Pastors, apologists, and other Christians love proclaiming the deaths of the apostles as evidence for the Christian faith. As I lay out in The Fate of the Apostles, the willingness of the apostles to be martyred for their faith is one critical piece of evidence for the reliability of the resurrection accounts.
Despite the popularity of this claim, there are no early, reliable accounts that the apostles were given the opportunity to recant their beliefs before being killed. Does this undermine the claim that they were martyrs?
The earliest record of executions for merely bearing the name “Christian” comes from a letter the governor Pliny wrote to Emperor Trajan (AD 112), long after the death of the last apostle:
I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished …. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image … and moreover cursed Christ … these I thought should be discharged.
Although Pliny’s represents the first explicit reference to the mere bearing of the name “Christian” as being sufficient to warrant death, there is good reason to believe the practice existed much earlier, even into the mid-to-late first century when the apostles engaged in missionary activity.
Peter urges Christians to expect and accept persecution for the name of Christ: “Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name” (1 Pet 4:16). In his classic study on persecution in the early church, Geoffrey de Ste. Croix argues that persecution “for the Name” likely began during the time of Emperor Nero (AD 54-68): “The onus is one those who deny the early importance of this long-lasting element to produce reasons why it should have arisen only after Pliny’s day, when all that we know of Roman religion would lead us to expect its appearance very soon after Christianity first attracted the attention of the government.”
Professor Candida Moss, on the other hand, believes the lack of official records of the apostles being given the opportunity to recant and live undermines the validity of their testimony. This is the missing element, she claims, required to make the argument they died for Christ.
She is right that there is not a record of the apostles being offered the opportunity to recant, but they ministered in potentially caustic environments with full awareness of the possible consequences for their actions. And they could have easily withdrawn their beliefs at any time. As Thomas Wespetal has observed, “Thus individuals like John the Baptist, Zechariah (2 Chr 24:20-22) and Uriah (Jer 26:20-23), although they were given no formal opportunity to recant, could have forestalled their deaths had they taken the initiative to retract their accusations against their king.”
The apostles publicly proclaimed the Lordship of a crucified criminal who was condemned by the Roman state. Jesus had even warned them that they would be persecuted and hated as he was (John 15:18-25). Every time the apostles proclaimed the name of Christ, then, they willingly risked death and persecution. Even so, they refused to stop proclaiming the risen Jesus. Given their active proclamation of Christ, and their full awareness of the cost of such proclamation, if some of the apostles died for their faith, they qualify under the traditional definition of martyr.
Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author of over 15 books, an internationally recognized speaker, and a part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog at seanmcdowell.org.
Pliny the Younger Letters 10.96-97, as cited in Roman Civilization: Selected Readings, 3rd ed., ed. Naphtali Lewis and Meyer Reinhold, vol. 2 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), 551-53.
G.E.M. de Ste. Croix, Christian Persecution, Martyrdom, and Orthodoxy, ed. Michael Whitby and Joseph Streeter (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 150.
Moss, The Myth of Persecution (New York: HarperCollins, 2013), 137.
See Acts 4, 5, 6:8-8:3, and 12:1-5.
Thomas J. Wespetal, “Martyrdom and the Furtherance of God’s Plan: The Value of Dying for the Christian Faith” (Ph.D. diss., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 2005), 34.