FACT CHECK: Time Claims Early Christians Committed ‘Self-Immolation’ During Diocletian’s Reign In 300 AD

Elias Atienza | Senior Reporter

Time reported that “Self-immolation was also seen as a sacrificial act committed by Christian devotees who chose to be burned alive when they were being persecuted for their religion by Roman emperor Diocletian around 300 A.D.”

Verdict: Misleading

Eusebius, a Christian historian, describes Christians rushing into a fire in 300 AD. However, it appears that the Roman authorities were using this fire to execute them.

Fact Check:

A U.S. airman died after he set himself on fire in front of the Israeli embassy in protest Israel’s against ongoing campaign against Gaza, according to CNN.

Time reported the history of self-immolation as protest. In this report, it stated that “self-immolation has been used as an extreme form of protest against political leaders in Tunisia during the Arab Spring, the Vietnam War, and climate change.” It further states that Christians committed acts of self-immolation when the Roman emperor Diocletian persecuted them in 300 AD.

This appears to be highly misleading. Self-immolation is defined in several different ways. Cambridge Dictionary describes it as “the practice of setting yourself on fireespecially as a protest against something.” Merriam-Webster defines it as “a deliberate and willing sacrifice of oneself often by fire.”

Time did not provide any citations or evidence in its original copy. Time later updated the article to include a link to a 2012 New Yorker article. (RELATED: Biden’s Job Creation Claim Ignores Key Context)

The New Yorker reported: “However, from the historian Eusebios, we know with greater certainty of a more interesting instance of auto-cremation in antiquity: around 300 A.D., Christians persecuted by Diocletian set fire to his palace in Nicodemia and then threw themselves onto it—presumably, to express their objections to Roman policy and not to the emperor’s architectural taste.”

The source appears to be from Eusebius, an early Christian historian and bishop. From Eusebius’ Church History (published on the New Advent website):

“A great multitude of martyrs were added to him, a conflagration having broken out in those very days in the palace at Nicomedia, I know not how, which through a false suspicion was laid to our people…. Entire families of the pious in that place were put to death in masses at the royal command, some by the sword, and others by fire. It is reported that with a certain divine and indescribable eagerness men and women rushed into the fire. And the executioners bound a large number of others and put them on boats and threw them into the depths of the sea.”

It appears, though, that Eusebius did not write that Christians set fire to the palace in Nicomedia. It appears that Eusebius is stating after the “conflagration,” Christians were being put to death by “sword” and “by fire.” Instead of waiting for the Roman authorities to burn them to death, these Christians rushed into the fire themselves, according to Eusebius. It does not appear to state that they ran into the burning palace.

There is debate about who caused the fire. The commentary in the New Advent website reads that “vaguest information in regard to the progress of affairs at Nicomedia, and has no knowledge of the actual order and connection of events.”

The commentary continues:

“In regard to the effects of the fire upon Diocletian’s attitude toward the Christians, see above, note 3, and below, p. 400. Constantine (Orat. ad Sanct. Coet. XXV. 2) many years afterwards referred to the fire as caused by lightning, which is clearly only a makeshift, for, as Burckhardt remarks, there could have been no doubt in that case how the fire originated. And, moreover, such an explanation at best could account for only one of the fires. The fact that Constantine feels it necessary to invent such an explanation gives the occurrence a still more auspicious look, and one not altogether favorable to the Christians. In fact, it must be acknowledged that the case against them is pretty strong.}}”

Dr. Jeffrey Kloha, the chief curator for the Museum of the Bible and a former professor of exegetical theology at the Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, told Check Your Fact that “[n]o Christians threw themselves into the burning palace.”

“Eusebius says that the fire in Galerius’ palace was from unknown causes; Galerius (Diocletian’s Caesar) claimed that Christians set it; some scholars think that Galerius just blamed the Christians. But the burning of Christians was the Roman response to the palace fire,” Kloha said. “Arrests were made afterward, some were killed by sword, some by fire, and apparently (as Eusebius notes) no one resisted. This is not self-immolation. You can criticize the Christians for being zealous for martyrdom, but they did not light themselves on fire, nor did they throw themselves into a burning building.”

Trent Horn, a staff apologist for Catholic Answers and an adjunct professor of apologetics at Holy Apostles College, said that the New Yorker recount of Eusebius’ writing “is false.”

“Eusebius describes the fire in Nicomedia…in book eight, chapters 5 and 6, of his work The Church History. He says of the fire’s cause that “a false suspicion was laid to our people”—i.e., Christians. He does not write or suggest that Christians purposefully started it,” Horn said. (Horn also cited the passage from Eusebius’ Church History described above.)

“This is not an example of suicide done to protest the emperor’s actions. These Christians had been sentenced to death, and some of them joyously accepted their impending martyrdom, knowing they would receive the ‘martyr’s crown’ in heaven as a reward (Rev. 2:10). Early Christian writers like Origen (Commentary on Matthew), Lactantius (Divine Institutes 3:18), and Augustine (City of God 1.16-27) all condemned suicide as gravely sinful and made no exception for suicides done of out of protest against unjust rulers,” Horn added.

The Diocletian persecutions was the last great Roman persecution of Christians, according to Britannica. The Roman Empire under his reign issued edicts against the Christians that restricted their legal rights and targeted them in various ways.

After publication, a New Yorker spokesperson told Check Your Fact that the outlet has issued an update on the article.  The update states that an “earlier version of this article included an incorrect summary of the historical events at Nicomedia” and has a new recounting of the incident.

“However, from the historian Eusebios, we know with greater certainty of a more interesting instance of auto-cremation in antiquity: around 300 A.D., Christians sentenced to be burned alive following a case of suspected arson at the imperial palace in Nicomedia threw themselves into the flames—presumably, to express their objections to Roman policy and not to the emperor’s architectural taste,” the article now reads.

After the New Yorker updated, Time issued a correction stating,”A previous version of this story mischaracterized the action of Christians in 300 A.D. They threw themselves into a fire after they were sentenced to being burned alive; they didn’t choose independently to do so.”

The article now reads,”Self-immolation was also committed by a group of Christians around 300 A.D., acting before authorities could carry out a sentence from the Roman emperor Diocletian that they should be burned alive.”

Check Your Fact reached out to Time for comment. (RELATED: Did Pope Francis Say That Jesus Was Born During A Census Taken By King David)

Update 03/06/2024: This article has been updated to note that the New Yorker issued an update noting it incorrectly summarized Eusebius’ account of the Nicomedia palace fire. It was also updated to note Time issued a correction. 

Elias Atienza

Senior Reporter
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