This is the final guest post by Kyle Smith, based on his recently published book about martyrs and the cult of the saints in ChristianityThere is a special bonus for this post! A significant discount offer to buy the book. Go for it!

And whether or not you do buy the book, feel free to ask him questions or make comments on this post, on a widely misunderstood but important topic.

Kyle is the author or coauthor of five books about Christian saints and martyrs, including Cult of the Dead: A Brief History of Christianity (University of California Press, 2022). As a special bonus for readers of the blog, you can buy Cult of the Dead today at 40% off the cover price! Click here to order directly from the University of California Press, then select “UC Press” under the “Buying Options” drop down menu and enter coupon code CULT40 at checkout. Offer valid until March 31, 2023.


The Christian passion for martyrdom began with the cross, but it is often forgotten that this tool of Roman torture was more than just a reminder of a single event in the past. The cross was a model for imitation again and again.

According to the many ancient and medieval legends about the deaths of the apostles, all but one of Jesus’s eleven faithful followers was martyred. Some were crucified, others beheaded, stabbed, flayed, or sawn in half. Only John is said to have died of old age. Even Judas Iscariot died violently—though just how is unclear. Among the many lurid traditions to choose from are the two contradictory ones in the Bible (Matthew 27:5 says Judas hung himself; Acts 1:18 claims he died from a fall into a field) and the fourth-century Gospel of Nicodemus, which includes a memorable anecdote about the resurrection of a roasted chicken.

Whether any of the tales about the apostles’ deaths is true or not is a question that has important consequences for many Christians. One common argument heard from apologists goes something like this: if all the apostles were martyred, then it proves that the resurrection of Jesus must also be true. How so? Well, because surely no one would die for a myth!

There are several problems with this line of reasoning, the most obvious of which is that just because some people think something happened doesn’t mean that it did. (Plenty of Americans remain convinced that Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election, but it doesn’t mean that he did.)

Beyond the logical holes in the apologists’ argument is its basic premise itself: the apostles were killed for their faith. We can’t dismiss the possibility (however remote) that this is what happened to all of them, but we also don’t have any reliable evidence to say that it did. Even if we were to take the Bible at face value (casually omitting its hiccup with Judas), there is only one other biblical story about the death of an apostle: King Herod Agrippa “had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword” (Acts 12:2). That’s it. That’s all we hear.

So, with the exception of what Acts says about James—and, arguably, the additional exception of the early traditions about the deaths of Peter and Paul (see Bart’s Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History and Legend)—every other legend about the death of an apostle is about as reliable, and often as late, as that fourth-century one involving Judas and the chicken.

Let’s briefly survey just some of the surviving stories:

James the Less, often called the brother of Jesus, was said to have been stoned in Jerusalem. But other traditions have it that this James was thrown from the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem. After somehow surviving the fall, he was finished off with a fuller’s club. One tradition about Matthew, which presumes an impossibly fast acceleration of the institutional and liturgical development of Christianity, holds that he was stabbed in Ethiopia while saying Mass. It seems that he had angered the Ethiopian king when he scolded him for pursuing his own niece. Besides being a blood relative of the king, the young woman was a virgin and a nun.

Thomas was speared even farther afield, also thanks to his preaching about sexual ethics. One early story put Thomas’s death in Persia, but the most enduring tradition about this apostle claims that he died in India after convincing many women there (including the married ones) to convert to Christianity and pursue lives of chastity. Apparently, their husbands were less smitten with the plan.

Andrew is said to have succumbed in Greece after being bound to an X-shaped cross. And, like Andrew, at least three other apostles are said to have been crucified. The consensus about Peter (Andrew’s brother) is that he was crucified in Rome around the time Paul was beheaded there. Jesus had warned Peter that he would be made to “stretch out” his hands (John 21:18), a turn of phrase often interpreted as a prediction of Peter’s crucifixion. According to the most widely known story about Peter, he was crucified upside down, at his own request, so that no one would equate his death with Jesus’s. Some ancient sources say that Philip and Jude were crucified too. But others say that Jude was axed (or clubbed to death like James the Less) and that Philip died after being suspended by his ankles on iron hooks like a slaughtered pig.

Simon the Zealot, the most obscure of the twelve, was either crucified with Jude in Persia or sawn in half there. Most renditions of Simon show him standing, whole again, while jauntily leaning against a crosscut saw as long as he is tall. Depicting martyrs with the means of their martyrdom is a standard artistic practice.

Last, we come to the martyrdom of Bartholomew, which definitely wins the prize for most appalling. Depending on which ancient source one consults, he was crucified, flayed, or beheaded—or some combination of the three—in either India or Armenia. In the Sistine Chapel’s altar wall fresco of the Last Judgment, Michelangelo presents the Armenian flaying. Hovering on a cloud at Jesus’s feet, the nude and thickly bearded apostle holds a flensing knife in his right hand; in his left, he clutches the empty bag of his own skin. Art historians have long surmised that the skin-bag Bartholomew’s boneless and sagging face is a distorted self-portrait that Michelangelo quietly painted into the fresco.

So, what do the apostles’ deaths prove?

These stories certainly don’t prove the truth of the resurrection, but—just as certainly—they do prove something very important about the history of Christianity. For centuries, generations of Christians have believed that those who followed Jesus in life must have also followed him in death. How else would Michelangelo know to paint Bartholomew as he did?

Dying for Christ, these stories announce, is nothing extraordinary. It is just what is expected of a “true disciple,” as Ignatius of Antioch once put it. And if culture, as the anthropologist Clifford Geertz famously said, is the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, then the culture of early Christianity was founded upon telling the stories of those who died for Christ. In other words? Martyrdom is the fundamental principle of Christianity.

Ignatius himself is a perfect example.

A number of letters attributed to Ignatius still survive, most of them written to budding Christian communities as the bishop was being hauled from Antioch to Rome across Asia Minor. Several of these letters are undoubtedly spurious, written or heavily embellished by others long after the fact, but some are quite likely to be genuine epistles from the early second century.

In one of the most frequently cited passages from his Letter to the Romans, Ignatius implores his readers not to intercede with the Roman authorities on his behalf. He tells them that they would be doing him a grave disservice were they to stop him from being thrown to the lions: “Let me be the food of wild beasts,” he pleads, “through whom it is possible to attain God.” In describing his body as “God’s wheat,” Ignatius fashions his flesh into grist to be ground in the mill of martyrdom and then baked into “Christ’s pure bread.” For Ignatius, the conclusion is clear: willingly dying for Christ is simply what it means to be a “true disciple.”

The idea that Jesus’s violent and painful death should be celebrated as a model for Christians to follow might strike many today as absurd. Narrow though the road that leads to life may be, surely Jesus did not intend for it to wend its way through a lion’s colon? But for many of the earliest Christians, if much more in theory than ever in actual fact, sanctity was to be found in following Jesus down just such a tapered path. If his life was to be imitated, why not his death?

We obscure this fundamental fact about the history of Christianity when we allow the word saint to conjure up the image of a pious and peaceful person, some sort of garden-variety Saint Francis with a bird on his shoulder. What do the apostles’ deaths prove? Well, any clearheaded study of the ancient stories about the apostles and martyrs and the vast religious culture that arose around them must inevitably lead to “the inescapable but repugnant conclusion,” as Candida Moss once put it, “that dying for Christ may be a central, rather than peripheral, part of the Christian experience.”

Over $2 Million Donated to Charity!

We have two goals at Ehrman Blog. One is to increase your knowledge of the New Testament and early Christianity. The other is to raise money for charity! In fact, in 2022, we raised over $360,000 for the charities below.

Become a Member Today!


2023-03-12T12:47:26-04:00March 12th, 2023|Public Forum|

Share Bart’s Post on These Platforms


  1. manny5 March 12, 2023 at 6:48 pm

    Do you know why on the 6th CE they would not represent Jesus crucifixion? I visited Ravenna, which has beautiful mosaics of the 6th CE in many churches, and there is not one depiction of the crucifixion. The S. Apollinare Nuovo Basilica has many scenes of Jesus life, but no crucifixion. Even the cross, in a schematic representation, is rare. It seems suffering and martyrdom were not in vogue. Christ Triumphant was the preferred view.

    • kylesmithTO March 13, 2023 at 11:36 am

      I’m no art historian (if there is one reading this, please weigh in!), but it’s my understanding that there’s no flagellation/crucifixion in the mosaic cycle of Sant’Apollinare because the church was originally constructed by a Arian Christian, Theodoric the Great. One key claim of the Arians was that God the Father “adopted” Jesus (and therefore instilled some sort of lesser divinity in him) only *after* the crucifixion and resurrection. Note, however, that there are two dozen or more martyrs depicted in the mosaics, so martyrdom (at least) is still present here as a theme!

  2. RayC March 13, 2023 at 3:05 am

    While the truth about how the apostles died are suspect, the point of their not dying for a myth is not the same as people believing Trump won. First hand knowledge is different than learning about something second hand. The first means we can decide using direct knowledge. The second means we must believe what we hear or read. Not the same thing.

    I’m not sure I agree with your assessment that dying for Christ is central to Christianity. When governments decide that killing someone for their beliefs is acceptable, then one must either renounce those beliefs or suffer the consequences. Executing the believer is central to government action. This doesn’t make it central to belief any more than saying dying is central for committing treason, for which one may be executed.

    This is true for anyone with beliefs. The founders of this country were willing to die for their beliefs in self-government. But this does not reverse cause and effect. Dying was not central to those beliefs, keeping their beliefs in the face of death was.

    Anyway, thanks for the background on the apostles deaths!

    • kylesmithTO March 13, 2023 at 11:17 am

      Thanks for your comment, Ray! To clarify: I’m not saying that dying for Christ is a central theological tenet of Christianity (i.e., something to be “believed”) but rather that the stories of the deaths of the apostles and martyrs places their witness at the center of late ancient and medieval Christian culture — the liturgical celebration of the feast days of the saints, the construction of shrines to the saints, the importance of saints’ relics, and so forth. Second, and again on this topic of “beliefs,” I think it’s important to note that the Roman Empire didn’t kill a single Christian for what he or she believed but for what they were vocal about failing to *do.* Namely, offer sacrifice to the Romans gods. It was this intransigence among some Christians that got them into trouble and demonstrated to Roman authorities that Christians were treasonous subjects of the empire.

  3. charrua March 13, 2023 at 11:23 am

    “The idea that Jesus’s violent and painful death should be celebrated as a model for Christians to follow might strike many today as absurd.”

    I do not think it is absurd, in fact , strong as it sounds, the sentence ”Martyrdom is the fundamental principle of Christianity.” probably is very suitable for explaining much of the development of early christianity.

    But I think it would probably be the other way around.

    It was Jesus’ passion ( a Mark’s creation) that was modeled upon what christian endured when they were conducted to trials. That’s why we find Mark’s Jesus so “human” , it is not Jesus but an early christian that refuses to deny his faith when confronted to a Roman trial, the one who asks “Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me”; he perfectly knew the physical suffering he was about to endure ( Pliny’s terrible letter to Trajan about how he “dealt” with christians, written a few decades after Mark’s gospel).

    The fleeing disciples were those christians who avoided persecution by denying being christians, some of them felt a deeper remorse and kept wandering next to where their companions were being arrested, just like Peter.

  4. fishician March 13, 2023 at 11:44 am

    All 4 Gospels hint at disbelief among the Twelve even after the supposed resurrection. Matthew outright states it (Matt. 28:17) but written later John includes the story of Thomas’s doubt being dispelled by Jesus. I wonder if in fact some of the Twelve left in disillusionment and disappointment, and the stories of them all being martyred was a counter-reaction, as if to disprove the rumors of their defections, or simply to explain why they were not out evangelizing (they’re dead!). This may be pure speculation, but do you have any thoughts along this line?

    • kylesmithTO March 13, 2023 at 1:16 pm

      I think the stories about the apostles’ deaths arose largely as means of providing literary testimony to the truth of the resurrection. In that sense, modern apologists and ancient writers are on the same proverbial page, but whether all these events “actually happened” seems pretty unlikely to me. As for Thomas: you’re certainly right about his doubt! According to the most well known story about Thomas, the resurrected Jesus arranged for Thomas to be sold to a visiting merchant from the East because Thomas was so unwilling to follow Jesus’s instructions and travel there himself.

  5. RayC March 13, 2023 at 12:28 pm

    While the truth about how the apostles died are suspect, the point of their not dying for a myth is not the same as people believing Trump won. First hand knowledge is different than learning about something second hand. The first means we can decide using direct knowledge. The second means we must believe what we hear or read. Not the same thing.

    I’m not sure I agree with your assessment that dying for Christ is central to Christianity. When governments decide that killing someone for their beliefs is acceptable, then one must either renounce those beliefs or suffer the consequences. Executing the believer is central to government action. This doesn’t make it central to belief any more than saying dying is central for committing treason, for which one may be executed.

    This is true for anyone with beliefs. The founders of this country were willing to die for their beliefs in self-government. But this does not reverse cause and effect. Dying was not central to those beliefs, keeping their beliefs in the face of death was.

    Anyway, thanks for the background on the apostles deaths!

  6. giselebendor March 13, 2023 at 1:02 pm


    I think that the suffering and deaths of the Apostles signify,first of all,the accomplishment of Jesus’ prediction.
    I wonder what the chronology shows: could Jesus’ prophecy have been entered in the NT after the fact,ie,the Evangelists knew that the Apostles had been martyred?

    The martyrdoms of Apostles and Saints,for the most part,cannot be considered “Imitatio Christi”. It could be argued many ways Jesus engineered his own martyrdom.He didn’t have to go to Jerusalem, for example. Or he could have hidden after the Passover meal.The NT shows him as hiding on occasion. With rare exceptions,it doesn’t seem that the Apostles and Saints martyrdoms were voluntary.Peter denied Jesus three times,clearly out of fear.Perhaps Paul might have preferred not to die yet and to keep writing.

    It seems that the metastatic idea of suffering became the Christian ethos.The violent image of the Cross and the Crucified permeated the “soul” of Christendom,as a permanent reminder of the horror of life.

    Other,albeit less lethal,manifestations deriving from a basic culture of suffering were the flagellants,the mortifications and all manner of refusal to live in this world.Death,in general,was desirable to many.

    Eventually,the suffering,pain and the gaze towards Heaven also resulted in achingly beautiful,sad music.

    • kylesmithTO March 13, 2023 at 1:09 pm

      Thank you, Gisele. In terms of chronology, at least insofar as the textual sources we have would suggest, the traditions about the deaths of the apostles postdate the Gospels, in some cases dramatically.

      • rickgill March 14, 2023 at 11:35 am

        judas denied jesus and so did peter. the women run away and say nothing to anyone. my question is, is the prophecy “you will be persecuted because of me” not about peter or judas , but about marks disciples who were probably under going persecution?

        when peter is in danger, he runs away. what good would this story be to marks audience? the only good i can think of is

        “have faith, dont be like peter who cannot face death willingly”

  7. Stephen March 13, 2023 at 11:38 pm

    What real evidence do we have that Peter or Paul were martyred? We have hints in Acts and the Didache. The early writers sound a lot like they don’t have any real idea what actually happened. I’ve always imagined Paul being carried off by cannibals in the wilds of Spain and Peter dying in his bed after a lifetime of telling stories about the good old days.

    • kylesmithTO March 14, 2023 at 12:07 pm

      Well, I suppose that depends upon what you’re willing to count as “real” evidence! We have a lot of traditions, which I personally find to be fascinating. David Eastman’s “The Many Deaths of Peter and Paul” (Oxford 2019) is an excellent read.

  8. curtiswolf69 March 15, 2023 at 10:45 pm

    Could an explanation for the martyred apostle stories be that there was an expectation of persecution if you followed Jesus? Example: Mark 13:9 – “You must be on your guard. You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues. On account of me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them”. It may be that Jesus’ death was not “celebrated as a model for Christians to follow” as you wrote (though some like Ignatius may have been fine with it). But persecution even onto death was viewed as a real possibility for a Jesus follower. The stories just made the point that the persecution that Jesus predicted in Mark came true and Jesus’ disciples paid with their lives.

  9. thelad2 March 17, 2023 at 1:39 pm

    Thanks, Kyle. I’d like to expand on an earlier question asked by one of your readers: Why is it that so many historians (even Bart, I believe) are willing to credit the stories of Peter and Paul being martyred in Rome when the evidence we have for their two deaths is often no better than the evidence we have for the deaths of other Apostles? Frankly, there’s no good early evidence that Peter was ever in Rome.

    • kylesmithTO March 19, 2023 at 2:04 pm

      It’s a great question. Consider the means by which Peter is said to have been killed: on an inverted cross. The first we hear about that is from Eusebius of Caesarea, the fourth-century church historian, though Eusebius suggests that Origen of Alexandria (the third-century biblical exegete) may have mentioned it too. Even if Eusebius is right about Origen, that still means that the iconic means of Peter’s martyrdom isn’t first attested until nearly two centuries after the fact. Moreover, there is little agreement among our ancient sources about when (exactly) Peter and Paul were killed, whether they were killed on the same day (June 29), or even how and why they were killed. In fact, as David Eastman points out in his book “The Many Deaths of Peter and Paul,” the Acts of Peter doesn’t even say that Peter was killed because he was a follower of Christ. Rather, it was because he was going around Rome preaching sexual renunciation, most problematically to some of emperor Nero’s own concubines! In short, while it’s not outside the realm of possibility that both Peter and Paul could’ve been killed in Rome, you’re absolutely right that we just don’t have the evidence.

  10. JimRBainbridge March 17, 2023 at 4:35 pm

    Given the prominent role that the twelve are given in the Synoptics and the likely lifespan that poor peasant folk in first century Palestine would have enjoyed, it seems reasonable to think that some of them would have died by the time the stories involving them were being transmitted in written form. Is this because whatever became of the apostles just wasn’t known, or perhaps intentionally omitted? When Matthew tells us “…but some doubted”, is he implying that some of them went back to whatever it was they were doing before Jesus came along?

    • kylesmithTO March 19, 2023 at 1:51 pm

      I would think that all of them would have been dead before stories about their deaths (in whatever manner those deaths may have occurred) started to circulate. Even the stories we have about Peter and Paul, insofar as we’re able to date them, do not come from the first century. On this point, see my responses to some other questions on this post.

  11. jonas March 19, 2023 at 3:31 pm

    Really interesting post, Kyle. Thanks. Growing up in an evangelical church, the testimony of the martyrdom of the apostles was perhaps the most frequently bandied-about piece of evidence for the historicity of the resurrection. Speaking of Ignatius, the evidence of the Apostolic fathers (Ignatius, Polycarp, Clement) on this is also interesting. Ignatius and Polycarp were said to have been “hearers of John,” yet neither mentions this in their surviving correspondence and both seem to quote only written scripture when asserting facts about Jesus, his death, or the resurrection. Ignatius makes no mention of the disciples as exemplars of his own impending martyrdom. In fact, in the Epistle to the Romans, he seems to contrast his own condemned status to that of the “free” apostles Peter and Paul! Clement writes that Peter was martyred, but implies it was due to some kind of internal discord or envy within the community, not government persecution. He’s also very vague about where/when/how Paul died. It doesn’t appear that any of the Apostolic Fathers were aware that any of the original disciples had been martyred, strictly speaking! So where did they get this idea that they needed to die to be “real” disciples of Christ?

    • kylesmithTO March 19, 2023 at 5:24 pm

      Thanks, Jonas! Intriguing to hear your own personal history with this topic. I was raised Catholic, so the saints were everywhere and there wasn’t any more exclusive focus on the immediate followers of Jesus rather than ones of much later centuries, but this idea that you’ve noted about what it means to be a “real” disciple of Christ was certainly a common thread. How this narrative (one that was repeated both in literary texts and in more liturgical manifestations like the annual feast days of the saints, the shrines of the saints, and the relics and miracles attributed to the saints) has always intrigued me. It really is the *culture* of early and medieval Christianity and what my book, Cult of the Dead, is about. I might add that Jesus’s solitary time in the wilderness before his public ministry and his singleness in terms of not ever marrying is what inspired the earliest Christian ascetics and monks as well.

      • jonas March 19, 2023 at 10:56 pm

        It’s almost as if the martyrdoms of Ignatius and Polycarp (and maybe Clement — not sure how old the story about him being killed in Crimea is, but certainly 3rd/4th c.) inspired the passion narratives of the early apostles. If a disciple of a disciple like Ignatius died in this incredibly demonstrative and memorable way, calling themselves “true disciples” of Christ, then that’s how the original disciples must have died, too! Maybe more so!

      • AngeloB March 23, 2023 at 6:07 pm

        I wonder why Jesus never got married? Something to ponder

Leave A Comment