Who among us hath not heard the old drum that the apostles and earlier followers of Jesus would not have been willing to die for their beliefs, if they knew that the resurrection had been a lie? Since we know that the apostles had died for their teachings, clearly they must have been true! While they always include fallacies, I seldom I find an apologetic argument that is the literal embodiment of one: argumentum ad martyrdom. Despite being a logical fallacy resting on the bizarre premise that people cannot die for lies, I will play the apologetic game anyways to show that things become far more embarrassing for those arguing this point when we actually investigate the circumstances of the apostles’ deaths and find that they are virtually all ahistorical legends, full of contradictions, and little more than magical absurdities. To borrow an analogy used by Robert Price, it would be like an Oz apologist arguing: “Where else would the Yellow Brick Road lead, if not to Emerald City?!” Such an argument distracts from the fact they that there is no Yellow Brick Road in the first place. In like manner, apologists want to use the argumentum ad martyrdom to prove the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection through the martyrdoms, but, as we will see, one will already need belief in miracles to be credulous towards the fantastic accounts detailing the supposed deaths of the apostles.
1. To See Is to Know!
A key feature of the argumentum ad martyrdom is that it rests upon the personal certainty of the martyr. After all, Japanese kamikazes died for their beliefs, but does that mean that they knew for a fact that their emperor was a god, or just believed it? Apologists recognize this weakness, so they try to argue that the apostles not only believed in the resurrection, but also saw and knew that it was true. However, like the mythical Hercules battling the many-headed hydra, the apologist can only attempt to refute one objection by giving rise to many others. First and foremost, we do not have the writings of any of the original twelve apostles, so how do we know what they taught and believed anyways? Mainstream biblical scholarship rejects the traditional apostolic authorship of books like Matthew and John, as well as the second hand accounts of attendants like Mark and Luke. Without knowing who any of these anonymous authors were, we have no reason to believe that their accounts written half a century later accurately reflected the beliefs and teachings of the apostles (I go into more detail about why the New Testament accounts are unreliable in this earlier blog). Furthermore, when we do have instances, such in the Book of Acts, when Peter and Paul’s speeches are recorded, biblical scholars such as Bart Erhman have pointed out that the speeches contain no distinction in their style or word choice between the two speakers. In other words, given their similarities, the speeches probably come from one person, namely the author of Acts, who probably just made them up, as was the habit of many ancient authors. So the apologetic premise that the apostles knew about the resurrection already runs into problems when we do not even know what they believed.
There is one exception, however: the apostle Paul. Unlike the original twelve, we actually have 7 letters in the New Testament that are indisputably written by Paul. But once more, another objection shoots up: Paul never knew Jesus during his life and ministry, never claimed to see the physically resurrected Jesus of the Easter event, and instead writes vaguely about a vision (*cough* hallucination) that he had of Jesus later. However, even Paul’s description of his conversion is too vague to be treated even as a miraculous appearance. We have 1 Corinthians 9:1 were he claims to “have seen the lord,” 1 Corinthians 15:8 where he writes, “he appeared also unto me,” and Galatians 1:15 where he states that god “was pleased to reveal his son in me.” Such statements are no more grandiose than many people who describe their religious conversions to Christianity today, without literally claiming to have seen the physical resurrected Jesus. Even if we are historically sloppy, however, and allow Paul’s own statements to be spliced with the legendary accounts in Acts 9, 22, and 26, what more do we get? Paul seeing a light from the sky and hearing a voice shout down at him, something far more easily explained by a heat stroke on the road to Damascus rather than a magical resurrection. What does make Paul more valuable, however, is that he claims to have met the disciples and provides details about the original twelve. Paul is thus our best window into what the original apostles may have believed. How does he describe what they saw of the resurrected Jesus? In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul describes the appearances of Jesus using the Greek verb ???? (“to see”), but as the Liddell and Scott Greek English Lexicon points out, ???? also means (“to see visions”). In fact, when specifically used in the passive form ????, as it is in 1 Corinthians 15, the verb specifically means (“to appear in visions”), i.e. “Jesus appeared in visions.” Paul describes his own vision using ???? and uses the same terminology to describe Jesus’ appearances to the twelve apostles. Given that we know from Paul that he only experienced visions and that he describes the apostles’ experiences the same way, the earliest Christians may have been nothing more than a collection of schizophrenic personalities who experienced hallucinations, and who may never have claimed to see a physically resurrected Jesus in the ways later described in the gospel hagiographies. But then again, since we don’t have the testimonies of any of the original disciples, we will never know what they even believed anyways, which makes it further ridiculous to argue about what they knew. Paul’s testimony is the best that we have and even this only points towards visionary experiences, which can easily be caused by someone misinterpreting one’s senses, hallucinations, and imagination. Personally, I think that Paul did believe that he had an experience with Jesus, but since all this was in his head, it is no proof that he knew to have done so.
2. The Yellow Brick Road Is Make Believe
So the apologetic premise that the apostles knew to have seen a physically resurrected Jesus is bunk, but they still died for their beliefs, right? That must mean something! But where is their martyrdom described in the New Testament anyways or in any 1st century CE account? Well, with the exception of a brief reference to James the Son of Zebedee (whom we will discuss below), absolutely nowhere. Where do we get the stories of the apostles’ deaths? From non-canonical Christian sources writing centuries later that the apologists would entirely shy way from in an instant as mere apocrypha, if they did not have to quote mine the deaths of the apostles to bolster their arguments.
Paul: We have just discussed how Paul’s beliefs are those that we know most about. How did Paul die? Well, our earliest account of Paul’s death is from the apocryphal Acts of Paul written about a century later (c. 150 -200 CE). Here is what this later and dubious source provides about Paul’s execution on the orders of the emperor Nero:
“Then Paul stood with his face to the east and lifted up his hands unto heaven and prayed a long time, and in his prayer he conversed in the Hebrew tongue with the fathers, and then stretched forth his neck without speaking. And when the executioner struck off his head, milk spurted upon the cloak of the soldier. And the soldier and all that were there present when they saw it marveled and glorified God which had given such glory unto Paul: and they went and told Caesar what was done.”
Wait! Let me read that again. Milk shot out of his neck? Paul then briefly resurrects, appears to Nero and rebukes him, and then appears alongside Luke and Titus at his grave. And you are trying to use this (miraculous) resurrection to convince me of a resurrection? Very quickly, the yellow bricks disappear beneath the apologists’ feet to reveal that they are actually standing at the edge of a cliff and their argument is about to fall into oblivion. What else does the Acts of Paul record? Well, there is another part where a fierce lion is unleashed on Paul in the arena, but the cuddly king of the jungle decides instead to snuggle up at Paul’s feet. God then unleashes a magical hail storm to kill the audience. Clearly that is a sober historical fact, which eases our skepticism about the earlier resurrection of Jesus, right? Sure…
What about the original twelve disciples?
Peter: Although Peter’s death is vaguely alluded to in some parts of the New Testament (e.g. John 21:18), the actual scene and manner of his death is nowhere to be found within it. Instead the legendary account of Peter being crucified upside down in Rome is recorded over a century later in the apocryphal Acts of Peter (c. 150- 200 CE). Modern scholars doubt that Peter ever even went to Rome. The Acts of Peter also includes events such as Peter causing a dog to speak human language, raising a smoked tuna fish from the dead, and battling a a magical flying magician named Simon. Apologists quote mine one of the four events above to bolster their argument. Guess which one it is?
Andrew (Peter’s Brother): After Paul and Peter, the New Testament says even less about the other apostles and the later apocryphal accounts of their deaths become even later and less reliable (yes, I know that is hard to believe). Well, the Acts of Andrew (c. 150-200 CE) records that he was crucified in the Achaean city of Patras. This account is written over a century later, but it could be believable, right? Well, if you also believe the first couple paragraphs of the Acts of Andrew, where Andrew cures a blind man, raises a boy from the dead, and magically summons an earthquake to kill a woman who was trying to have sex with her own son (rather than just killing the woman directly). Andrew later magically heals everyone else who was hurt by the collateral damage of this magical earthquake.
James the son of Zebedee: Alright, enough of these later legends! The New Testament Book of Acts records James the son of Zebedee’s death. Take that, skeptics! Well, what exactly does it say? Here is the grand and detailed narrative of his valiant death!
“It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword.” (Acts 12.1-2)
Surely he was killed because Herod Agrippa and his men, like Orwellian thought police, hunted down James to force him to deny what he knew about the truth of the resurrection! Um, it doesn’t say that. Surely James was tortured and given many opportunities to admit the resurrection was false and be spared, but he confessed its truth each time! Um, nothing about that either. Instead we just have a brief sentence with no details at all about the specifics of James’ death. Later in the chapter an angel appears and helps Peter magically escape from prison, despite being guarded by four squads of soldiers. So magic still surrounds this brief and factually sounding reference. James’ unspecific death, not even a martyrdom since there is no indication that he could have avoided the death, is the best apologists have to offer in this argument…
John the son of Zebedee: Apologists will tell you that John was alone of the disciples not to face a grisly death. Too bad the early 2nd century CE father Papias (whom apologists try to use as a source for the authorship of Matthew and Mark) instead records that John was killed alongside his brother James in Herod’s persecution. That sure does throw a wrench into the Disciple Whom Jesus Loved living a long life and writing the 4th Gospel. Tertullian tells us that he was boiled alive in oil, but that it felt to him like a warm bath. Irenaeus has him live until the reign of Trajan. Pick whatever unreliable source you like.
Philip: We receive the account of Philip’s death in the apocryphal Acts of Philip (350 – 400 CE). The narrative depicts Philip confronting serpent and dragon idol worshipers in the the city of Hierapolis. Later in medieval legends St. Philip is actually depicted as a battler of dragons. Philip along with Bartholomew are crucified at the order of the proconsul (though, Bartholomew is later taken down). Before his death, however, Philip prays and opens up an abyss within the city that swallows up the proconsul’s house, the dragon temple, and 7,000 men. Take that pagans! Afterwards a voice sounds from Heaven and Philip receives the Crown of Martyrdom (we will have more to say about this with Stephen below).
Bartholomew: So Philip died, but old Bart got away. What happened to him? Well, Eusebius has him go to India, where some traditions place his martyrdom. Though other accounts have him die in Armenia on the West Coast of the Caspian Sea. The Church of Bartholomew on Tiber Island at Rome claims to hold his remains. What about the manner of his death? One tradition has him drowned, another beheaded, and third flayed and crucified. Would Bartholomew have been willing to die at three different places and in three different ways, if Jesus’ resurrection had been a lie? Once more, the Yellow Brick Road is the lie, though Emerald City is too.
Thomas: What happened to our skeptical friend doubting Tom? Eusebius has him go as a missionary to Parthia. The late 4th century pilgrim Egeria or Aetheria records in her epistles that Thomas’ burial place was at the Syrian city of Edessa. The apocryphal Acts of Thomas (c. 200 – 225 CE) has him go to India, where the deranged king Misdaeus has Thomas speared to death. Later Thomas appears to Misdaeus in a vision and the king uses the dust from Thomas’ tomb to cure his son of a demon possession. I think we can doubt Tom’s story a bit…
Matthew: Finally we are back to a disciple whose name people recognize. What became of the former tax collector? Well, traditionally he ministered to the Hebrews and wrote a gospel in Aramaic (though the Gospel of Matthew is in Greek). However, another tradition has him journey to Ethiopia to spread the good word. Even modern Christian sources acknowledge the dubious nature of his death. The Catholic Encyclopedia writes, “There is a disagreement as to the place of St. Matthew’s martyrdom and the kind of torture inflicted on him, therefore it is not known whether he was burned, stoned, or beheaded.” Well, at least two traditions have to be false, or more likely all three are.
James son of Alphaeus: Scholars cannot even make out the identity of this James (couldn’t people in the ancient world come up with more names?!). Some traditions have him as James the Less and/or James the Just, others as a brother or cousin of Jesus, and still more as the brother of the tax collector Matthew. Let’s go with the tradition that gives the apologists the most ammunition and assume he was Jesus’ brother, James the Just. I say this because for the first time we may have outside corroboration of an apostle’s death. The Jewish historian Josephus, in one of his two passages that may refer to Jesus, records what appears to be the death of Jesus’ brother James:
“He [the high priest Ananus] assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.”
There you have it, outside corroboration of both Jesus and his brother James’ martyrdom! Bullet proof, right? Well, no. Biblical scholar Robert Price, among others, upon closer examination of this passage has discovered that we may have the wrong Jesus and the wrong James here:
“Recently some have suggested that this incident, originally related by Josephus, intended no reference to James the Just, the “brother of the Lord.” It would make a lot of sense if the ambushed James was James, son of Damneus, the brother of Jesus, son of Damneus. The implied scenario would be one in which Ananus arranged to have a rival of the priesthood eliminated on trumped-up charges but did not get away with it. Once his crime was known, he was thrown out of office, and the brother of the murdered James was awarded the office Ananus had sought to render secure for himself. In this way, the slain James was avenged at least insofar as his surviving brother, Jesus, recieved the office James had been cheated out of. The reference we now read to “Jesus called Christ” might originally have read (or denoted, even if it read as it does now) “Jesus, called/considered high priest.” In both Daniel 9:26 and in the Dead Sea Scrolls, ‘an anointed one’ (which is what Josephus has here, no definite article denoting “the Messiah”) means ‘high priest.’”
So his identity may be even further jumbled here, and all we have here is yet another James. But let’s once more grant the benefit of the doubt and assume that this passage refers to James the Just. According to Josephus he was killed on account of “breaking the law,” not of proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection. Is there any indication that he could have denied the resurrection to spare himself? No. As with James the son of Zebedee, we have another ambiguous death. How about our other sources for how James the Just died? Eusebius records a different version from a lost passage of Hegesippus (c. 180 CE), where the Pharisees ask James for advice about how to put down Christians. James instead boldly states that Jesus is in heaven at the right hand of god. Enraged, the Pharisees throw him off a cliff, which doesn’t kill him, then they stone him, and finally a fuller throws his laundry drying staff at James, which finishes him off. James was hung out to dry, so to speak. *badum tssssh*
Simon the Zealot and Jude the Apostle: Now we are covering the deaths of apostles that not even many Bible geeks know about. Not much is said about Simon the Zealot or Jude the Apostle in the New Testament or even later, but they are often teamed up as a duo. Different accounts of them features deaths ranging from being sawn in half, crucified, or even dying peacefully. Though our most famous account of them is from the lost Acts of Simon and Jude attributed to Abdias, the bishop of Babylon, and now only found in the 13th century novel The Golden Legend. In this story, Simon and Jude are allegedly axed to death in Beruit, Lebanon. Immediately after lightning issued from the sky and two men are tuned to coal. But even our fanciful Golden Legend notes that there are other conflicting traditions after this passage. I will also have my readers know that The Golden Legend has another story where the emperor Nero becomes pregnant with a frog. I will leave it to you to decide how much stock you want to put in medieval fairy tales.
Judas Iscariot: Wait! Judas was a traitor and he certainly wasn’t martyred! Why have I included him here? As we have already seen, the martyrdom of the apostles are embellished and legendary accounts designed to lavish them with praise, rather than record historical facts. Need further proof? Let’s examine the reverse paradigm. Judas was evil, so he needs an especially shameful and awful death. So the New Testament provides, with Matthew having him hang himself (27:5), but Acts providing a conflicting account of Judas falling face first into a field and blowing up (1:18). How do we reconcile the discrepancy? Apparently by inventing even more fantastical and ludicrous legends. The church father Papias has the perfect solution:
“Judas did not die by hanging, but lived on, having been cut down before choking. And this the Acts of the Apostles makes clear, that falling headlong his middle burst and his bowels poured forth.”
Alright, contradiction saved! A top class apologetic harmonization! But what exactly caused Judas to die from blowing up, if he didn’t die from hanging? Papias continues:
“Judas walked about as an example of godlessness in this world, having been bloated so much in the flesh that he could not go through where a chariot goes easily, indeed not even his swollen head by itself. For the lids of his eyes, they say, were so puffed up that he could not see the light, and his own eyes could not be seen, not even by a physician with optics, such depth had they from the outer apparent surface. And his genitalia appeared more disgusting and greater than all formlessness, and he bore through them from his whole body flowing pus and worms, and to his shame these things alone were forced. And after many tortures and torments, they say, when he had come to his end in his own place, from the place became deserted and uninhabited until now from the stench, but not even to this day can anyone go by that place unless they pinch their nostrils with their hands, so great did the outflow from his body spread out upon the earth.”
What?! So Judas’ life became a My 600-lb Life TLC episode? Wider than a chariot, eh? Well, at least Judas got the side benefit of a larger package! Now, let me ask you this: if a later Christian author could write such a blatantly fictional account to vilify a bad apostle, what’s stopping them from writing blatantly fictional accounts to praise good apostles? In fact, Papias’ writing (c. 130 CE) dates earlier than most of our accounts of the other disciples’ deaths. How much can we trust accounts that are even later than this absurdly fictional one?
Stephen: Alright, we are out of apostles and have found hardly any reliable martyrdoms, only later legends and embellishments. But the apologists still have a couple cards up their sleeve. What about Stephen? He wasn’t an apostle but he was martyred and we have a 1st century CE account of his death in Acts! True, but Stephen’s character is once more problematic. First off, we know next to nothing about Stephen. He shows up randomly in Acts 6 and some members of a synagogue confront Stephen and accuse him of blasphemy. For what? Saying that he saw a physically resurrected Jesus? Nope, for allegedly preaching that Jesus would change the laws of Moses. Stephen then gives a massive speech about the Old Testament, which concludes with Stephen accusing the Jews of breaking the law by killing Jesus. Enraged, the Jews stone Stephen to death. So Stephen was a martyr, and what do martyrs receive? Well, as we saw with Philip, martyrs receive the Crown of Martyrdom. Wait a second! What does the name “Stephen” mean in Greek? The name comes from the word ????????, which mean “crown.” You are telling me that Mr. Crown suddenly pops up in the narrative to be martyred and receive the Crown of Martyrdom? Mere coincidence? I think not. Given the symbolism of the name, along with the fact that we know nothing about Stephen elsewhere, Stephen could have been little more than an allegorical invention. That’s right, old Steve may never even have existed to be martyred in the first place. The story is little more than symbolism, legend, and allegory.
Matthias: Wait! There was another apostle! After Judas Iscariot died the apostles appointed Matthias to take his place. Do we have a reliable martyrdom for him? Well, according to Nicephorus he was stoned to death at Colchis in modern day Georgia. In the Synopsis of Dorotheus he preached to cannibals in Ethiopia and died at Sebastopolis. Hippolytus of Rome has him die of old age in Jerusalem. Pick whatever unreliable, made up story that you like.
3. Can Someone Really Not Die for a Lie, Anyways?
As we have seen, the martyrdoms above are ahistorical legends whose reliability cannot be trusted. Do we have a historically documented martyrdom that can test the veracity of one’s claims? We do. On June 27, 1844 after willingly giving himself up for arrest in Carthage Jail, Illinois, Joseph Smith was killed by an angry mob. Joseph Smith claimed to have found golden plates of Jewish writings in the Americas, as well as to having been visited by white Native American spirits. Unlike the original twelve disciples, what Joseph Smith believed was well documented by contemporary sources. Furthermore, finding golden plates and translating them into English is much harder to hallucinate that merely having a vision of your dead leader. Smith could not have experienced a vision: he was either lying or he did find the golden plates. Did Smith in the face of persecution renounce his claim? Nope. So Smith died for something that he knew was a lie? Apparently he did. So even if there is a Yellow Brick Road, the path can still lead elsewhere, to the originators of any religion making up stories to spread new religious beliefs.
But Joseph Smith wasn’t executed because he claimed to find golden plates! He was jailed under the charge of suppressing a newspaper in Nauvoo, Illinois. True, but the apostles were executed for other charges in their sources, not for believing in the resurrection of Jesus. James the Just was supposedly executed for “breaking the law.” The story of Stephen has him stoned for teaching things that the Jews believed went against the laws of Moses. Apologists like to cite the persecution of the Christians under Nero as a historical background for the martyrdoms of Paul an Peter. But Nero didn’t execute Christians for believing in the resurrection of Jesus, but because he had accused them of starting the great fire at Rome in 64 CE. Denying the resurrection would hardly spare one from charges of arson. The Roman and Jewish authorities of the 1st century CE were not like agents in the Matrix trying to force people to believe in a false reality. Early Christians were (on occasion) persecuted for refusing to sacrifice to the emperor, or other charges unrelated to merely believing in a resurrection. People believed in all sorts of wacky religions in antiquity. The Romans had other priorities.
The apologetic argumentum ad martyrdom slogan fails at every step of the way. We do not know what the original twelve apostles even believed, let alone what they knew. The legendary accounts of the apostles’ martydoms are so packed with miracles that it requires belief in things such as resurrections, as in the case of Paul, to believe in the account of the martyrdom in the first place. So the whole argument becomes circular: apologists recognize that the miraculous resurrection of Jesus is unbelievable, so they appeal to the supposed “facts” of the apostles’ deaths in an attempt to prove it, but these accounts are full of miracles and resurrections as well. It is appealing to magic in order to prove magic. Finally, we do have reliably documented cases where people like Joseph Smith died for lies, so the whole premise that it could not happen is false in the first place.
Next time when an apologist asks you, “Would the apostles have been willing to die for their beliefs, if they knew that the resurrection had been a lie?” just ask them to include the actual details of the martrydoms. “Would Paul have been willing to have milk shoot out of his neck, resurrect, and appear to Nero, if he knew that Jesus’ resurrection had been a lie?” Reframing the question to include the actual details of these stories exposes that the very premises the apologists are relying on are false. The argumentum ad martyrdom is just another flimsy arrow in the apologetic quiver, one that I have now examined in detail and revealed to have fallen dismally short of its target.