One of the standard arguments we hear for the historicity of the resurrection is the martyrdom of the apostles. Would the followers of Jesus really have sacrificed themselves for a lie?
The argument has a number of weaknesses. One of the greatest is the fact that all the details of this martyrdom comes down to us through tradition, and we have no way of knowing when the traditions originated. They may be early or late, literary or historical.
Acts gives a few stories, like the stoning of Stephen (Act 8:54-60) or the death of James, brother of John (Acts 12:1-2), but nothing of the deaths of the major apostles. The first mention we get of the deaths of Paul and Peter come from First Clement, one of the first popular works of the community, dated between 90-140 CE. But the story is extremely vague, told to fit the theme of jealousy:
There was Peter who by reason of unrighteous jealousy endured not one not one but many labors, and thus having borne his testimony went to his appointed place of glory. By reason of jealousy and strife Paul by his example pointed out the prize of patient endurance.
After that he had been seven times in bonds, had been driven into exile, had been stoned, had preached in the East and in the West, he won the noble renown which was the reward of his faith, having taught righteousness unto the whole world and having reached the farthest bounds of the West; and when he had borne his testimony before the rulers, so he departed from the world and went unto the holy place, having been found notable pattern of patient endurance. (1 Clem 5:4-6, Lightfoot)
Pullquote: There may also be a kernel of history about the execution of the apostles — or there may not. We just don’t know.
Notice there are no details. As far as we can tell from this text the two chief apostles may have died of old age. And what sort of jealousy are we talking about here? The jealousy of the Jews is one traditional answer. The jealousy between their rival factions is another guess. But maybe it was a more prosaic kind of jealousy.
Consider the apocryphal Acts of Peter, dated to the last half of the second century. Look at what is has to say about the persecution of Peter:
And a certain woman which was exceeding beautiful, the wife of Albinus, Caesar’s friend, by name Xanthippe, came, she also, unto Peter, with the rest of the matrons, and withdrew herself, she also, from Albinus. He therefore being mad, and loving Xanthippe, and marvelling that she would not sleep even upon the same bed with him, raged like a wild beast and would have dispatched Peter; for he knew that he was the cause of her separating from his bed. […]And whereas there was great trouble in Rome, Albinus made known his state unto Agrippa, saying to him: Either do thou avenge me of Peter that hath withdrawn my wife, or I will avenge myself. And Agrippa said: I have suffered the same at his hand, for he hath withdrawn my concubines. And Albinus said unto him: Why then tarriest thou, Agrippa? let us find him and put him to death for a dealer in curious arts, that we may have our wives again, and avenge them also which are not able to put him to death, whose wives also he hath parted from them. (Acts of Peter, XXXIV, MR James)
Peter is executed for convincing women not to marry or have sex. The same theme is found in the apocryphal Acts of Andrew, with Andrew being executed for coming between a woman and her fiancee. The Acts of Paul has a similar story, with Paul being imprisoned for preaching that maidens shouldn’t marry. Paul isn’t executed until much later, when he mouths off to Emperor Nero.
Is this the sort of jealousy to which First Clement refers? The jealousy of a man spurned by his betrothed? I’d guess not. These three noncannocical works all date last half of the second century, and probably represent the arguments that were going on at the time. These stories may only tell us that there was a faction of the community that considered celibacy extremely important, and so they wove that theme into their traditions about the apostles.
There may also be a kernel of history about the execution of the apostles — or there may not. We just don’t know.
Related Post: Martyrdom Does Not Establish Truth