute Christians. Cannibalism for of course, referring to the Eucharist, and incest because they called each other brothers and sisters. I can’t find any documents so keep searching.

The early Christian apologists frequently say that Christians were accused of cannibalism. But this seems to have been a popular belief rather than the legal ground for their execution. When educated Roman governors like Pliny looked into Christianity, they quickly figured out that these popular accusations were false. But they still saw Christians as socially undesirable and dangerous, so while they didn’t go out of their way to hunt them down (at least until the second half of the third century), they were willing to try and execute them for their stubbornness in refusing to sacrifice to the Roman gods.

So the process would be:

  1. The common people blame Christians for some disaster or misfortune, or just have a grudge against a Christian neighbor;
  2. The local authorities round up some Christians (in some cases the Christians seem to have rushed forward to be martyred) and put pressure on them to renounce their faith;
  3. Those who refuse to do so are killed, usually as part of public entertainment.

Essentially, Christians were convenient “arena fodder.” Whenever the Romans put on a big show, they needed a supply of disposable victims to be killed in entertaining ways, as a demonstration of Roman power. The fact that Christians were unpopular for their alleged atrocities (and their better-documented “antisocial” attitudes) made them prime subjects for this important public role of “designated victim.”

I laid out some of this in an article I wrote about the North African martyr Perpetua for the magazine Christian History (the title isn’t mine, although I think it’s an appropriate one).


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