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.
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|
|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.
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.
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.