Did the Apostles Die as Martyrs?

As a young Christian, one of the standard reasons often given to me for the truth of Jesus’ Resurrection is that all of apostles, with the exception of John, died as martyrs. Why would the apostles have died for a known lie? The only sensible conclusion is that the martyrdom of these apostles proves that the Resurrection is true.

The problem with this approach, as argued by such scholars as Candida Moss, reviewed a few years ago on here on Veracity, is that the Bible and other early sources tell us very little about the death of the earliest apostles.  We are forced mainly to rely on traditions, that in a number of cases, date to a few hundred years after the martyrdom events took place. Can such traditions really be trusted?

Sean McDowell’s new book, The Fate of the Apostles: Examining the Martyrdom Accounts of the Closest Followers of Jesus, is the result of his PhD dissertation research, an exploration into the historical accounts of how the first apostles of Jesus died. Sean McDowell, Biola University professor in apologetics and the son of another popular apologist, Josh McDowell, has investigated many of the traditions associated with the martyrdom claims, weighing the evidence as to which accounts are most probably reliable and which ones are more doubtful.

The only negative comment I have right off about the book is its ridiculous price tag.  Fortunately, Sean McDowell has a few informative articles on his blog that I can commend to you to draw your interest. Also, there is a great podcast interview with Sean McDowell at Mere Orthodoxy. I had a wonderful opportunity to hear Sean speak a few years ago at an apologetics conference. Here he is with his summary conclusion:

McDowell’s cautious and nevertheless still encouraging work is quite refreshing. His critical evaluation may offend some who would rather gloss over certain facts, but this is not necessary. Even if not every single one of the original apostles, except John, died a martyr’s death, there are still good reasons to accept the witness of the apostles as a defense for Resurrection faith. The author reviewed another recent book by conservative Moody Bible Institute’s Bryan Liftin, After Acts: Exploring the Lives and Legends of the Apostlesthat also comes to much of the same, sober-minded conclusions.

UPDATE: 03/03/16.  A brief interview with Bryan Liftin on this same topic just came out today at The Gospel Coalition: Polycarp was directly discipled by the Apostle John, and he was martyred in the mid-second century for his faith. But did a dove really fly out of Polycarp’s body when he died? Fascinating stuff. Also, Michael Patton at Credo House has a great 40-minute lecture on the martyrdom claims of the apostles, along with a helpful article, that may even be using Sean McDowell’s research.

Here is my application takeaway from thinking about this, though I know that some might challenge me on it: The tendency to stretch the truth a bit, when it really is not necessary, simply to make an important case for something, was a problem in the early church just as much as it is a problem in our day. We must carefully guard the Truth for the sake of the integrity of the Gospel.

Folks, we need not fear the Truth as believers, even when that Truth exposes common, popular overstatements with seemingly good intentions. Sometimes, believers have a knee-jerk reaction to criticism that can devolve into a paranoid persecution complex, that tragically trivializes real persecution being experienced by our Christian brothers and sisters in places like Syria and Iraq. Instead, as Christians, we can look to fair-minded, intelligent, Biblically-sound scholarship and sober thinking to give solid reasons for our faith, even when we are challenged. Taking responsibility for our own personal discipleship, is something we strongly advocate here on this blog, and it is important now more than ever. We must be careful not to give into smooth and slick talk in an effort to “protect Christianity.”

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

One response to “Did the Apostles Die as Martyrs?

  • John Paine

    Great points Clarke. I have often seen atheists and skeptics pick apart the claim that all the apostles except John died as martyrs. Is it possibly true? Absolutely. Can we substantiate that lofty claim with strong historical evidence? Not so much.

    I know Lee Strobel based much of his earlier apologetic writing and speaking on this claim. But other well known apologists avoid making the claim because it is difficult to defend with historical evidence. It can be a bit like using some of the more outrageous apocryphal writings–where the time lag is too great and the content too fantastic to accept as credible. A lot of the bases for the claim are bolstered by Foxes Book of Martyrs which was first published in the 16th century.

    As McDowell points out, we do have very strong evidence that four apostles were martyred–both from biblical and extrabiblical accounts. But perhaps even more significantly there is no credible account anywhere of any of the apostles recanting the claim of Jesus’ resurrection. That is a pretty impressive claim in itself that throws a weighty burden of proof back to the skeptic.

    Ultimately, as you stated, we have nothing to fear. It’s one of the blessings of understanding that Christianity is grounded in objective reality.

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