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Were the Disciples Martyred for Believing the Resurrection?

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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Anti-Judaism in the Gospels
Paul and the Resurrection of the “Flesh”?

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    toddfrederick  October 12, 2012

    Bart,

    Regarding belief in Resurrection:

    This is not a question on a specific blog entry but does relate to the blog above, and is an observation about changes in my thinking as a result of reading your blogs and your books….the issue of history vs. faith. The above blog entry is a good example.

    I have a seminary education (in the 1960’s) and am very much aware of textual and historical critical analysis of scripture. However, only recently have I taken this far more seriously than I have in the past, and my recent study of this has brought about serious internal conflicts with my faith in God and Jesus.

    I think I may have resolved this…at least for me.

    On the human physical level (that of historical events) history doesn’t lie. For example, no one, as far as I know, has ever seen a dead body get up and walk away and be able to prove it beyond any level of doubt using tools of historical analysis. In that perspective, the Resurrection did not happen.

    On the other hand, regarding the event of the Resurrection of Jesus: something very spectacular had to have happened, as you implied in some of your blogs, that caused the terrified followers of Jesus (except the ladies), who ran into hiding, and then to return and begin the creation of a Church with all the danger this involved. This event is often seen as Jesus’ Resurrection. However, we cannot prove this on an historical, textual, or physical level, and, therefore, historically, the Resurrection did not happen.

    I am thinking that I (we) can have it both ways. On the historical physical level we can say that the Resurrection cannot be proven to be true and did not happen historically. Yet, on the non-historical level, the level of metaphysical knowledge and experience, which we cannot prove empirically, we can maintain belief that Jesus was raised and lives and has power in the world today through faith, which cannot, of course, be proven historically.

    That’s the best I can do to resolve this dilemma…for me.

    Any thoughts?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 13, 2012

      Makes a lot of sense to me. Although I think a lot of people with traditional views about Christianity will find it highly problematic!

      • Avatar
        tcc  October 15, 2012

        Yeah, there will be a resistance to that, because bishops tend to try to out-literalize other preachers. If you’re honest with your congregation about how mythical (or just historically unreliable) most of the Bible is, you’re considered a liberal heretic. So basically, dogma > being honest about the facts, at least for these jokers.

        About a year ago or so ago (when I was still a Christian) I was listening to the Calvinist pastor Alistair Begg, and he went on a tangent about another preacher who called the Resurrection a “myth” but who also insisted that “that does not mean it is not true”. Begg was annoyed by this and used the “if Christ is not risen we are the men most to be pitied” verse, then used the fallacious “they wouldn’t have died for a lie” apologetic trick. I admit, at the time, I was actually convinced by this argument, until I used some common sense and noticed the overwhelming LACK of evidence for the event, and the arrogance of putting so much importance on an event that could have easily been a mystical vision. The “liberal” pastor was actually being honest about what he knows is a faith based story, and Begg was being dishonest about something he very likely KNOWS probably didn’t happen.

    • Avatar
      donmax  October 14, 2012

      It’s not much of a resolution, just an example of “double think.” People believe all sorts of things that fly in the face of history and science. Sometimes these notions, whether theological or metaphysical, include the denial of provable facts and/or the affirmation of fabricated fantasies. Either way, nothing gets resolved. We either side with the facts and historical/scientific probabilities or with “wishful thinking.”

      dcs
      p.s. I’m reminded of what I once liked to tell my kids. “You can’t have your cake and eat it too!”

    • Avatar
      larafakhouri  October 14, 2012

      I believe that is an objective attitude of how to think of it

    • Avatar
      Machaon  September 21, 2018

      Interesting viewpoint.
      Even if there is no evidence for the physical resurrection of Jesus, an event that would require extreme and detailed evidence to believe on Baysean scientific grounds, there is ample evidence for resurrection of His church as a body corporate.
      His movement was all but destroyed when his disciples scattered in the Garden of Gesthemane and Jesus was crucified, tortured and humiliated in full public view, yet since that time the movement has been transfigured and moved from strength to strength.
      Perhaps far more important than the ahistorical (i.e. unevidenced) bodily resurrection is the historical body corporate resurrection, the latter deriving its strength at least in part from the former. That is the lesson from the Road to Emmaus.
      Is the “resurrected” body corporate, now two millenia old, any more or less valuable because the bodily resurrection is unevidenced?
      It seems that, with the modern age privileging concrete scientific claims over constitutional claims, the answer our culture gives has changed from a ‘Yes’ to a ‘No’ over the past hundred years.

  2. Avatar
    Adam  October 12, 2012

    Thanks for this!!

    I think why so many benefit from your work is because you not only present information in an engaging way, but you teach and encourage others by example to think critically for themselves, have an open mind, challenge assumptions in a respectful way, and to change ones views when they feel it is necessary no matter how intellectually or emotionally hard that may be. Again, thank you!

  3. Avatar
    hwl  October 12, 2012

    Does Clement explain why Peter and Peter were martyred? Was it linked to the general persecution of Christians under Nero for arson of Rome?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 13, 2012

      No, he just says that it has happened in the relatively recent past. He was probably writing near the end of the first century, say 95 (but he is contrasting this “recent past” to examples of people killed in the Old Testament)

  4. Avatar
    Jim  October 12, 2012

    Maybe Peter was crucified upside down after he lost his “good luck tuna fish”. Although there is little doubt that there were Christian martyrs in the early days there also seems to have been an unhealthy fascination with martyrdom among some Christians, especially around the first part of the second century (i.e. Ignatius).

  5. Avatar
    JordanDay  October 12, 2012

    Bart, would I be wrong in concluding that the original arguments of martyrdom used by apologist of antiquity were different? Instead of the disciples being “willing to die because they had seen the risen Jesus”, they were “willing to die for his philosophy and teachings” just like philosophers were sometimes killed for following and teaching a particular philosophy. In Eusebius’s reply to Hierocles [4.1], he states that Jesus’s followers were “prepared to die in behalf of his words” (υπεραποθνησκειν ετοιμως των λογων αυτου παρεσκευασμενους).

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 13, 2012

      Yes, I think modern apologists owe a lot more to the Enlightenment than to ancient apologists.

    • Avatar
      simonjc5423  October 30, 2013

      JordanDay – Just curious, what philosophers did you have in mind?

  6. Avatar
    maxhirez  October 13, 2012

    When you get down to it, the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is about the same as that for the alien abduction of Travis Walton: basically that a few hillbillies (no offense to the loggers) all swore that someone was sucked up into the sky by an inconceivable force and then that person reappeared a few days later. Of course the loggers have the advantage-they all passed lie detector tests, and the disciples made their assertions based on events that took place during the ancient Israli version of Mardi Gras.

  7. Robertus
    Robertus  October 13, 2012

    Mt 28,16-17: Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. (RSVP)

    But some doubted.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 13, 2012

      Yes, very interesting. What was there to doubt?!

      • Avatar
        SJB  October 14, 2012

        When you read the New Testament you occasionally come on these tantalizing hints that something more was going on behind some of these stories. (What’s up with Peter’s sword in the Garden of Gethsemane?)

        Are we to understand from this that some of the actual disciples, the inner circle, doubted? Is this the origin of the “Doubting Thomas” character in John? Maybe not everyone got a vision of the risen Christ? Perhaps these are hints that after the crucifixion some of the group ran away and DIDN’T come back!

      • Avatar
        gavriel  October 14, 2012

        This verse has always struck me as true.
        The author of Matthew probably expressed the idea that after the execution, the disciples fled to Galilee, where some had their belief restored and some not. In any way, most of the inner core – the twelve – must have been among those who returned. Or do you think that even more replacements than reported in Acts took place?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  October 14, 2012

          For Matthew they all returned, though some doubted! But presumably they got over it. Historically it’s a good question what happened to all the eleven.

    • Avatar
      Xeronimo74  October 14, 2012

      Excellent find. Yes, why did they doubt? I did the ‘risen Christ’ wasn’t as convincing after all!?

  8. Avatar
    Christian  October 13, 2012

    [Off-topic] In one of your books, you mention that Bauer or/and Schweitzer, drew correct conclusions that are nowadays mainstream in your discipline, but their arguments or techniques are not considered pertinent or even sound anymore. Would you confirm and care to elaborate about similar cases and what can we learn from them about current scholarship?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 13, 2012

      Yes, that would be a good topic for a new series of posts. Short answer: the basic theses of both are still widely held, though scholars have moved on beyond their ways of demonstrating it. (For Schweitzer, it is still widely held that Jesus was a Jewish apocalypticist; but his specific elaboration of jesus’ message and mission are seen to be problematic now)

  9. Avatar
    Xeronimo74  October 13, 2012

    I’ve always been amazed about the lack of stories around the Apostles! I mean, they were the guys hanging around with (allegedly) GOD yet once Jesus supposedly flew up into the sky most of them simply disappear as well *poof* never to be heard from again.

    On a side note: another thing believers and apologists often claim is that early believers as a whole were a. immensely persecuted and b. were so because of their faith.

    Both doesn’t seem to hold up scrutiny though? According to books I’ve read, I think yours included, there was no widespread persecution. And when Christians WERE persecuted it was mostly for one of two reasons: 1. because local people thought that for example a drought was a punishment of the gods because Christians refused to worship them or 2. because Christians refused to also worship the Roman Emperor which would be treason against the state and that was punishable by death.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 13, 2012

      Yup, there was no empire wide persecution until Decius in 249 CE. Your other points I basically agree with. (But there were indeed local persecutions early: as Paul attests!)

      • Avatar
        Xeronimo74  October 14, 2012

        Weren’t these early local persecutions (by the Jews, right?) mainly due to these ‘Christians’ proclaiming their new teachings, which contradicted and even insulted long-held Jewish traditions, actually IN Jewish temples? Especially since by declaring your belief to be true you’re implicitly suggesting that all those other people, who refused to agree with you, are fools who didn’t get it? And we all know that people don’t like to be called or be treated as fools …

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  October 14, 2012

          My next popular book, after How Jesus Became God, may be devoted to this question of Jewish-Christian (antagonistic) relationships in the early church.

  10. Avatar
    Bill  October 13, 2012

    Now, a good time for me, would be to be at your side, when you, if you want to, visit the Vatican Library…perhaps you already have…the wonders that are there.

  11. Avatar
    larafakhouri  October 15, 2012

    When you or any other biblical scholar read the bible to interpret anything, do you assume, by default, that it is a reliable historical source ?
    Many, including you, tend to rely on one certain passage to interpret an event or a fact disregarding others.
    For instance, you are saying that probably the apostles have seen visions rather than the, allegedly, resurrected Jesus yet Thomas have put his finger on Jesus wound. How can you relate that to what is assumed about the visions?
    How do you approach the Bible when you interpret it?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 16, 2012

      Ah, you’re asking how critical scholars of the NT go about doing their work! I’d suggest you read up on that, possibly starting with my book Jesus Interrupted; or possibly my textbook, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction….

  12. Avatar
    DPeel  October 15, 2012

    I have always been amazed at the amount of information/quotes/comments about/by Jesus AFTER the resurrection. There is very little and it seems this was a very important time. If Jesus had been resurrected, why didn’t the writers tell what Jesus had experienced during this time? Why wasn’t there more from the gospel writers? What is the explanations by the experts?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 16, 2012

      Yeah, there’s not much of an explanation. IN the Gnostic Gospels, of course, we find at amazing length what it is that Jesus taught. And its’ not what the church Fathers wanted to hear!

    • Avatar
      Xeronimo74  October 16, 2012

      Agreed. A story from ‘inside of the tomb’ (from the time the corpse allegedly was put there to the actual’resurrection’) or a story from the dead Jesus’ point of view would have been interesting! Not that this would have made the story any more believable 😉

  13. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 15, 2012

    Really good blog. Keep writing.

    Regarding earlier correspondence, I am sorry that people make up things about you. You have been most kind in your correspondence with me and others on this blog. This morning I read the chapter in your New Testament textbook on Acts and got some further understanding of how history was written during ancient times. I still can’t imagine making stuff up about a topic as serious as Jesus, but then my background is science where nothing is taken as “truth” until it is repeated and repeated and repeated in experiment after experiment after experiment. It makes more sense to me that a Gospel author just not comment on an event rather than embellish it.

  14. Avatar
    rich-ilm  December 24, 2014

    Dr. Ehrman –
    Would you happen to have a list of the references, biblical or apocryphal, of the apostles being martyred where we get this line of reasoning?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 24, 2014

      So far as I know there *are* no references — this is a modern view. I don’t know where it is first stated, but it’s not in the ancient Christian texts.

  15. John4
    John4  July 13, 2015

    I have a quibble, Bart.

    You write: “Acts does mention the death of James and the death of Stephen – the latter was not a disciple and did not have a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus granted to him.

    But, of course, Acts *does* relate in chapter 7 a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to Stephen:

    54 When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen.[j] 55 But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”

    Many thanks. 🙂

    • Bart
      Bart  July 13, 2015

      The term “post-resurrection appearance” means a physical appearance of Jesus to someone here on earth, not a vision of Jesus up in heaven.

      • John4
        John4  July 13, 2015

        Well, yes. But, it appears to me that your assumption, Bart, has been that any “physical appearance of Jesus to someone here on earth” has been in fact a vision as well. Stephen’s vision was of Jesus up in heaven. Paul’s, I suppose, was of Jesus up in the third heaven. I don’t know that Paul’s vision was really very different than Stephen’s?

        Now, I do, as it happens, recall a girl in my junior high Sunday school class who matter-of-factly told us one Sunday morning of coming home from school one afternoon that week to find Jesus sitting on her bed in her room. *Her* vision was of a “post-resurrection appearance” was of “a physical appearance of Jesus to someone here on earth” and could thus, I suppose, be distinguished from Stephen’s, lol.

        Many thanks, Bart. 🙂

  16. Christopher
    Christopher  May 3, 2017

    Can you recommend a good reading or source for what happened to the disciples? I have look over Amazon, but most of the books about what happened to the disciples seem to lean more towards the fable and conjecture side than the fact side.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 4, 2017

      I’m afraid that all we have for the most part are later legends. For those, see the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles. The ones we know most about are Peter, Paul, and Mary, about whom I wrote a book with that title.

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