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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;

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QUESTION:

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?

 

RESPONSE:

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?

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    bmartin027  October 14, 2017

    So how accurate or reliable is the Luke account of Jesus eating with the disciples after his resurrection?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 15, 2017

      Are you asking if it really happened? In my view, absolutely not.

  2. Avatar
    Silver  October 14, 2017

    In a recent post you referred to a thread you ran in July 2014. In the posting for July 2nd 2014 you argue that Jesus would not have had a decent burial because the evidence points to bodies being released only to family members in certain circumstances. You go on to state, “…and what is more, in our earliest accounts none of them, even his mother, was actually at the event (i.e. the crucifixion).” What are these ‘earliest accounts’ please? Do you mean, for example, Mark, our earliest gospel or Paul, or are you referring to early gospel manuscripts which were subsequently altered to include Mary?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 15, 2017

      Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  October 15, 2017

      Jesus was a nobody from Galilee, which is why the tradition had to invent a somebody like Joseph of Arimathea to explain why a nobody like Jesus would end up in an expensive tomb. Joseph literally gives up his own tomb for Jesus. Every detail that surrounds the crucifixion narrative is like this: a convenient plot device meant to fill holes and create a more plausible, more compelling story. Mary came to be added to the story in order to add such plausible and compelling detail. By adding Mary into the crucifixion narrative it allowed the early Christians to make Jesus’ own mother one of the women who discovers his empty tomb, giving that part of the story ostensibly even more veracity. It says: “Even Jesus’ own mother is a witness to his resurrection. And his own mother wouldn’t lie about that, would she?”

      An aphorism that I’ve coined (at least I’ve never heard anybody else use it) is: It’s easier to turn a nobody into a somebody than it is to turn a somebody into a somebody else. As a nobody, Jesus was such a blank canvas that those who came after him were able to turn this regular — though probably highly charismatic — Jewish guy from Galilee into a member of the Holy Trinity. It’s like if 2,000 years from now half the planet were to worship L Ron Hubbard as the creator of the universe.

      • Avatar
        godspell  October 17, 2017

        Jesus was poor. He was not formally educated. He never had more than a handful of followers. He was put to death, basically, for speaking his mind. He left no writings of any kind, and his teachings came down to us from others.

        So question–do you think Socrates was a nobody?

        Seems like nobodies can exert a lot of influence over time–and be remembered long after all the somebodies are dust.

        They couldn’t have done it for just anybody. You’re kidding yourself.

        • talmoore
          talmoore  October 21, 2017

          “do you think Socrates was a nobody?”
          Socrates actually had a school, where he taught the sons of Athenian aristocrats. He was most definitely NOT a “nobody”. The two cannot be compared at all. Apples and oranges. Until there is a discovery of a play by Aristophanes that is critical of Jesus and his teaching, I can’t imagine anything proving otherwise.

  3. Avatar
    Wilusa  October 14, 2017

    Suggested by the idea of martyrs’ being willing to die for their beliefs, however they’d come by them…

    Isn’t it possible that Paul made up that story about a vision of Jesus, to exalt himself (“Jesus appeared to ME!!”), despite his pretense of humility…and/or to avoid giving credit to whatever proselytizing Christian actually had converted him, in an undramatic way? (Probably, by convincing him of an alternate interpretation of that Scriptual passage about someone “hanged from a tree” being “accursed”?)

  4. Avatar
    JakSiemasz  October 14, 2017

    Dr.,
    What is the evidence that Peter went to and died in Rome? Did an illiterate, Aramaic speaking, Jewish peasant from Galilee actually travel to Rome and preside over the xtians there and the entire xtian world?
    Thanks for the reply and for this blog!

    • Bart
      Bart  October 15, 2017

      It’s *suggested* (though not definitively) by 1 Clement in 96 CE (written in Rome); the first accounts are not until late rin the second century in the Acts of Peter, which are highly legendary. But yes, it’s certainly possible, just as it’s possible for people from Bogota to move to NYC today.

  5. Avatar
    Silver  October 15, 2017

    Are there any accounts of people in Britain being crucified under the Romans or was this practice peculiar to the Middle East, please?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 15, 2017

      Great question! I assume there were, but I don’t know offhand.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  October 15, 2017

      Not only did the Romans crucify anyone and everyone, anywhere and everywhere (e.g. the rebels of Spartacus), even non-Romans crucified each other. And sometimes non-Romans crucifed Romans! (e.g. Queen Boudica’s crucifixion of captured Roman soldiers)

  6. Avatar
    meohanlon  October 15, 2017

    Bart,

    Was it not the original worldly authority-defying character of the new movement, which had gotten John the Baptist and Jesus killed, that would also threaten whoever followed in their footsteps, their beliefs being somewhat incidental at this time (and was heresy even the issue)?

    It seems doubtful that the resurrection belief played such a central role in the minds of the first Christians, at least until it’s more recognizable meaning-defining purpose had developed into what we read in the gospel of John, when it’s apocalyptic associations had dissipated after enough decades had brought a slightly different turnout of events than anticipated, and God’s kingdom had now a more otherworldly, transcendent character.

    Therefore, if the disciples died for their beliefs, I don’t see why such a belief in Jesus’ resurrection in and of itself would be enough of a threat to get oneself killed (unless the authorities were worried the disciples would spread this belief, thereby renewing the messianic vigor behind the movement. Even so, without said belief, couldn’t they have been martyred simply for maintaining the general leaning that made Jesus seem such a threat to Roman authority; declaring, among other things, their land belonged, not to Caesar, but to God to whom it was soon to be restored, and Jesus’ most dedicated followers would be appear no less seditious in the eyes of Rome. Or did the resurrection belief pose a threat simply as subversive symbol representing, and thus reinforcing the strength of their defiance?

    And one wonders how strongly Jesus’s disciples were associated with the firmly anti-authoritarian JB; Could just being associated with John the Baptist have cast Jesus in such cast him in a bad light, and set the stage for his arrest, as in: they were just waiting for the right publicly witnessed events to bring sufficient charges against him, in this case, the temple cleansing incident. At that point, assuming the Galileean authorities had already identified Jesus as a disciple of, and, eventually, successor to JB, Herod Antipas could’ve reported to Pilate/Sanhedrin who this temple-cleansing Galileean rascal was, and that he was propagating a subversive movement that had begun with JB ( especially a red flag with word going around attaching the title of “king/messiah” to him).

    Moreover, if it’s historicity is accepted, the comment in Mark (or another?) Gospel that Pilate and Antipas had become friends/allies the day of the crucifixion; they had knowingly done each other a favor in getting rid of Jesus. If they saw the disciples as continuing the same trouble as JB and Jesus had, that is, getting the people to resist, or at least to strongly question the authorities.

    Which also makes me wonder if Paul tried to defend his brand of Christianity by reaffirming the proper place of worldly authorities and submission to them, but in doing so, he had altered the original ideology of Jesus’ followers so much that it was no longer the same movement in spirit.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 15, 2017

      I think Jewish apocalypticism was driven by a disatisfaction with the current socio-economic-political order, but I don’t think Jesus and his followers were principally interested in political rebellion or upheaval. They thought God was going to take care of all that.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  October 23, 2017

      To back up what Dr. Ehrman is saying here, keep in mind that all the Gospel accounts have Jesus and his followers going to the Mount of Olives immediately after their Passover Seder, in the middle of the night, for no apparent reason other than they felt compelled to leave Jerusalem. But the important question is why, of all places, did they go to the Mount of Olives? Well, all of the apocalyptic literature up to that time has the Messiah (or the Son of Man) descending down from heaven onto the Mount of Olives at the beginning of the end. This was because a great battle was supposed to take place within and around the Qidron valley, which was situated right between the Mount of Olives and Jerusalem itself. So why does the account of Jesus’ last night have him and his followers hiding out in the Mount of Olives? Obviously, because they believed the Messiah or Son of Man was to descend down to there, possibly on that very morning. Jesus and his followers weren’t expecting to lead the charge of rebellion. They were expecting to take part on the side of angels. Read the War Scroll from the Dead Sea Scrolls and you might get an idea of how some Jews viewed the final battle: the heavenly host and the righteous of humanity on one side, and the demon army of Satan and the wicked of humanity on the other. Jesus and his followers were probably waiting and expecting to become part of the “righteous of humanity” on the side of the angels.

  7. John4
    John4  October 15, 2017

    Well, yes, I agree, Bart, that Stephen was not one of the twelve. However, it appears to me that Acts 7:55-56 does in fact claim that a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus was granted to him.

    Many thanks!

  8. John4
    John4  October 15, 2017

    And, it appears to me, Bart, that Acts 12:2 is more than a “hint”, as you put it, that James was killed. To my mind it is a straightforward assertion that James was killed.

    Am I missing something here?

    Many thanks! 🙂

    • Bart
      Bart  October 15, 2017

      Yes, James was killed. But we don’t know why.

      • John4
        John4  October 15, 2017

        Ah. So although Acts is explicit that James was killed, the reason(s) why (he “belonged to the church”, his execution “pleased the Jews”, NRSV) is only hinted at.

        Thanks, Bart. 🙂

  9. Avatar
    ask21771  October 15, 2017

    Is there any credibility to the claim that in Matt. 24:34 the word generation should have been race

    • Bart
      Bart  October 15, 2017

      Not really. It doesn’t have much force to say that the world won’t end until the Jewish race has disappeared from the earth, if you’re trying to warn people to be ready because these catastrophes could happen any minute now….

  10. Avatar
    Pattylt  October 15, 2017

    Bart, isn’t it also likely that Paul headed off for Spain “the end of the world a t that time” and no one really knew how he died? With everything becoming so legendary so rapidly, I think that it is possible that many of the Apostolic martyrs just died but legends just grew from there.
    Also, loved Candida Moss’ book. Martyrdom became a recruiting tool and pages and pages were devoted to the “horrors” they endured. All creative fiction.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 16, 2017

      Yup, it’s certainly possible. Though there are a lot of later sources that put his death in Rome for some reason.

  11. Avatar
    jogon  February 11, 2018

    Hi Bart, do you think its possible that the empty tomb stories were invented by some of the disciples themselves, maybe later in life? My thought is that they probably genuinely believed Jesus had been raised from the dead through some visionary experiences and thought that an embellishment of the facts would make their message seem more convincing to people they were trying to convert. In the same way Christian apologists today don’t seem to mind bending the truth for their ends the disciples may have seen this lie as justified?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 11, 2018

      I don’t think we know who came up with the stories.

  12. Avatar
    jogon  February 13, 2018

    You may have discussed this before Bart so apologies if you have! Why do you think the names of the disciples differ between the Gospels? Were only the names of some of them remembered leaving the authors to fill in the blanks?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 15, 2018

      I think this shows that everyone in the early church knew there were twelve of them, but the actual identities of some of them were not known.

  13. Avatar
    SkepticsRUs  March 14, 2018

    I am intrigued by the passage in Matthew 28:16-17, in which Jesus appears to the eleven disciples, and we are told that they worshiped him, but some doubted. It sounds like the doubters, and we aren’t told which disciples those were, might not have been as convinced of the resurrection as Christians tend to presume.

  14. Avatar
    jogon  April 14, 2018

    Bart, I’ve just thought of another big problem with die for a lie. It seems likely the original disciples thought that the world was soon going to end and they would be resurrected from the dead. People are going to be less afraid of dying for their beliefs if they don’t think they are going to stay dead! What do you reckon?

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