Friday, May 05, 2006

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?


At 5/05/2006 4:36 PM , Blogger DagoodS said...

Very nicely written, ephphatha.

I would agree that Peter and James the Just (from now on, just “James”) believed that Jesus was resurrected from the Dead. Physical or spiritual we can discuss later.

And, as you brought out in the previous post, did they believe it enough to die for it? Would they, “die for a lie.”? Doesn’t necessarily make it true, simply demonstrates their devotion.

While you provide some historical points, the question still remains in that little word “for.” They may have died “for” there beliefs, but this does not necessarily demonstrate the depth to which they believed it.

For example. What if I went on a rampage? I decide that I hate all Christians whose name started with “X” so I plan and execute murder. Technically those people would die “for” being a Christian. It was the reason they were picked. But the depth of their belief had nothing to do with it.

Assume Nero decided to kill Christians in Rome in 64 CE. He was using them as a scapegoat for blame of the fire. Whether they believed, whether they even recanted, made no difference. He picked out a group, and decided to kill them.

Same with the Witch trials. Where we get the term “witch hunt.” It developed into a mass hysteria in which women were accused and killed, regardless of their belief, or even what they said. They didn’t even believe in witchcraft in the first place!

In order to complete the argument, you would need to demonstrate that James (or any other martyr) had an opportunity to recant, that recanting would save their life, and they did not. Killing them, even if it was for being a Christian, is not enough. They may be a martyr still, but they did not willingly die for their belief in an event.

This is played out in James’ scenario. Go here for the full paragraph, although you hit the salient bits. James was the victim of a Political dispute.

We have a new Sadducee priest, Ananus who wanted to flex his muscle. He forms accusations against James for breaking the law. What law we are not informed, although I think the better reading is the Jewish law.

Notice that regardless of what James believed, regardless if he was breaking Jewish law because of Christianity, the accusation was presumably accurate—he did not follow Jewish law. Importantly, even if he recanted, it would have made no difference. Even if he said, “Look, I know it is all a hoax,” the die had been cast. He was a political pawn.

But notice who objects to James’ death? The Pharisees! A far different cry from the picture painted in the New Testament. Now, they may have objected more to flex their own political muscle, but this emphasizes that James was a political pawn, perhaps not even being killed for being a Christian. If James was a Pharisee, this act could have played out the same way.

The Pharisees object, because the Sanhedrin was not convened correctly, and get their way, Agrippa deposes Ananus.

Even if I grant you (and why not?) that James believed in Christ’s resurrection, there is nothing in this story that indicates he was killed for being a Christian even, and everything to indicate it was for political reasons.

Now for Peter. (The third you were looking for was John, the brother of James.)

We continue with the same problem. I will gladly concede that whoever wrote the Gospel John, could be implying Peter was martyred. It was written after 1 Clement, which indicates he was dead, so anything written there is saying more of the same. Same thing with 2 Peter. (Although I disagree with the notion that it would have been “discredited.” By whom? Who would even care? The only people reading it were those that already believed it.)

2 Peter is written long after he would have died, and even helps your case, a bit, in that the writer seems familiar with Peter’s death. I agree with your analysis of that.

We have a dead Peter. We have Peter believing in a resurrection. Can we connect the two? Could he have recanted? Which persecution (if any) was he in? Was he killed by Jews or by Romans? The myth has always been that he was crucified upside down, but we have no evidence of that.

To get his martyrdom, we have to read 1 Clement 5 First off, in vs. 4 and 6, where it says “testimony” I have also read variant readings that translate this “martyrdom.” As you can see in our discussion that makes quite a bit of difference! I have never been able to nail down why the different readings, and what the Greek actually says. I should ask on iidb, but have been too lazy to do so.

I place 1 Clement in 95 C.E., and I presume you would prefer it only earlier, not later. More chance for myth development. 1 Clement 5 starts off talking about the Apostles.

Peter is listed first, and “having borne his testimony [martyrdom] went to his appointed place in glory.” This would clearly indicate he was martyred. Again, Clement is vague as to details (may not have cared) and leaves us with little direction.

Paul, he sends to Spain (contrary to traditional Christian history) and then also kills off. Of course, the problem with Paul is that he didn’t see a physically resurrected Jesus, but had a vision of one.

And then Clement uses a broad brush of “many other elect.” (6:1) No other apostles! No James the Just. No James and John. No Simon, no Matthew, Thomas, Thaddeus, Bartholomew. None of the 500 that Paul lists. Nobody else!

Given a straightforward reading, we have two—Peter and Paul.

Worse, 1 Clement goes on to list other possible martyrs and the next big names he pulls out are: Danaids and Dircae. Surely you remember them, right? We drop off the map fairly quickly as to big names of dying apostles.

I have made the argument before that Peter and Paul may have had financial gain at stake here, as well. When they are accused, recanting would be too late. Peter quits his job as a fisherman, takes up residence in Jerusalem, and starts a mega-church that has an offering to support him. Paul spends a missionary trip collecting for the poor saints in Jerusalem. Rom. 15:26. Only a skeptic such as myself, in viewing church ministries of today, and remembering Christ’s condemnation of collection efforts then, would be so cynical to wonder about the financial benefits of being a Christian leader.

Of our three, we have James, who was politically killed, Peter, who was killed when, where and why, as an unknown, but for purposes of this discussion—a martyr, and Paul, who saw Jesus in a vision, and was willing to die for that vision.

That’s it. Late in the Second Century, we begin to get stories cropping up on how the other apostles died. Funny nobody in the First Century noticed it.

Is this enough to substantiate the “die for a lie” claim of belief? Maybe I am too skeptical.

At 5/05/2006 6:39 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...


I think you make some good points, especially with your killing rampage analogy, and your other two counter-examples. Yes, I would agree that if somebody died because of their beliefs, that doesn't necessarily mean they died for their belief.

However, I don't think it's necessary to established that they had an opportunity to recant. There's one other way that jumps to mind. If they had a reasonable expectation that they could be killed or that they were in danger because of their beliefs, I think that would be enough to establish the same point. Although I can't establish that point very strongly with James, I think the point is very well established with Paul. That is, unless you just think Paul was telling bald faced lies when he wrote about the danger he constantly put himself in as a result of his ministry (see 2 Corinthians 11:23-26. Paul even said "once I was stoned," and I don't think he was talking about smoking weed).

I can make an argument in the case of James, but admittedly, it's not as strong. (At least I don't think it is; you may have the opposite opinion.)

First, I don't think James was the victim of a political dispute. Ananus merely took advantage of an opportunity. One procurator was dead, and the new procurator had not yet arrived. Ananus was able to convene the Sanhedrin without being under the thumb of a procurator. If he only took advantage of this while he had an opportunity, then obviously he would've liked to have done it earlier. I doubt he was alone in his feelings. James likely knew there were people in Jerusalem who would like to have seen him executed.

Josephus doesn't say that the people who disapproved were Pharisees. He mentions the Sadducees by name in this passage, but not the Pharisees.

But let's suppose it was the Pharisees. Were they objecting because James got killed? Not according to Josephus. Josephus said they were upset because they were "uneasy at the breach of law" and it was "not lawful for Ananus to assemble a sanhedrin without his [Albinus'] consent." So they didn't object because James was killed; rather, they objected because it was unlawful to assemble the sanhedrin without approval from the procurator.

Did James have an opportunity to recant, though? Well, I think we can make some reasonable speculations. First of all, James was not really murdered. Nobody jumped on him by surprise. Rather, he basically went to court. He had a hearing. Would that not have given him the opportunity to recant? Even if we doubt the historical accuracy of Jesus' trial in the gospels, it may still give us some insight as to what goes on in a Sanhedrin. If so, then the accused is questioned, and is allowed to give testimony.

In Peter's, case, let's look at how he died. I don't know whether you buy it or not, but I think he died by crucifixion. Whether it was upside down or not, I don't know. The author of John's gospel clearly thought he died of crucifixion somehow. That means Peter wasn't just killed by a surprise attack. He was arrested and most likedly tried (or at least questioned). That would've given him an opportunity to recant. Moreover, if Peter was crucified, then it was most likely done by Romans. In both the account of Jesus in the gospels and in Josephus's account of Jesus (the son of Ananus) in The Jewish War, book VI, chapter 5, paragraph 3, the accused is questioned. It seems reasonable to believe Peter was questioned as well. That would've given him an opportunity to recant.

You also have to consider, as I said above, whether Peter had any expectation that he was in danger. If Clement is to be believed, Peter suffered many labors before finally being executed. Also, when comparing himself with Peter and the other apostles in Jerusalem, Paul said, "I have...been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely..." showing that the apostles in Jerusalem suffered persecutions, too, though perhaps to a lesser extent. So surely Peter knew he was in danger, and he obviously was willing to suffer because of his beliefs. (BTW, in my post, I dated Clements letter in 96 CE, so there's just one year difference between you and me.)

Although I disagree with the notion that it [2 Peter] would have been “discredited.” By whom? Who would even care? The only people reading it were those that already believed it.

I guess it doesn't really matter at this point, but surely the Christians would've cared. If 2 Peter was written with hind sight, then it would've been discredited by the common knowledge about how Peter died. If it was actually written by Peter, then it would've been discredited if Peter didn't die like he predicted. Either way, 2 Peter would not have been preserved unless Peter died an untimely death (and I would argue, a martyrdom--otherwise, why mention it?)

To get his martyrdom, we have to read 1 Clement 5 First off, in vs. 4 and 6, where it says “testimony” I have also read variant readings that translate this “martyrdom.” As you can see in our discussion that makes quite a bit of difference!

Why does that make a difference? If he was killed because of his testimony, then it was a martyrdom, wasn't it? You said yourself this passage "would clearly indicate he was martyred."

Now at the beginning of your post, you intimated that it doesn't matter whether the resurrection was physical or not. You said Peter and James believed in the resurrection, and we could discuss physical or spritual later.

But then when discussing Paul, you seem to think it matters whether it was physical or spiritual. You said, "the problem with Paul is that he didn’t see a physically resurrected Jesus, but had a vision of one." Do you mean to say that Paul does not think he really saw anything at all--neither physical nor spiritual--that it was merely a subjective thing? If so, then I think we may have another debate on our hands. But if you just mean he didn't see a physical Jesus, then why do you think it matters in the case of Paul but not in the case of James and Peter?

You may be right that Peter had financial incentive. However, surely no financial incentive is sufficient for a person to die. You can't take your money with you. So if Peter had an opportunity to recant (as I've argued he probably did), then his financial incentive doesn't make much difference.

But there's something else you have to consider with Peter. If you read Josephus' works, you'll see that he mentioned several would-be messiahs, or people who led revolutions and the like. The Romans dealt with all of them the same. They'd kill the leader, and usually some of the followers, too. It's no wonder the gospels report the disciples fearing for their lives. They had good reason to. Now if they went about preaching that "Jesus is lord," then their message was every bit as dangerous as Jesus's messianic claims. Seeing their leader killed, surely they knew they put their lives in danger by proclaiming him king, especially if they sought to gather followers.

In the case of Paul, I don't think Paul operated on fancial motive for several reasons. First, Paul seemed to be pretty well off as a Pharisee. He gave all that up to follow Christ. Second, Paul usually worked so as not to be a burden on those he preached to (cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:9).

Third, you have to look at Paul's motive for the collection, and there are three things to consider. First, Paul was trying to convert gentiles, and have them welcomed into an otherwise Jewish church. The church in Jerusalem was thoroughly Jewish. Second, Paul always sought the approval of the Jerusalem church. He went there to lay before them the gospel he preached to the gentiles, and he reminded the Galatians that he recieved the right hand of fellowship from them. Obviously, Paul depended on the apostles in Jerusalem for his legitimacy. With those two things in mind, Paul's incentive for the collection may not have been entirely altruistic. That is, while he was certainly concerned for their well-being, he likely also thought he'd do much for his gentile mission if he could bring in a big collection from the gentile churches. Think how the Christians in Jerusalem might warm up to the gentiles (and Paul) if they got a lot of money from them? So Paul had incentive to gather as much money for them as he could. It would've been against his interests if he had been taking excessive amounts of money for himself. And I don't get the impression from his letters that he lived a particularly cushy lifestyle.

At 5/06/2006 2:21 PM , Blogger DagoodS said...


Quick points on each one:

James The reason I see it as political is this—read the paragraph of Josephus, but take away the reference to Jesus.

There is nothing there to indicate any Christian activity on James’ part, and we would not even associate James the Just WITH Jesus absent this phrase.

I am not arguing (here) that this is a Christian insertion. I am simply stating that without it, there is nothing left to give us the indication that James was killed for even being a Christian.

While the Sanhedrin may normally take testimony from the accused, here they were violating the law by even holding counsel. (Josephus uses “those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens” as an acronym for Pharisees) Why speculate that they were violating the law on one point, but following it on another?

Paul My point about Paul seeing Jesus in a vision, was that he did not see Jesus’ physical body in the 40 days Jesus was on earth post-mortem. The whole point of “die for a lie” is to prove the resurrection, by indicating that the disciples believed Jesus was physically resurrected, to the point of dying.

Seeing Jesus in a vision is very different. If I saw Mohammed in a vision, and even became Muslim and died for it, would you say that qualified for proof that Mohammed was physically resurrected? Of course not.

Peter Really the best shot for martyrdom. We have three independent authors who all attest to his dying, and imply it was not of old age. (Note, did they tend to “dress” people who were crucified? I always saw John 21:18 as a bit of a stretch to say it was talking about crucifixion.)

The problem of dying because he was a Christian, or dying for belief that could be recanted to save himself is still at issue. You are free to speculate that he was crucified and further speculate that he had a trial prior to the crucifixion, but that is all…well…speculation.

Equally I could say he was in Rome in 64 CE, and Nero simply snatched him up at a church meeting, and summarily crucified him in Nero’s garden.

Again, I think you laid out the best argument possible on these fellows. The reason I ask the believer to actually look it up, is that upon the research, as you have done, we find that the Twelve and James (the only ones named as seeing Jesus) did NOT necessarily die in defense of a belief of a physical resurrection, and what proof we have is scanty and a matter of conjecture.

Of course, to a believer, it may be proof enough, but to a skeptic, it may not be.

At 5/09/2006 5:01 PM , Blogger Psiomniac said...

Having read the above exchange it seems to me that one can weave a narrative from the historical fragments to suit ones worldview. Although, I admit, I would adhere to Hume's dictum on miracles, I also think that there are good explanations for why martyrs could exist that are consistent with the rationalist world view. Martyrdom demonstrates devotion to a belief system. I have read an account in the book 'Influence' by Robert B Cialdini that cites some case studies which detail what happens to cults in the face of a major dis-confirmation of a prophesy, for example if the U.F.O doesn't come on the appointed date. The common sense view is that the cult would, disheartened, disband in the face of the evidence. What actually happens is that a hasty explanatory framework is assembled and devotion levels soar in order to invoke the affirming principle of social proof. This fits well with the rationalist view that Jesus died and did not rise, yet there were martyrs.

At 5/09/2006 10:19 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...

psiomniac, what you're describing is one of the most popular theories of Christians origins. While much can be said about it, my major problem I have with it is that it doesn't fit well with other messianic movements in the first century. L. Michael White, in his book, From Jesus to Christianity, lists 15 "zealots and extremists" who led messianic or revolutionary movements besides Jesus. The Jesus movement is unique in the fact that it's the only one that survived the death of its leader.

The more I learn about messianic expectation in and around the time of Jesus, the more sense it makes to me. I don't think it's possible for the Jesus movement to have survived if his immediate followers didn't really think he was raised from the dead.

At 5/11/2006 4:43 AM , Blogger Psiomniac said...

What I have described is just the first piece of the puzzle. An explanation of why Christianity developed from just another messianic cult into a world religion is a more complicated story. For this, we need to turn to how the ideas were developed by the religious genius of Paul. The book 'Jesus' by A.N. Wilson is very good on this. So, unsurprisingly perhaps, from my perspective the explanations are very good without requiring miraculous things to have happened in order to inspire the followers in a different way to that of other cults.

At 5/11/2006 8:54 AM , Blogger DagoodS said...


I fleshed out the argument a bit more here:

Thanks for your input

At 5/11/2006 9:48 AM , Blogger ephphatha said...

psiomniac, I read A.N. Wilson's book on Paul and found myself disagreeing quite a bit with him on the origins of Christianity.

What needs to be explain, I think, is not how the messianic cult that existed shortly after Jesus' death became a major world religion, but how it became a messianic cult to begin with. What caused the disciples to believe Jesus has risen from the dead? Why did they continue to believe he was the messiah after he died?

I haven't read Wilson's book on Jesus, but from reading his book on Paul, I get the impression that Wilson doesn't think the Jesus movement was messianic at all until sometime after he died.

At 5/11/2006 9:48 AM , Blogger ephphatha said...

Thanks dagoods. I'll have a look at it.

At 5/11/2006 7:58 PM , Blogger Psiomniac said...

I think the Cialdini book explains very well how the messianic cult persisted despite Jesus not returning from the dead. The Wilson book explains why this particular cult had the potential to be turned, by Paul's religious genius, into a candidate for world religion status.

At 1/15/2007 4:29 PM , Blogger atw said...

Great conversation. This is my first look at this blog, and it's refreshing to see people dialoging from different angles without name-calling, condescension, or the other usual stuff of Christian debate.

I know the discussion seems to be over, but one thing keeps bugging me. Throughout the Gospels, the disciples do NOT look good. They're proud, thick-skulled, and the repeated phrase goes something like this: "They did not understand what he was saying to them." Over and over. This is part of why I can't buy the religious-cult-based-on-delusion idea. After deserting Jesus, denying him while under fire, hiding scared from the authorities, disbelieving the women who claimed to have seen the risen Jesus--and even going back to fishing while trying to figure out what to do next--I just can't see anyone being able to build up an excellent "explanatory framework" after this sort of failure and total lack of understanding. Even if they did, why in the world would cult leaders write or contribute to accounts that meticulously recount their weakest and most embarrasing moments? That's just not human nature (just look at the Qur'an or the Book of Mormon).

At 10/30/2007 1:00 PM , Blogger David Reke said...

hey, thank you for your post! I used it to help me write a similar one. I linked to this page too. If your curious you can see my post here.

At 6/19/2008 6:09 PM , Blogger Decristo said...

Hey if they were lying, don't you think that even one of them would have cracked under the pressure. People don't give thier lives away for stuff they think is a big hoax. And they were human, if Jesus' resurection were a lie then there must have been some inconsistencies in reports. And then look at 1Corinthians 15:5-10. This passage is believed to be one of the oldest New Testament Passages. In this extremely early writing, Paul gives the names of many persons, who saw Christ themselves. Don't you think that some would oppose if it were rubbish. But that isn't all, Paul goes on to say that Jesus appeared to 500 ppl at the same time. Why the hell would He make up something like that, that would be stupid!!! The Pharisees would not sit back and allow such things to live in the books of history, WITHOUT OPPOSITION..... Think about it.. cool huh



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