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Were the Disciples Martyred for Believing in the Resurrection?

Over the past few years I’ve wondered how many of the disciples of Jesus came to believe that he had been raised from the dead.  The traditional answer is that all eleven of them (the twelve minus Judas, who hanged himself before it happened) did, along with a handful of women, among them Mary Magdalene.  I suppose that’s probably right, but I’m not *completely* sure.

In the end, I’m afraid we simply don’t know.  The problem is that our sources – even the ones completely favorable to the earthly disciples of Jesus — are virtually silent about them.  We know almost precisely nothing about what they thought, what they did, and what they came to believe.   Paul says nothing about them (of the twelve, he mentions only Peter and John).  The book of Acts portrays Peter, and to a much lesser degree John, as important before and immediately after the conversion of Paul, but then they themselves virtually disappear from the narrative.  And the other nine or ten are discussed almost not at all.

Why is that?  I really don’t know.  But my hunch is that the author of Acts simply hadn’t heard any stories about the things they said and did.  Why would that be?  Again, I really don’t know.  Was it because he simply wanted to focus on the main people:  Peter, James, (John,) and Paul?  But why were these the main people?  Why wasn’t it important to know what the others were doing?  Is it that his sources of information didn’t give him anything?  Is it that they in fact didn’t do anything important?  Did they just go back home to Galilee to eke out an existence until they died?  Do we even know that they came to believe in the resurrection?

Acts (at the beginning) and the Gospels (at the end) are in fact explicit that all eleven became believers.  But if so, why aren’t there any stories about them?

It is in the context of this puzzling issue that I want to broach a question that I often get asked, one that is commonly asked by evangelical Christian apologists: How could the disciples …

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Did Some Disciples Not Believe in the Resurrection?
Ehrman-Bass Debate Did the Historical Jesus Claim to be Divine



  1. Avatar
    Eric  December 14, 2015

    Doesn’t Josephus say that James the Just was put to death (for unspecified reasons)? Isn’t that supposedly James, the brother of Jesus? (I know the Jesus part might be an interpolation, but I thought James’ reference was not in doubt?)

    • Bart
      Bart  December 14, 2015

      Yes, he indicates that he was stoned by Jewish leaders.

      • Avatar
        Jgapologist  October 21, 2018

        Hi Bart
        James the brother of Jesus was a skeptic at first, what do you think made him change to put his life on the line?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 21, 2018

          I think he had a vision of Jesus after his death, or at least believed that *others* had one.

    • Avatar
      Diane  December 14, 2015

      James the brother of Jesus was not, I believe, one of the Twelve anyway.

  2. Avatar
    godspell  December 14, 2015

    It’s not an argument for anything, because as we’ve discussed elsewhere, the disciples could have believed Jesus had been resurrected without that actually having happened. There might have been varying degrees and kinds of believe–disagreements about the exact nature of the resurrection–maybe some rejected it outright, and that’s where the story of Doubting Thomas comes from.

    Early Christians did put themselves into positions of considerable difficulty, with both their fellow Jews and the Roman state, by insisting that a man crucified as a criminal was Messiah, and (eventually) Son of God. They were not lying about any of that. And probably they would have been willing to die rather than renounce their beliefs, as a number of Christians did.

    It’s possible to overstate the risk of martyrdom, but equally possible to understate it. Being any kind of monotheist under the sway of pagan Rome and its state-imposed religion, was not fun, at any time.

  3. Avatar
    spiker  December 14, 2015

    While it doesn’t answer the question of the disciples fate, do you consider the Pentecost story of Acts 2:1–31
    to be non historical?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 16, 2015

      I do not think the account is historical, no.

      • Avatar
        Gary  December 20, 2015

        Why not?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 21, 2015

          It’s clearly designed to show that when the Holy Spirit came the Gospel was immediately preached to all the nations. There’s no hint of any such event in any other author or source, except those referring to Acts.

  4. Avatar
    maryhelena  December 14, 2015

    Martyred for believing a lie? Martyred for believing in a resurrection, a belief that a dead human body had been brought back to life, heavenly spiritual life? Possible of course but probable? How could the disciples convince anyone of that? Why would the authorities be bothered by crazy people? Methinks the authorities would be more than happy to have a population believing in ‘other worldly’ stuff – keeps them out of political mischief in the here and now….;-)

    It’s when ‘other worldly’ ideas attempt a social/political take-over that the authorities would take an interest.

    As to what happened to the disciples the gospel story is quite. Strange indeed that a ringleader would be executed but his followers allowed time to regroup or live out a long life. That there are legends about what supposedly happened to NT figures after the crucifixion of Jesus indicates that there was a perception that things were not nice and cosy for them. Where would that perception come from?

    That perception could well have come from history relating to the Roman execution of the Last King and High Priest of the Jews. When Antigonus was executed, hung on a cross/stake/pole, 45 of his followers were killed by Herod.

    ”At this time Herod, now he had got Jerusalem under his power, carried off all the royal ornaments, and spoiled the wealthy men of what they had gotten; and when, by these means, he had heaped together a great quantity of silver and gold, he gave it all to Antony, and his friends that were about him. He also slew forty-five of the principal men of Antigonus’s party, and set guards at the gates of the city, that nothing might be carried out together with their dead bodies”. Antiquities book 15 ch.1.

    Methinks it’s most profitable to keep a history book handy when attempting to understand the gospel story. That story needs the followers of Jesus to preach a resurrection hence no point in having them killed simultaneously with their executed leader. History – and logic – requires that followers don’t escape the fate of their leader. The gospel story, finding it necessary to down-play any political issues involving it’s crucified Jesus figure, simply leaves the fate of the followers of it’s crucified figure in limbo. Thus, leaving it to historical memories, memories about the Roman execution of the last King and High Priest of the Jews, to fuel legends about what happened to figures in the NT story.

  5. tasteslikecorn
    tasteslikecorn  December 14, 2015

    Being that the “death of the martyrs” is, for many evangelicals, the most persuasive argument for faith, it’s something I would like to learn more about. I’ve read several books, including Moss, but would enjoy some more posts on the topic. When I was a believer, I found it to be one of the stronger arguments. I remember one of my college history professors suggesting the martyrdom evidence was flimsy, but I didn’t know to what extent until I re-examined the evidence during my deconversion. Outside of Josephus’ comments regarding James the Just, is there any other credible historical evidence to suggest any of Jesus disciples were martyred?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 16, 2015

      OK, I’ll think about doing a thread on martyrs — but it’ll be a while!

    • Avatar
      sleonard  December 22, 2015

      Hi Tastelikecorn,
      Whenever this topic comes up, I recommend a blog post by a friend who is a PhD candidate in classics, and I think also a subscriber to the blog. In this post, he gives the earliest sources for how each of the disciples died, and responds to this argument generally.


      Hope this helps.

  6. Avatar
    Wilusa  December 14, 2015

    An extremely trivial question: Since Jesus’s disciples were peasants from rural Galilee, how did two of them – Andrew and Philip – come to have what I think are Greek names? (I’m *sure* about “Philip”!)

    Is it possible they had Aramaic names the Gospel authors didn’t understand, and the authors used names familiar to them – each of which had, maybe, a syllable in common with the man’s actual name?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 16, 2015

      That’s a great question. “Jesus” too is a Greek name – Ιησους (IHSOUS); but it’s a Greek version of his Aramaic name YESHUA. I assume that something similar is going on with some of the others, but I don’t actually know for sure!

      • Avatar
        uziteaches  December 17, 2015

        Yeshua is a Hebrew name. It appears in the OT (Nehemiah 8:17, 10:10), and is a shortened version of Yehoshua, that is, Joshua.

        Besides, why would proud Jewish parents who gave all their children Hebrew names give their eldest an Aramaic one?

        Uzi Weingarten

        • SBrudney091941
          SBrudney091941  December 18, 2015

          Because they most likely spoke Aramaic and, as time went on, some even gave their children Roman names.

  7. gmatthews
    gmatthews  December 14, 2015

    I think you’ve said in the past month or so that there were no OT or apocryphal prophecies of a Messiah returning from the dead. This didn’t stop Christians from finding OT scripture to bolster their beliefs of course. In reality (or as far as what we know of reality 2000 years ago) Jesus spoke of a coming Son of Man, a future eschatological figure who would indicate the coming of God’s judgement. Do you think that when the followers of Jesus thought they saw him resurrected that they interpreted him as being the Son of Man that he had spoken of? Of course we can’t KNOW what they thought, but is there any indication in the Gospels or Acts that this might be the case? Seems to me it could be a pretty good impetus to get the Jesus movement off the ground.

  8. talmoore
    talmoore  December 14, 2015

    Well, for starters, if they were martyred, it’s doubtful they were killed for believing in the resurrection. (Neither the Jews nor the Romans would have thought it a capital offense to believe a man came back from the dead.) If anything, the disciples might have been killed for believing in the INsurrection! In other words, the early christians were probably business as usual with the anti-establishment apocalyptic message after Jesus’ execution, and that’s what got them killed. And as for whether people are willing to die for a lie, well, one man’s lie is another man’s truth. A great salesman’s first customer is himself, and what made the first christians such good missionaries (not to mention current missionaries) is that they actually believed the message of their mission! But, as we all know, it’s totally possible to believe something that isn’t true. It’s totally possible that the early christians actually believed Jesus rose from the dead, even if he didn’t, and they would be willing to die for that belief because they actually believed it! It someone is willing to die for what they believe, it doesn’t make what they believe true. It only means that the believer actually believes it’s true, regardless of whether it’s actually true or not.

  9. Avatar
    toejam  December 14, 2015

    When I hear the “why would they die for a lie?” apologetic, I normally point out the fact that thousands of people in the have died for a religious falsity – e.g. the People’s Temple tragedy, Heaven’s Gate cult, Muslim suicide bombers, etc. Many People are willing to die for such causes – especially when the dangling carrot of an afterlife is on offer. I point out to them that it’s not a strong argument because even if it’s true, it draws parallels to the dark side of religious cult mentality.

  10. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  December 14, 2015

    Well, one would think that if God exists, then He/She would make things, such as the evidence of the disciples being martyred for their beliefs, a lot clearer rather than “saving” those who guess right about matters or who just happen to be born in a place where they acquire the right beliefs. I know the “free will” argument is the usual response given for God not making things crystal clear and keeping things mysterious, but is it really “free will” if one is not given the evidence to make an informed choice in a clear way? Of course not!

  11. Avatar
    XanderKastan  December 14, 2015

    That’s good to point out that we really don’t know how they died. Of course, even if they all were willing to be martyred for believing in the resurrection of Jesus, that would say something about how strongly they believed, but it would say nothing about the accuracy of their belief. Assuming, consistent with everything we know about biology, that the resurrection didn’t happen, it would mean the martyrs “died for a lie” only in the sense that they were mistaken. It would not mean they died for something that they believed was a lie.

  12. Avatar
    brandon284  December 14, 2015

    Do you think much later accounts ( such as the Gospel of Phillip and his supposed mission to India) have any credence in telling us what happened to the disciples post-Ressurrection?

  13. Avatar
    Omar6741  December 14, 2015

    Do you think the letter of James in the NT is likely to provide a good indication of his thought, even if it is not from him? Perhaps its association with him reflects a consistent ongoing memory of who he was and how he thought…

    • Bart
      Bart  December 16, 2015

      No, I don’t think it reflects his views.

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  December 21, 2015

        Why not? Did you explain this in another post? If not, will you be explaining it any time soon?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 22, 2015

          I give a lengthy explanation in my book Forgery and Counterforgery. The book was written in the name of James by someone who was responding to a form of Pauline Christianity such as is found in Ephesians — so close to the end of the first century. Nothing in it relates to what we know about James otherwise (e.g., his emphasis on circumcision and other ritual parts of the Jewish law.

  14. Avatar
    Stephen  December 14, 2015

    But doesn’t the infamous “but some doubted” in Matthew 28:17 give us a hint that maybe all the “Eleven” didn’t sign on for the duration?

  15. Avatar
    smackemyackem  December 15, 2015

    Would it be safe to say these martyrdoms are Catholic traditions…that protestants believe in as well?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 16, 2015

      Yes, Protestants often believe that the disciples of Jesus were martyred.

  16. Avatar
    Srhyner@comcast.net  December 15, 2015

    The “who would die for a lie” thing is a borderline syllogism, anyway. Lots of confused people have “died” for a lie. Heavens Gate comes to mind but there are so many other examples. Countless numbers of people have risked their lives, faced persecution, and died for their sincerely held beliefs. It didn’t mean, however, that the beliefs were “TRUE,” in any objective sense. Thomas Moore is another kind of example. He sincerely believed that Henry VIII could not be proclaimed head of the church in England, but plenty of Reformers disagreed. Moore died in defense of what he believed to be an absolute truth. But did that, in fact, make it true? Nope. As you’ve written Dr Ehrman, I don’t doubt that the apostles may have experienced an incredibly powerful vision that they sincerely believed was the Resurrection of their beloved Master. And maybe it was. But the fact that they were (possibly) willing to die for this belief? It’s not new, nor unique to Christianity, and doesn’t “prove” a thing. How do the Evangelicals not “get” that? It’s not a difficult concept to understand.

  17. SBrudney091941
    SBrudney091941  December 15, 2015

    I think you’re being inconsistent, Bart. You have often made the point that Jews expected the messiah would be a messiah of power and grandeur. And in the page “How the Crucifixion Destroyed Jesus’ Vision of the Future,” you asked rhetorically “What would any Jewish person in the first century mean by calling another person the messiah?” Meaning any Jewish person would someone not simply powerful and grand but one who would destroy Israel’s enemies and help usher in the Kingdom of God. Jews might have seen him as God’s right hand man but not as divine. I suggested that something a Jew in early first century would not have meant would been that the messiah would be a supernatural being or even partially divine and not the son of God in any literal sense. To me this has always raised a huge question of how Paul could have inherited even parts of his exalted his Christology from those who’d come before him. How, especially, could rural Galileans believed such things? Your answer was, “By the time of Paul, the followers of Jesus were already saying that the messiah was a cosmic, supernatural being (the exalted Jesus); that’s what it meant for them to believe in the resurrection/exaltation of Jesus.” It’s not what Jews meant when they talked about the dead being resurrected. Lazarus was resurrected but not exalted. Now you write above, “We know almost precisely nothing about what [the eleven apostles] thought, what they did, and what they came to believe. Paul says nothing about them….” I really have trouble following you. I don’t think it is enough to say that giving credit to his predecessors is something we could expect from Paul. I think the criterion of dissimilarity doesn’t generate the probability here that it sometimes can do. Can you please clarify your position for me or how you think I’m misunderstanding you?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 16, 2015

      I’m certainly not *trying* to be inconsistent! I think the confusion is this: I am arguing that Jews who thought that a living man was the messiah always, so far as we know, understood him to be the future king or ruler of the people (sometimes as a priest). But there were other Jews who thought the messiah was not a man living at the time but a semi-divine cosmic judge of the earth. That is the view, for example, of 1 Enoch.

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  December 16, 2015

        Thanks, Bart. Paul seemed to be of two minds: he would diminish the Apostles’ worth and claim the Gospel was his and came from no man but then he would claim that he received the Gospel from those who came before him. In so doing, he seemed to be expressing a desire to be associated with them yet still to the goal of establishing his legitimacy as an Apostle. Either way, building himself up. So it seems to me that the Gospel might have originally been his. We can’t tell for sure. What he received from those who came before him might have been just the belief in the resurrection of Jesus and the expectation that he would return. Paul might have added the salvific attributes of Jesus as Christ and, to some degree, some divine attributes.
        (BTW, didn’t say you were “trying” to be inconsistent.)

      • Avatar
        godspell  December 16, 2015

        And that is a pretty good description of what Jesus talked about when he referred to The Son of Man, no?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 18, 2015

          I’ll be dealing with these sayings soon. The problem is that they do not seem to have all the same referent.

  18. Avatar
    rbrtbaumgardner  December 15, 2015

    People die for beliefs that aren’t true. Heaven’s Gate is one example. It isn’t simply dying for one’s belief, though. It is dying because of one’s bond to the group. Sacrificing oneself for them or with them. There is a lot more to it than belief and doctrine.

  19. Avatar
    dragonfly  December 15, 2015

    There does seem to be a tradition of doubt surrounding the resurrection though. I get the impression not all the disciples belived, at least at first. If jesus really did come back i don’t think he would have had to spend 40 days showing them many proofs to convince them. My guess is some of disciples saw jesus and believed, then had to convince the others. Some would have believed straight off, some doubted, and some wouldn’t have a bar of it. Thus there all the stories of people doubting.

  20. Avatar
    Mhamed Errifi  December 15, 2015

    hello Bart

    how do you explain that josephus said few things about jesus


    • Bart
      Bart  December 16, 2015

      Jesus simply was not historically or socially important in his day.

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