Almost all of the original apostles of Jesus died martyr’s deaths. If they knew that Jesus was just a regular guy and that the resurrection story was fiction, why would they go to their deaths supporting it? Lee Strobel said that though people may die defending their beliefs, “People will not die for their religious beliefs if they know that their religious beliefs are false.”
While people have died for lies—the 9/11 hijackers, for example, or the Heaven’s Gate cult—they didn’t know it was a lie. That the apostles were in a position to know and still died defending it is strong evidence that the Jesus story is accurate.
Or, at least this is the story Christians tell themselves.
How did the apostles die?
There are several issues here, but let’s focus first on the big one: how we know how the apostles died. Since their dying as martyrs is key to this apologetic, you’d think that this was well established in history. But sometimes Christian historical claims have a very weak pedigree.
Our one-stop shopping source for this question is historian Hippolytus of Rome (170–235) in his “On the Twelve Apostles.” At best, this is an early third century work written close to 150 years after the facts it claims to document. At worst, it was written even later by an unknown author (called “Pseudo-Hippolytus” by historians) and inadvertently or deliberately compiled with the writings of Hippolytus.
Here’s the summary:
- 4 apostles were crucified: Andrew, Bartholomew, Peter, and Philip (the last three upside down).
- 3 were killed in some other way: James the son of Alpheus was stoned, James the son of Zebedee was killed with a sword (presumably decapitated), and Thomas was killed by spear.
- 5 died natural deaths: John, Matthew, Matthias (the new twelfth disciple added after Judas left the group), Simon the Zealot, and Judas the son of James (Thaddeus).
Another source disagrees.
Another popular source for this information is John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, first published in 1563 and in many later editions. Its late age, 1500 years after the events, is enough to disqualify it since we have the earlier account, but its popularity makes it an important source. To a large extent Foxe was simply a mouthpiece for the anti-Catholic sentiment in England at the time, and many sources dismiss its accuracy (Wikipedia, 1911 Britannica, Catholic Encyclopedia).
Foxe largely agrees with Hippolytus on the deaths of the apostles except for the ones that Hippolytus says died natural deaths, giving that fate only to John. He says that Matthew was “slain with a halberd” in Ethiopia, Matthias was stoned in Jerusalem and beheaded, Simon the Zealot was crucified in Britain, and Judas the son of James was crucified in what is now eastern Turkey.
James the son of Zebedee seems to have the oldest martyrdom story. Hippolytus probably got his account from Acts 12:2, written in the latter half of the first century, which says that Herod Agrippa (grandson of Herod the Great) killed him “with the sword.”
For most of the other apostles, however, contradictory stories cloud the issue. For example, Bartholomew’s death is documented in a number of contradictory ways. One account says that he was beaten and then drowned. The Martyrdom of Bartholomew (c. 500) says that he was beaten and then beheaded. The most popular, perhaps because it’s the most gruesome, is that he was skinned alive and then crucified (or beheaded).
Simon the Zealot might have been sawn in half in Persia. Or crucified in Samaria. Or martyred in Georgia.
Add to this:
- the many additional contradictory stories about other apostles not included in this brief list,
- the decades-long period of oral history from event to writing, and
- the time span, usually centuries long, between the original manuscripts documenting the martyrdom stories and our oldest copies that make those copies suspect.
What can we conclude given this evidential house of cards? Only that “most apostles were martyred for their faith” is historically almost indefensible.
And it’s not just that the claim for any particular martyrdom story is flimsy; it’s that we can be certain that many of them are false because they contradict each other.
Let’s pause for a moment to savor the larger lesson. “Tradition holds that” or “The Church tells us that” is never enough—be sure to look behind the curtain to see what evidence actually supports a historic claim. Too often these claims crumble.
“Who would die for a lie?” you ask. I dunno—let’s first establish that someone died at all.
Concluded in part 2.
Martyrdom has always been a proof of the intensity,
never of the correctness, of a belief.
— Arthur Schnitzler (1862–1931)
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 8/8/12.)
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