This is the final guest post by Kyle Smith, based on his recently published book about martyrs and the cult of the saints in Christianity. There 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.”
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