On the Danger of Overstating Apologetic Claims for the Christian Faith

The Crucifixion of Saint Peter, by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, in 1601. But was Peter really crucified upside down? Well, according to Sean McDowell (in this linked YouTube video), Peter was most probably killed as a martyr, for his faith. But the historical record of him being crucified upside-down is difficult to substantiate (It might be true, but it may not).

I can not tell you how many times I have used this argument, in conversations with non-believers, over the years: With the exception of John, the “Beloved Disciple,” all of the remaining 11 original disciples of Jesus (after Judas Iscariot) were martyred for their faith. This is a proof of Christ’s resurrection. For why would all of those in Jesus’ inner circle “die for a lie?”

Sound familiar?

If you are like me, you probably read it in books like Josh McDowell’s More Evidence That Demands a Verdict, or more clearly, in his More Than a Carpenter, apologetic books for the Christian faith that have been around for decades. Here is how Josh McDowell put it in More Than a Carpenter, perhaps as late as a printing in 2009(?), or a few years earlier (from an online excerpt, in the chapter on “Who Would Die for a Lie?):

“I can trust the apostles’ testimonies because, of those men, eleven died martyrs’ deaths on the basis of two things: the resurrection of Christ, and their belief in him as the Son of God. They were tortured and flogged, and they finally faced death by some of the crudest methods then known:

1    Peter — crucified

2    Andrew — crucified

3    Matthew — the sword

4    John — natural

5    James, son of Alphaeus — crucified

6    Philip — crucified

7    Simon — crucified

8    Thaddaeus — killed by arrows

9    James, brother of Jesus — stoned

10    Thomas — spear thrust

11    Bartholomew — crucified

12    James, son of Zebedee — the sword”

.

That is a pretty powerful argument.

But here is the problem: This argument is an overstatement of the actual evidence.

Now, when someone first told me this, that Josh McDowell’s claim was an “overstatement,” I got angry. After all, I trusted Josh McDowell. He was defending the Christian faith in his books. So, if someone was attacking these books, with the charge of “overstatement of the actual evidence,” then clearly such a charge was an attack from Satan, and I should resist it with all of my “righteous indignation.”

That’s right. I was angry. And I justified myself as being in the right. I mean, I was defending Jesus, was I not?

But then when I began to hear the same charge from fellow Christians, it really caused me to stop and think: What is really going on here?

As it turns out, a few years ago, Sean McDowell, Josh McDowell’s son, began to wonder about the same thing. Josh encouraged his son, Sean, to go figure it out. So, Sean McDowell did his own PhD dissertation on the topic of which of the early apostles actually died for their faith.

Sean McDowell’s research concluded that, yes, indeed, his father’s claim in More Than a Carpenter was an overstatement of the actual evidence (though it is hard to pin the blame specifically on Josh McDowell, as he got his information from others before him). Nevertheless, there is still good reason to believe that at least a few of the original apostles did die deaths as martyrs, and that even if the others did not die as persecuted martyrs, they never recanted from their belief in the Resurrection of Jesus, and they were at least willing to die for their faith. This does not necessarily prove the truth of the Resurrection, but it is still an important data point, as part of a larger argument to support the claim of the Risen Jesus.

Sean’s work is summarized in this linked article for the Christian Research Institute. Sean shows that much of what Christians often believe about martyrdom in the early church goes back to church tradition, and stories that originated several centuries after the events took place. Nevertheless, Sean notes that historically speaking, we can look at the available evidence and conclude, that while most of the original apostles may not have died gruesome deaths as martyrs, a few of them most probably did. Here is Sean in his own words:

…I examine the historical evidence for each apostle and rate the likelihood of his martyrdom on a ten-point probability scale that ranges from not possibly true (0–1) to highest possible probability (9–10). Historical research deals with probability and not certainty. And so my estimates are based on a careful assessment of the quantity and quality of the available evidence for each apostle. The common narrative is that all the apostles except John died as martyrs for their faith. While this may be true, it cannot be demonstrated historically.

In fact, here is what I believe the historical record reveals:

Highest possible probability (9–10): Peter, Paul, James son of Zebedee, James brother of Jesus

More probable than not (7): Thomas

More plausible than not (6): Andrew

As plausible as not (5): Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, James (son of Alphaeus), Thaddeus, Simon the Zealot, Matthias

Improbable (3): John

So, a more modest approach to the evidence indicates a high degree of confidence that folks like Peter, Paul, and those first two James did die as martyrs for their faith. But when it comes to the rest of the others, the evidence is murkier. The only clear exception is concerning John, whom all agree did die a natural death.

For example, consider the death of Andrew, that Sean McDowell puts at a probability of 6, of being killed for his faith. Our primary source for this is an apocryphal work, The Acts of Andrew. The ancient church historian, Eusebius, dismissed The Acts of Andrew as a spurious work, and even heretical in its teachings. Could there still be good evidence for Andrew’s martyrdom, in The Acts of Andrew? Possibly, yes. But considering the disputable nature of the source, Christians should be cautious when appealing to it as some kind of authoritative statement.

Here is another example: There is a claim that Bartholomew was skinned alive. But the only available source for this claim comes from around 500 A.D., over 4 centuries after the event would have taken place. While this does not rule out martyrdom for Bartholomew completely, it makes the story that I had been sharing with non-believers for decades less than compelling.

Does this new conclusion from Sean McDowell harm the case for the Resurrection? Not really, but it does help us to properly frame the argument. Rather, it is yet one more data point, along with the claim of the empty tomb, and the unlikelihood of mass hallucination among the early witnesses to the Resurrection, that supports the central truth claim of the Christian faith. As Sean puts it, “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 belief that Jesus had risen from the grave and the lack of a contrary account that any of them recanted.”

Still, skeptics and critics have pounced on this admission as evidence that Christians have been lying, when they have advanced the “would they die for a lie” argument. I certainly got that sense when I read reviews for Candida Moss’ book on The Myth of Persecution. But such claims of Christians “lying” are over-reactive overstatements themselves.

A more fair way of putting it is that sometimes Christians tend to trust too much in what we hear, and do not do the harder work of discerning if what is being said is actually true or not. The path of least resistance is always simply holding onto what we think is true, just because we were always taught that way, or because we have developed a deep conviction about something, despite the existence of evidence to the contrary. We tend to latch onto those things that reinforce our presuppositions and intuitions, and ignore evidence that might overturn such presuppositions and intuitions (this was my big take-away from Jonathan Haidt’s insightfully excellent book, The Righteous Mind).

This principle holds true for believer AND non-believer alike. If we really want our non-believing friends to consider changing their minds about the truth claims of the Christian faith, we need to be willing to re-examine our own presuppositions and intuitions, that blind us from the truth.

The fact that Josh McDowell’s story about the  “eleven martyrs deaths” has been in print since 1977, without a serious inquiry, among evangelical scholars, as to its evidential support, until his son, Sean, started to do his own research, within the last decade or so, is indeed embarrassing. But to suggest that this delay in setting the record straight is due to some purposeful, ethical misconduct, is simply an over-reach, in the opposite direction, by critics of the Christian faith.

A First Century Fragment from the Gospel of Mark?

Another good example of this is the whole debacle over the supposed “first-century fragment of the Gospel of Mark.”  Back in 2012, conservative biblical scholar Daniel Wallace, a favorite of ours, here at Veracity, made the provocative statement in a debate with skeptical scholar Bart Ehrman, that he knew of the discovery of a first-century fragment, from the Gospel of Mark. Were this discovery to be true, it would have been a landmark triumph, as we currently have no first-century remnants of New Testament documents, though we do have some New Testament fragments that date back to the mid-2nd century, or so.

Wallace was reasonably confident of the first-century Mark claim, due to assurances from other trusted scholars, that the discovery was, in fact, legit. Wallace did caution that he was waiting for a peer-reviewed study to confirm this claim. Josh and Sean McDowell included a statement from Wallace, to this effect, in a recent edition of Evidence That Demands a Verdict, published in 2017. The McDowells did so despite the fact that some had grown increasingly skeptical of the claim, in the intervening years.

Subsequent research, and developments in the story, have revealed a tangled web of convoluted stories and scandal, and even a criminal investigation, as reported by The Atlantic magazine. Participants in the debacle include Hobby Lobby, the Museum of the Bible, and an Oxford scholar. Finally, in 2018, many learned that the supposed “first-century fragment of the Gospel of Mark,” officially known as P137, actually dates to either the late-second or early-third century, according to that long awaited peer-reviewed study. A much chagrined Wallace, offered an appropriate apology, for his part, and rightly noted, that while there is quite a bit of disappointment in not having a first-century fragment, nevertheless, having a late-second or earth-third century fragment of Mark is newsworthy on its own merit.

As Elijah Hixson, co-author of Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism(p.161-163), put it, this fragment of Mark is currently the earliest archaeological evidence for the antiquity of the Gospel of Mark. That is nothing to dismiss lightly. The discovery is still a remarkable piece of evidence, that furthers the case for the substantial integrity of the New Testament.

Sadly, the actual news of the discovery of the earliest known fragment of Mark has been overshadowed by the scandal surrounding it…. and this is the type of stuff that demonstrates why it is dangerous to overstate apologetic claims for the Christian faith. Critics will latch onto these missteps, and use it as further leverage, in their argument that Christians are not to be trusted. Doing our homework, to verify certain apologetic claims, is worth the effort. The integrity of the apologetics enterprise is at stake.

 

One clarification here: I have great respect and admiration for the apologists and scholars mentioned above. Yes, mistakes were made, but I do not believe that any of these Christians intentionally sought to deceive anyone. In fact, I respect their efforts to acknowledge their own shortcomings, and in their work to set the record straight. But in other respects, there have been other players in the mix, who have used fraud and deception, and duping other Christians in the process.

I could highlight several other examples, where Christians have repeated overstated claims, in hopes of defending the Christian Faith. Hopefully, these two examples are sufficient to drive home the point. While voicing such claims, is often driven by good intentions, there is a downside.

Great harm is done when Christians are tempted to overstate certain apologetic claims for the faith, that turn out to be overreaches at best, or even duds, at worst, upon closer examination. Sadly, when such overstatements are made, they can create barriers for further conversation, that only further alienates skeptics and critics of the faith.

We see this all of the time now, when it comes to the decline of civility of political discourse, that marks a crisis in our current culture. Having this spill over into spiritual and theological matters can be devastating. Unfortunately, we live in an era, dominated by the proliferation of Internet-based media, that makes it very difficult to properly distinguish between good, solid, evidence-based reasoning and “fake news.”

Christians, above all people, should be advocates for the truth.

A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches,
and favor is better than silver or gold.
(Prov. 22:1 ESV)

 

 

If you really want to geek out on all of this, here are just a few of videos that address, first, the martyrdom of the apostles issue, with a discussion between Sean McDowell, and an Internet atheist critic, Paulogia, and secondly, a panel discussion covering issues pertaining to textual criticism, led off by a question posed to Daniel Wallace, about the Gospel of Mark fragment. Then, finally, here is a brief video by Ariel Sabar, of The Atlantic, who told the tale of the “first-century Gospel of Mark” scandal, but who in this older video, uncovers the incredibly crazy story about the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife,” that led to a debunking about it, back in 2016, much to the chagrin of certain skeptics of 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

3 responses to “On the Danger of Overstating Apologetic Claims for the Christian Faith

  • Jane Hanson

    Thank you for all your scholarship, Clarke! It helps those of us who read this column become stronger in our faith. Truth truly does matter!

    Like

  • Clarke Morledge

    Paulogia, the atheist interlocutor of Sean McDowell, offers his post discussion critique:

    Like

  • Clarke Morledge

    When my wife and I visited Rome in 2018, we were not able to visit the remains of Nero’s home, Domus Aurea. That is one thing we sadly missed. The story of Nero in this Smithsonian article paints a more positive portrait of Nero, but methinks it is slightly too kind.

    https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/new-nicer-nero-history-roman-emperor-180975776/

    I’d like to see the source used to demonstrate that Peter was never in Rome. 1Peter 5:13 is not definitive, but the indication is that Peter’s letter was written in “Babylon,” which elsewhere in the New Testament, is acknowledged to be a figurative expression for Rome. As there is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that Peter was indeed the author of 1 Peter, placing Peter in Rome makes sense.

    Furthermore, we have no counter-evidence that Peter never in Rome, as all accounts of his death place him as being martyred in Rome, and no testimony exists that he died anywhere else.

    My faith does not hinge on Peter being in Rome, there is at least some evidence that Peter was in Rome:

    https://www.catholic.com/tract/was-peter-in-rome

    So, while there is a degree of plausibility to say that Peter was never in Rome, it is more probable to say that the idea that Peter was NEVER in Rome owes more to certain Protestant polemics against Romand Catholicism than anything else.

    Like

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