Were the Early Christians Stoned?


Let’s make it clear – There is no question that the earliest Christians were stoned, i.e., they had stones thrown at them in an effort to kill them. Acts describes the stoning of Stephen when a young Pharisee named Saul stood and watched. (Acts 7:54-60) Later, that same Saul (now named Paul) was himself the victim of a stoning which he survived. (Acts 14:19-20) So, I am not asking if the apostles were stoned in that sense.

The question is whether they were stoned, i.e., drugged to the point of hallucinating much of what is reported in the New Testament. That, at least, is the gist of a new book described in an article on the Daily Beast website (the tagline of which should be, “We’ll publish anything that questions Christianity and Western civilization no matter how far-fetched”) entitled “Did Early Christians Use Psychedelics?” The subtitle says it all, “A new investigation into the spiritual life of the ancient world argues something different. Ancient people weren’t crazy or making things up; they were high.”

The article begins:

The ancient world seems to have been a place full of the supernatural: miraculous healings, demonic activity, prophets delivering oracles, flying wizards, men walking on water, and so on. Even if you put aside exceptional heroic figures likes Jesus, a high proportion of people seem to have been having religious or spiritual experiences. It’s easy to be dismissive of these stories as folklore or the product of some very overactive imaginations, but a new investigation into the spiritual life of the ancient world argues something different. Ancient people weren’t crazy or making things up: they were high. More specifically, claims author Brian Muraresku, many ancient religions, including the earliest Christians, used psychedelics as a way of transcending everyday life and communing with the divine.

It is important to note a few things here. First, the author acknowledges that a number of incidents reported in the ancient world are supernatural. Among the list of supernatural things identified is “flying wizards.” Just to be clear, there are no “flying wizards” in the Bible. The mention probably comes from the non-canonical apocryphal Acts of St. Peter where Simon Magus – a man actually appearing in Acts 13 – said he would prove the correctness of his heresies by ascending into heaven. In the story, he did rise off the ground, but the prayers of Peter and Paul brought him crashing back down to Earth breaking his legs and ultimately leading to his death. The Acts of St. Peter are not part of the Bible, and the mentions of Simon Magus outside the Bible are known to be legend and only loosely based on reality. The New Advent Encyclopedia describes the extra-biblical writing about Simon Magus this way: “All these narratives belong naturally to the domain of legend.”

Second, the author of the article notes that the book she is relying upon for the article shows that many ancient religions, including the earliest Christians, used these hallucination-inducing drugs. So, the question is whether the author succeeded in proving this claim?

According to the article, there is no definitive evidence that the earliest Christians used psychedelics. There is evidence that other religions used them, but the tie to Christianity is based on the seriously flawed logic that if one religion did it, all religions (including Christianity) did it.

I read the article through twice. I don’t see any substantial evidence that demonstrates that the earliest Christians used psychedelic drugs as part of their worship. The article begins:

In the just-released Immortality Key (St. Martin’s Press, 2020) Muraresku, a former classics major turned lawyer, travels the world talking to archaeologists, academics, priests and farmers about ancient ecstatic experiences. His goal is to test a theory, one he has held for decades and spent 12 years researching, that some ancient religious experience was nurtured by mind-altering substances.

So now we know that the author is going into the project with the goal to prove his hypothesis – that ancient mystical experiences (including Christian experiences) were simply a drug-induced haze. Of course, no one doubts that other ancient religions used mind-altering substances. There are religions that still use these substances today. So, to the extent he proves that others used mind-altering drugs, that is a non-story. The question, as the article’s title notes, is that early Christians did so. The article notes:

The essential argument of the book is that many ancient Greek and Roman religious practices involved the ritual ingestion and use of psychedelic substances. These substances contributed to the life-altering religious experiences that ancient people report having at, for example, Eleusis in ancient Greece. * * * The mysteries were wildly popular and only ended when the Christian emperor Theodosius outlawed them in 392 A.D.

Just because Christianity eventually turned on and sought to eliminate rival religious practices does not mean that Christians themselves weren’t deeply influenced by the use of psychotropic substances, argues Muraresku. Today, most Christians practice communion using wine (which, we should note, is an alcoholic beverage), but it’s possible that they were originally using psychotropics as well. In general, Christianity was deeply affected by broader Greco-Roman religion and culture; its founding texts are written in Greek, after all. Many scholars have argued for the pagan roots of Christian religious practices and so Muraresku is on safe ground when he raises the question.

So, the argument is that prior to 392 AD when a Christian emperor outlawed these hallucinogenic drugs, Christians could have been acting as part of the broader culture in using them as part of their religious practices. I agree that it is possible, but so far, all that is being put forth is speculation. Does it get better? The article continues:

When I asked him if he thinks that psychedelics were used in communion, he sagely responded that “we can't say dispositively from the archaeobotanical / archaeochemical vantage… [but] the data on the ergotized beer from Mas Castellar de Pontós in Spain, as well as (and perhaps especially) the Villa Vesuvio in Spain, raise well-founded questions about the Eucharist that was consumed by the earliest Christian communities.” The third century Christian writer and heresy-hunter Hippolytus, he added, condemns some Christians for mixing the Eucharistic wine with drugs. So, we have some good reason to think that at least some Christians were drugging communion wine, though we do not know with what.

Again, speculation. The comment by Hippolytus is at least some evidence, but all it provides evidence of is that there were some in the church who were engaging in practices that many still engage in today – they were the ancient equivalent of druggies. At best, this is a mere suggestion that there may have been some inappropriate use of drugs that were against the teaching of the church fathers – and that will become important in judging the author’s thesis.

The article later says…well, actually it doesn’t. The rest of the article is a recitation of the author’s feelings about how this is not the first time that this idea has come up and how drug use has had a bad rap. There really isn’t anything else in the article that supports the hypothesis that the early Christians used hallucinogenic drugs other than noting that there is proof that people in ancient cultures were using drugs. There is nothing that ties them to the earliest Christians.

I give credit to the article for attempting to give some of the other side of the argument. At one point the article notes:

Christian opposition to this kind of thing happened early as well. The condemnation of “love potions” and other such substances started early in the second century and has continued throughout its history. One especially interesting aspect of his book is the way that he traces Christian-based opposition to peyote in the United States. One letter from the commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs complained that the ritual use of peyote by indigenous people was “interfering quite seriously with the work of the missionaries.”

The only problem is that she doesn’t go back far enough. Christian opposition to mind-altering substances is in the writings of Paul and the other apostles. 1 Thessalonians 5:6-8 reads:

6 So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober. 7 For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.

Titus 1:6-8 (coincidentally enough) says of the leaders of the church:

6 An elder must be blameless, faithful to his wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. 7 Since an overseer manages God’s household, he must be blameless—not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. 8 Rather, he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined.

1 Peter 4:7 and 5:8 both give the same admonition: “be alert and of sober mind.”

1 Corinthians 6 makes the argument that we are to not be using out bodies inappropriately – including getting drunk (i.e., becoming non-sober). It reads, in pertinent part:

Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men[a] 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. * * * 19 Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies. (1 Corinthians 6:9b-10, 19-20)

You see, the problem with the article (and the underlying book) isn’t that it’s not okay to ask the question. Christians are wedded to truth and if the earliest Christians actually used drugs then we should know that. The problem with the article is that it assumes that the earliest Christians were like the other religions, and because it can find some evidence of ancient drug use and because other religions used mind-altering drugs, it assumes without evidence that the early Christian experience was also the result of the early Christians being stoned.

But the early Christians were a counter-culture in more than just the fact that they believed in one God not polytheism. It was counter-cultural in how the Christians lived. And one thing that comes out clearly from Scripture (which contains the earliest and authoritative writings of the early Christians) is that Christians were not to be using mind-altering substances. Anyone who thinks that the warnings against abusing alcohol and the admonitions to be sober-minded and to treat the body as God’s temple would not apply to hallucinogens, is simply basing their conclusion on what they want and not where the evidence naturally leads.

Or maybe they are stoned.




It is great to see you posting again thanks buddy! I was all set to make the halarious joke "what were they smoking?" when I really were talking about drugs.

Don't forget John M. Allegro (1923-1988). He was the only atheist/skeptic on the Dead Sea Scroll committee. He was a highly respected scholar and archeologist. He wrote some fine popularizing books on the DSS. Then he wrote a book The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross: It trashed his reputation. Here is what wiwki says about it:

"The book has been described as "notorious" and as "one of the strangest books ever published on the subject of religion and pharmacology".[4] There was a media frenzy when it was published in 1970. This caused the publisher to apologize for issuing it and forced Allegro's resignation from his university position.[1][5] Judith Anne Brown suggested that the book was "difficult to read and difficult to summarize, because he follows clues that criss-cross different cultures and lead into many-layered webs of association".[5] Mark Hall writes that Allegro suggested the scrolls all but proved that a historical Jesus never existed.[6]"

BK said…
Joe, I will hang around as much as I can. Because of Coronavirus, my teaching has become much less constant. Now, if I can just get through all of my work without getting home exhausted, I will be posting more ... not a lot, but more.

I had forgotten about the Sacred Mushroom and the Cross. Thanks for bringing it up.
sure. Nice to see you whatever the reason.

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