Home Pastors Articles for Pastors Were Jesus’ Apostles Martyrs? Does It Matter?

Were Jesus’ Apostles Martyrs? Does It Matter?

The traditional view is that Paul was beheaded in Rome during the reign of Nero. Scripture does not directly state his martyrdom, but there are hints in both Acts and 2 Timothy 4:6-8 that Paul knew his death was pending. The first evidence outside of Scripture is found in 1 Clement 5:5-7 (AD 95/96), in which Paul is described as suffering greatly for his faith and then being “set free from this world and transported up to the holy place, having become the greatest example of endurance.” Other early, consistent and unanimous testimony for Paul’s martyrdom can be found in Ignatius, Polycarp, Dionysius of Corinth, Irenaeus and Tertullian.

James, the brother of Jesus:
The earliest evidence for the death of James comes from Josephus in his Antiquities 20.197-203 (AD 93/94). This passage is largely undisputed by scholars. Josephus places James’ death (AD 62 ) between two Roman curators, Festus and Albinus. According to this account, the high priest Ananias had James stoned to death. But his death is also reported by Hegesippus and Clement of Alexandria. The case for the martyrdom of James is strengthened by the fact that both Christian and gnostic sources affirm that it happened. These suggest an early, widespread and consistent tradition regarding the fate of James.

~ Why Critics Say Their Martyrdom Doesn’t Matter ~

Some critics assert that the argument of  “Christianity must be true, because His followers willingly died for him” doesn’t hold much water. Two points they use:

Objection #1: Plenty of people have died for their beliefs. So Christians can’t claim their martyrs are unique—or that Christianity is true because of it.

We can agree on their first point, for sure. Some examples of modern martyrs: Kamikazi pilots who willingly sacrificed their lives during World War II to help Japan win the war; Muslim radicals that caused the attacks on U.S. soil on September 11, 2011, killing thousands of Americans; suicide terrorists, in general; Tibetan monks setting themselves on fire; and Jim Jones, the cult leader who directed his followers in their private compound in Africa to willingly take poison.

But this objection totally misses a key difference with the deaths of Christ’s early apostles. McDowell explains:

“In contrast to the beliefs of Buddhist monks and Muslim radicals and any other modern martyrs, including Christians, the beliefs of the apostles were not received secondhand, but from personal experience with the risen Jesus. They proclaimed what they had seen and heard with their own eyes and ears, not stories received from others. Peter not only claims he was an eyewitness but that the events took place in public and that his audience had full knowledge of them. The events were not done secretly in a corner. Buddhist monks and Muslim terrorists are certainly willing to suffer and die for a faith they received secondhand, but the apostles were willing to suffer and die for what they had seen with their own eyes.”

Objection #2: The apostles were not given the opportunity to recant.

Some critics believe that because there are no official records of the apostles being given the opportunity to recant, and thus live, this undermines the validity of their testimony.

Again, we can agree that there are no such records. But let’s not miss the obvious: The apostles knew full well the danger they each, individually, were stepping into when they publicly proclaimed Jesus as Lord. Would they really choose to be bold, knowing the dangers, then shrink back like sheep?

Let’s look at more insight from McDowell:

“The fact that their founding leader was a crucified criminal of the Roman Empire also certainly plays a part of their collective consciousness. Jesus even warned His disciples that the world would hate and even persecute them, as it did Him. Every time the apostles proclaimed the name of Christ, then, they knowingly risked suffering and death. Even so, they continued to teach and preach the risen Jesus. Given their active proclamation of Christ, and their full awareness of the cost of such proclamation, if some of the apostles died for their faith, they qualify under the traditional definition of martyr.”

Have you ever wished for a time machine? To then personally observe Jesus and the motley group that followed Him? Would not our own hearts be solidified by faith as we watched their transformation from mice to roaring lions? Jesus’ resurrection is truly a miracle—His greatest miracle. But I’d call it pretty miraculous, too, that a person can experience such gut-level transformation that demands they become new people. Do you have it in you to die for Christ? Do I? Let’s search our hearts to discern the current level of our commitment.

~ Conclusion ~

The willing deaths of the apostles does not prove the resurrection is true. But it does show the depth of the apostles’ convictions. When I think of their conviction, I get a mental image of a very deep well. A well so deep that it takes time for a dropped penny to make a splash as it dive-bombs through the water.

The apostles were not liars. They did not invent the resurrection stories. They proclaimed the risen Jesus to skeptical and antagonistic audiences with full knowledge they would likely suffer, if not die, for their beliefs. There is no evidence they wavered in their convictions. They banked their lives on the risen Jesus they had personally experienced. We, too, can come to a personal experience of His resurrection by seeking after Him. Our knowledge is second-hand, for sure, but the Holy Spirit continues to affirm to us that everything the apostles tell us about Jesus in Scripture is true!

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