How did the disciples die?
Dagoods gives me things to write about. Today, I'm going to address a question he asked me a while back that I never answered. He read my blog on when arguments go awry. I had said something about how skeptics often misunderstand the "die for a lie" argument. Dagoods said at the end of our discussion that he doesn't respond to the "die for a lie" argument. Instead, he just asks the Christian to show how the disciples died. He asked me, "How did the disciples die, when, and was it martyrdom?"
This is a good question. You see, if they died of natural causes, then the "die for a lie" argument is faulty. So to make the "die for a lie" argument work, I've got to show that the disciples actually did die for their beliefs. If they died for their beliefs, that will demonstrate that they actually believed them with conviction.
I wrote about the historical arguments for the martyrdoms of James, Peter, and one other person I can't remember. Now I can't find where I wrote it, so I'm just going to have to go on memory. It's been a long time since I was emersed in all these historical arguments.
I suspect Dagoods would not raise the question if he were not skeptical of the accounts of Eusebius or even of some of the early Church fathers. To avoid all that, I wanted to narrow the topic to James (the brother of Jesus) and Peter. I think there is early and compelling evidence that both of them were martyred.
James was the head of the Jerusalem church, and a well-known public figure. Josephus writes about his martyrdom in the Antiquities XX.9.1:
Convening the judges of the Sanhedrin, he [Ananus, the high priest] brought before them a man named James, the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ, and certain others. He accused them of having transgressed the law, and condemned them to be stoned to death.Now, of course, if you're really bent on being skeptical, you can find loop holes. Maybe it's Christian interpolation. Maybe James committed some unknown crime having nothing to do with being a Christian. But assuming we can say (as most do) that James really was martyred, I can answer Dagood's question. James died by being stoned in Jerusalem in 62 CE, and it was a martyrdom.
There are three lines of evidence that show that Peter was martyred. First, we have John 21:18-19 where Jesus predicts how Peter will die. Basically, he predicted that Peter would die by crucifixion. It doesn't matter who wrote John's gospel. If we assume it was written by John before Peter died, then that would show Peter died by crucifixion. If he didn't, then John's gospel would prove that Jesus was a false prophet (or that the gospel was bad), and it either would've been edited out, or the gospel wouldn't have carried much authority. But if we assume it was written by John after Peter died, or written by somebody else after Peter died, then the person who wrote it likely knew how Peter died. He put this prediction on Jesus' lips in order to make it look like Jesus made an accurate prophecy, just as Mark and Matthew have Jesus predicting the destruction of Jerusalem, which supposedly dates Mark and Matthew after 70 CE. So either way you look at it, Peter was mostly likely crucified.
The second line of evidence is 2 Peter 1:13-14 where Peter says, "I think it is right to refresh your memory as long as I live in the tent of this body, because I know that I will soon put it aside, as our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me." Again, we can use the same argument. It doesn't matter whether Peter actually wrote it or not. If he did, the letter would have been discredited unless Peter died soon afterwards. If he didn't, then it was likely written because the author already knew how Peter died. In both John and 2 Peter, it says that Jesus predicted his death. Only John says how, though. Nevetheless, if Peter were to die of natural causes, there would've been nothing significant about his dying, and thus no particular reason for Jesus to predict it. Nobody would think it particularly impressive, for example, if I predicted Elizabeth Taylor is going to die soon. She's pretty old. 2 Peter adds plausibility to the prediction of "how" in John. Peter was likely martyred.
Third, we have a letter by Clement of Rome to the Corinthians in 96 CE, and he says, "Peter, through unrighteous envy, endured not one or two, but numerous labors; and when he had at length suffered martyrdom, he departed to the place of glory due to him." Peter was a public figure, and unless he mysteriously disappeared, the manner of his death was most likely public information among the major Christian congregations. So there is no reason to doubt what Clement is saying, especially in light of John and 2 Peter.
I probably can't prove Paul's martyrdom to somebody who is bent on being skeptical about it, but it seems quite obvious that Paul was at least willing to die for his beliefs. In Galatians 1:13-14 and Philippians 3:4-8, Paul writes about how he gave up being a Pharisee advancing in Judaism beyond many of his own age to be a follower of Jesus, and how he suffered the loss of all things happily because of it. In 2 Corinthians 11:23-26 and 6:3-10, he writes about beatings, imprisonment, being flogged, and being exposed to death again and again. He writes about being in danger from rivers, bandits, his own countrymen, Gentiles, and even false brothers. A person bent on skepticism, of course, could always say, "That's just a lie!"
These all seem like good reasons to think James, Peter, and Paul actually believed that Jesus was the Christ. The question, of course, is why did they believe it?