The Table Podcast

The Fate of the Apostles

In this episode, Mikel Del Rosario and Dr. Sean McDowell discuss the fate of the Apostles, focusing on the historical evidences of their martyrdom.

McDowell’s interest in the fate of the apostles
McDowell’s approach to assessing the evidence
Who are the twelve apostles?
Did early Christians expect persecution?
Why were they persecuted?
The unique nature of the Apostles’ martyrdom
The challenges of assessing historical evidence
What is a martyr?
Assessing the Apostles’ martyrdom stories
Where to go to discover more about the fate of the Apostles
McDowell’s top take-away from the fate of the Apostles
Resources Fate of the Apostles by Dr. Sean McDowell Evidence that Demand a Verdict by Josh McDowell and Dr. Sean McDowell
Mikel Del Rosario
Welcome to The Table podcast, where we discuss issues of God and culture. I’m Mikel Del Rosario, cultural engagement manager at the Hendricks Center at Dallas Theological Seminary. And our topic today is the fate of the apostles. My guest today, coming to us live from sunshine-y California, is my good friend, Dr. Sean McDowell. Sean’s an associate professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University. Welcome Sean.
Sean McDowell
Hey, thanks for having me, Mikel, and for introducing me as your good friend. We do have a history going all the way back to Biola, so–
Mikel Del Rosario
That’s right, Sean and I, we went to our undergrad together at Biola University, on the same floor in the old dorm, the old Horton Hall.
Sean McDowell
That’s right, fun stuff. Well thanks for having me on.
Mikel Del Rosario
Yeah, well welcome. Well today, we want to talk about the fate of the apostles. And the way we want to approach this topic is the idea that, for many of us who make a case for the historicity of the resurrection, we often will use an argument based on the disciples’ belief that they saw the risen Jesus. So we’ll say things like, “The disciples wouldn’t die for a lie.” That liars make poor martyrs. And Sean, you wrote a book on the fate of the apostles, and I wanted to just get the story real quick on how you decided to look into this argument a little deeper.
Sean McDowell
Yeah, I’m glad you started with this question. So in 2010, I began a PhD program in worldview and apologetic studies. And when you do a PhD, as you know, all of a sudden on your radar are topics that you could explore for a dissertation. I wanted one that interested me. I wanted one which I could make a genuine contribution to scholarship, and something I could publish. I began by exploring the topic of theistic evolution, and I realized it’s so expansive. Science, history, philosophy, theology, that it felt a little overwhelming.

And I was on a trip in Berkeley, California with about 25 high school students. And we bring in atheists and agnostics to speak to our students. And I had a friend of mine who’s a mythicist, who argues that Jesus didn’t even exist, presenting to these students. And one of my students raised his hand, he said, “Well if Jesus didn’t even exist, why’d the apostles die as a martyr?” And he looks back to him, and he says, “Can you give me any evidence that any of them died as a martyr?” And like in unanimity, Mikel, they all turn, my students looked at me as if I’m supposed to have the answer.

And I sat there thinking, well, you know, my dad wrote it in More Than A Carpenter, Lee Strobel talks about it in Case for Christ. I’m thinking, “I actually don’t know the answer to that. That’s a pretty important topic, given how formative this argument has been in resurrection studies and beyond.” So funny enough, a friend of mine, a cold case detective who’s an apologist, J. Warner Wallace, was with us on that trip. And I said, “Hey man, what do you think about this for a dissertation topic?” He goes, “Oh, I think it’s awesome, and by the way, I just bought two full books on the traditions of the apostles. You can have them and just run with it.”

Well it turns out that those two boxes of books were just the tip of the iceberg. And for the first few months I was convinced, “Surely, somebody’s explored a topic as important as this.” And while some people, like Richard Bauckham, have explored the historicity of Peter, other people have explored Thomas, and John, nobody brought all of them together and assessed them with historical rigor, simply asking, “What’s the evidence they died as martyrs, and is this a good piece of evidence for the resurrection?”

Mikel Del Rosario
So your research question was basically how do we know that certain apostles really died as martyrs, is that right?
Sean McDowell
Yeah, essentially I’m assessing the claims and the traditions about the martyrdom of the apostles. That’s the heart of it. And if you right an apologetics book, you can begin with the assumption, “I want to make this case as strong as possible.” And that’s how I started, but I quickly realized that out of historical integrity and just for the sake of knowing the truth, I’ve got to begin by asking, “How good is this argument? Does it have any merit to it? Should we use it, and what’s the actual evidence?”
Mikel Del Rosario
So what was your approach to assessing the evidence that you found?
Sean McDowell
Yeah, that’s a great question. I approached what Markus Bockmuehl, who’s a New Testament scholar, has something called the living memory. And he argues that through the end of the second century, there was still a close-knit oral tradition that is not too far removed from the apostles themselves, and has higher historical merit than later sources would. So if you look in the church fathers, even people like Papias, or you look in people like Polycarp, or Ignatius, they talk about passing on this tradition that had been handed to them. Kind of the same way the apostle Paul does.

You get to the third century, kind of Tertullian and beyond, and you don’t see the same kind of focus on living memory. So I started by saying, “All right, what is the evidence for each of the apostles dying as martyrs within the living memory?” And then some of them, like Peter and Paul and both James, there is significant evidence within the living memory. Others comes after the living memory, so then I had to say, “Is this still historically reliable? How do I assess these?” So that was the general approach. And then I set up kind of a historical rubric, so to speak, with a nine point scale, from the least historically probable to the highest historical probability. Because history deals not with certainty or with proof, but with probability. That’s how history works.

So I set up this nine point – you know, in the middle of course is just possible, as possible as not, and then different gradations going up and down. And then based on the quantity of evidence, based on the quality of evidence, I made individual assessments about what I thought was the likelihood of the martyrdom of each of the apostles.

Mikel Del Rosario
So this is kind of like not beyond a reasonable doubt, like in a criminal case. This is more like a preponderance of the evidence.
Sean McDowell
Well you might say that the highest historical probability might be equivalent in some sense to beyond a reasonable doubt, because I do think there’s some historical facts, like the crucifixion of Jesus, would go beyond a historical doubt. So I think that’s one criteria. But that would be on the higher end. If I had to put numerical values to it, and I hesitate, that’d be like an eight or nine. You know, preponderance of the evidence is like a six or seven. And just as plausible as not is a five, you know, all the way down. You look at New Testament historians, it’s amazing. They each come up with their own historical grid. So I spent, I mean probably days fine-tuning this and looking at it. Because your conclusions will really stem from how careful your methodology is.
Mikel Del Rosario
Now if someone were to think, “How could I even begin to look into this,” the first place they’ll probably go is, “Who were the apostles? How do we know who these guys even were?” Who are the 12 apostles?
Sean McDowell
Well that’s a good question. We have lists in Matthew, Mark, and Luke that list all the apostles. And then some of them mentioned in John, not in the same kind of list as say we see in Mark Chapter three, and then we have the early church fathers who will reference and talk about these apostles. So there’s very little debate about, say, Peter, and about James and John, kind of the three in the inner circle of Jesus. There’s little debate about Matthew and say Thomas and Bartholomew. Even though there’s some debate about whether Bartholomew is Nathaniel as referred to in John. So as a whole, let me step back and say there’s a list of the 12, but there’s a few names that vary, of which scholars are not certain.

For example, take Bartholomew and Nathaniel. Is this the same person with two names? Or, was Bartholomew originally part of the 12, and then died, and then Nathaniel became part of the 12? Some of these questions – these are somewhat open questions as far as one or two of them. So you could read John Meier’s text on the historical Jesus, and he goes into depth on the disciples. But as a whole, we have confidence who the 12 are.

Now in my assessment, we looked at the 12, but then I added Peter and Paul because they were – I’m sorry. I added Paul and James, the brother of Jesus, because they’re eyewitnesses of Jesus, and because they’re so formative in the early church. So I could’ve expanded and looked at Mark, I could’ve looked at Luke. I mean you can kind of keep going, but I thought, “I’m gonna go with core figures, the 12 of course, with Matthias instead of Judas.” And then being careful whether Nathaniel and Bartholomew are the same, for example. And then add Paul and James, and see what I can come up with, the likelihood of their martyrdoms.

Mikel Del Rosario
So in their context, where – to name the name of Jesus was in many times to take your life into your hands, how often do you think these disciples were actually persecuted, and did they expect to be persecuted?
Sean McDowell
This is a really important question, I’m glad you asked this. Because there’s been some pushback, namely by a scholar from Notre Dame by the name of Candida Moss, very articular, thoughtful writer. She pushes back in a book called The Myth of Persecution, arguing that Christians completely have a persecution complex. And I think if I remember the numbers right off the top of my head, she says within the first century, we can chronicle like six who died as martyrs. That’s it. The rest is legend. Maybe that’s in the second century too. So she’s gone over the top to just say, these things did not happen. Christians were not persecuted.

So I went back and I read the entire New Testament for starters, asking the question, “How commonly does Jesus or Paul or the biblical writer say that the followers should expect to be persecuted, and how often do we see it?” And Mikel, it stunned me. Number one, I was a little disappointed I didn’t see it myself before, but this idea that Christians are signing up for a movement in which they expect to be persecuted is at the heart of the New Testament. It’s probably one of the more common themes that show up, certainly in the top ten. I mean, by the way, we are following John the Baptist, the forerunner, was beheaded. Jesus died a martyr’s death. He said, “Pick up your cross and follow me.” And we talk like, “Oh, my cross is my neighbor listens to loud music” or something like that.

I mean, that’s not what it means. He meant, pick up your execution instrument and be willing to follow me to death. And you see in Matthew 10 where Jesus sends out his disciples among wolves, and he says, “They’ll bring you before kings and before governors and gentiles,” I think, “Why does he mention that early in his ministry? When they were going to minister to Jews?” And the answer was because he was preparing them to go out beyond, and this was preparation for the kind of persecution they were expected to receive. Then I think if you just look in the writings of Tacitus, you look in the letter of Trajan in the early second century, the consistent theme is not, as some Christians say, that every single waking moment Christians were persecuted and they were rooted out completely by the Roman Empire. That’s a little bit of an overstatement.

Candida Moss understates it on the other side. They followed a martyrdom movement, and were expected to do the same as Jesus had. That’s what they signed up for.

Mikel Del Rosario
Were you able to separate out all the different reasons why Christians were persecuted, and then were you able to say that they were persecuted because of, say, their testimony about Jesus versus just kind of following Jesus, being part of this movement?
Sean McDowell
Well the early persecution is at the hands of the religious leaders, the Jewish authorities of that day. So they were persecuted, and because they thought they were proclaiming a false gospel. I mean, sometimes Christians don’t put themselves in the positions of the Jews at that time to ask the question, if you are being oppressed by the Romans for proclaiming a false gospel, and the only way they could usher in the kingdom of God is by getting back to the Old Testament model of faithfulness, then of course they come around and start proclaiming what they thought was a different Messiah, they would try to root it out.

Now that doesn’t mean they should not have seen the truth and believed, but that’s where they were coming from. It’s not until you get in probably the ’60s, although you see some hints in Paul being persecuted by non-Jews because he was, you see early in Acts, he’s upturning certain economic systems. You see hints of that. But it’s not until Christianity was separated from Judaism and considered a distinct sect, and didn’t have the historical roots and relationship that the Jews did, that you start to see the persecution really increasing.

And the main reason from the Romans is because the Christians would not worship their gods. That’s really the heart of it. So they didn’t in principle have a problem that they worshipped Jesus as God. Fine. But part of their pagan belief was, the military and the economy and their weather and their crops was based upon worshipping their gods. So if people didn’t, it put the entire empire in jeopardy. Christians come along and say, “We’re not gonna worship your gods,” so they were pushed back and they were persecuted, which is why you people like Justin Martyr trying to defend the behavior of Christians now into the second century, saying, “We’re not that different from you as you might suspect.”

Mikel Del Rosario
And Justin Martyr, one of the earliest apologists or defenders of the Christian faith, yeah.
Sean McDowell
That’s right.
Mikel Del Rosario
Well, when we talk about this with our skeptical friends, sometimes people will say, “Look, a lot of people die for a lot of causes. A lot of people die for religious causes, for political causes. That doesn’t make it true. It means they think it’s true, maybe, but that doesn’t make it true.” What makes the martyrdom of the apostles different?
Sean McDowell
Mikel, I was staying in a bed and breakfast in Missouri, and I had breakfast with a nun, happened to be staying at the same bed and breakfast while I was doing this research. And she pushes back on me and goes, “Wait a minute,” and asks the same question. And I laughed, I thought, “Well, of all people that value the same martyrs, this sweet Catholic nun is like pushing me on this.” And I said, “This is a great question. Here’s the only distinction to keep in mind.” So for example, if somebody walks in during this interview, puts a gun to my head, as morbid as this is, and I die, all you and people who potentially saw this would say, “Wow, Sean really believed it. He actually believed it, he was sincere.” But my death would provide zero evidence for the truth of Christianity. It would only show my level of belief, because I receive this second, third, fourth, fifth hand from others.

Well, that’s true for any Muslim martyrs who died. And by the way, I don’t really call them martyrs. It’s only the popular terminology. I think Muslim terrorists and any terrorists are murderers, not martyrs. But they died thinking that they were gonna get a reward in the afterlife. Same with the Buddhist monks who lit themselves on fire. All this shows is they really believed in their cause. The apostles were eyewitnesses of the risen Jesus.

The earliest records we have – and this also surprised me, I went back, and I read all the New Testament documents, I read the church fathers, I looked at the creeds, asking the question, what was at the heart of the earliest Christian proclamation? What’s the kerygma? And at First Corinthians 15, three through seven, we have the earliest creed about Christian beliefs. Arguably dated within three to five years of the death of Jesus. Where Paul says, “I pass onto you of most importance what was passed onto me. That Jesus died, he was buried, he rose again on the third day.” He appeared to Peter, he mentions James, he mentioned the apostles, he mentions the 12 and the 500. That’s the earliest account we have of apostolic belief. It was based on seeing the risen Jesus.

That’s repeated in the writings of Paul, that’s the early church in Acts. I challenge your listeners to read through Acts and just pay attention to how every single speech focuses on the resurrection. And the apostles say, “We saw the risen Jesus. We were there. We heard him, we touched him, we saw him.” So their proclamation doesn’t prove that Christianity is true. But it does show they’re not liars. It does show they’re not making this up. It does show that they sincerely believe that Jesus rose from the grave. So this doesn’t get us all the way to Christianity. This doesn’t get us all the way to the resurrection, we have to be clear, but it’s one pinnacle that shows that these first eyewitnesses really believed it. They weren’t making it up. This is not a conspiracy. They’re not liars, they really believe this, they all suffered and were willing to die for it. There’s no evidence that any of them recanted, and I think we have good evidence that some of them actually dies as martyrs. That is night and day difference than a so-called modern-day martyr for something he or she believed.

Mikel Del Rosario
Uh-huh, so we can say that the disciples had real experiences that they believed, at least, were experiences of the risen Jesus. And the difference is, they didn’t die for something that somebody told them somewhere, they died for the idea that they personally saw Jesus. They were the only ones to know if they saw Jesus alive or not.
Sean McDowell
Yeah, one of the remarkable things about New Testament studies, in particular resurrection studies, over say the past three or four decades, is that now it’s a majority position to believe exactly what you said. That the apostles had experiences believed were of the risen Jesus. That is a majority view. I heard Gary Habermas talking about it in 1979 when he did his dissertation. He’s like, “Only conservative evangelicals believe that. Nobody else.” Now it’s a mainstream, New Testament position. The apostles had experiences they believed were of the risen Jesus.

Now, a pushback would be, “Well maybe it was some kind of grief experience. Maybe it was hallucinations.” Okay, we can deal with that separately. Their willingness to die doesn’t prove that that is wrong. There’s other problems with those hypotheses and naturalistic explanations. But their willingness to die shows that they really believed that they saw the risen Jesus, and they were willing to pay the ultimate price for that conviction.

Now what I think is amazing about this, Mikel, is I’ll mention my friend J. Warner Wallace again. As a cold case detective, for 25 years, he has never lost a case. And he said every single case that he’s done, people commit crimes for one of three reasons: for greed, for lust, or for power. He goes, “Look at the apostles. It wasn’t about money or greed. Jesus was like, sell everything. It wasn’t about power, he said be willing to die. And it certainly wasn’t about sex. Jesus showed the highest respect for women.” So all this line of argumentation shows is they were sincere, and they wouldn’t have a motivation to make it up. They really believe Jesus rose from the grave on the third day.

Mikel Del Rosario
That’s right, that’s right. Well what were some of the challenges you encountered, just taking a look at the sources you had to look through to nail down what happened to the apostles?
Sean McDowell
Yeah, there were actually quite a few challenges, more than I expected going into it. One, for example, is that a lot of the early church fathers confused some of the Apostles. For instance, there’s five or six people in the New Testament named James. Matthew and Matthias, those traditions get confused. Even some of Judas, son of Alpheus, gets confused at times. Philip the Evangelist gets confused with Philip the Apostle. So sometimes weeding through the names was difficult.

The other challenge was that you see these early churches emerging, different parts of the Roman Empire and beyond. And if they could claim that they had an apostolic founding, it gave them a certain sense of authority and history within their community. So that’s why we see at least five or six traditions of Bartholomew, totally contradictory about where he went, about how he died, about the nature of his ministry, emerging. Because different people are claiming the apostles. Now that doesn’t mean they’re all false, but it made it more difficult to weed through which ones are historical and which ones are not.

A third problem was, you have, probably starting in the middle of the second century, through the fourth, fifth century and beyond, you have these apocryphal accounts emerging that are full of legend. Like in the – they’re called the Acts of John, the Acts of Thomas, the Acts of Peter. They’re often based around a historical core, but they contain some legendary element. Like John commands these bed bugs outside his room to stay outside his room. I believe Paul baptizes a lion. There’s just certain things – Simon Magus flies through the air in the Acts of Peter. You have these documents that, kind of like some of the early gospels of Jesus, not real gospels, that try to fill in the gaps of his childhood. You find these later ones trying to fill in the gaps of where the apostles went and things they allegedly did.

So some of those contain historical core that are helpful, and we know that because they’re corroborated by additional external documents. But they’re also filled with legend. So the question becomes, when does history end, and when does legend begin? And that’s a really, really tricky line. I’ll give you – well, we can come back and talk about those particulars. But that was one of the challenges.

Mikel Del Rosario
Yeah, wow, there’s a lot of challenges you faced. But our argument is that the apostles had real experiences that they believed were experiences of the risen Jesus. We know they claimed it at great risk to themselves, we know that they were willing to suffer for it. And in your work, you looked at evidence that some of them even really died for it. Go ahead and wrap that up for us, to encapsulate what the challenges were.
Sean McDowell
Sure. One of the challenge, again, is the early church would confuse, say, Matthew and Matthias. Or the traditions of Philip the Evangelist and Philip the Apostle. Another challenge is that these different communities wanted Apostolic founders, so they, let’s say maybe just willingly accepted stories that were maybe not grounded in history. The other challenge is, we have these second, third, fourth century apocryphal accounts that are full of legend, but often based around historical core. How do we know what is history, how do we know what is fact?

So I’ll give an example of already where I’ve potentially changed my position since writing the academic book, Fate of the Apostles. The first official report of the beheading of Paul, although I think it’s likely, even if it’s not explicitly mentioned, comes in a book called The Acts of Paul, probably 180, 190 AD. And it describes how when he’s beheaded, this milk-type substance secretes from his neck. Well, my best guess was, looking at different writings, that this is kind of a metaphorical, figurative, exaggerated account to indicate that his death provided sustenance like milk does for a baby, for the growth of the early church. And there’s a lot of scholars that would agree with that.

Well, then I had a medical doctor who’s in our apologetics program in Biola, he E-mails me. He goes, “Hey doc, check this out, there is a medical condition in which somebody will secrete a milk-type substance from the neck.” He said, “I can’t prove this happened to Paul, but don’t be so quick to dismiss it as legend.” I thought, “Man, that’s a really interesting point.” So some people have pushed back like that, and I’ve discovered in my research that yes, there’s a lot of legend, but there might be some more historical core to some of these accounts that are people are very quick to dismiss.

Mikel Del Rosario
So how do you define what a martyr is? Do you have to be pretty specific about that in your study?
Sean McDowell
I did, I had to open up. And I didn’t realize there was such extensive literature on what a martyr is. So for example, is a martyr somebody who’s willing to go through the process of death but survives? Like say a Daniel, is a martyr? What if somebody goes through the process but dies six months later, and gets permanent wounds? Is that person a martyr? Like this gets really sticky. So essentially, a martyr is somebody who’s willing to die, and I would say does. I think you have to die death to it, for their belief and proclamation of the Christian faith. Now that’s what I mean by a Christian martyr.

So what gets sticky is that when you look – when you hear the popular arguments for martyrdom, you’ll hear people say things like, “Well, they refused to recant at the point of death. The apostles refused to recant their belief in Jesus, therefore they really believed it.” Well, Mikel, can I tell you, there are no early sources in which have information where, say, Peter or Paul or Matthew are told, “If you just stop proclaiming Jesus, we will not behead you or crucify you.” Those kind of accounts don’t exist. So how then is somebody like James, who Josephus tells us was stoned to death, or put to death at least, roughly in AD 62, is he a martyr? Well, I would argue that, one, the political and the religious factors overlap. So partly James was put to death for political reasons, but it’s also religious reasons. And we can’t separate those.

But furthermore, I would say I think James qualifies as a martyr. Why? He was publicly proclaiming a message that was offensive to the Jews, an insult to the gentiles, about a martyred savior who’d come back from the dead. He was the leader of the church in Jerusalem, publicly proclaiming this. So if he’s put to death by political and religious forces, you better believe that something tied to his public proclamation of the faith is related to why he put them to death. I think at least he gets the benefit of the doubt there, and thus would qualify at least broadly speaking as a martyr.

Mikel Del Rosario
Well not too dissimilar from Jesus, right? Jesus had religious charges and he had political charges that were involved in his execution.
Sean McDowell
Yeah, I think that’s a great point.
Mikel Del Rosario
And neither do we have – maybe you can correct me on this, but we don’t have any competing data that says these disciples were nabbed in the middle of the night, killed just in a back alley somewhere, right?
Sean McDowell
Well, here’s where it gets a little sticky. We don’t with Peter. So take for example Peter and Paul, we have multiple sources from within the living memory that Peter was taken to Rome and that he was killed as a martyr. You have this in John 21, you have it in Clement of Rome, you have it in the writings of Ignatius, into the second century. You have a consistent testimony when it comes to James, the brother of Jesus. And then James the son of Zebedee of course is in Acts 12:2. So you have consistent testimony with these core apostles, but when you get to some of the later apostles, say third, fourth century documents, there are some claims of Matthew and Philip dying natural deaths.

Now it doesn’t mean that they did. In the case of Philip, we have some accounts of him being crucified in Hierapolis, which probably were confused with Philip the son – the evangelist in Acts Seven. And then you have some accounts of him dying naturally. So I don’t know how to assess between those which one is true. It’s just hard to know, historically speaking. Now, when it comes to say Bartholomew, I found at least six or seven traditions. He was stabbed to death, he was crucified, he was beheaded, he was burnt to death, he was thrown in a sack into the sea, he was skinned alive, and I think he – I forget the last one. I mean, either that was a really bad day, or there are competing accounts and it’s hard to know which one is true.

But what we don’t have, we don’t have any accounts of the apostles recanting their beliefs in the risen Jesus. This is very important, ‘cause again, all we’re showing is that they sincerely believed it. We don’t have to show they all died as martyrs. I don’t think we can. But there’s no record that they recanted. And you might be thinking, skeptics have pushed back and said, “Well, this is an argument from silence.” Well yes, but it’s an argument of silence I would say has some teeth, because think about it. Skeptics and critics in the second, third century forward had every reason and every attempt to discredit Christianity. If there were even traditions of the apostles recanting their faith, they would have jumped on it.

Also you have debates in the second, third century emerging about Christians who at the point of martyrdom abandon their faith? Can they be reconciled with the church? Well what if there was even a tradition about say Matthias abandoning his faith? Don’t you think somebody would have brought this in? So the fact that we don’t have any record of them recanting, to me, is at least interesting and telling. That they’re all willing to die as martyrs, some of them did. And it’s possible some of them died natural deaths. We just don’t know for sure, because those accounts are late.

Mikel Del Rosario
Well let’s run down the list of the apostles, and let’s start by taking a look at some of the more well-known ones. You mentioned Peter already. Any truth to the crucified upside down? How did you assess that one?
Sean McDowell
That’s a great question. Here’s another area where I changed my scholarship. When I looked at as many scholars that talk about how Peter died, it references in John 21 where Jesus says to him, “You’ll be taken where you do not want to go. Your hands will be tied, you’ll be dressed by another.” And then in parentheses, the writer of John says, “This is showing how he would die.” And even Bart Ehrman has written in a text that I can cite, he says, “This was to indicate Peter would die a martyr’s death. If Jesus was the first shepherd, Peter’s the second shepherd who will also lay down his life.”

Now when I first read that, half the scholars, roughly, off the top of my head would say, “Well, his hands being separated is an indication to crucifixion.” The other half would say, “No, because he was – the order doesn’t match the order of crucifixion.” So there’s debate about that. Well there’s a book that came out last year, co-authored by – edited by Larry Hurtado. There’s a chapter in there that says, “One thing we know for sure about crucifixion is that people were tripped naked for shame.” Well it says in John 21, “Jesus says to Peter, somebody else will clothe you.” So that means, he probably wasn’t being taken to be crucified. In fact, this author argues that he was burned in the time of Rome described by Tacitus, for the circus that Nero had.

Now, I don’t think we can prove that. For my project, it doesn’t really matter how he died. What matter is, we have a first century source, John 21, indicating Jesus would die as a martyr. Now –

Mikel Del Rosario
Or Peter, right?
Sean McDowell
I think there’s good evidence he wasn’t crucified. The earliest record that he was crucified upside down shows up in a book called the Acts of Peter, end of the second century. And typically, you know this, why will Christians say that Jesus was crucified – or, Peter was crucified upside down? Because he didn’t want to be crucified the same way as Jesus. Well if you actually read the Acts of Peter, it’s online and you can, that has nothing to do with it. Theologically – it’s making a theological point. The world was turned upside down, and when Peter’s on the cross upside down, he can see the world upside correctly as it is, and his death will help to turn upside right, just as Jesus’s death did. It’s not until the third and fourth century that church historians take the Acts of Peter as if it’s historical, and then say he was crucified upside down.

So I think at best, we can only say it’s possible because there is some precedent of people being crucified upside down. Martin Hengel records this in his book Crucifixion. But I don’t think we’re historically warranted to say it’s likely or even probable.

Mikel Del Rosario
Well we talked about Paul already; did you want to say anything else about Paul, this former skeptic, enemy of the Christian faith, dying for his belief that he saw Jesus alive after Jesus was crucified?
Sean McDowell
Well for Paul, we have the passage in Second Timothy that’s very interesting, which he says, “I am being poured out as a drink offering.” I fought the good fight. I ran the race. Well here’s what’s interesting about that, is either Paul really wrote this, which you and I believe, because he knows he’s been suffering his whole life, and his sufferings are bringing him to the point of death. Hence, he dies as a martyr. Or, this wasn’t written, as a lot of critical scholars would argue, that this wasn’t of the core, but they wrote it later and they had to put those words on the lips of Peter because the tradition was so strong – I’m sorry, Paul, because the tradition was so strong that he died as a martyr. Either way, that text helps give hints that Paul was at the point the apostle of suffering, told by Jesus he’d suffer his whole life, and his sufferings are coming to point the end of his death.

We have another reference in Paul. That one helps us a little bit. I don’t want to overstate it. But then in Clement, First Clement, chapter five, there’s a reference to the martyrdom of Paul and the martyrdom of Peter. And then we have multiple documents in the second century and no contradictory evidence that Paul in fact died as a martyr. Now was he beheaded? The first explicit document shows up in the acts of Peter, late second century. But we know John the Baptist was beheaded. We know James, son of Zebedee, was beheaded. We know he was a Roman citizen, and that was a common means of death. So I think we’re very confident he died as a martyr, and I would say we’re on at least solid ground, it’s reasonable that he was beheaded.

Mikel Del Rosario
Now you just mentioned one of the Jameses, you said there were two Jameses, right. Distinguish for us the two Jameses, and then help us to understand what happened tot hem.
Sean McDowell
So within the inner circle of Jesus you have Peter and then the brothers James and John. Now, James is one of the only two apostles – Peter, in John 21, and then James in Acts 12:2, that we’re told in the New Testament scriptures that they died as martyrs. So a lot of the evidence for James the son of Zebedee comes from the reliability of the Book of Acts, which I think Craig Keener lies out in his volume on Acts very explicitly. And so does Darrell Bock in his commentary on Acts, the historical case for the reliability of Acts. And there’s no competing claims with that. And I think it just reads like an execution account. There’s no flowery details that are added to it, which we see emerging later. So we’re I think on very solid ground James the son of Zebedee died as a martyr.

Now, Gary Habermas says he wouldn’t put James the son of Zebedee in his minimal facts, because we only have one source. I would say fine, I understand that, but it still is strong, almost like the empty tomb. Not the minimal facts, but a very strong case can be made for it. Now James the brother of Jesus, we have a reference in Josephus that he was actually killed during the reign of Ananus. So we have a late first century secular slash religious source, a Jewish source, indicating that James died. Now there’s debate about the reference to Jesus in what’s called the Testimonium Flavianum, where it refers to Jesus resurrecting and doing miracles, but there’s very little debate about this passage of Jesus. Because it’s very incidental, and the death of James is only mentioned in passing because of the larger political views that are taking place.

And then you get into second century. You have Christian sources, you have gnostic sources, and Jewish sources, namely Josephus, referring to the martyrdom of James. So when you have that variety, and historically speaking early, I think we’re on solid ground that he died as a martyr. Now of course the question is, and you can find extensive literature on this, yes, he was put to death, but does he qualify as a martyr? ‘Cause it says he was a breaker of the law. So we have to go back to Deuteronomy and ask, what would justify somebody dying the way James did for a breaker of the law? And I think an argument could be made that if you are leading a city astray, you could’ve been killed in the way that he was. So can’t prove that, but I think it’s very plausible and reasonable that that’s in fact why he was put to death.

Mikel Del Rosario
Yeah, James, a former skeptic, and then is leading the church in Jerusalem, quite a change. We mentioned – so these four guys that we mentioned are – there’s good evidence in your view that they died as martyrs. Then we have a list of a variety of other apostles. We talked about Bartholomew already, who could be Nathaniel. What about someone like Doubting Thomas, for example? We hear about him in scripture. What happened to Doubting Thomas?
Sean McDowell
So I think the four that you mentioned, we’re on solid historical ground. And then I think at least more probable than not, you can make a case for Andrew and a case for Thomas. Now Thomas is super interesting, because every Eastern scholar I could find is absolutely convinced that Thomas went to India and died as a martyr. But they tend to do history a little differently than in the West. So for example, the earliest source of Thomas going to India is in the Acts of Thomas, which is the end of the second century, early third century. It’s full of most likely some legendary material, but one of the kings that he goes to visit in Northern India, we have found a coin, King Gundafor, that shows he was a historical king in that place at that time. And some of the other names in the Acts of Thomas have matched up historically. Well that doesn’t prove that it’s true, but that’s very interesting. And it says this wasn’t an entirely invented fictional account. And for an apostle as prominent as Thomas was, there’s no other accounts I could find that he went anywhere. There’s tons for Andrew, tons for Matthias, but he only consistently went to India.

We also know from Eusebius that there’s at least Christians in the middle second century in India. So we know Christianity got there early. And then you have this group of Saint Thomas Christians alive today that have these traditions that they believe – now, they don’t have written history going back before like the 14, 1500s, but they have poems, they have songs, they have stories. And deeply believe, in fact I’ve seen some accounts where people believe they have the very family names going back to Thomas founding the church in India. The real question is, is the Acts of Thomas independent of the Saint Thomas Christians? This is a dissertation somebody needs to do.

I tend to think that it might be. Bryan Litfin, a great church historian for Moody, thinks that it’s not. But if you have one source that at best I think Thomas is possible. If you have two independent sources, I think the case is very, very strong, ‘cause they agree on Thomas coming to India and dying as a martyr. So Thomas was – besides, he might be the kind of person who could pull it off. When they want to go to Judea, people are discouraging Jesus and Thomas is like, “Let’s go and die.” I mean you get this impression that he’s all in once he understands it, and is a risk-taker. So I think, minimally speaking, an interesting case can be made for Thomas.

Mikel Del Rosario
Well let’s talk about Andrew real quick. Was Andrew crucified?
Sean McDowell
Well, the earliest account’s for Andrew’s in the Acts of Andrew, which is probably the middle second century. And again, it’s full of legend. He’s preaching from the cross for days, but then there’s a second account for Andrew, probably in the third century, by Hippolytus. It might not have actually been written by Hippolytus. It’s probably pseudo-Hippolytus, it sounds very different. It talks about him being nailed to a tree. So the Acts of Andrew, and then the account by Hippolytus, agree on his death by crucifixion, but they’re worded very, very differently, so it seems like they’re independent.

Now a second and third century document is not as strong as I would like, given only two, but I think there may be something to it. At least strikes me as more probable than not. I’ll tell you what’s interesting about Andrew is, a modern-day journalist wrote a 500 page book only in Greek tying all the traditions of Andrew together. He wasn’t trying to say if they’re true or false, he’s trying to say, “Is there any merit to these traditions?” He lines them all up, and finds a gap in his chronology that he couldn’t account for what happened to Thomas. And then he comes across this obscure tradition – I’m sorry, Andrew. This obscure tradition that Andrew went to Romania, and it fit right into his chronology, and geographically, the way he had laid the rest of them out.

Now, I don’t know exactly what to do that, but that’s just interesting. It tells me there might be more to some of these traditions than many people give them credit to, fully granting that many of them certainly are made up.

Mikel Del Rosario
Well Sean, if our listeners would like to check this out and look into this for themselves, where can they go?
Sean McDowell
Well, probably for all the details, the best place would be to go my book, The Fate of the Apostles, which is with the academic press Rutledge. Fate of the Apostles, it’s an academic text so it’s not cheap. You can maybe get it from the library, I think their eBook is even cheaper. But it’s an academic level resource book, 300, 350 pages. So The Fate of the Apostles with Rutledge would be the top academic place.

My father and I also recently released his book updated, Evidence Demands a Verdict, and one of the things we added was a chapter on the fate of the apostles. So I went through and kind of summed up my dissertation in a chapter in that book, giving all the sources, all the evidence, so people can track them down and do the work for themselves, and trying to make that argument. So on a more popular level, Evidence Demands a Verdict has a great chapter that might interest some of the listeners as well.

Mikel Del Rosario
That’s great. Well there’s a personal takeaway that you had from doing this study on the fate of the apostles?
Sean McDowell
Yeah, a couple things. Number one, I would say we have to be careful to not overstate the evidence. We really do. I think this argument works, but I found well-meaning, uninformed people just parroting something they had heard that ends up discrediting the Christian faith. And I’ve done this myself. Part of this was looking back on my life going, “Man, I gotta be a lot more careful.” So that’s one thing, we gotta have integrity in our scholarship. Second, I think this is a powerful argument. I think the apostles really believed they’d seen the risen Jesus, they were all willing to suffer for this. There’s no evidence any of them recanted, and we know that some of them died as martyrs. They weren’t liars. This wasn’t a conspiracy. They believed they had seen the risen Jesus, and were willing to pay the ultimate price for it. So in my life, am I willing to pay a similar price for what I claim to believe?
Mikel Del Rosario
Well yeah, Sean, thank you so much for being here with us. This is a fascinating, fascinating topic. I hope our listeners will check out your book, either the academic one or the new Evidence That Demands a Verdict book. When you think about the apostles being willing to suffer, and the evidence some of them even died, it should give us pause to think, “We need to take a little more serious look at the resurrection.” ‘Cause if the resurrection is true, then Christianity is true and Jesus is worth living for and Jesus is worth dying for. So thanks again for being here with us today, Sean.
Sean McDowell
Thanks for having me, Mikel.
Mikel Del Rosario
And thank you once again for being with us on The Table podcast, where we discuss issues of God and Culture. We hope you’ll stay with us, and we’ll see you next time.
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Mikel Del Rosario
Mikel Del Rosario is a PhD student in New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, Project Manager for Cultural Engagement at the Hendricks Center, and Adjunct Professor of Apologetics and World Religion at William Jessup University. Mikel co-authors The Table Briefing articles in Bibliotheca Sacra with Darrell Bock, manages the Table Podcast, and helps Christians defend the faith with courage and compassion through his apologetics speaking ministry. He holds a Master of Theology (ThM) from DTS and an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University.
Sean McDowell
Sean McDowell is an associate professor in the Christian Apologetics program at Biola University. He is the Resident Scholar for Summit California. In 2008, he received the Educator of the Year award for San Juan Capistrano, Calif. The Association of Christian Schools International awarded Exemplary Status to his apologetics training. Sean is listed among the top 100 apologists. He graduated summa cum laude from Talbot School of Theology with a master’s degree in theology and another in philosophy. He earned a Ph.D. in Apologetics and Worldview Studies in 2014 from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
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