“Even though they were crucified, stoned, stabbed, dragged, skinned and burned, every last apostle of Jesus proclaimed his resurrection until his dying breath, refusing to recant under pressure from the authorities. Therefore, their testimony is trustworthy and the resurrection is true.”
If you have followed popular–level arguments for the resurrection (or ever heard a sermon on the apostles), you’ve likely heard this argument. Growing up I heard it regularly and found it quite convincing. After all, why would the apostles of Jesus have died for their faith if it weren’t true?
Yet the question was always in the back of my mind — how do we really know they died as martyrs? For the past couple years I have been researching this question as part of my doctoral dissertation. And what I have found is fascinating!
While we can have more confidence in the martyrdoms of apostles such as Peter, Paul and James the brother of John (and probably Thomas and Andrew), there is much less evidence for many of the others (such as Matthias and James, son of Alphaeus). This evidence is late and filled with legendary accretion. This may come as a disappointment to some, but for the sake of the resurrection argument, it is not critical that we demonstrate that all of them died as martyrs. What is critical is their willingness to suffer for their faith and the lack of a contrary story that any of them recanted.
Historian Michael Licona captures the key point in his book The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach: “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 publicly proclaiming the risen Christ.”
Here are the key facts:
First, the apostles were eyewitnesses of the risen Jesus. When a replacement was chosen for Judas, one necessary criterion was that the person had seen the risen Lord (Acts 1:21–22). Paul and James the brother of Jesus were also eyewitnesses (1 Cor. 15:3–8). Their convictions were not based on secondhand testimony, but from the belief that they had seen the resurrected Christ with their own eyes. This makes the disciples’ willingness to die different from Muslim martyrs, who certainly sincerely believe in Islam, but base their belief on secondhand testimony.
Second, early Christians were persecuted for their faith. John the Baptist was imprisoned and beheaded (Matt. 14:1–11). Jesus was crucified. Stephen was stoned to death after his witness before the Sanhedrin (Acts 6–8). And Herod Agrippa killed James the brother of John (Acts 12:12), which led to the departure of the rest of the Twelve from Jerusalem. The first statewide persecution of Christians was under Nero (AD 64), as reported by Tacitus (Annals 15.44:2–5) and Suetonius (Nero 16.2). Although persecution was sporadic and local, from this point forward Christians could be arrested and killed for proclaiming the name of Jesus. And many of them were.
Third, the apostles were willing to suffer for their faith. This is certainly true of Paul, who recounts the suffering he endured, which included being whipped, beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, near starvation and in danger from various people and places (2 Cor. 6:4–9). Speaking for the apostles, after being threatened by the religious leaders, Peter and John say, “For we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). The apostles are then thrown in prison, beaten for their faith, but they continued to preach and teach the gospel (Acts 5:17–42).
While the evidence of martyrdom is far better for some of the apostles than others, the evidence for Peter is particularly strong. The earliest evidence is found in John 21:18–19, which was written about 30 years after Peter’s death. Bart Ehrman, in his book Peter, Paul, & Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History and Legend, agrees that Peter is being told he will die as a martyr. Other evidence for Peter’s martyrdom can be found in early church fathers such as Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Dionysius of Corinth, Irenaeus, Tertullian and more. The early, consistent and unanimous testimony is that Peter died as a martyr.
This does not prove that the resurrection is true. But it shows the depth of the apostles’ convictions. They were not liars. They truly believed Jesus rose from the grave and they were willing to give their lives for it.
Sean McDowell (’98, M.A. ’03) is a popular author and speaker, and the newest faculty member in Biola’s M.A. program in Christian apologetics. Find him online at seanmcdowell.org.