Hi Dr. Oakes. I have a question about apostle martyrdom. It has been asserted by people like Bart Ehrman that the evidence for the martyrdom of the apostles is not very strong. I hope this is not true. For which apostles do we have the best evidence that they were martyred, and what are the sources for these?
Thank you very much!
I cover this in some detail in my book “The Christian Story” (available at www.ipibooks.com). You may want to get a copy. Bart Ehrman has an axe to grind and he is quite biased against Christianity. Having said that, he is an absolutely top-notch scholar. What he is saying is perhaps a bit exaggerated, but it is more or less true. Of course it is hard to “prove” events from the past, but the fact is that the evidence for the specifics of the deaths of most of the apostles is either unknown or based on a Christian tradition which is of questionable authority. Eusebius is the most famous of the early Church historians. He wrote his “Ecclesiastical History) in about AD 325. He gives accounts of the deaths of all the apostles, but his sources are doubtful for many of the apostles. The deaths of four of the apostles and of James, the brother of Jesus are quite strongly supported by history and we can assume that it is highly likely the information is reliable. These four are:
The apostle James who was killed by Herod Antipas, as recorded by Luke in Acts.
Paul and Peter. There is multiple attestation of their martyrdoms in Rome shortly after AD 63, including Irenaeus in the late second century. Eusebius is not the only source on these and we can say with great confidence that they were martyred in Rome.
The death of John in Ephesus by natural causes at an advanced age is also very strongly attested to. Polycarp and Irenaeus among others tell us this.
The martyrdom of James, the brother of Jesus is recorded by Josephus and is quite reliable.
The means of death of the other apostles is more or less uncertain. Eusebius’ accounts of these deaths is less certain. I know of no reason it is essential that we know the means of the death of the thirteen apostles. We can assume beyond a reasonable doubt, that many and probably most of them were martyred. That they were hounded and persecuted and lived in near constant fear of death for their entire lives is clear, which is why it does not seem to matter that we know the specifics of all their deaths.