I’ve had heard many people claim that the Apostles would not have let
themselves be put to death for a lie, and this should be taken into
consideration when studying the evidence for Jesus, but what evidence
outside of the scriptures do we have that the Apostles were actually put
I respect your desire to be sure that when you make a point about the
early church, the claim is historically verifiable. It is tempting to use
“common knowledge” or preacher’s examples which are not verified by
It is “common knowledge” that all the apostles were killed for their
faith, with the likely exception of the apostle John. According to
tradition, the Romans attempted to execute John, but he survived the
attempt, living to a very old age. The careful person will ask where this
tradition comes from and how reliable the resources for such tradition
The only apostle whose death is specifically described by non-Christian
sources is James. His execution by Herod Agrippa is recorded both in the
Bible (Acts 12:1,2) and in “Antiquites of the Jews,” a history written by
the Jewish historian Josephus. Josephus was a non-Christian who is
generally considered a very reliable historian. He wrote his histories in
the late first century AD. Given that Josephus confirms Acts 12:1,2, one
can safely assume that the account in Acts 12 of the arrest of Peter is
reliable as well.
Note: Author’s correction!!! It is the martyrdom of James, the Brother
of Jesus which is recorded in Josephus XX, not James, the son of Zebedee.
James the brother of Jesus was killed in AD 62, while James “the elder”
was executed in AD 44. Only the former execution is reported by Josephus.
For information concerning of the persecution and execution of the other
apostles, one must turn to Christian historians. The most important of
these is Eusebius. Eusebius was bishop of Caesarea in the early 300’s AD.
His book “Ecclesiastical History” includes accounts of the executions of
Peter and Paul under the emperor Nero in Rome, as well as accounts of the
persecution and execution of some of the other apostles. There is no
reason to assume that Eusebius made up his accounts, but because he wrote
over two hundred years after the events, one would do well to be cautious
in assuming that we know without question how these disciples died.
I believe you may with clear conscience continue to share with people that
the Apostles maintained their faith and their claim that Jesus was raised
from the dead in spite of the fact that certainly some and probably most
of them were martyred for their faith. After the execution of James, a
death sentence was hanging over the heads of all the apostles either as an
immediate threat or at least as a likely eventuality for the rest of their
lives. This provides very strong evidence that these men were absolutely
convinced that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead.
John Oakes, PhD