7

Church tradition tells us that most of the 12 apostles were martyred, with the apostle John being the only one considered to die an old death.

Is there any extra-biblical evidence that shows the apostles were martyred?

2
  • 1
    George Foxe's Book of Martyrs contains a wealth of information on the subject. Up-voted +1.
    – Nigel J
    Aug 5, 2022 at 7:49
  • 3
    I find the question a little confusing. The Bible does not mention the martyrdom of most of the apostles. By definition, any evidence of their martyrdom would be extra-biblical, wouldn't it?
    – DLosc
    Aug 5, 2022 at 22:04

3 Answers 3

7

If we count sources written multiple generations after the fact, there is mountains of evidence.

C. Bernard Ruffin has compiled a very thorough review of the traditions passed down by early Christian sources, acknowledging that not all of his sources are of equal weight, and some of the material written down many generations later is likely legendary in nature. His work on the subject can be found here: The Twelve: The Lives of the Apostles After Calvary.

--

Solid, early sources

There are 4 men, named as apostles in the New Testament, for whom we have first century attestation of their death as martyrs:

  • James the son of Zebedee (Acts 12:1-2)
  • James the son of Joseph (Josephus, Antiquities 20.9.1)
  • Peter (1 Clement 5)
  • Paul (1 Clement 5)

3 of the 4 are attested by extra-Biblical sources.

3
  • 1 Clement 5 does attest to the death of the Apostles Peter and Paul, but falls short of declaring them martyrs. The earliest reference to Saint Peter's death is in a letter of Clement, bishop of Rome, to the Corinthians (Letter to the Corinthians, written c. 96 AD). Eusebius, a contemporary of Constantine, wrote that Peter "came to Rome, and was crucified with his head downwards," attributing this information to the much earlier theologian Origen, who died c. 254 AD. St. Peter's martyrdom is traditionally depicted in religious iconography as crucifixion with his head pointed downward.
    – Ken Graham
    Aug 7, 2022 at 15:01
  • @KenGraham 1 Clement & Clement's Letter to the Corinthians are two names for the same epistle. Chapter 5 does indicate that they were persecuted unto death, though it does not specify the manner of execution. As you say, for that information we are reliant upon later sources Aug 7, 2022 at 17:55
  • All Christians in Rome were persecuted, but Clement does not indicate the manner of their deaths.
    – Ken Graham
    Aug 7, 2022 at 23:31
2

Of the citations that Hold to the Rod mentions, only the one from Josephus is extra-biblical. {I misread "Rod's" post. Sorry... see his comment below) However, it is also the earliest IMO. This particular James was not strictly speaking an apostle, but he was clearly the leader of the Jerusalem church and called "brother of the Lord." Here's the passage:

...this younger Ananus, who, as we have told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed; when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity [to exercise his authority]. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned. {J. AJ 20.197}

Josephus also mentions the martyrdom of John the Baptist, who is recognized as a saint but not an apostle.

The OP asks for extra-biblical evidence as distinct from church tradition. This raises the question of the various Acts of the Apostles the tell of their deaths. These are extra-biblical, but they also feed into church tradition. The article "How Did the Apostles Die? What We Actually Know" summarizes them.

3
  • Please edit your answer to cite the passage you are quoting.
    – agarza
    Aug 7, 2022 at 17:42
  • With the exception of a few of the Orthodox Churches, Christians today do not consider 1 Clement to be part of the Bible. So Josephus & 1 Clement would reasonably fit the criteria of extra-Biblical sources (no offense intended if you happen to be a member of the Coptic Orthodox church) Aug 7, 2022 at 18:01
  • @HoldToTheRod... I misread what you wrote. I stand corrected. Aug 12, 2022 at 19:57
2

The willingness of the apostles to suffer and die for their faith is one of the most commonly cited arguments for the Resurrection. Yet what is the evidence they actually died as martyrs? Two key initial points need to be made. First, the apostles believed that Jesus of Nazareth had risen from the dead because they had seen Him alive after His death by crucifixion. Their convictions were not based on secondhand testimony, but firsthand experience. Second, there is good reason to believe the first Christians were persecuted. The apostles publicly proclaimed the resurrection of a crucified criminal with full awareness of what their actions might cost them.

There are two early and general claims that the apostles died as martyrs. Second-century church father Polycarp and fourth-century Syrian father Aphrahat both claim that the apostles were in fact martyred. Although we may not know the specific identities of the actual lesser-known apostles who were martyred, these two sources provide evidence that some of them were executed for their faith. Furthermore, there is the highest possible probability that Peter, Paul, James (the brother of Jesus), and James (the son of Zebedee) died as martyrs. There is less evidence for Thomas, although his martyrdom is more probable than not. And there is slight positive evidence for Andrew. The evidence for the rest of the apostles is late, legend-filled, and contradictory. We simply don’t know what happened to them. The key, however, is their willingness to suffer and die for their beliefs. The apostles were not liars. They truly believed Jesus had risen from the grave, and they were willing to suffer and die for that conviction.

1
  • Welcome to Christianity.SE! and thank you for your contribution. When you get a chance, please take the tour to understand how the site works and how it is different than others. I would also recommend reading the Help Center's sections on asking and answering questions.
    – agarza
    Dec 16, 2023 at 15:31

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .