The attitude of first-century Jewish religious leaders created a social climate that was hostile to anyone accepting Jesus as the Messiah. Taking pride in their prominent positions, they belittled anyone showing faith in Jesus, saying: “Not one of the rulers or of the Pharisees has put faith in him, has he?” (John 7:13, 48)
Some Jewish leaders, such as Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, did become disciples of Jesus, but they kept their faith secret out of fear. (John 3:1, 2; 12:42; 19:38, 39)
The Jewish leaders had decreed that “if anyone confessed [Jesus] as Christ, he should get expelled from the synagogue.” (John 9:22) Such a person would be shunned and scorned as a social outcast.
Opposition to Jesus’ apostles and disciples eventually ignited violent persecution. Because of their bold preaching, the apostles suffered at the hands of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish high court. (Acts 5:40) Opposers framed false charges of blasphemy against the disciple Stephen.
He was condemned by the Sanhedrin and stoned to death. Then, “great persecution arose against the congregation that was in Jerusalem; all except the apostles were scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria.” (Acts 6:8-14; 7:54–8:1)
Saul, who later became the apostle Paul, shared in a campaign of persecution that was officially supported by the high priest and “the assembly of older men.”—Acts 9:1, 2; 22:4, 5.
Even under such difficult circumstances, Christianity grew rapidly in the years after Jesus’ death. Although thousands became believers, however, Christians remained a minority in first-century Palestine. Publicly identifying oneself as a follower of Christ meant risking ostracism and even violence.