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Were the Disciples Martyred for Believing the Resurrection? A Blast From the Past

Here is an interesting question that I addressed on the blog exactly five years ago today, one that continues to be relevant and significant;



Another very very popular evidence put forward for the resurrection is “the disciples would not have died for what they knew was a lie, therefore it must have happened.” I hear this all the time. You note that they really believed they saw Jesus after he died so they were not lying. However, is there evidence (historical or literary) that they were killed because of their belief in Jesus’ resurrection?



Ah yes, if I had a fiver for every time I’ve heard this comment over the years, I could retire to a country-home in Maine…. Several other people have responded to this question on the blog by saying that we have lots of records of lots of people who have died for a something that they knew, literally, not to be true. I am not in a position to argue that particular point. But I can say something about all the disciples dying for believing in the resurrection.

The way the argument (by Christian apologists) goes is this (I know this, because I used to make the same argument myself, when I was a Christian apologist!): all the apostles were martyred for their faith, because they believed Jesus had been raised from the dead; you can see why someone might be willing to die for the truth; but no one would die for a lie; and therefore the disciples – all of them – clearly believed that Jesus was raised from the dead. And if they *all* believed it, then it almost certainly is true (since none of them thought otherwise, they must have all seen Jesus alive after his death).

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Are Jews and Christians Monotheists? Mailbag October 15, 2017
How Old Was Jesus at His Baptism, Start of His Ministry & Death?



  1. Avatar
    RVBlake  October 13, 2017

    I wonder how much Hollywood is responsible for promulgating the activities and personalities of the New Testament. “Quo Vadis”, from the 50s, is an excellent movie which depicts the crucifixion of Peter…Still, a great movie. “The Bible”, a TV series of more recent vintage, solemnly informs the viewer at the end of the movie of Thomas being martyred in India and Matthew in Ethiopia. I personally know devout Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, who’ve never read the Bible. Wherever are they getting their beliefs?

  2. Avatar
    godspell  October 13, 2017

    Another point to raise was that there were many religious martyrs–not just Christians, and not just in ancient times–think of the Buddhist monk who agreed to be burned alive to protest oppression under the Catholic-dominated South Vietnamese government. Think of the Catholic priests and nuns who were martyred in El Salvador–none of them saw a resurrected Jesus. And there have been atheist martyrs, though they were more frequently described as Heroes of the Revolution. People have always been ready to die for their faith, theistic or secular, and it isn’t really faith if you know if for a fact.

    I think a better phrasing of the argument presented here is that none of the disciples believed they’d made up Jesus to con people into giving them stuff. They believed this was a very special man, who had sacrificed himself, and they felt impelled to make the same sacrifice, if not necessarily in quite so dramatic a fashion. They wanted to carry his message to as many people as possible, to share what they’d learned from him, and if that made people angry, put them at risk, they were prepared to take that risk, to follow their master’s example. And unlike proponents of some other belief systems, they took these risks entirely unarmed, and resolved to commit no act of violence against anyone, even in self-defense. This was fairly new, I think. Pity it didn’t catch on more.

    So against the very bad arguments made by some atheists, that Bart and other historians have consistently debunked, one can, if one wishes, point out that if the first Christians were con artists, they were suicidal ones. Yeah, Joseph Smith knew he had written the Book of Mormon himself, and it finally got him lynched, but he was surrounded by armed followers when they came for him, and let’s just say there were a lot of fringe benefits that came before his martyrdom.

  3. Lev
    Lev  October 13, 2017

    “why would anyone believe so fervently in the resurrection without being an eyewitness?”

    I believe for the following reasons:

    – Mark’s gospel was based on Peter’s sermons and he claims Jesus was resurrected from the dead.

    – I believe Luke’s claim that his gospel was based on eyewitness testimony and that John’s gospel was written by the Apostle John. Both gospels cite several accounts of meeting the resurrected Jesus where his disciples physically touched him and he ate food in their presence.

    – Paul met James, Peter and John who told him of their post-resurrection encounters with Jesus. More so, he knew of 500 disciples who met the resurrected Jesus on one occasion and he was familiar with some of those who were still alive. I don’t believe he would have passed on this account in 1 Cor 15:3-7 if he wasn’t certain it was true.

    – Finally, I don’t believe that Christians today could have the life-transforming experiences we have, without the power of the resurrection being effective. We may not be eye-witnesses, but we are witnesses nonetheless.

    • Avatar
      godspell  October 15, 2017

      But people who are not Christians have life-transforming experiences, all the time. And be honest–most Christians don’t. Most Christians can’t even live the way Jesus told them to.

      Not pointing the finger specifically at Christians, because the truth is, any belief system, with or without gods in it, is going to produce very few genuine believers. Most are just going along for the ride. Only a few are steering.

      I know, cynical, but look around you. Don’t I have reason to be?

      Genuine faith is the most precious thing in the world–because it’s the rarest.

      And Jesus said as much in the gospels. He told his own disciples, who had given up everything to follow him, they didn’t have faith the size of a mustard seed.

      So argue with him, why don’t you?

    • Avatar
      The Agnostic Christian  October 28, 2017

      I had a life transforming experience. More than one. All were attributed to the Holy Spirit. I no longer believe and I no longer attribute those amazing experiences to God, but rather to the power of the human brain.

    • Avatar
      James Cotter  October 31, 2017

      Dr ehrman

      Out of curiosity, why was not Paul convinced by the claims of the Jerusalem desiples , why persecute Christiana other than the desiples if the ressurection was very convincing?

  4. Avatar
    Lawyerskeptic  October 13, 2017

    Let me plug one of your books –Lost Scriptures, Books That Did Not Make It into the New Testament. It contains some of the stories about the disciples, such as my personal favorite, The Acts of Peter. Members can find all these documents on the Internet for free, but your commentary in Lost Scriptures is quite informative and I trust your translation.

  5. Avatar
    nbraith1975  October 13, 2017

    As I contemplate what I believed as a Christian for the majority of my 60 years the story seemed to quickly unravel.

    When I realized the “church” was hijacked early on by power hungry Jew hating church “fathers,” and that the trinity was a hoax perpetuated by those same people to give credibility to their religion with a newly created god, I set aside my “learned” beliefs and began to search for the truth.

    What I have found is that Christianity, as taught by the Church, is nothing more than a patchwork of lies and deception; with most of Christian orthodoxy simply made up to fill in the cracks created by their lies to shore-up a counterfeit gospel stolen from a meek human being called Jesus.

  6. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 13, 2017

    Good summary. I too have heard this argument many times.

  7. talmoore
    talmoore  October 13, 2017

    It’s possible for someone to believe true that which is false. And it’s possible for someone to believe false that which is true. What people *believe* to be true or false is not always in line with what is *actually* true or false.

  8. Avatar
    Pattylt  October 13, 2017

    Heaven’s Gate. Nuff said.

  9. Avatar
    Stephen  October 13, 2017

    Prof Ehrman

    What is your opinion of the work of Candida Moss? Do you agree with her conclusions about the development of the idea of martyrdom in early Christianity?


    • Bart
      Bart  October 15, 2017

      She’s one of the leading scholars of early Christian persecution and martyrdom. I completely agree with her that martyrs saw themselves as imitating the death of Jesus. (If that’s what you’re asking)

      • Avatar
        Stephen  October 15, 2017

        Well in the context of your post, I’m asking for a historical opinion. Prof Moss asserts that the idea of widespread persecution by Romans in the early church was overblown and the idea of matyrdom developed at least partly as a polemical tool. Do you agree? If so, wouldn’t the assumption that the disciples were all martyrs for the faith be part of that developing polemic?


        • Bart
          Bart  October 16, 2017

          I agree that persecution was not widespread or constant (especially in teh first century); I’m not sure of the polemical utility of the idea. Remind me: in what *way* does she see the tales as polemical?

          • Avatar
            Stephen  October 16, 2017

            Prof Moss claims the developing church put the moral authority and unimpeachable testimony attained by the martyrs’ willingness to suffer and die to use in defining orthodoxy and right conduct. Victimhood conferred status and that status could be used to gain support and justify attacks on others.

          • Bart
            Bart  October 17, 2017

            Ah, right, now I remember. yes indeed, Proto-orthodox authors did use the martyrdom narratives this way.

  10. Avatar
    gavriel  October 13, 2017

    I’m not entirely convinced here. If all the key players – Peter, Paul, James, John and James the Brother likely were killed, and we at the same time have almost no information about the backbenchers, wouldn’t that be a pretty strong argument ? Of course, insignificant community members are less likely to become endangered.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 15, 2017

      We don’t know, for example, why they were killed. The earliest persecutions we know about for certain were against Christians who were thought to be socially disruptive troublemakers (not because they believed in the resurrection)

      • Avatar
        Skepticalone  October 16, 2017

        Dr Erhman .. On testing a hypothesis , I guess it is often useful to use an ” If-Then” equation. For example , Jesus said if any follow me , let them first count the cost , etc. ..this would give the understanding that there would be an actual cost to follow ” The Way of Truth ” From some of the writings passed down , it appears that ” The Way ” was a change which constituted a threat ..not in a theoretical way but in actuality. For example , a threat to Jewish understandings of God’s plan and how He had chosen to implement it. What their ( The Jews )reign would look like ..A cost to authority , power and last but not least money and the accepted “way of life .” The same thing happened when the silversmiths of Diana’s trade was threatened by the preaching of Paul ..the same thing happened when Luther spoke out against ” Indulgences” . To use the If- Then equation …I wonder how the “chief amongst the people ” would view a ” truth” today if it came with a cost . For example I wondered what it would cost the economy to do away with christianity as it is currently practiced ? The Moody Bible Institutes , Seminaries, Christmas/ Black Friday profitability ..The restaurants after church on sundays , mothers day , easter , church grounds landscaping /building maintenance…not to mention those who make their living either supporting the gospel or debunking it ? ( What would Lee Childs , David Limbaugh , Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins do ???? ) If Christ were to return today incognito and speak out against these things and effectually put an end to them ..then who would support him ? It seems that both the atheist and believers would not be very keen to the cost of that . Would he be martyred ? Obviously this is speculation but I can see how this man would be a threat to the economy ( Hersey’s , Macy’s , Walmart , Pastors , really Wall Street ) It would seem that they were martyred for the sake of love as was Christ.

  11. Avatar
    John Uzoigwe  October 13, 2017

    Dr Bart am thinking while Jesus apocalyptic message was on repentance for the coming kingdom of God, his disciples preached the same message but used Jesus resurrection as testimony or proof of there tidings but Paul came and made the death of Jesus the point of redemption. Is that correct?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 15, 2017

      That’s *roughly* right, but I think there were people saying this before Paul.

  12. Avatar
    Wilusa  October 13, 2017

    What I remember from my childhood is not claims about martyrs, but just being given the impression – somehow – that the resurrection was so well attested to that it had •undoubtedly• happened. I think I imagined a large crowd having seen Jesus emerge from the tomb! (No one ever actually read the Bible.)

    In retrospect, I think the Catholic culture I came from was deliberately keeping people from realizing that there were numerous similar claims in the ancient world of people being “raised from” the dead. They didn’t acknowledge anyone’s believing God the Father had “raised” Jesus. No, Jesus had •risen• from the dead, under his own power! A once-in-all-of-history miracle.

  13. Avatar
    Petter Häggholm  October 13, 2017

    A more detailed analysis of early accounts of martyrdoms, which pretty much agrees with your account, can be found at https://celsus.blog/2012/12/18/48/ for interested readers.

  14. Avatar
    John Uzoigwe  October 13, 2017

    Dr Bart do we know for certain those who assigned names to the gospels?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 15, 2017

      Nope. The names first occur in Ireanaeus around 180 CE, but he is not coming up with them himself, almost certainly.

  15. Avatar
    rivercrowman  October 13, 2017

    Bart, off topic. Will your contemplated future book on the afterlife include a paragraph or two about the early Greek church father Origen, who believed in universal heaven for all? That would have saved a lot of grief, wouldn’t it?

  16. Avatar
    ardeare  October 13, 2017

    If you could transport yourself back in time to say 35 CE, for only 15 minutes and talk to either Peter, Paul, or Mary Magdalene, which would you choose?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 15, 2017

      Ah, that’s tough. Probably Peter, a week after Jesus’ death.

  17. Avatar
    Pegill7  October 13, 2017

    Some apologists cite the example of the changed life of Peter after the death of Jesus. He was a cringing coward before Jesus’ Crucifixion (denying Jesus three times, hiding out during the trial and execution);but allegedly became a fearless pro-claimer of the Resurrection, including his alleged martyrdom during the reign of Nero. But the same sort of reasoning might explain Paul changing from a persecutor of Christianity to its most courageous advocate. Guilt feelings have been responsible for many a person to experience a radical change in convictions.Many born-again believers whom I’ve known seem to enjoy telling others how horrible they were before they were “saved.”.In reality, most of them were fairly decent people before their conversions but you can’t tell them that.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 15, 2017

      But they know this about Peter only from the same Gospels that narrate the resurrection — Gospels written decades later by people who didn’t know Peter, but are simply repeating stories they heard that had been in circulation year after year after year….

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  October 16, 2017

        About Peter’s having been a “cringing coward” for denying Jesus, and “hiding out” during the trial and execution…I’ve always thought that if Jesus was a decent human being, he would have *instructed* his disciples to scatter if he was arrested. (And maybe, he actually did.)

        • Avatar
          Pattycake1974  October 17, 2017

          Peter was a punching bag wasn’t he? Poor guy couldn’t even eat without James and Paul hassling him.

    • Avatar
      godspell  October 15, 2017

      It’s a human thing to desire transformation, apotheosis–to believe that we can get better, shed our failings (and a ‘fairly decent’ human being is little more than a mass of failings).

      Nothing about this changes at all when you get rid of theistic belief. It just attaches itself to some other type of belief. Every bit as irrational, and sometimes far more so, since it poses under the guise of rationality and ‘science’ (not dissing science, but most people who prate about it don’t understand it, which is also true of religion).

      The goal is, or ought to be, self-understanding and acceptance. But it’s so hard. And not at all glamorous.

      In my opinion, we rejected what Jesus was really telling us, because it was too hard. In place of his teachings we erected an idol to worship–and to excuse our failings, take them on himself. So we could go on sinning.

  18. Avatar
    Tony  October 13, 2017

    How is the myth that all the apostles were martyred for their faith, because they believed Jesus had been raised from the dead, any different than the myth that Jesus of Nazareth existed?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 15, 2017

      Because the first (literally) has no evidence to support it and the second has massive documentation.

      • Avatar
        Tony  October 15, 2017

        What massive documentation? Lee Strobel (I know – not a scholar) makes the same statement. In DJE you seem to make the argument that every document mentioning Jesus is independent evidence of his historicity! That, and the argument from authority – that scholars all think alike – so it must be true.

        The Jesus myth model is simply a better fit for the existing primary data. That is, Paul’s mystery religion about a celestial Jesus was one of the sources for Mark, who pulled Paul’s Jesus down to earth, and placed him in an historical setting. The quantity of Jesus documentation goes up from there. Similarly, I can assure you that Harry Potter is not an historical figure!

        • talmoore
          talmoore  October 16, 2017

          Tony, just curious, but do you go onto Buddhist, Confucianist, Daoist, Zoroastrian, Pythagorean, and Muslim websites and argue just as strenuously for the non-existence of Siddhartha Gautama, Kung Tze, Lao Tze, Zarathustra, Pythagoras and Muhammad, respectively? I mean, is this really a search for truth or just a bizarre fixation?

          • Avatar
            Tony  October 17, 2017

            I’m sure you’re trying to make a point, but I’m not sure what it is. You and I live in a predominantly Christian society – and not in one of the others you list. As someone brought up without religion, I developed, a couple of decades ago, an interest in the sociology and also the history of Christianity – because it surrounds me. What is so bizarre about that?

            You plan to write a Jesus novel. The truly bizarre part of the historical Jesus literature is that there are so many historical Jesus varieties. A well known scholar observed that there is an embarrassing number of wildly different historical Jesus’s, from having been a liberal leftist feminist to a right wing small government proponent, to a religious zealot, and everything else in between. Historical Jesus authors seem to create their Jesus reflecting themselves. What Jesus will you create?

            A growing number of scholars and others find that in all likelihood there was no historical Jesus. This is far from a bizarre observation. It is based on a legitimate analysis of the evidence. Bart Ehrman sticks with his apologetic prophet model and has attacked all competing Jesus varieties including, of course, the “no Jesus” model. Why would the last one be “bizarre?

          • Avatar
            turbopro  October 21, 2017

            @Tony (given that there is no direct “reply” to Tony’s response to talmoore’s post)

            Perhaps I missed it, but did you answer talmoore’s questions–somewhat loaded as they are?

            I ask because I too am curious: do you visit other religious oriented websites and argue similarly, and, “is this really a search for truth or just a bizarre fixation?”

            To be clear please, I make the assumption, perhaps like talmoore, that we are in pursuit of truth, irrespective of whether or not it is attainable.

            Additionally, since your response brought in issues somewhat orthogonal to talmoore’s questions, where did Dr Ehrman posit “his apologetic prophet model and … attacked all competing Jesus varieties…”?

          • talmoore
            talmoore  October 21, 2017

            “I’m sure you’re trying to make a point, but I’m not sure what it is.”
            That’s all too apparent.

            “A growing number of scholars and others find that in all likelihood there was no historical Jesus.”
            I suppose that depends on what you mean by “growing”. If the list goes from 7 to 9, then, I’ll concede, technically, yes, that’s growth.

        • Avatar
          JR  October 17, 2017

          Sorry there is ZERO evidence that Paul invented Jesus. Paul’s letters are full of disagreements between Christians on whether christians need to keep the Jewish laws on circumcision and food. If Paul invented Jesus and Christianity then such arguements wouldn’t have taken place as Paul could have had his Jesus deal with these issues directly. Also why would Paul invent pillars of the church who had more experience and authority than himself (peter, James etc) then argue against them in his letters? In numerous places in the Pauline letters he has to justify his credentials compared to the 12 disciples who knew the real Jesus- why would he do this if Jesus was his invention??

          • Avatar
            Tony  October 18, 2017

            Paul never invented Jesus. But at Paul’s time Jesus was an archangel who who was sacrificed in the heavens and not on earth. It was the Gospel writer who invented an earthly Jesus based on Paul’s celestial Jesus.

        • Avatar
          godspell  October 17, 2017

          And nobody will ever say otherwise. Because the Harry Potter stories are written as just stories.

          The gospels are written as (garbled) accounts of somebody who was really alive, and who was really killed.

          I mean, you could at least have picked a story where the hero dies, never returns to mortal existence, and the people who killed him are never punished (and not one of Harry’s friends ever betray him). Sloppy!


          • Avatar
            Tony  October 18, 2017

            Oh, Ok, so if only I’d used a better analogy, you would agree with me that the Gospel Jesus story is fabricated.

  19. Avatar
    mina  October 13, 2017

    I think you are missing the point of the argument. The argument is not put forward to show that the resurrection really happened. It’s put forward to show that the disciples were really sincere in their belief that Jesus was raised and did not say make it up for malicious purposes (this seems to be something you already write is “safe to say”).

    The question the argument raises on why did the disciples came to believe in the resurrection is a difficult one, and to compare it to modern times where 2 billion people believe in the resurrection doesn’t do it justice.

    Today people believe for several reasons including cultural and societal reasons. But for the early Christians their belief didn’t make any sense in their culture and society given that the resurrection of one before the general resurrection was a completely outlandish idea in Judaism.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 15, 2017

      I’m afraid the reason people make the argument actually is to prove that Jesus must have been raised (otherwise no one would have died for believing so). And my point is that people continue to believe so without personally having direct evidence of it being true. As to Christian belief making sense, my view is that ancient Christians came to faith precisely because it helped make sense of the world they lived in. Their “new” sense came, for them, to be “common” sense.

  20. Avatar
    caesar  October 13, 2017

    Should Paul be considered an ‘eyewitness’ to the resurrection? If we are to believe the story, Jesus ascended a couple of months after his resurrection. Paul had a vision a few years after this. I would think that anyone who has a vision of Jesus after the ascension, even if it’s just a few years later, wouldn’t be an eyewitness to the resurrection–they’re just someone who had a vision. No different than someone having a vision of Jesus today.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 15, 2017

      He would be an eyewitness to the resurrected Jesus, but not to the resurrection.

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