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The Legend of Peter’s Martyrdom

QUESTION:

Can you do a post on what we know about the deaths of the Apostles from the early sources and include your opinions?

 

RESPONSE:

Many, MANY Christians have argued that Jesus must have been raised from the dead, because “all the apostles” died for their faith, and “no one would die for a lie.”  The latter of course, is not true, as people die for lies all the time (for example, in war); but that’s not really the point.   The point is (or rather the points are):

(a) Just because the disciples believed Jesus was raised from the dead doesn’t mean that he was raised from the dead;

(b) They could have been wrong about him being raised without lying about it.  They may, for example, have heard that some of their number had “seen” Jesus alive, and they genuinely believed it to be true.

(c) And *most* important, we actually don’t know how most of the apostles died.

This last point is really significant, and not widely known.  It is widely assumed (I had a good Christian woman tell me this three days ago) that all the apostles were martyred for their faith.  But the fact is, we don’t know!  For none of the apostles do we have reliable historical records.  For most of them we don’t even have legends.   For those for whom we do have legends (Peter, Paul, John, and a couple of others) the legends are not historically trustworthy.

The best attested case is the apostle Peter.   I think he probably was indeed martyred.  But I don’t think we have the details.  What we have is a couple of early allusions to his death and an amazing legend, from about a hundred years after he died.  Here is..

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Comments

  1. Lev
    Lev  February 25, 2018

    Awesome post!

    What’s your view on how James the son of Zebedee and James the brother of Jesus died?

    Both have 1st-century accounts of their execution (Acts of the Apostles and Josephus) so I assume these accounts are taken seriously by historians?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 26, 2018

      Yes, I assume they were both killed in connection with their faith somehow, but I don’t think we know exactly what happened or why.

      • spencer290
        spencer290  October 12, 2019

        Do you think Josephus, Antiquities 20.197-201 is accurate in this regard?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 13, 2019

          I’ve always assumed so, but I’ve never really studied the matter.

  2. Avatar
    godspell  February 25, 2018

    People being willing to die for an idea doesn’t prove that idea is true. That should be self-evident. How many Americans died to preserve slavery? Hundreds of thousands, though of course some didn’t think that’s what they were dying for (and a lot of Confederate soldiers were forcibly conscripted, much as you never hear about that in the movies).

    I do think the disciples persisting in their attempt to make people believe in Jesus meant that they believed in him, which clearly means Jesus couldn’t be somebody they just made up out of whole cloth. They could have believed things about him that were not true, but there had to be a real person behind those beliefs, for them to so aggressively promote them when the risks attendant to doing that were so great.

    They could have quietly practiced their faith and nobody would have paid much attention. That seems to be what the followers of John the Baptist did after his death. (He certainly existed, but for whatever reason, his teachings didn’t lead to a very successful afterlife for his cult.)

    It was because they insisted on proselytizing out in the open (perhaps not as soapbox preachers, yes, I’m reading the book now, Bart) that they lived in constant threat of persecution and death–more at some times than others, but of course the more successful they were at gaining converts, the more at risk they were.

    What people do for their beliefs does not in itself prove those beliefs are valid. But it does prove that those beliefs are based on something more than just pure imagination. How many people ever died for Mithras or Isis? (Not THAT Isis.)

  3. Avatar
    ajh22  February 25, 2018

    Thank you Dr. Ehrman! I’ve always been interested in this topic. So Peter is the best historically attested martyr, but still suspect. Who is the second best attested to? The third? One wonders what else people blindly believe that they are taught in church that is in fact false 🙂

  4. Avatar
    saavoss  February 25, 2018

    Do we know for a fact Peter was buried in Rome? Or is it just legend? I was on a tour in Jerusalem some years ago, and the guide took us to the Mount of Olives. At the base was a cave tomb and (according to the tour guide) in it were found several ossuaries, one of which had the name Simon bar Jonah. This of course is Peter’s birth name. In your opinion, which is the more historically likely location for Peter’s burial and which is just legendary?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 26, 2018

      I don’t think it’s a *fact*. It’s very hard to separate much later legend from historical reality.

  5. talmoore
    talmoore  February 25, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, I have my own hypothesis, which, alas, is probably impossible to prove. I think that during the Jewish War, starting in 66, those Jewish Christians who were still alive, such as Peter, fought and died in that war. And that’s why we don’t have any accounts of their deaths, because they did, indeed, die as martyrs, but in the confusing, chaotic cloud of war. Where they died in the war is debatable. Did they die fighting in Galilee against Vespasian? Did they die in the Siege of Jerusalem against Titus? Who knows?

    • Avatar
      godspell  February 26, 2018

      I don’t think much of that theory. The Christians went out of their way to distance themselves from the Jewish rebellion. They hardly could have done that if their founders had fought and died in that rebellion. I think their many pagan critics would have brought that up.

  6. Avatar
    john76  February 25, 2018

    Bart said “They could have been wrong about him being raised without lying about it.”

    I actually just did a blog post about the apostles dying for the lie of the risen Jesus on Wednesday, February 21 here: http://palpatinesway.blogspot.com/

    As Carrier says, “Of course, a case can be made for the apostles dying even for a hoax: all they needed was to believe that the teachings attached to their fabricated claim would make the world a better place, and that making the world a better place was worth dying for. Even godless Marxists voluntarily died by the millions for such a motive. So the notion that no one would, is simply false.”

    I think, as a secular person, we either have the hallucination theory, or the Noble Lie theory, of the resurrection claims in the Pre Pauline Corinthian Creed. Of course, maybe Cephas and the 12 really did encounter the risen Jesus. Who knows?

    • Avatar
      godspell  February 26, 2018

      I’m not sure what Carrier’s point is. Is he saying Karl Marx didn’t exist? We have photographs!

      Marxism is not all lies–there are some important insights there about how history works, though I think others had them too. But even the parts that turned out to be false were sincerely believed by those who died for them. All revolutionaries are, for all their excesses, true believers. No, this is a bad argument, even for Carrier. I think he would have a hard time understanding that kind of passion for justice.

      However, the argument works very well for him and his followers–just keep telling the same discredited lies, over and over. It’s for a noble cause. It will help get rid of irrational beliefs that cause all kinds of problems. No Jesus, no Christ. No Christ, no Christianity. Is that a workable plan? I doubt it. But I think that’s the general idea.

      And none of them will ever die for those ideas. Carrier actually makes a good living propagating them. Nice.

  7. Avatar
    bwithers55  February 25, 2018

    This entry reminds me of Don Kraybill’s book, The Upside Down Kingdom. The book is not about St. Peter, but about the inversion of human values in the kingdom of god.-bw

  8. Avatar
    forthfading  February 25, 2018

    What are your thoughts Dr. Ehrman concerning the theory that Luke and Acts could possibly have been written before the death of Paul since Acts does not include the martyrdom of Paul?

    I just joined the blog and I absolutely love it. I apologize if you have dealt with this before.

    Forthfading

    • Bart
      Bart  February 26, 2018

      I don’t think it’s possible. Luke seems to know about the destruction of the temple/Jerusalem (ch. 21), and certainly used the Gospel of Mark, which is usually dated to 70 CE. Acts doesn’t include Paul’s martyrdom because to do so would compromise its entire premise, that NOTHING could stop Paul or his mission, since it was empowered by the Spirit.

    • Avatar
      Leovigild  February 26, 2018

      Richard Pervo’s _Dating Acts_ makes a strong argument that the author of Acts had access to both Paul’s letters and Josephus.

  9. Avatar
    mockferret  February 25, 2018

    I’ve often wondered if the sheer vagueness of most of the Disciples in the Biblical accounts (the Gospels can’t even get the names of half of them consistent) could be down to many or even most of Jesus’s lifetime followers NOT believing in the Resurrection, and most of them consequently vanishing from Christian awareness after the Crucifixion.

    Granted, Paul mentions a Resurrection appearance to “the Twelve”, but he doesn’t say who they are. Perhaps a post-Easter faction, recruited at a later date, as is described of Matthias in Acts?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 26, 2018

      I don’t think there can be much doubt that the “twelve” are the “twelve disciples” — althought that too is weird, given the fact that there should have been eleven of them. Does Paul not know about the betrayal of Judas?

      • Avatar
        ajh22  February 26, 2018

        Could it have been allegory to the twelve tribes of Judah, showing that Paul had no concept of the gospel Jesus (not knowing about Judas, just like Jesus promising 12 seats in heaven to his disciples, forgetting that Judas will betray him, like you alluded to in HJBG), contributing to many other factors that show that the gospels are pure allegory as well?

        • Bart
          Bart  February 27, 2018

          I don’t think he’s saying that Jesus appeared to the twelve tribe of Israel, no.

  10. Jeff
    Jeff  February 25, 2018

    Any account of Peter’s crucifixion that has him inverted on the cross could not have been written by anyone familiar with this form of execution. The notion is poetic, yes; it is beautifully symbolic as well but it is just plain impossible. Leaving aside for the moment that the apparatus of execution would have to be redesigned to accommodate it, inverted hanging would not have the horrifying effect that is at the core of the crucifixion process:

    I.e., the suffocating immobility of the diaphragm relieved only by the victim shifting the load to his nailed feet (which he will do reflexively, causing more agony) in order to catch a breath. This cycle is repeated over and over until the victim finally succumbs to exhaustion and the shock of protracted unspeakable pain. Inverted hanging would not accomplish this. The victim would have to die of starvation/thirst which could take a week or two…maybe three.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 26, 2018

      Josephus does say that Roman soldiers used creative ways to mangle bodies they were hanging on the cross, for their amusement. It obviously would have taken longer for them to die, but that apparently was part of the “fun”…. Still, in the case of Peter, I think it’s just a legend.

    • Avatar
      Westscholar  February 27, 2018

      Thanks, Jeff. That agrees with my point. See my comment below in the chain.

  11. Avatar
    Hormiga  February 25, 2018

    A linguistic aside, but “martyr” is usually translated, if at all, as “witness”. In modern usage, a witness is someone who, having seen something, testifies to it — and this seems, as I understand it, to be close to the original Greek sense of martyr. But somewhere along the line it got turned inside out to mean someone who performs a deed in support of a cause which, being seen by others, makes them supporting witnesses to the cause. Such would seem to be case with Peter, as you’ve just described.

    Is that more or less right, and, if so, do you have any sense of how and when the second meaning developed?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 26, 2018

      Yes MARTUROS means “witness.” For Christians it came to mean “bearing witness to the utmost by being willing to die for the cause.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  February 26, 2018

      The modern Arabic word for Muslims willing to die for the faith — shahid — has the exact same double-meaning: witness and martyr. Both the Greek and the Arabic connotations may go back to the original Hebrew term for a martyr (as we today would think about it) — q’dosh m’uneh — which literally means “santified tortured [victim]”. The Hebrew word m’uneh means an interrogation, with the implication of the application of torture. The root of the word m’uneh — מעונה — comes from the same root for “answer”: ענה. The whole expression, therefore, carries the implication of a man who becomes santified by remaining steadfast while under inquisition. If I were a betting man, I would bet that this figurative expression goes back the Maccabean period, where pious Jews were filling to suffer under interrogation for their faith, as described, for example, in 2, 3 and 4 Maccabees. And continued its meaning during the Hasmonean period, when, for instance, the Pharisees were persecuted under Alexander Jannaeus.

  12. Avatar
    Westscholar  February 25, 2018

    As I understand it, the whole purpose of crucifixion is to cause the condemned to suffocate, because his position and the pain would eventually make it impossible to fill his lungs with air. Hanging upside down would seem not to have that effect. Thus, it would defeat the very purpose of the execution method.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 26, 2018

      My sense is that the point was to torture someone to death — the more painful the better!

  13. Avatar
    fishician  February 25, 2018

    Why don’t we have more accurate records of the apostles? Because of the general illiteracy and the dependence on oral tradition that quickly turned legendary? (Or, why keep records cuz Jesus is coming soon?) Isn’t it entirely possible the apostles died in peace, but martyrdom made for a better story?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 26, 2018

      Yup, possible. Christians didn’t write most things down since those earliest Christians couldn’t write! And those who could … it’s not clear why they didn’t.

  14. Avatar
    mikezamjara  February 26, 2018

    Hi Dr Ehrman, I would like to know your opinion about if the sacrifice of christians in the roman colisseum with lions was real and how frequently it was done? I know about Ignatius of Antioch martyrdom but I dont know if that was real too.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 26, 2018

      Ignatius would be the first one that we know of who was sent to Rome to “fight the wild beasts.” It may well have been in the coliseum. Christians were sometimes treated as criminals, and so punished as criminals. And one bit of great fun for Roman audiences was to see criminals made to fight wild beasts.

      • Avatar
        mikezamjara  February 26, 2018

        Thank you for your response Dr. Ehrman.

  15. Lev
    Lev  February 26, 2018

    Off topic question: In 2 Cor 5:16 Paul writes: “even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.”

    Is Paul drawing a distinction between the historical Jesus and the devotional Jesus here? Claiming that he has moved on from his understanding of who the historical Jesus was and did, and is now focused on what he meant?

    If so, is this evidence that early Christians were more concerned about the meaning of Jesus, rather than getting the details about what he did and said right? Is this why the gospel writers felt free to change and alter the sayings and events from Jesus’ life in order to present the meaning of Jesus instead?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 26, 2018

      It appears that “from a human point of view” means that there is a natural human way of looking at things and a better, divine way given by God that sees things differently. But yes, Paul seems very little interest in the minute details and is very much a BIG picture person.

  16. Avatar
    nbraith1975  February 26, 2018

    You mention Eusebius as a source. Wasn’t it alleged that he plagiarized a roman novel to create Christian martyr “biographies, alter some of Josephus’ works and falsify dates? And didn’t some of his contemporaries accuse him of “lack of integrity, poor scholarship, deliberate misrepresentation and hypocrisy?”

    Did you ever think about writing a book about “Christian scholars” like Eusebius and their work to create and revise history and historical documents to push Christianity and the “church” agenda?

    I know now that the greatest enemy of Christianity is time. It was only a matter of time before history and true scholarship exposed it for what it really is – a man-made religion. It’s only a matter of time now before the pew-warmers begin to open their eyes to the truth.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 27, 2018

      There of course have been lots of books written about Eusebius as a historian.

  17. Avatar
    JRH  February 26, 2018

    So Bart, What is your opinion of the human remains buried in the floor of the Vatican? What are the odds that it’s really St Peter?

  18. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  February 26, 2018

    I, too, have been told many times that Jesus must have risen from the dead are all of the disciples would not have died martyrs, Likewise, I have been told many times that the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses, or colleagues of eyewitnesses, so they must be historical. These are two very prominent arguments in my experience.

  19. Avatar
    Hon Wai  February 26, 2018

    Christian apologists presuppose the apostles were martyred for refusing to renounce their beliefs. In the case of Peter – suppose he was indeed martyred – is it plausible that his beliefs played a role? After all, the Romans, being religiously pluralistic, cared little about the theological beliefs of the Christian sect, and much more about their practices – whether they participated in the communal cultic practices and whether they committed immoral acts (e.g. cannibalism and sexual orgies). Nero persecuted Christians in Rome, on the pretext of their starting the fire of Rome. Here, Christians could not have escaped punishment by renouncing their beliefs. Also how did the Patristic Christians understand martyrdom? (worth a post on martyrdom) If a Christian was killed by non-Christians for being a Christian (identifiable as a social group), is this sufficient? If so, all the Christians killed by Nero on ground of starting fire of Rome, would be viewed as martyrs, even though their beliefs had no direct role to play.

  20. Avatar
    brandon284  February 27, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman what are your thoughts on Thomas preaching /being martyred in India and Andrew being crucified? Any plausibility in those accounts?

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