Saturday, June 25, 2011

There is No Evidence that the Disciples Died for Their Beliefs

I cannot count the number of times I have heard Christians make the claim that "The disciples would not have died for a lie." However, I can count the number of times someone has given me evidence that the disciples actually died for their beliefs- zero.

The relevance of this topic is fairly obvious- if the disciples were indeed killed and tortured for their beliefs, and if denying their faith would have saved their lives and ended the torture, then it is far less likely that they all lied about the resurrection of Jesus.

Unfortunately, after searching through the works of apologists, historians, and checking in to see if Google has anything to say on the matter, I have come up with absolutely no evidence concerning the deaths of the disciples.

Consider the testimony of Dr. Bart Ehrman, who has spent much more time searching than I have:
"And an earlier point that Bill made was that the disciples were all willing to die for their faith. I
didn’t hear one piece of evidence for that. I hear that claim a lot, but having read every Christian
source from the first five hundred years of Christianity, I’d like him to tell us what the piece ofevidence is that the disciples died for their belief in the resurrection." (Taken from the debate between Craig and Ehrman concerning the historicity of the resurrection)

For the full debate, see:

My claim in this post would be extremely easy to discount if Dr. Ehrman and I are wrong. Just find some evidence and leave a comment with your source! I would greatly appreciate the new information.

The claim that "the disciples died for their belief" has no historical backing whatsoever. It is a highly popular dogmatic tradition which has spread rapidly through the Christian world and is accepted because Christians want to believe it, not because there is a reason to believe it. Be careful when assuming that 'facts' about the past are actually factual!


  1. Oops, I meant to add that I couldn't access the debate link - it was asking for authorization credentials.

  2. Howdy Josh,
    Interesting post. This is not something that I have spent time on. But I do have a few quick thoughts. The death of James (the brother of John) is recorded in Acts 12:1-2. Eusebius was a Christian scholar from the 3rd century who wrote a detailed church history among other things. He mentions the death of Peter and Paul and cites sources to back him up which I have not found. This link should take you to some of his writings I assume that Ehrman does not consider either of these to be evidence. I would assume that his reasoning is that they are Christian sources, but I would be interested to hear him say why.

  3. Uh oh, apparently my counterargument post disappeared again.

    In addition to what Peter has cited, there are other scriptures (Acts 7 & the death of Stephen, John 21 & Jesus hinting at Peter's death/John confirming that Peter had died, as well as a number of texts that talk about persecution) that would suggest that the disciples would die for their beliefs. Additionally, there is the account of the martyrdom of Polycarp (who likely knew John) and the systematic persecution of the early church at the hands of Rome through the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd centuries. Certainly, these people had not witnessed Jesus' resurrection, but it sure seems that they were willing to suffer and die based on the testimony of the disciples who had seen Christ. I am not sure, then, what you mean when you say that there is no evidence for the disciples dying for their faith.

    As for what I know about Dr. Ehrman, I know that he was a Bible scholar before he became a vocal opponent against the historical credibility of the Bible. I also know that he has been publicly challenged by other Bible scholars for purportedly twisting his opponents' arguments and making claims that do not have backing: That does not necessarily invalidate his criticisms, but it has helped to make me rather skeptical of his claims.

    (Sorry I haven't posted in a while - hopefully, I will try to post another comment concerning the ontological argument discussion sometime soon)

  4. First off, thanks a ton for your comments guys!

    I will respond to Zach's comment first.

    First of all, when I was talking about the 'disciples' I meant the 12 disciples, not just anyone who was a Christian in the early church. I think that clearing up that miscommunication would help us understand one another much better.

    It is of specific importance that the 12 disciples died for their beliefs. If it were people after them, or perhaps I should say anyone who was not an eyewitness, then they are comparable to martyrs from every other religion and cult who die for their beliefs.

    The reason I examine the 12 is that they would have started a lie and died for it- instead of being the brainwashEEs, they would be the brainwashERs.

    I hope that clears some things up. Polycarp and the other early Christians are irrelevant to this discussion. I may need to do a post on the importance of the witness of the 12 if my point has not been made clear yet.

    Pressing onward, I feel compelled to point out that this is not a question of 'would they die for their belief?' or 'did Jesus hint that they would die for their beliefs in the future?' but a question of 'is there historically sound evidence that the 12 actually did die for their beliefs?'

    I hope you will forgive me for not specifying that I meant the 12 disciples and not just any disciples. Now that the issue has been cleared up, have you any additional thoughts?

  5. Peter,
    You are absolutely correct that the death of James the brother of John, one of the 12 disciples, is mentioned in Acts 12:1-2! I shall revise my former conclusion and state instead "The claim that 'the disciples died for their belief' has no historical backing whatsoever, except for the mention of the death of James in Acts 12."

    I will need to create another post in order to establish whether or not what the author of Luke and Acts wrote should be accepted as credible information, but you have indeed found a piece of evidence!

    As for Eusebius, the "Father of Church History," I will need to dedicate at least one future post to him as well.

    However, I would like to let him say two things for himself at this point:
    "I have repeated whatever may rebound to the glory, and suppressed all that could tend to the disgrace of our religion" (Chp. 31, Book 12 of Prae Paratio Evangelica).

    "How it may be lawful and fitting to use falsehood as a medicine, and for the benefit of those who want to be deceived." (Chp. 32, Book 12 of Prae Paratio Evangelica)

    Based on those two statements, I don't think he is a trustworthy source. However, I think he is still extremely interesting and will be posting on him soon.

    Again, thanks for your comment Peter. You have refined one of my conclusions and made it necessary for me to write at least two additional posts.

  6. Howdy Josh,
    I agree that only those who claim to have seen the risen Christ are relevant to this argument. I would be slower to discount Eusebius though. Even is someone is writing with an agenda it is still possible to get things from their account. I would expect details that change the meaning of an event to be changed by a person writing to make a point. It seems far less likely that an entire event was created. Eusebius cites three other reasons to believe his account. 1. The tombs of Peter and Paul which existed at the time of writing. 2. A direct quote from Caius. 3. A direct quote from Dionysius bishop of Corinth. As far as I know these sources do not exist today. I do not think that he would have included things that could be easily checked if he was lying. This is not intended to defend everything that Eusebius wrote.

  7. Hey Peter!
    Thanks for your input. Soon I will be doing a full blown post or two on Eusiebius. It will be much more productive to have a discussion about him with more information on the table!

  8. Zach,
    I just wanted to let you know that I found your original comment in my spam folder. Would you like me to try to post it for you?

    I'm not sure what the problem is, but let me know if I can help you out in any way!

    Feel free to message me comments on facebook too. I can either post them for you or just read them myself. Its whatever!

  9. Hi Josh,

    Thanks, but don't worry about reposting it - that post was overly long and wordy, I think.

    In reference to your responses to Peter's post and mine:

    Thanks for clarifying and no worries, Josh - clarification, I think, is a major part of meaningful and constructive discussions. Now, I do still have some points I would like to address:

    1. In addition to the twelve, Stephen very likely was an eyewitness of Christ (Acts 7:56 + he was old enough to have seen Christ firsthand).

    2. Concerning Peter, remember also that John explicitly stated in 21:19 in a parenthesis that Peter had died. Furthermore, considering the context (in a nutshell, Peter was willing to die (13:37), Jesus hinted strongly that Peter would "follow (13:36)", Jesus calling Peter to ministry (21:15-17), Jesus' hint at Peter's death (21:18), and John's parenthesis mentioning that Peter had died to glorify God (21:19)), it is pretty apparent that Peter had died for the faith.

    3. I would like some context on those Eusebius quotes (e.g. is he being sarcastic in the second quote + any links to said reading material). I want to apologize if I come off a bit gruff here, but people snatching quotes and verses out of context has become a pet peeve of mine. Often, I have heard people (including myself) take one-liners from the Bible or from men such as Augustine, Calvin, CS Lewis, etc. and use those quotes to formulate fallacious arguments or misrepresent a certain doctrine. I also hear stuff like, "that's what X would have said," to dismiss another's point of view. Again, it's not my intent to come down hard on you or anyone else - I just want to make sure that we try to understand a quote the way the author originally intended.

    There are some other points I'd like to make, but they'll probably either get addressed soon or would cause us to go a little off-topic.

  10. Hey Zach! Let me respond to point 2 first.

    2. Here is John 21:15-19 (I am including context! You were right on point 3.)
    15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” 19 (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.” (ESV)

    Basically what we have here is 'John' saying that Peter will die in the future. All of the other verses you mention about Peter being willing to die, Jesus hinting at Peter's death, Peter's calling, etc. are irrelevant. Ancient texts claiming that someone was willing to die for their faith is NOT evidence that they actually died for their faith.

    The Bible does not document that Peter was martyred, nor do outside sources. All we have is a 2000 year old extremely biased tradition (except for the death of James [thank you, Peter (not the apostle, but the guy commenting above)]).

    The reference to Jame's death will be examined further soon.

  11. In response to point 3:

    I agree! I also don't like it when people quote other's without context. You are absolutely right.

    I am currently working on a series of posts on Eusebius, so we can discuss him once I have lain out some legitimate evidence.

  12. Josh,

    I have a couple response points to some of your comments:

    1. "Basically what we have here is 'John' saying that Peter will die in the future."

    That is not readily apparent from the text. Peter's death was in the future relative to Jesus' statement, NOT John's statement. Additionally, it is not clear from Jesus' statement how Peter would die - it is clarified only when John's parenthesis is considered. This, then, begs the question, "How did John know that Jesus was referring to Peter's death if it had not already happened, and, more importantly, how could he convince his audience that that was what Jesus actually meant?" There are three possibilities that I can see arising from this question:

    a. John interpreted Jesus' statement on his own
    b. Jesus actually told him the specific meaning
    c. Peter's death had already taken place

    Options a. & b. are rather problematic for several reasons. First, John would have to justify his claim to the church (the Bereans in Acts 17:11 and Paul's admonition to test sayings with Scripture in Gal. 1:6-10 come to mind), and he really doesn't spend any time doing that here. In fact, he mentions Peter's death almost in passing as if it were common knowledge. Now, I suppose John could have made justification elsewhere in his writings, but if he did, why do we have no knowledge of such a justification being made?

    A second problem is that, if John (and maybe even Jesus!) were ultimately wrong about predicting Peter's death, don't you think that early skeptics and even some within the church would have vehemently raised objections and proclaimed John a false prophet? Yet again, however, why isn't there such an outcry ever recorded, or even hinted?

    It is in my estimation that option c. makes the most sense. First, if Peter had died, you can bet that, because of his status within the church, news of his death would have quickly become common knowledge within the church. Second, after doing a little scrounging around(*), there seems to be a general consensus that the gospel of John was written (60s or 90s), and was most likely written after (whether just after or 20-30 years after) Peter's death. Third, there are other places in Scripture where Jesus says something that the disciples don't understand at first, but then understand later when it is revealed to them (e.g. John 2:18-22 concerning Jesus' resurrection & death, and Mark 14-23 & Acts 10 concerning Jesus' declaring all foods clean). Though this is probably going out on a limb here, I would conjecture that it would make sense, when taken in perspective of the third point, that 'John' would understand what Jesus had said once Peter had died.

    2. "Ancient texts claiming that someone was willing to die for their faith is NOT evidence that they actually died for their faith."

    Yes, the context I quoted is not hard and fast evidence, and by its own merits, would not be sufficient to prove that Peter died for the faith. Then again, it wasn't my intent to use it to directly prove that Peter had died for the faith. That is why I cited it as context - in conjunction with John's parenthesis, I believe it makes it clear that Peter's death was for the faith and not just any normal death. I apologize for causing any confusion.

    (*) Note: Wallace & White have debated Ehrman before and are fairly prominent scholars.

    Dan Wallace:
    James White: (mainly just for the dating in the first section)

  13. Pretty sure that even the hardcore skeptics/atheists would admit that the disciples took major risks for their faith and went from being scared/freaked about Jesus death to being fearless and bold in their faith overnight. Most historians, including skeptics, atheists, etc. would disagree with Ehrman on this point.

    In general, I think you should take Ehrman with a grain of salt. He has been borderline dishonest and misleading when he discusses Biblical textual variants in the popular press. If you want to read a skeptical historian, Ehrman would not be the one I’d recommend. He has too much of an axe to grind, and he has a track record of playing fast and loose with the facts in order to win points in a debate.

  14. "Were the Disciples Martyred for Believing the Resurrection?" - Bart Ehrman answers in a blog post: