What does historical evidence say?
The willingness of the apostles to suffer and die as martyrs for their faith is one of the most commonly cited arguments for the resurrection. Why, after all, would any person willingly choose to submit to a painful death for confession of the Christian faith?
Yet some scholars assert there is insufficient evidence to confirm that any of the apostles were martyrs — or that their deaths even count as evidence for the resurrection.
In this post, let’s look at both issues, by first stating the case for the apostles possibly being martyrs, and then by raising two common objections by critics. You can decide if the objections have merit.
Let’s start with a definition of “martyr,” so we’re all on the same page:
~ Making the Case for the Apostles Being Martyrs ~
How apologist Sean McDowell carefully states this position:
“The apostles spent between 1.5 to 3 years with Jesus during His public ministry, expecting Him to proclaim His kingdom on earth. Although disillusioned at His untimely death, they became the first witnesses of the risen Jesus and they endured persecution; many subsequently experienced martyrdom, signing their testimony, so to speak, in their own blood. The strength of their conviction, marked by their willingness to die, indicates that they did not fabricate these claims; rather, without exception, they actually believed Jesus to have risen from the dead. While in and of themselves these facts prove neither the truth of the resurrection in particular nor Christianity as a whole, they do demonstrate the apostles’ sincerity of belief, lending credibility to their claims about the veracity of the resurrection, which is fundamental to the case for Christianity.”
Adds New Testament scholar Craig Keener:
“People of course die regularly for values that are false; they do not, however, ordinarily die voluntarily for what they believe is false. Intentional deception by the disciples is thus implausible.”
As Keener says, Christians haven’t been the only martyrs in history, so we won’t pretend they are. But let us also not give a pass to skeptics who say Christians lean too much on martyrdom as being the sign of the inherent truth of Christianity. What’s important here is that the apostles really believed that Jesus had risen from the grave. Why? Because they interacted with him in His risen form. They ate with Him, they talked with Him, they touched His wounds. Basically, He blew their minds wide open to the truth of who He is.
~ Evidence for the Historicity of the Apostles as Martyrs ~
Were the first Christians actually persecuted for their faith? If so, it would provide a helpful setting for evaluating the likelihood of the individual apostles being martyrs.
Even though persecution was sporadic and local, there is evidence that the public proclamation of the faith could be costly. John the Baptist, for example, was imprisoned and beheaded (Matthew 14:1-11). Jesus was crucified. Stephen was stoned to death after his witness before the Sanhedrin (Acts 6 through 8). And Herod Agrippa killed James, the brother of John (Acts 12:2). The first statewide persecution of Christians was under the Roman emperor Nero (AD 64).
Strong historical evidence exists that at least some of the apostles were martyrs. Let’s look at just three apostles:
The traditional view is that Peter was crucified in Rome, during the reign of Nero, between AD 64 and 67. The earliest evidence for his martyrdom comes from John 21: 18-19, which was written no later than 30 years after Peter’s death. Other early, consistent, and unanimous testimony for Peter’s martyrdom can be found in writings such as Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Dionysius of Corinth, and Tertullian.
The traditional view is that Paul was beheaded in Rome during the reign of Nero. Scripture does not directly state his martyrdom, but there are hints in both Acts and 2 Timothy 4:6-8 that Paul knew his death was pending. The first evidence outside of Scripture is found in 1 Clement 5:5-7 (AD 95/96), in which Paul is described as suffering greatly for his faith and then being “set free from this world and transported up to the holy place, having become the greatest example of endurance.” Other early, consistent, and unanimous testimony for Paul’s martyrdom can be found in Ignatius, Polycarp, Dionysius of Corinth, Irenaeus, and Tertullian.
James, the brother of Jesus:
The earliest evidence for the death of James comes from Josephus in his Antiquities 20.197-203 (AD 93/94). This passage is largely undisputed by scholars. Josephus places James’ death (AD 62 ) between two Roman curators, Festus and Albinus. According to this account, the high priest Ananias had James stoned to death. But his death is also reported by Hegesippus and Clement of Alexandria. The case for the martyrdom of James is strengthened by the fact that both Christian and gnostic sources affirm that it happened. These suggest an early, widespread, and consistent tradition regarding the fate of James.
~ Why Critics Say Their Martyrdom Doesn’t Matter ~
Some critics assert that the argument of “Christianity must be true, because His followers willingly died for him” doesn’t hold much water. Two points they use:
Objection #1: Plenty of people have died for their beliefs. So Christians can’t claim their martyrs are unique — or that Christianity is true because of it.
We can agree on their first point, for sure. Some examples of modern martyrs: Kamikazi pilots who willingly sacrificed their lives during World War II to help Japan win the war; Muslim radicals that caused the attacks on US soil on September 11, 2011, killing thousands of Americans; suicide terrorists, in general; Tibetan monks setting themselves on fire; and Jim Jones, the cult leader who directed his followers in their private compound in Africa to willingly take poison.
But this objection totally misses a key difference with the deaths of Christ’s early apostles. McDowell explains:
In contrast to the beliefs of Buddhist monks and Muslim radicals and any other modern martyrs, including Christians, the beliefs of the apostles were not received secondhand, but from personal experience with the risen Jesus. They proclaimed what they had seen and heard with their own eyes and ears, not stories received from others. Peter not only claims he was an eyewitness but that the events took place in public and that his audience had full knowledge of them. The events were not done secretly in a corner. Buddhist monks and Muslim terrorists are certainly willing to suffer and die for a faith they received secondhand, but the apostles were willing to suffer and die for what they had seen with their own eyes.
Objection #2: The apostles were not given the opportunity to recant.
Some critics believe that because there are no official records of the apostles being given the opportunity to recant, and thus live, this undermines the validity of their testimony.
Again, we can agree that there are no such records. But let’s not miss the obvious: the apostles knew full well the danger they each, individually, were stepping into when they publicly proclaimed Jesus as Lord. Would they really choose to be bold, knowing the dangers, then shrink back like sheep?
Let’s look at more insight from McDowell:
“The fact that their founding leader was a crucified criminal of the Roman Empire also certainly plays a part of their collective consciousness. Jesus even warned His disciples that the world would hate and even persecute them, as it did Him. Every time the apostles proclaimed the name of Christ, then, they knowingly risked suffering and death. Even so, they continued to teach and preach the risen Jesus. Given their active proclamation of Christ, and their full awareness of the cost of such proclamation, if some of the apostles died for their faith, they qualify under the traditional definition of martyr.”
Have you ever wished for a time machine? To then personally observe Jesus and the motley group that followed Him? Would not our own hearts be solidified by faith as we watched their transformation from mice to roaring lions? Jesus’ resurrection is truly a miracle — His greatest miracle. But I’d call it pretty miraculous, too, that a person can experience such gut-level transformation that demands they become new people. Do you have it in you to die for Christ? Do I? Let’s search our hearts to discern the current level of our commitment.
~ Conclusion ~
The willing deaths of the apostles does not prove the resurrection is true. But it does show the depth of the apostles’ convictions. When I think of their conviction, I get a mental image of a very deep well. A well so deep that it takes time for a dropped penny to make a splash as it dive-bombs through the water.
The apostles were not liars. They did not invent the resurrection stories. They proclaimed the risen Jesus to skeptical and antagonistic audiences with full knowledge they would likely suffer, if not die, for their beliefs. There is no evidence they wavered in their convictions. They banked their lives on the risen Jesus they had personally experienced. We, too, can come to a personal experience of His resurrection by seeking after Him. Our knowledge is second-hand, for sure, but the Holy Spirit continues to affirm to us that everything the apostles tell us about Jesus in Scripture is true!
This blog post highlights Josh and Sean McDowell’s recently revised apologetics classic, Evidence That Demands a Verdict. We are certain this fully updated and expanded resource will be an effective evangelism tool for you, and strengthen your faith by answering the toughest questions tossed to you by skeptics. Know what you know, because it’s true. But share this truth with LOVE!
If you’d like to start from the first blog post in this series, click here: Apologetics: Apologizing for Believing in God?.
One of the sources we included in our discussion is an academic book titled The Fate of the Apostles: Examining the Martyrdom Accounts of the Closest Followers of Jesus by Sean McDowell. Sean’s credentials: An assistant professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, Sean has two Masters Degrees in Theology and Philosophy from Talbot Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. in Apologetics and Worldview Studies from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
“While the New Testament tells us frustratingly little about what happened to the apostles, later traditions abound. The value of McDowell’s book lies in the fact that he not only collects these traditions from a wide range of literature and localities, but also assesses them critically with the use of a scale of degrees of historical probability. This makes his assessments more nuanced and discriminating than is often the case in judgments of historicity. … The book fills a major gap in the literature about early Christianity.” ~ Richard Bauckham, University of St Andrews, UK