First Century Sources for the Apostles’ Martyrdoms

What’s something you’d be willing to die for? Your family? Country? Most cherished beliefs? Many of you, I’m sure, would be willing to lay down your lives for these noble causes.

But would you die for a lie? Would you subject yourself to the death penalty for a crime you made up? Would you really take a bullet in the head instead of recanting your belief in, say, purple unicorns? Not likely. At some point, when they’re about to pull the trigger or inject the poison, you’d admit that the whole story was a hoax.

apostles' martyrdoms

These points are crucial for us to consider when we look at the apostles’ martyrdoms. For if the apostles were willing to die for their belief in a resurrected Jesus, what does that say about their belief in the resurrection? It strongly suggests that they genuinely believed he rose again and appeared to them. Otherwise, at some point, at least one of them would have caved under the threat of persecution. Yet, we don’t have any evidence to suggest that any of them ever recanted.

Instead, we have an abundance of sources testifying to the apostles’ martyrdoms. While many sources of this nature exist, I only want to draw our attention to ones coming from the first century.

Acts (AD 60s – 70s)

Now before you start blowing the horn and accusing me of “using the Bible to prove the Bible,” let me remind you that long before the early church affirmed that Acts belonged in the official New Testament canon, Acts circulated the Roman Empire as a historical document. Acts was Luke’s best attempt to convey the history of the apostles and the early church after the death and resurrection of Jesus. That is to say, just because the church included Acts in the New Testament doesn’t mean we can’t use it as a historical source.

With that being said, consider Acts 12:1-3:

It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. When he saw that this met with approval among the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also.

Note that Herod aimed his persecution specifically at the church, for which James was a leader. Sadly, Herod had James, the son of Zebedee and brother of the apostle John, beheaded for his Christian faith. Apparently some zealous Jews gave King Herod Agrippa the thumbs up on this action, prompting him to arrest Peter as well.

The Gospel of John (AD 90)

Similar to Acts, the church affirmed the canonical status of John, but that doesn’t rule out its historical nature. Near the end of the Gospel, John appears to speak about Peter’s crucifixion. Listen to Jesus’ words to Peter in John 21:18-19

Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.

Tradition has it, that Peter died by crucifixion, and Jesus’ words here in John 21 seem to affirm that claim.

Josephus (AD 94)

Josephus was a non-Christian Jewish historian. His writings give us more insight into first century Palestine than any other writer. In one of his works, he references the martyrdom of Jesus’ brother James — the leader of the Jerusalem church. Here it is:

But this younger Ananus, who, as we have told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and ever insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed; when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the raid; so he assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.1Josephus, Antiquities 20, 197-203.

Note that Josephus specifies that the James who was stoned was none other than the brother of Jesus. Of course, if you know your Jewish law, stoning was the prescribed punishment for blasphemy. And proclaiming that Jesus was Lord would certainly fit into that category.

Clement of Rome (AD 95)

Writing to the Corinthians, Clement reminds the church of the recent Apostles’ martyrdoms. He notes:

But not to dwell upon ancient examples, let us come to the most recent spiritual heroes. Let us take the noble examples furnished in our own generation. Through envy and jealousy, the greatest and most righteous pillars [of the church] have been persecuted and put to death. Let us set before our eyes the illustrious apostles. Peter, through unrighteous envy, endured not one or two, but numerous labours; and when he had at length suffered martyrdom, departed to the place of glory due to him. Owing to envy, Paul also obtained the reward of patient endurance, after being seven times thrown into captivity, compelled to flee, and stoned. After preaching both in the east and west, he gained the illustrious reputation due to his faith, having taught righteousness to the whole world, and come to the extreme limit of the west, and suffered martyrdom under the prefects. Thus was he removed from the world, and went into the holy place, having proved himself a striking example of patience. 2Clement of Rome, First Clement, Chapter V.
 

It appears to be common knowledge that Peter and Paul both experienced martyrdom at the hands of the Romans. Other sources go into more detail, but it’s commonly understood that Peter died by crucifixion and Paul by beheading.

Alternative Theories for the Apostles’ Martyrdoms

How do skeptics explain the apostles’ martyrdoms?

One theory is that the disciples stole the body and lied about it. Again, we must ask ourselves, would someone really die for a lie? More than that, would a group of people collectively die for a lie? The only reasonable answer to this question is no, of course not. I wouldn’t die for a lie and neither would you. Thus, we can be confident the disciples were sincere in their beliefs.

A second theory, and perhaps the most popular explanation, is that they hallucinated. The problem, however, is that hallucinations don’t happen in groups. They’re a lot like dreams in that they only happen on an individual by individual basis. If it’s absurd to suggest that my wife and I, along with several of my other friends, can all have the same dream about vacationing in Hawaii, it’s equally absurd to suggest that all the different women, disciples, James, Paul, and five hundred eye-witnesses (1 Cor. 15:3-8) had the same hallucination of a risen Jesus. Professional psychologists will tell you it’s impossible.

A third theory is that they were just wrong. Skeptics point to Muslim martyrs to prove that martyrdoms don’t mean anything. I agree that the Muslim’s willingness to blow himself up in the name of Allah does not prove that Allah is real. But we must remember that the Muslim martyr dies on the basis of faith alone. He genuinely believes what he’s dying for, but he’s not absolutely certain.

On the other hand, the disciples were in a position to know for certain whether Jesus rose again or not, and yet they were still willing to die. That is to say, people will die for something they believe to be true, but no one willingly dies for something they know to be false. And the disciples would have known if Jesus’s resurrection was false.

Best Explanation for the Apostles’ Martyrdoms

The only explanation for the apostles’ martyrdoms that doesn’t have any holes in it is that Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to his disciples. The resurrection appearances explain why the disciples went from cowards during Jesus’ trial and death to bold proclaimers of Christianity just a short time after. After all, if you saw man back from the dead, especially after he had predicted it, your life would change too.

Author: Ryan Leasure

Holds a M.A. from Furman University and a M.Div. from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He currently serves as a pastor at Grace Bible Church in Moore, SC.