Who Would Die for a Lie?

Almost all of the original apostles that surrounded Jesus died martyr’s deaths. If they knew that he was just a regular guy and that the resurrection story was fiction, why would they go to their deaths supporting it? Lee Strobel said that though people may die defending their beliefs, “People will not die for their religious beliefs if they know that their religious beliefs are false.”

While people have died for lies—the 9/11 hijackers, for example, or the Heaven’s Gate cult—they didn’t know it was a lie. That the apostles were in a position to know and still died defending it is strong evidence that the Jesus story is accurate.

Or, at least this is the story Christians tell themselves.

There are several issue here, but let’s focus first on the big one: how do we know how the apostles died? Since their dying as martyrs is key to this apologetic, you’d think that this was well established in history. But as we’ve seen (“Is Mark an Eyewitness Account?”), sometimes Christian historical claims have a very weak pedigree.

Our one-stop shopping source for this question is historian Hippolytus of Rome (170–235) in his “On the Twelve Apostles.” At best, this is an early second century work written close to 150 years after the facts it claims to document. At worst, it was written even later by an unknown author (called “Pseudo-Hippolytus” by historians) and deliberately or inadvertently compiled with the writings of Hippolytus.

Here’s the summary:

  • 4 apostles were crucified: Andrew, Bartholomew, Peter, and Philip (the last three upside down).
  • 3 were killed in some other way: James the son of Alpheus was stoned, James the son of Zebedee was killed with a sword (presumably decapitated), and Thomas was killed by spear.
  • 5 died natural deaths: John, Matthew, Matthias (the new twelfth disciple added after Judas left the group), Simon the Zealot, and Judas the son of James (Thaddeus).

Another popular source for this information is John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, first published in 1563 and in many later editions. Its late age, 1500 years after the events, is enough to disqualify it since we have the earlier account, but its popularity makes it an important source. To a large extent Foxe was simply a mouthpiece for the anti-Catholic sentiment in England at the time, and many sources dismiss its accuracy (Wikipedia, 1911 Britannica, Catholic Encyclopedia).

Foxe largely agrees with Hippolytus on the deaths of the apostles except for the ones that Hippolytus says died natural deaths, giving that fate only to John. He says that Matthew was “slain with a halberd” in Ethiopia, Matthias was stoned in Jerusalem and beheaded, Simon the Zealot was crucified in Britain, and Judas the son of James was crucified in what is now eastern Turkey.

James the son of Zebedee seems to have the oldest martyrdom story. Hippolytus probably got his account from Acts 12:2, written in the latter half of the first century, which says that Herod Agrippa (grandson of Herod the Great) killed him “with the sword.”

For most of the other apostles, however, contradictory stories cloud the issue. For example, Bartholomew’s death is documented in a number of contradictory ways. One account says that he was beaten and then drowned. The Martyrdom of Bartholomew (c. 500) says that he was beaten and then beheaded. The most popular, perhaps because it’s the most gruesome, is that he was skinned alive and then crucified (or perhaps beheaded).

Various sources add to the story of Matthias. He was crucified in Ethiopia. Or he was blinded by cannibals but rescued by Andrew. Or he died a natural death in Georgia on the coast of the Black Sea.

Simon the Zealot might have been sawn in half in Persia. Or crucified in Samaria. Or martyred in Georgia.

Add to this:

  • the many additional contradictory stories about other apostles not included in this brief list,
  • the decades-long period of oral history from event to writing, and
  • the time span, usually centuries-long, between the original manuscripts documenting the martyrdom stories and our oldest copies that make those copies suspect.

What can we conclude given this evidential house of cards? Only that “most apostles were martyred for their faith” is historically almost indefensible.

And it’s not just that the claim for any particular martyrdom story is flimsy; it’s that we can be certain that many of them are false because they contradict each other.

Let’s pause for a moment to savor this lesson. “Tradition holds that” or “The Church tells us that” is never enough—be sure to look behind the curtain to see what evidence actually supports a historic claim.

“Who would die for a lie?” I dunno—first establish that someone died at all.

Martyrdom has always been a proof of the intensity,
never of the correctness, of a belief.
— Arthur Schnitzler (1862–1931)

Photo credit: Wikimedia

Related links:

12 thoughts on “Who Would Die for a Lie?

  1. Maybe it’s beside the point, but didn’t Joseph Smith die as well for his lie?

    • You’re clairvoyant! That’s coming up in the follow-up post.

      Well done.

  2. “People will not die for their religious beliefs if they know that their religious beliefs are false.” (Lee Strobel)
    Why do apologists have to torture the English language to try and make a point?
    If someone “believes in” something, (religious or otherwise) does that not indicate they think it’s true? Likewise, if someone thinks something is “false”, doesn’t that indicate they DON’T believe it?
    It’s certainly possible for someone to belong to a religion without believing in the religious doctrine (say for social reasons), but it’s impossible to “know that their religious beliefs are false”. That’s a contradiction in terms. A “belief” is by definition something you think is true.

    “That the apostles were in a position to know and still died defending it is strong evidence that the Jesus story is accurate.”
    This assumes the apostles beliefs were based on the historical nature of Jesus rather than something else. It seems clear that the early Christians were Jews who thought the Jewish religion had become corrupt and abusive (just like Luther and the Catholics). They tried to reform the Jewish faith (which included a new interpretation of the OT) before deciding to split completely and include gentiles.
    Their beliefs were about the ‘right’ way to worship, not about any particular person or that person’s history. Even without any historical Jesus, they still would want to reform a religion they saw as corrupt; and break away if that reform failed.That’s what I think motivated them. The only religious beliefs they thought were false were those held by the traditional Jewish leaders of their day. And like many people since that time, they’d rather die than continue serving a religion they felt was false and corrupt. They believed in their reform efforts and when that failed they believed in their new religion.


    • Great point about beliefs. No one holds beliefs that they believe are false.

      As for the early Christians, what justifies them creating a new religion? If they simply wanted to reform Judaism, wouldn’t it be an error to create a completely new religion?

  3. Hi Bob,
    “As for the early Christians, what justifies them creating a new religion? If they simply wanted to reform Judaism, wouldn’t it be an error to create a completely new religion?”

    It’s quite common for reform movements to break away when their reforms are rejected. Luther started out trying to reform the Catholic church but was rejected by the Pope and most Catholics but he had enough followers who agreed that a new religion got started. C.T Russell tried to influence the Seventh Day Adventists before starting the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
    Whenever a group of believers starts to think their religion has gone ‘off the tracks’ there’s a good chance they’ll end up starting a new religion. Within most religions, reforms must come from the top, not from within the ranks (that’s called heresay).

    I’m pretty sure the early Jewish Christians thought of themselves as the ‘true’ Jews (not “Christians”). Paul’s idea of taking the ‘good news’ to the gentiles was pretty radical according to the NT. Some apostles continued to preach only to Jews and follow Jewish customs; they just weren’t ready to believe they’d failed to reform the religion of their birth.

    (Jas 1:1 [NET])
    From James, a slave of God and the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes dispersed abroad. Greetings!

    (Matt 10:5-6 [NET])
    Jesus sent out these twelve, instructing them as follows: “Do not go to Gentile regions and do not enter any Samaritan town.
    Go instead to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

    (Matt 19:28 [NET])
    Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth: In the age when all things are renewed, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.


    • I’ve heard that before Luther, the Catholic church responded to challenges like this by creating orders–the Dominicans, Franciscans, Jesuits, etc. I guess Luther’s challenge was too broad to be placated within this structure.

      Great Bible quotes. They certainly document the friction between internally focused reform and external evangelism.

  4. Simon the Zealot might have been sawn in half in Persia. Or crucified in Samaria. Or martyred in Georgia.

    Well in this case, the resolution is obvious: both halves miraculously survived the bisection by saw – presumably each regrowing the missing parts like a flatworm – then one went on to be crucified in Samaria and the other to be martyred in Georgia.

  5. Well, all of the accounts of apostles’ martyrdoms cannot be entirely accurate….but I bet most of them are!
    I find it hard to believe the above author would willingly die for HIS beliefs!

    • Did you not understand the point of the post? Why imagine that any of the apostles died for their beliefs? The evidence is simply too scant. Only wishful thinking will give you any confidence in this claim.

Comments are closed.