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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
    GreggL10  December 15, 2015

    This is a question that has intrigued me for a long time: How do we know about the alleged martyrdom of Peter, James and John (as well as the others)?

    I recently asked an apologist, and he cited “early church history”. (He also stated the consensus of scholars accepts their martyrdom.) I assumed he meant what I understand to be the writings of the early “Apostolic Fathers”, but as you point out, he did not give me an exact source.

    So I greatly appreciate your points here, but am wondering what your take is on the writings of the “Apostolic Fathers” in general and whether they give ANY support at all to the aforementioned apologist’s claims. I’m also wondering if any of your books discuss these writings in detail or are there any other scholars you can recommend.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 16, 2015

      The only reference to martyrdoms in the Apostolic Fathers is in a brief passage in 1 Clement which indicates that Peter and Paul had been martyred.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  December 16, 2015

        The person who asked the question referred to the martyrdom of “Peter, James, and John.” Am I right in thinking there was *no* tradition of *John* being martyred? I *know* there was a tradition of his *never dying* – being expected to live on, somewhere, through all the centuries (if necessary) till the “Second Coming.” But I doubt anyone still believes that today.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 18, 2015

          There is a tradition of John’s death from the second century, but it’s not a martrydom.

  2. Avatar
    Xeronimo74  December 15, 2015

    Bart: “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.” > I’m still not convinced that the Apostles actually believed that Jesus’ corpse was ‘reanimated’ in some sort and that they believed he just walked out of a tomb (assuming he ever was in one). That still seems to me to be a later reinterpretation by people who did not actually know the Apostles personally and who misunderstood the whole ‘resurrection’ thing.

  3. Avatar
    bobnaumann  December 15, 2015

    Was Stephen not considered a disciple? His death by stoning is recorded in Acts 8.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 16, 2015

      No, he was not one of the twelve, and he is not recorded as having seen the resurrected Jesus.

  4. Avatar
    vern.dewit  December 15, 2015

    The argument that nobody would willingly die for a lie is obviously true. Even if we assumed that all of Jesus’ disciples were executed for their Christian beliefs, it doesn’t make those beliefs historically accurate! Many people have died for mistaken beliefs in human history! Why should early Christianity be any different?

    Dying for an idea or belief that may or may not be true is unfortunately something that humans do very regularly.

  5. Avatar
    bobnaumann  December 15, 2015

    Paul never met the physically resurrected Jesus except in a vision, yet he was willing to commit his life and death to his belief in the resurrection of Jesus. Who’s to say the eleven disciples did not have similar visions? I think it is clear that for whatever reason, Jesus’ innermost disciples firmly believed he had been resurrected and did not simply make it up.

    Stephen was apparently not among the 11 disciples to whom the resurrected Jesus appeared, but he was martyred for his belief. So yes, people were willing to die for a belief that they heard from others.

  6. Avatar
    Hon Wai  December 15, 2015

    I thought the earliest account of Paul’s deathw as by Ignatius around 110CE?
    Given the uncertainty whether Paul was actually executed during reign of Nero, doesn’t this cast doubt on the dating of Paul’s later works, and the consensus that Paul’s letter predates the gospels?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 16, 2015

      No, it would be 1 Clement in 95 CE or so. Ignatius doesn’t mention Paul’s death. In any event, there are lots of disputes about Pauline chronology, but there is no real doubt that he was writing before the Gospels.

  7. Avatar
    Morphinius  December 16, 2015

    At the end of the Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus appears to the eleven disciples in Galilee, it states “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted” (Mat 28:16-17). The statement that “some doubted” does not sound like something the author would have made up, so I assume the information may be credible. Would that mean that at least two disciples did not believe they were seeing the resurrected Jesus? Or is there a better explanation?

  8. Avatar
    ftbond  April 28, 2019

    Dr Ehrman –

    I realize this is an ancient thread, but on the “off chance” that you might read this, my question is:

    Was John (aka, one of the “pillars”, along with Peter and James) the “son of Zebedee?” If so, do you believe his brother James to have been a real person? Or, was he just a “made-up” character?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 28, 2019

      Yes, John was apparently the son of Zebedee. The James being mentioned is not his borther but the brother of Jesus. Both of those James’s were real historical figures, but James the son of Zebedee was already dead by this time.

  9. Avatar
    Charbel98  May 14, 2020


    Would you say that Peter, James the son of Zebedee, James the Brother of Jesus and Paul were *probably* martyred?

    Thank You!

    • Bart
      Bart  May 15, 2020

      Peter, James Zebedee, Paul almost certainly yes. James brother of jesus probably, though he may have been killed on other charges/for other reasons.

      • Avatar
        Charbel98  May 16, 2020

        Thanks for the response.

        Some Christians argue that we have relatively good evidence that Thomas and Andrew were also martyred. Do you share this view?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 17, 2020

          No, the evidence about both of them comes only from much later legends (Acts of Thomas and Acts of Andrews), well over a century after they were dead. The evidence for the Peter, James, Paul, and James all comes from the first century.

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