Christians like to point to the martyrdom of the first apostles as evidence for the resurrection of Jesus.1
They base their hypothesis on the premise that people don’t die for a lie they know to be false. People might die for a lie that they believe to be true, but not one they know to be false. This is persuasive evidence for the reliability of the testimony of the early eye witness accounts of Jesus’ resurrection.
In his book, The Resurrection of Jesus, historian Michael R. Licona states this about Jesus’ disciples:
After Jesus’ death, the disciples endured persecution, and a number of them experienced martyrdom. The strength of their conviction indicates that they were not just claiming Jesus had appeared to them after rising from the dead. They really believed it. They willingly endangered themselves by publically proclaiming the risen Christ.2
What do we know about the deaths of the first disciples of Jesus? Tradition holds that the apostles died willingly for their belief that Jesus was resurrected.3 But how can one be historically sure that the apostles were martyred for their faith? In his book Fate of the Apostles, popular Christian apologist Sean McDowell investigates and carefully evaluates the historical evidence of the martyrdom of the apostles, focusing on the earliest sources available, “including New Testament documents, with particular focus on the book of Acts, the writings of the early church fathers, pseudepigraphical writings such as the Acts of the Apostles, Gnostic sources, and other extra-biblical accounts.”4 McDowell concentrates on first and second century sources containing “living” memory, which he describes as “transmitting personal memory of events that trace back to the apostles themselves.”5
To begin, McDowell defines “martyr” as “one whose testimony for Jesus results in death, which is now the standard Christian understanding of ‘martyr.’”6 Next he refutes two primary arguments against doing the historical investigation into the deaths of the apostles. First, lack of information about some of their deaths “does not undermine the significance of what does exist.”7 Second, despite some evidence being “stuff of legend,” there is some clear historical evidence within the legends which make them worth examining.8 Then he presents clear evidence that the resurrection was central to early Christian preaching, kerygma.9 In other words, the apostles had resurrection faith.
Setting the stage for examining evidence for martyrdom of the apostles, McDowell first identifies and explains who were the Twelve Apostles: Peter, John (son of Zebedee), Thomas, Andrew, James (son of Zebedee), Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, James (son of Alphaeus), Thaddeus, Simon (the Zealot), and Matthias.10 Next he surveys both historical and legendary evidence for the persecution of the early church.11 Finally, he devotes the rest of the book (fourteen entire chapters) examining the evidence for the persecution and martyrdom for each of the Twelve Apostles, plus Paul and James (the brother of Jesus).
In the end, McDowell concludes that there is ”convincing evidence Peter, Paul, James, the son of Zebedee, and James, the brother of the Lord, died as martyrs.”12 Additionally, he states it is more probable than not that Thomas died as a martyr, and more plausible than not that Andrew did, too.13 As for the rest of the apostles, using the “living memory” test, McDowell suggests that there is simply not enough evidence to confidently conclude they died as martyrs. This is due partly because there is little information available, conflicting information, or later information (after the second century), making it less reliable. Here are his conclusions for each of the apostles:
- Peter—the highest possible probability
- Paul—the highest possible probability
- James, brother of Jesus—very probably true
- John, the son of Zebedee—improbable
- Thomas—more probable than not
- Andrew—more plausible than not
- James, son of Zebedee—the highest possible probability
- Philip—as plausible as not
- Bartholomew—as plausible as not
- Matthew—as plausible as not
- James, son of Alphaeus—as plausible as not
- Thaddeus—as plausible as not
- Simon the Zealot—as plausible as not
- Matthias—as plausible as not14
McDowell summarizes by saying, “although there is no early evidence each of the apostles died as martyrs, some general claims make their individual martyrdoms more likely than not.”15
So does this evidence prove Jesus died and was resurrected? What about people from other faiths who have died for their beliefs, like Muslims or Buddhists? McDowell responds: “there are many martyrs outside Christianity; I don’t claim that only Christians have martyrs, but that the apostles died uniquely for the belief that they had actually seen the risen Christ, which demonstrates the sincerity of their convictions.”16 Additionally, in contrast to modern martyrs such as Muslim terrorists and even Christians, “the beliefs of the apostles was not received secondhand, but from personal experience with the risen Jesus...”17 Modern martyrs may have been “willing to suffer and die for a faith received secondhand, but the apostles were willing to suffer and die for what they had seen with their own eyes.”18 There is no evidence the apostles of Jesus Christ ever recanted their faith.19
In conclusion, although the evidence of the martyrdom of the apostles does not prove the resurrection of Jesus, it does show they sincerely believed it. “They were not liars.”20 There is no better explanation for the reason the apostles were martyred than that they were committed to something that truly happened—the resurrection of Jesus Christ.