What is the value in studying the martyrdom of the first-generation eyewitnesses of the resurrection? For one thing, the persecution and martyrdom of these early disciples serves to confirm that, at minimum, they sincerely believed their message to be true. But since their claim was that they had been first hand eye-witnesses, their willingness to face persecution and in most cases martyrdom was not based on a religious or faith-based commitment, nor an oral tradition. Rather, it was based on something which they had actually seen first-hand with their own eyes. Many people have been martyred over the centuries for a religious belief. But how many have died for the advancement and propagation of a known lie? To the contrary, when life or liberty is at stake, multi-party conspiracies invariably break down.
As J.P. Moreland explains,
“The disciples had nothing to gain by lying and starting a new religion. They faced hardship, ridicule, hostility and martyr’s deaths. In light of this, they could have never sustained such unwavering motivation if they knew what they were preaching was a lie. The disciples were not fools and Paul was a cool-headed intellectual of the first rank. There would have been several opportunities over three to four decades of ministry to reconsider and renounce the lie.”
One must take caution with such an argument, however, since many of the accounts of the fates of the disciples come too late to be of substantial value, and many of the accounts have clearly been legendarily embellished. We can, however, establish the martyrdom of some of the alleged eyewitnesses for their faith. My case, will largely be based, therefore, on those whom we can confidently affirm did meet this fate.
The Martyrdom of Jesus’ Brother James
According to John 7, “After this, Jesus went around Galilee, purposely staying away from Judea because the Jews there were waiting to take his life. But when the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles was near, Jesus’ brothers said to him, ‘You ought to leave here and go to Judea, so that your disciples may see the miracles you do. No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.’ For even his own brothers did not believe in him.” Thus, there is good evidence to believe that neither James (Jesus’ half brother) nor any of Jesus’ younger siblings believed his message, nor his personal self-claims, during his life. This is further supported by Mark 3:20-21 – “Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.’”
It seems absurd that the early church would invent fictitious stories about the unbelief of Jesus’ own family had they been faithful followers all along. For a Jewish rabbi to be lacking the support of his own family undermined his perceived credibility. Yet it can be confidently established that James and his brothers later became active Christians following Jesus’ execution and subsequent resurrection, even being martyred for their confession. According to Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 20:9:1,
“And now Caesar, upon hearing the death of Festus, sent Albinus into Judea, as procurator. But the king deprived Joseph of the high priesthood, and bestowed the succession to that dignity on the son of Ananus, who was also himself called Ananus. Now the report goes that this eldest Ananus proved a most fortunate man; for he had five sons who had all performed the office of a high priest to God, and who had himself enjoyed that dignity a long time formerly, which had never happened to any other of our high priests. But this younger Ananus, who, as we have told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed; when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity [to exercise his authority]. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned: but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done; they also sent to the king [Agrippa], desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act so no more, for that what he had already done was not to be justified; nay, some of them went also to meet Albinus, as he was upon his journey from Alexandria, and informed him that it was not lawful for Ananus to assemble a sanhedrin without his consent. Whereupon Albinus complied with what they said, and wrote in anger to Ananus, and threatened that he would bring him to punishment for what he had done; on which king Agrippa took the high priesthood from him, when he had ruled but three months, and made Jesus, the son of Damneus, high priest.” [emphasis added]
Some skeptics have claimed that the James mentioned in this passage is actually the brother of Jesus, the son of Damneus (a high priest who is mentioned towards the end of this passage). The title of “Christ”, we are told, is to be expected because Josephus would consider any high priest to be a “Christ”. The problem with this argument is that Josephus does not call any priest elsewhere in his writings a “Christ”. Jesus ben Damneus was not a high priest at the time of James’ trial but only became one at the time of his later mention. Thus, there is no basis for thinking that Jesus ben Damneus would have been called “Christ”. Moreover, when Josephus tells us of a character’s parentage, he always does it the first time the character is introduced (not in subsequent references). This means that Josephus’ later mention of Jesus ben Damneus has to be the first time the character is introduced. The passage is also thought by Origen to be speaking of Jesus of Nazareth.
Furthermore, Hegesippus (110-180 A.D.), in the fifth book of his memoirs (as quoted by Eusebius), writes,
“James, the brother of the Lord, succeeded to the government of the Church in conjunction with the apostles. He has been called the Just by all from the time of our Savior to the present day; for there were many that bore the name of James…[W]hen many even of the rulers believed, there was a commotion among the Jews and Scribes and Pharisees, who said that there was danger that the whole people would be looking for Jesus as the Christ. Coming therefore in a body to James they said, ‘We entreat thee, restrain the people; for they are gone astray in regard to Jesus, as if he were the Christy We entreat thee to persuade all that have come to the feast of the Passover concerning Jesus; for we all have confidence in thee. For we bear thee witness, as do all the people, that thou art just, and dost not respect per sons. Do thou therefore persuade the multitude not to be led astray concerning Jesus. For the whole people, and all of us also, have confidence in thee. Stand therefore upon the pinnacle of the temple, that from that high position thou mayest be clearly seen, and that thy words may be readily heard by all the people. For all the tribes, with the Gentiles also, are come together on account of the Passover.’ The aforesaid Scribes and Pharisees therefore placed James upon the pinnacle of the temple, and cried out to him and said: Thou just one, in whom we ought all to have: confidence, forasmuch as the people are led, astray after Jesus, the crucified one, declare to us, what is the gate of Jesus.’ And he answered with a loud voice,’ Why do ye ask me concerning Jesus, the Son of Man? He himself sitteth in heaven at the right hand of the great Power, and is about to come upon the clouds of heaven.’ And when many were fully convinced and gloried in the testimony of James, and said, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David,’ these same Scribes and Pharisees said again to one another,’ We have done badly in supplying such testimony to Jesus. But let us go up and throw him down, in order that they may be afraid to believe him.’ And they cried out, saying, ‘Oh! oh! the just man is also in error.’ And they fulfilled the Scripture written in Isaiah, ‘ Let us take away the just man, because he is troublesome to us: therefore they shall eat the fruit of their doings.’ So they went up and threw down the just man, and said to each other, ‘Let us stone James the Just.’ And they began to stone him, for he was not killed by the fall; but he turned and knelt down and said, ‘I entreat thee, Lord God our Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ And while they were thus stoning him one of the priests of the sons of Rechab, the son of the Rechabites, who are mentioned by Jeremiah the prophet, cried out, saying, ‘Cease, what do ye? The just one prayeth for you. And one of them, who was a fuller, took the club with which he beat out clothes and struck the just man on the head. And thus he suffered martyrdom. And they buried him on the spot, by the temple, and his monument still remains by the temple. He became a true witness, both to Jews and Greeks, that Jesus is the Christ. And immediately Vespasian besieged them.”
And so we have confirmation from Josephus and Hegesippus as to the fact that James was martyred for his faith. How much would it take to convince you that your elder brother is God in the flesh to the point that you are willing to die for that belief? By far the best explanation is that, in the words of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, ‘he appeared to James’. We also know from the book of Galatians that Paul visited James in Jerusalem three years following Paul’s conversion to the Christian faith. Here’s the question I like to put to the skeptics: How much would it take to convince you that your elder brother was God incarnate — indeed, the Yahweh of the Hebrew Bible — to the point of martyrdom? Just think about that.
The Martyrdom of Peter
Of particular significance is the martyrdom by crucifixion of the Apostle Peter. In accordance with Jesus’ prediction, Peter had denied the Lord three times during Jesus’ interrogation, in the interests of preserving his own life, for he was terrified of the possible outcome if his allegiance to Jesus became known. The stakes were high, and it seems that the prospect of crucifixion truly terrified Peter. According to Mark 14:66-71,
“While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came by. When she saw Peter warming himself, she looked closely at him. ‘You also were with that Nazarene, Jesus,’ she said. But he denied it. ‘I don’t even know or understand what you’re talking about,’ he said, and went out into the entryway. When the servant girl saw him there, she said again to those standing around, ‘This fellow is one of them.’ Again he denied it. After a little while, those standing near said to Peter, ‘Surely you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.’ He began to call down curses on himself, and he swore to them, ‘I don’t know this man you’re talking about.’”
This incident is almost certainly authentic for the following reasons:
- The embarrassment factor – it puts Peter in a bad light, and makes him out to be a coward of the worst sort. Despite Peter’s emphatic affirmation that “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you,” the fear became too much for him, and he cracked under the pressure.
- It appears in Mark’s Gospel – which Peter played a large part in contributing to.
- This incident is attested to in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and independently in John (being included in all four of the Gospels).
And yet it can be taken as historically certain that Peter boldly went to his death by crucifixion for his testimony that he had personally seen the resurrected Lord. The earliest sources for this date back extremely early indeed. John 21:18-19 anticipates Peter’s death in this way: “…when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and take you where you do not want to go.”
Not only is Peter killed by crucifixion, but even upside down at his own request because he did not feel himself worthy to be crucified in the same manner as his Lord. Peter’s death is attested to by Clement of Rome, Tertullian, Jerome and also by Origen. Origen, for example, writes that “Peter was crucified at Rome with his head downwards, as he himself had desired to suffer.”
Such a radical transformation demands explanation. My contention is that by far the best explanation is, in the words of 1 Corinthians 15, “…he appeared to Peter.”
Peter’s martyrdom experience also authenticates his claim to be a first-hand eyewitness. He writes in 2 Peter 1:16-18, “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honour and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.”
The Martyrdom of Paul
We know from multiple sources that Paul – who was then known as Saul of Tarsus – was an enemy of the church and committed to persecuting and killing Christians. Paul himself says that he was converted to a follower of Jesus because he had personally encountered the resurrected Lord.
In addition to Paul’s writings, we have six ancient sources (Luke, Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Tertullian, Dionysius of Corinth and Origen) reporting that Paul was willing to suffer continuously and even die for his beliefs. Again, liars make poor martyrs.
Thus we can be sure that Paul not only claimed the risen Jesus appeared to him, but that he sincerely believed that he had. Paul’s emphasis on the resurrection is iterated in 1 Corinthians 15: “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.”
One cannot make the claim that Paul was a disciple of Jesus who was primed to see a vision of him due to wishful thinking or grief after the execution. Saul was a most unlikely candidate for conversion. His mindset was to oppose the Christian movement that he believed was following a false messiah.
Paul’s radical transformation from persecutor to missionary and martyr demands an explanation – the best of which by far is that he is telling the truth when he says he met the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus.
While the testimony of martyrdom may carry weight only in so far as it demonstrates the sincerity of one’s beliefs, it nonetheless — at the very least — is suggestive that the disciples were sincere when they claimed to have met, and interacted with, the resurrected Christ. With respect to the disciples’ claims, there are basically three possibilities: (1) They were lying; (2) they were honestly mistaken; and (3) they were telling the truth about what they actually saw. This argument militates against the first of those possibilities. The number and variety of the post-resurrection appearances, in combination with the counter-Judaic nature of the claims in question, militates against the second of those possibilities.