Did all the Apostles Die as Martyrs?

There are a dime a dozen apologists today. From evangelical to Catholic. From Orthodox to Anglican. And most of them used Social Media as a platform to defend the Christian faith by using reason and arguments. During my student years, I’ve listened to them on a regular basis. Often they were the voices of encouragement when I felt that my faith is in crisis. For every doubt that emerged around the corner, there stood a lecture, a short video, an article, or even a book by people like Ravi Zacharias and William Lane Craig. I absorbed their arguments, naively thinking that faith only encapsulates intellectual dimensions. They all shared some basic features in their line of thinking. Probably one of the most popular arguments common to all of them is related to the deaths of Jesus’ apostles. The argument goes as follows: Jesus’ apostles claimed to see Jesus after his death, and they all died for their faith, ergo Christ must have been raised. You would never die for a lie!

I hear that same argument from my students sometimes. My first response is a historical one: How do you know that? What is your source of information? Most often they have no idea. It’s just something they heard in a Church or from someone who is a priest or theologian. In reality, the evidence is thin. We have no reliable accounts of what happened to most of Jesus’ apostles. Within the New Testament, there are two accounts of people being martyred: James the son of Zebedee, and Steven (not among the twelve apostles) in the Book of Acts. The author of Revelation seems to think that countless Christians were being killed for their faith. That certainly was not true. The book was probably written during the reign of emperor Domitian (c. 96 CE) and there is no evidence of any major persecutions in the days of Domitian. We start finding out about martyrdoms in the early 2nd century but they are quite random. We know the name of a couple of people such as Polycarp and Irenaeus. Later (Christian) authors claimed that hundreds and hundreds of people were being killed for their faith, but there is very little in other sources to support such a conclusion. When somebody like Eusebius says that in some city Romans killed hundreds of Christians and then named just three individuals, it is quite illuminating. In reality, Christians suffered sporadic and localized persecution up to the reign of Decius (250 CE). He was the first Roman emperor to impose systematic persecutions, but the persecutions did not last long even then. Decius died the very next year. His successors didn’t find Christians to be such a big problem that would demand systematic persecution. Not until Diocletian. But, that’s a story for another day. So, what about Jesus’ apostles? What do we know about their lives?

An apostle (ἀπόστολος) literally means somebody who has been sent out on a mission. The eleven remaining disciples of Jesus all become apostles. They were sent out on a mission to preach the good news. But they were not the only ones in that category. Paul understood himself to be an apostle. He also included people like Barnabas and a woman named Junia in the same category! These were people who were understood to be commissioned by Jesus to spread his message to the world. Related to the eleven remaining disciples/apostles, we know very little about their lives after Jesus’ death. Even during Jesus’ life! He chose twelve people, but we have no stories in the New Testament about most of them. Even the Book of Acts (despite the title of the book) doesn’t say much about the apostles, except for Peter, Paul, and John. So, we don’t have good records from the New Testament about most of Jesus’ apostles. What we do have are later accounts that are highly legendary of the few of them. These are called the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles and they contain fictional accounts of missionary activities that were supposedly carried out by Jesus’ apostles after his death. Five major accounts survived the ravages of time:

  1. Acts of Peter
  2. Acts of Paul
  3. Acts of John
  4. Acts of Thomas
  5. Acts of Andrew

What most people today believe about Jesus’ apostles comes from these legendary accounts that were written hundreds of years after the events they describe. For example, the idea that Thomas went on a mission to India. Or that Peter was crucified upside down. These kinds of things that are today considered to be common knowledge are derived from the Apocryphal Acts.

Even if we take these accounts at face value (a thing no sober historian would ever do!), there simply isn’t anything there that would lead us to believe that all of Jesus’ apostles died for their faith. This theory is flat-out wrong. So, for example, in the Acts of John, the beloved disciple didn’t die as a martyr. He died of old age in Ephesus. The other four (Peter, Paul, Thomas, and Andrew) are martyred, but these later accounts are highly legendary. When you read them you immediately see that this is not history. It’s a myth. Just to take one example: The martyrdom of Paul! According to the Acts of Paul, Paul has raised one of the emperor’s Nero servants from death. The servant then realized that Christ, not Nero, is the true Lord and Master of the Universe! Nero gets upset and soon finds out that several other people from his court are also Christians. Now, he is pissed! So he started to persecute Christians in the city of Rome. Unlike Tacitus who explains that the persecution of Christians happened because of the fire, the Acts of Paul wants you to believe that Nero persecuted Christians because he found out about the Christ believers in his own inner circle. Following the persecution, Paul appears in front of Nero and the emperor asks him: Who is the real Lord? Paul answers that the only Lord he acknowledges is Jesus. Consequently, Nero condemns Paul to death. Since Paul is a Roman citizen, Nero orders him to be beheaded. After Paul’s head is cut off, milk starts leaking from it rather than blood. Why milk? Well, because milk is something you would give to a baby after he or she was born. And Paul was just born again because he died as a martyr. And then he comes back from the death and visits Nero – with his head on his shoulders of course! So, in a nutshell, this is the sequence of events in the Acts of Paul. No serious scholar on this planet thinks that these things really happened.

Of the eleven apostles, only earlier indications we have are related to Peter and because of that most historians believe that Christ’s closest disciple did indeed die a martyr’s death. In the Gospel of John, it is indicated that Peter was killed for his faith. We don’t know how, when, and by whom. In the non-canonical work called 1 Clement (written at the end of the 1st century CE), we have an indication that both Peter and Paul died as martyrs. The author doesn’t say anything about the way they were killed or the location where the murder took place. Other than that, we really don’t have much to go on. How then this idea that all of Jesus’ apostles were killed come into being? The simple answer is that the early Church fathers who wrote history wanted to claim that Christianity has always been the persecuted religion with countless martyrs and that all the apostles were faithful to Christ. So, people like Eusebius made claims about their deaths as a rhetorical tool to emphasize the truthfulness of the Christian religion. Consequently, the claim that all of the apostles were killed became common knowledge and a useful tool for modern apologists who want to show by way of reason and history that Christianity is the only true religion. Unfortunately for them, the primary sources are what they are and no serious historian today thinks that all of Jesus’ apostles died as martyrs.

5 thoughts on “Did all the Apostles Die as Martyrs?”

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