Sean McDowell did his doctoral dissertation on the fate of the Apostles of Jesus. Legend has it that they all died as martyrs, except for the Apostle John, because they witnessed the death and resurrection of Jesus and were willing to attest to it with their own deaths. But is that really true? That is the question Sean McDowell set out to answer with scholarly research and analysis.
It’s a common understanding. It’s been my understanding, more or less, going back many years, though we may not have hard historical evidence to support what happened to all the Apostles. Peter and Paul are pretty well known and attested. They died martyrs’ deaths, but what about the others?
Sean McDowell recently did a short video inspired by the results of his study that was the subject of his doctoral dissertation, A Historical Evaluation of the Evidence for the Death of the Apostles As Martyrs for Their Faith, and the book, The Fate of the Apostles. While his study reveals a high degree of uncertainty about the martyrdom of many of the apostles, we have a great of certainty about at least two of them, and of other eyewitnesses of the death of Jesus. From these facts, McDowell raises five key points.
The first point is the definition of an apostle. What makes apostles different from disciples? In the beginning of the Book of Acts, the disciples are looking to replace Judas who betrayed Jesus. The story is told in Acts 1:12-26. The 11 remaining apostles used two criteria for the replacement. First, they decided that the replacement would have to be someone who had been with Jesus since his baptism by John the Baptist. Second, the replacement had to be an eyewitness of the risen Jesus. (Acts 1:21-22)
The eyewitness criterion of being considered an apostle is poignant to this discussion, because these were people who relied on what they saw for themselves, not on secondhand testimony. Not only the apostles, but many people claimed to have seen Jesus risen from the dead. (Paul identifies over 500 people to whom Jesus appeared in the order in which he appeared to them in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8.)
The second point to understand is that the earliest message the apostles preached was that Jesus had risen from the dead, conquering sin and death. This was the foundation of the message of the early followers of Jesus. We see this in the letters of Paul and the preaching that is recorded in the Book of Acts. The message they gave was always centrally tied to the resurrection.
The third point is that the Apostles preached this message of the resurrection of Jesus in direct opposition to the Jewish authorities and Roman state. When the apostles testified that Jesus is God, they were essentially saying that Caesar is not God. Jesus died as a criminal against the Roman state, so they were essentially saying that a criminal against the Roman state was the risen Lord. This message made them enemies not only of the Jews, but of the Roman state.
The fourth point is that the apostles would not stop preaching about the risen Jesus even when they were threatened, beaten and thrown in prison. Following the Day of Pentecost, the apostles began to preach publicly, and many people began to join them. It wasn’t long before they were hauled before the religious council and commanded to stop, but they went on preaching boldly.
Though they were arrested, they refused to stop. When Stephen, who wasn’t even an apostle, was killed for his preaching, they were hunted down, imprisoned and tortured, but they went on preaching. Paul, who headed up the effort to stop them from preaching, became a believer when Jesus appeared personally to him. Paul, the once persecutor of the faithful, became an unrelenting witness to the resurrection of Jesus though he was stoned, beaten and imprisoned.
Most of the suffering the early apostles received came at the hands of the Jews, but that changed as time went on. Paul was beaten and imprisoned by Roman authorities in Philippi. In Thessalonica, they were accused of “acting against the decrees of Caesar” (Acts 7:17) (because they were claiming Jesus was a king). Paul was eventually imprisoned by the Romans and removed to Rome were he lived the rest of his life in captivity before he was ultimately put to death.
These are things that are documented by Luke, the historian, in Acts. Regardless of whether we accept the more legendary and apocryphal stories of the deaths of the other Apostles, we have record that the followers of Jesus were willing to suffer and die for the message they preached – that Jesus rose from the dead.
The last point is that there is good, historical evidence that some of the apostles and key followers died as martyrs for this message. Stephen’s death is recorded in Acts. James, the brother of Jesus, the head of the church in Jerusalem, was killed as reported by Josephus, the Jewish/Roman historian in his writings at the end of the first century. James, the brother of John, was killed by sword at the hands of Herod.
We also have good documentation of the death of Paul and Peter. According to the early church fathers and apocryphal books, Paul was beheaded in Rome by order of Nero, and Peter was crucified by order of Nero. In fact Nero, triggered the beginning of the widespread and focused persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire that lead to the death of untold numbers of martyrs in the centuries that followed.
Many are the stories of the deaths of the other apostles by martyrdom, but the sources are not as well-attested as the sources for the death of Stephen, James, the brother of John, Peter and Paul. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (published by John Day in 1563) famously preserves those stories. While it purported to retell the martyr stories of the apostles, among other ancient Christians, it focused particularly on the martyrs in England and Scotland. The book was updated periodically for many years into the early nineteenth century.
While Foxe’s Book of Martyrs doesn’t have the hallmarks of modern historical reliability and was influenced by a motive to tie the history of the Reformation to the martyrdom of the Apostles and early church fathers, no one can seriously argue the willingness of many a Christian witness over the ages to die for what they believed.
Sean McDowell makes the point in a video he did summarizing his research that people of other faiths, like Muslims, for instance, have also demonstrated a willingness to die for their faith. Apart from the very first martyrs, the criticism is legitimate that Christians can claim no special place over other faiths on the basis of martyrdom alone. (Martyrdom, though, seems to have a particular prominence in Christian history that is different in degree and quality.)
The martyrdom of the earliest followers of Christ, however, establishes a claim that no other religion can make. These people were eyewitnesses of the death of Jesus, the man they claimed was God in the flesh. On Paul’s account, hundreds of people claimed to have witnessed his death; and they claimed to have witnessed Jesus risen from the dead and appearing among them.
These people, personally, were in the position to know, by their own eyewitness, that Jesus died. The same people who witnessed his death claimed to have witnessed that Jesus rose from the dead. In other words, these people didn’t simply believe; they witnessed what they claimed was the fact of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
If they were making up the fact that Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to them, would they have been willing to die for the lie?
Most scholars acknowledge the rhetorical nature of that question and don’t argue (any longer) that the early followers made up the story. It just doesn’t square with common sense and human nature. It’s too unbelievable to be considered a viable position.
Of course, modern skeptics may say that these people could have been honestly mistaken. That’s a possibility of course, but more than 500 people at one time? (We don’t have time to get into this point, but there many, many good examples of people who have tackled this subject.)
The message that was central to this movement of the first followers of Jesus was that he rose from the dead. Everything hangs on that message. Without that fact, Paul says, our faith is “useless” and “futile”. (1 Corinthians 15:14, 17) The first followers of Jesus staked everything on that message, and they backed up their confidence with a willingness to be persecuted, threatened, beaten, mocked and even killed for it.
No other religion can claim this kind of commitment from people who were in the position to know the truth of such an extraordinary claim. While we can’t really claim with any degree of modern, historical assurance that all the apostles died a martyr’s death, some of them did, along with others, like Stephen and James, the brother of Jesus. This is a remarkable fact given their position to know exactly what they were dying for.
 In 1 Corinthians 15, for instance, Paul recounts all the people who saw Jesus risen from the dead, including over 500 men who apparently all saw Jesus at the same time, and Paul adds: “But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” (1 Cor. 15:13-14) Scholars note that Paul recites from a credal tradition that goes back to a very short time after the death of Jesus bearing the message that Jesus rose from the dead. (See The Message in the Earliest Creeds in the New Testament)
 Acts 12:1-2
 1 Clement (95-96 AD (cited in McDowell, Sean (2016), The Fate of the Apostles: Examining the Martyrdom Accounts of the Closest Followers of Jesus, Routledge. ISBN 978-1-317-03190-1); Ignatius, Letter to the Ephesians, Chapter XII (around 110 AD); The Acts of Paul (see James, Montague Rhodes (1924) The Acts of Paul: The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press)) (around 160 AD); Dionysius of Corinth letter to the Romans (177-174 AD)( “Fragments from a Letter to the Roman Church Chapter III”)(cited also by Eusebius); Quintus Septimius Florens, Tertullian, “Prescription Against Heretics Chapter XXXVI” (200 AD); Eusebius of Caesarea, Church History Book II Chapter 25:5–6 (320) AD); Lactantius, Of the Manner in Which the Persecutors Died, addressed to Donatus Chapter II (318 AD); Jerome, On Illustrious Men Chapter 5 (392 AD); John Chrysostom, Concerning Lowliness of Mind 4 (349-407); and Sulpicius SeVerus, Chronica II, 28–29 (403 AD).
 See Clement, The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians (99 AD); Apocryphal Acts of Peter Chapter 37 (after 100 AD); Quintus Septimius Florens, Tertullian (155-204 AD), Prescription Against Heretics Chapter XXXVI and Scorpiace Chapter 15; Origen, Sermon by Leo the Great (440–461) (quoting Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History (III, 1)); Peter of Alexandria (d. 311 AD), Canonical Epistle on Penitence Canon 9; and Jerome (327-420 AD), De Viris Illustribus (On Illustrious Men) Chapter 1.