Saturday, August 02, 2008


Were Jesus's Apostles Martyred?

I’ve often heard the argument used that the apostles of Jesus were killed for their beliefs, so they couldn’t have been lying about Jesus. (And, by implication, weren’t mistaken either.) I’m not going to discuss the validity of the argument, I just want to examine the question of whether or not we have good reason to accept these accounts of martyrdom as being historical rather than apocryphal church tradition.

Indeed, two of the sources I found seemed to issue disclaimers to that effect. In an article entitled What Happened to the Apostles?, says:

It should be understood that these non-Biblical sources might vary greatly in terms of their accuracy. It should also be understood that it is clear from the Bible and from non-Biblical sources that many early Christians were persecuted and martyred for their beliefs.

Another article, The History of the Early Christian Martyrs warns “It should be understood that the accounts of the martyrdoms of apostles are mainly traditional.”. I don’t know quite what to make of that, other than to understand “traditional” to mean “probably made up”, although perhaps my interpretation is overly uncharitable.

So here’s my list of early Christian martyrs with how they died and the source I used. I’ve included Stephen plus the 10 apostles who are believed to have been martyred. Not included are the 2 other apostles: John, who is traditionally held to have had a natural death, and Judas, who either hung himself or had his guts spill out, depending on who you ask.

Name Cause of Death Source
Stephen Stoned Acts 7:54-60
James, son of Zebedee (“James the Greater”) Sword Acts 12:1-2
Bartholomew Beaten, then crucified Martyrdom of Bartholomew (also Foxe)
James, son of Alphaeus (“James the Less”) Beaten, stoned and clubbed Foxe’s Book of Martyrs
Andrew Crucified Foxe’s Book of Martyrs
Peter Crucified Foxe’s Book of Martyrs
Thomas Spear Foxe’s Book of Martyrs
Phillip Crucified Foxe’s Book of Martyrs
Matthew Halberd (type of spear) Foxe’s Book of Martyrs
Thaddeus (Jude) Crucified Foxe’s Book of Martyrs
Simon Crucified Foxe’s Book of Martyrs

The most interesting source is for the martyrdom of Bartholomew, which, while found in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, is also found in a text entitled (appropriately enough) The Martyrdom of Bartholomew It should be noted that is it clearly a religiously motivated work, with appearances of angels, demons, people getting strangled by demons, and so on. But other than that simple, self-evident fact, I was unable to track down any useful information about this text, such as when it was written and who wrote it.

But it seems that the main source for this sort of thing is Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, which was written by John Foxe and published in 1563. All the apostles are found in the first chapter but it doesn’t say what sources Foxe used (nor did I expect it to), although I suspect that they were probably the same sort of non-canonical texts like the “The Martyrdom of Bartholomew”.

To conclude, given the (lack of) evidence that I have seen, and the doubts expressed by friendly sources, I think that there is not sufficient evidence to prove the historicity of the apostles being martyred, although I don’t place a huge amount of confidence in this result because I am not Biblical scholar and am not terribly familiar with these sorts of texts. If anyone knows of any better/earlier sources that the ones listed here, please let me know.

The argument that Christianity must be true because the apostles were martyred is an extremely weak argument. For this to carry weight, I think one would have to show:

1. The apostle in question was a real person
2. That they made specific claims to have witnessed the risen Christ
3. That there is a well document incident where they faced imminent execution
4. That they were specifically informed that they're execution was because they believed in, and witnessed the risen Christ
5. That they were given an opportunity to recant their testimony to escape death
6. That they stuck to their testimony that they had witnessed the risen Christ and were painfully executed

I know of no such documented account, in the New Testament or anywhere else.
Because someone died for a belief that alone does'nt prove it valid!As the terrorists that high jacked a plane and killed many by it in 9/11 are nothing more than murders and liars.Josephus recorded events from 70AD onward and even the Roman government acknowledge jesus and some of his followers.Really if you were serious about God and what the Apostles said and did which you are casting doubt and thus not,You would go to your history books and read the volumes on the subject which many if not all validate the Martyr's.Furthermore why play around with God if He's real and he is then get down to business with him by belief and baptism in Jesus name.Belief or unbelief is shown by our choices.
the terrorists of 9/11 are not a reasonable comparison. They died for what they "believed" to be true based on the 2nd hand testimony of Mohamed in the Koran. The disciples willingly died for what they "knew" to be true based on 1st hand testimony, namely the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. Nobody would doubt that the terrorist "believed" what they died for, only that there belief was false and they believed based on 2nd hand testimony. This is VERY different from the apostles who died for there belief in having witness the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ with there own two eyes. Liars make poor martyr's.
What is the difference between an apostle of Christ who was martyred and a fanatic Muslim bomber of today? Yes, both died for their faith. One obvious difference is that Jesus’ apostle was killed by others whereas the suicide bomber took his own life. Also, the apostle acted out of love, while the suicide bomber was motivated by hate. There is one other difference, and this is of huge importance. Both died for what they believed, however, the suicide bomber based his convictions on what others told him to be true, but the apostle based his faith on what he himself had experienced, the resurrection of Jesus! He did not only believe the resurrection was true, he knew it was true.
If the apostles were martyred they are different from the terrorists. They saw Jesus rise from the dead. Therefore they had proof. If you or I saw Jesus rise from the dead and were 1st hand witnesses we to would have no problem dying for the cause. I am a believer. I love apologetics books. Most arguments for Christ can be proven, e.g historical reliability of the new testament etc. However the traditions of the apostles all being martyred is hard to verify.... although not hard to believe.
Did you commenters even read the blog? Seriously, not one of you even make any attempt to answer the points brought up by Jason Creighton. Why even comment at all if you are not going to respond to what is written?
The Jewish historian, Josephus, actually records that James the brother of Jesus was stoned (Antiquities, book 20, chapter 9). This passage is generally considered to be authentic. So there is documentation outside the Bible for at least one of the apostles and his martyr, though it is true that a lot of the information concerning the apostles' martyrs comes from tradition. Also I found this quote concerning Peter's martyr: "That the manner, and therefore the place of his death, must have been known in widely extended Christian circles at the end of the first century is clear from the remark introduced into the Gospel of John concerning Christ's prophecy that Peter was bound to Him and would be led whither he would not — "And this he said, signifying by what death he should glorify God" (John 21:18-19). Such a remark presupposes in the readers of the Fourth Gospel a knowledge of the death of Peter". I think this is somewhat convincing evidence of Peter's death since the gospel of John was written around 90 AD when Peter's martyr would have been well known.
Some important points to consider (and I'll call myself ANONYMOUS #7, to distinguish myself from the other Anonymouses here).

1. The question at hand is: are there extra-Biblical resources that are historically reliable that state that most, some, or any of the apostles were martyred?

2. The point about a last-second "this is your last chance to recant" is unnecessary. If there is evidence that the Apostles, knowing they risked torture and death, spoke about the resurrection, then that should be good enough.

3. As others have mentioned, there is a difference between dying for a belief, and dying for a statement. It's different to say: "I believe in Jesus and I won't change my mind, even you kill me" then it is to say "I saw Jesus rise from the dead." The latter statement would either be a lie, or a delusion. And since I can't imagine an ENTIRE group of people having been deluded (unless they were mass hypnotized), then they were either lying or telling the truth.

4. If there is no evidence of the Apostles' martyrdom, or that they even existed, none of that REFUTES the notion that Jesus existed and rose from the dead - it simply does not CONFIRM it.

5 Even if the ENTIRE Bible were confirmed to be a pure work of fiction, none of that REFUTES the notion that God exists - it simply doesn't CONFIRM it.
I'm not sure if you're updating this after so much time, but it looks like there is an earlier attestation for Peter. The apocryphal Acts of Peter, composed in the latter half of the 2nd century, contain the story of Peter being crucified head-down. Origen also makes mention of the story, writing in the early 3rd century.
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