How Did the Apostles Die?

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Post Author: Bill Pratt

One of the most compelling apologetic arguments for the truth of the resurrection of Jesus is the fact that most of his closest followers were martyred for their beliefs.  Since these followers would have had first-hand knowledge of whether he actually did come back from the dead, their willingness to be persecuted and eventually die for this belief is hard to explain if the resurrection never did occur.

One of the challenges with making this argument is that the quality of the historical evidence for these martyr deaths varies greatly.  C. Michael Patton, of the Parchment and Pen blog, attempted to sort out the historical evidence for the deaths of 12 apostles in this blog post.  In his post, he grades the quality of the historical sources based on his own research.  He assigns a grade of “A” to the deaths with the best historical evidence (highest probability) all the way down to a grade of “D” for deaths where he considers the historical evidence to be weak (lowest probability).

For reference, here are each of the disciples along with their alleged year of martyrdom and the grade Patton assigned to their martyrdom accounts:

The Apostle James: year of death – 44-45 A.D.; grade of A

The Apostle Peter: year of death – 64 A.D.; grade of A

The Apostle Andrew: year of death – 70 A.D.; grade of B

The Apostle Thomas: year of death – 70 A.D.; grade of B

The Apostle Philip: year of death – 54 A.D.; grade of C

The Apostle Matthew: year of death – 60-70 A.D.; grade of B

The Apostle Nathaneal: year of death – 70 A.D.; grade of C

James the Brother of Jesus: year of death – 63 A.D.; grade of B

The Apostle Simon the Zealot: year of death – 74 A.D.; grade of B

The Apostle Judas Thaddeus: year of death – 72 A.D.; grade of C

The Apostle Matthias: year of death – 70 A.D.; grade of D

The Apostle Paul: year of death – 67 A.D.; grade of A

Out of the 12 martyrdom accounts he grades, 3 merited an “A,” 5 merited a “B,” 3 merited a “C,” and 1 merited a “D.”  In my opinion, the three accounts that garnered “A”s are enough evidence to uphold the apologetic argument.  What Patton demonstrates is that there is even more evidence than just these three.

Historical research can be very tricky, and these kinds of analyses are somewhat subjective.  I’m sure skeptics of Christianity might grade harder than Patton did, but I commend him for his attempt.  Please read the rest of his blog post if you want to know more of the details surrounding the deaths.

22 thoughts on “How Did the Apostles Die?”

  1. Bill Pratt,

    I have noticed a style that is pervasive throughout Christian apologetics. (Other fields as well, but particularly entrenched in this area.)

    Apologist Arthur says something. Apologist Bob assumes Arthur adequately researched the topic; it conforms to Apologist Bob’s paradigm—he repeats it. Apologist Carl assumes Arthur researched it, Bob verified it, and then repeats it again. Soon we go through apologists Doug, Ethan, Frank, Gary, Herman and Irvine. As well as Sunday School teachers, Jane, Kathy, Larry, Mike and Nate.

    At this point it is firmly rooted within the Christian community. And a skeptic who questions it is seen as being obstinate, or contentious. When actually, no one as really studied it at all! They are repeating what other said, assuming others have studied it.

    Nowhere is it more evident than this canard about the disciples being martyred for their beliefs.

    You indicated one of C. Michael Pattons’ qualifications was that he “read the primary historical sources.” I have four points to make on that.

    1. So what? If you read my blog entry on Peter’s death (thanks, Boz!) you can link right to the historical sources yourself on Peter’s death. Anyone with an hour on their hands can read through them at their leisure. I find it curious that this would remotely be considered a credential, or part of a qualification. Really? A Christian that reads writings by other Christians that takes about an hour’s time, is differentiated from the other apologists? On “one of the most compelling apologetic arguments for the truth of the resurrection of Jesus”?

    2. It is not just the reading—it is the analysis. Here there would be more time required. Read not just the specific martyr accounts, but place them in time (When where they written? What sources did the author have available? What sources did the author use in other writings?) C. Michael Patton does not indicate he performed any of this analysis; I can see why this was not included as a qualification.

    3. Oddly, C. Michael Patton doesn’t even indicate he read the primary historical sources! You may presume that, but how do we know he isn’t just Apologist Michael, relying on previous author’s works without doing the study itself?

    4. If C. Michael Patton did read the primary sources he got at least one very, very wrong. He refers to the death of “James the Lesser” as a “B” on his historical content, yet this account by Hegesippus was written about James, the Brother of Jesus, NOT James the Lesser.

    Did anyone else notice Bill Pratt changed C. Michael Patton’s “James the Lesser” to “James the Brother of Jesus” without comment? Did anyone else wonder if it had to do with that pesky comment by that skeptic “DagoodS” on the Parchment and Pen Blog? I wondered…*grin*

    Like Vinny, I have significant questions regarding the methodology used to make these grades. Keeping with James the Brother of Jesus—why is that a “B” based on Hegesippus? Hegesippus utilized the Second Apocalypse of James—what is the grade for that writing? Is it less or more than Hegsippus’ “B”? The 2nd Apocalypse appears to utilize Josephus (although that is not necessarily clear). Where is Josephus’ grade?

    Or take the boiling of John, son of Zebedee. C. Michael Patton places that as a “C.” Yet we get that from Tertullian, who indicates Peter was crucified—something C. Michael Patton places as an “A.” Why the difference? How can the same author write about the deaths of two disciples in the same paragraph, and on one count get an “A” and another get a “C”?

    (I noticed you skipped John.)

    Bill Pratt, you may point out whatever blog entries you like, of course. But if a lurker is interested, I suggest they look at the primary historical documents themselves (you intimate this would be a step toward qualifying as being credentialed to make grading for historical reliability.) Not simply rely upon what others say without sources, cites or links.

    They may be surprised at how scant, how late and how mythical the stories are regarding the disciple’s deaths.

  2. Is there anything more common than attributing a noble death to one’s heroes? Was there any Civil War general who didn’t utter some inspirational battle cry with his last breath? Even in our own day and age, the U.S. Army couldn’t resist the temptation to turn Pat Tillman’s death into a propaganda coup.

    I like Dagoods description of how apologetics often work, but I would add another element, Each apologist in the chain states the argument in slightly stronger terms as Bill did by adding a claim that Patton didn’t make about studying the primary sources.

  3. Dagoods,
    Patton said the following: “The following is my attempt to take the best of all the sources and share the most likely scenario for each Apostle’s death.” I take this to mean he read the historical sources. Anyone but hypercritical skeptics would read his sentence that way.

    As for James the Lesser vs. James the brother of Jesus, I took this as a mistake in Patton’s analysis, so I corrected it because I don’t want to propagate mistakes when I am aware of them. I am not sure why he said “James the Lesser.” Maybe he’s right and I’ve missed something – not sure.

    Finally, I have always commended people to go read for themselves. The reason I don’t do my own first-hand research on every single topic is because I simply don’t have the time. I have read Patton’s blog over a long period of time, and I have found him to be a thorough and learned writer about apologetics and theology topics. I trust him, so I am comfortable sending people his way. He may not be right about everything, but none of us are, not even you. 🙂

  4. Vinny,
    You may want to read the last paragraph in my post. If anything, I weakened the certainty of Patton’s grades, admitting that this analysis necessarily contains a subjective element. Oh, I do think Patton claimed to read the primary sources. Read my response to Dagoods.

  5. Bill,

    In your post titled “The Top Ten Myths about Homosexuality,” you made a number of affirmative statements about what the researched showed. A hypocritical skeptic might interpret such statements to mean that you had some personal familiarity with the research. Otherwise, you would have said something like “The Family Research Council says that this is what the research shows. ”

    What makes you think that Patton doesn’t suffer from the same time constraints that you do? Why does his statement make you think that he did the primary research rather than simply relying on a summary by someone that he considered reliable?

  6. Bill Pratt,

    It was not from specific words written by C. Michael Patton that I came to the conclusion he didn’t read the sources—it was from the errors contained in the statements. Exactly as I indicated earlier—you seem to presume he read the sources, without verifying it yourself.

    I know where he obtained the information on James the Lesser—he utilized other Christian resources. Just do a google search [I’m not including links because my comments tend to disappear into a spam filter when I do] on “how did ‘James the Less’ die” and you will quickly find numerous sources claiming he was thrown off the temple, stoned, and then killed with a fuller’s club.

    However, the original source of this story—Hegesippus–starts off the account with, “James, the Lord’s brother, succeeds to the government of the Church, in conjunction with the apostles. He has been universally called the Just, from the days of the Lord down to the present time. For many bore the name of James; but this one was holy from his mother’s womb.”*

    *this is a Protestant issue. My cursory study indicates many Christian scholars—particularly Catholics—hold that “brother of the Lord” was not a physical relationship, but rather a honorific, like we say, “My brother in Christ” or “My sister in Christ.” That the James who was the leader in the early church was James the Lesser—at best a cousin of Jesus.

    So if C. Michael Patton makes the same claim makes, but contrary to the claim the primary source [Hegesippus] makes, I feel I am on safe ground to say C. Michael Patton did not read (or at least did not utilize) the primary source.

    Simply put, C. Michael Patton relied upon some other apologist for doing the work without verifying it. Exactly what I pointed out in my first comment. And now YOU rely upon him; without verifying it.

    On Peter, C. Michael Patton refers to Eusebius, but completely skips over the early works of 1 Clement, Acts of Peter and Tertullian. Again, why skip the “primary sources” (other than the fact they disagree with what C. Michael Patton was saying!)?

    He relies upon Hippolytus for Andrew and Thomas, but contradicts Hippolytus on Phillip (partly), Matthew, Bartholomew (partly), Simon the Zealot, Thaddeus/Jude/Lebbaeus and Matthais. Now how am I supposed to determine what “primary source” he is even using, let alone reading? Sometimes it is Hippolytus, but when that is inconvenient, it switches to Eusebius.

    Bill Pratt, I will explain why this is a slight bone of contention with me. You are certainly not the root cause (although, regrettably, you do contribute to the problem.)

    At the close of his claims, C. Michael Patton states, “I believe that the deaths of the Apostles increase the certainty level of the historicity of the resurrection to a level that is beyond excuse for disbelief.” He then indicates three (3) possible excuses for why some skeptic like me is not convinced: 1) anti-supernatural bias, 2) angry at God or 3) feeling jilted by God.

    So far, I’m O.K. But now I want to actually discuss the sources themselves. I want to read what they actually say, place them in their time frame; review them in light of other documents. And at this point the apologist disappears.

    You indicated in this blog entry, that this is “one of the most compelling apologetic arguments for the truth of the resurrection of Jesus.” Look, we aren’t talking about some nuanced translation of some numbered soldiers in a Tanakh account. You use the words, “one of the most compelling arguments”; C. Michael Patton says this “increase[s] the certainty level of the historicity of the resurrection to a level that is beyond excuse for disbelief.”

    This sounds pretty important to me!

    Yet when I want to actually discuss it, when I take the time to read the New Testament, 1 Clement, Martyrdom of Polycarp, Acts of Paul, Acts of Peter, 2nd Apocalypse of James, Josephus, Lucian, Tertullian, Hippolytus and Eusebius–ALL having a bearing on this issue–I am told the apologist doesn’t have time.

    Too hard.

    Frankly, if you all don’t seem to think it is so important to invest the time—why should I? Why should I think it such a great argument?

    Again, your choice. But please, PLEASE do not agree with C. Michael Patton that I am not convinced because of anti-supernatural bias, or anger or a feeling of being jilted. When I have done the study the apologist is reluctant to do.

  7. Dagoods,
    I am trying to contact Patton to see what his sources were. If he responds I’ll let you know what his answer is.

  8. Bill,

    Do you care to reconsider your assertion that “[o]ne of the most compelling apologetic arguments for the truth of the resurrection of Jesus is the fact that most of his closest followers were martyred for their beliefs”?

  9. Dagoods and Vinny,
    Michael Patton responded to me and here is what he said. “The early church fathers are the primary resource the secondary resources (such as my blog post) gauge from. I worked through these looking to see how substantial the primary resources were and then judged the likelihood [based] upon their credibility.”

    I think we can put this matter to rest. Christian apologists do actually research primary sources sometimes!

  10. No, probably not. 8 out of the 12 apostles Patton looked at graded A or B, therefore I think that the word “most” is appropriate. I guess I could say “many” but the difference is minimal.

  11. He gauges from” the primary sources? What does that even mean? If Patton read all the primary sources for himself, why doesn’t he just say so? If his assessment is supported by the primary sources, why doesn’t he say so? Patton generally impresses me as a pretty decent guy. The fact that he is engaging in such obfuscation here tells me everything I need to know.

  12. Huh? Vinny, how much more clear can he make himself? He said he read the primary sources in the original post. He re-confirmed that with personal correspondence with me. You are chopping and over-analyzing his words to death! I cannot understand why you are struggling to understand plain English. There is no apologetic conspiracy here. Really, I mean it.

  13. Bill,

    You jumped all over NOAA because they were not sufficiently precise to suit your standards. You had no qualms about chopping their words. I am not asking for anything more from Patton. In fact, I am asking for much less. If he read the primary sources for himself, let him say it. If he simply trusted some other apologist’s word for it (as you did), he can admit it.

  14. Bill Pratt,

    1) Thank you for contacting C. Michael Patton and posting his response.

    2) Again, it is not just whether he claimed to have read the primary sources that raise the questions—it is the anomalies within that cause us to wonder.

    Why, if he used the primary source on Peter (Acts of Peter) does he only cite a secondary source—Eusebius? Why doesn’t he cite the reason given in the primary source (that Peter was convincing wives to not have sex with their husbands) for his accusation, and why doesn’t he use the reason given in the primary source for why Peter wanted to be crucified head down (because that is how children are born)?

    Why, if he used the primary source on James, brother of Jesus (Josephus) does he only quote from a tertiary source (Hegesippus) without reference? Why did he skip the secondary source of 2nd Apocalypse of James? Worse, why did he indicate this was James the Lesser—not James, brother of Jesus?

    Why does he use Hippolytus (primary source) for some, but completely abandons Hippolytus (primary source) for some unknown secondary source for most of the others? [Note: the Hippolytus document is dubious at best, but we can deal with that some other time. For the moment, if C. Michael Patton wants to claim it is a “primary source” I would think he should explain why it is utilized some times, and abandoned at others.]

    On John he uses the ambiguous statement, “some traditions” when referring to being boiled in oil. If he used a primary source, he would know it was Tertullian. Why not simply say, “Tertullian”?

    3) Like Vinny, I see quite a bit of ambiguity in C. Michael Patton’s response that is troublesome. To be honest, I expected him to answer either, “I got this information from _____ Christian source” or “I read the primary sources listed here: ___________.”

    Bill Pratt—read through my responses here. Read through my responses on Parchment and Pen. Read through my blog entry on Peter. What is it that one constantly sees?

    Specific sources. Names. Links on my blog entries. Places where people can see exactly what was said, and to confirm exactly what I am relying upon.

    If you want, I will give you the specific book, chapter, line number! Heck, I will provide the specific links, if you desire, for what one needs to read regarding the deaths of certain apostles!

    I find it astonishing apologists continue to claim how persuasive this argument is–and they don’t even know the facts underlying it! They can’t be bothered. I will provide the exact link, all they have to do is click on it…and then read.

    And that is too much…
    I am concerned—not because I am a non-theist—but because of my profession. I often see such obfuscation when the person is avoiding directly answering the question, but wants to give the impression of an answer. It works like this:

    Me: Did you ride the bus on Tuesday?
    Witness: I have to ride the bus to get to school.
    Me: Yes, but did you ride the bus on Tuesday?
    Witness: I had school on Tuesday.
    Me: Yes, but did you ride the bus on Tuesday?
    Witness: The bus stops at my house every day.

    Notice what the witness never explicitly states—that they rode the bus on Tuesday! They give the impression of it; they are stating the truth in the answer. They simply never directly answer the question!

    Here we have:

    Me: Did you read the primary sources?
    C. Michael Patton: I attempted to take the best of all sources.
    Me: Did you read the primary sources?
    C. Michael Patton: The early church fathers are the primary resource the secondary resources (such as my blog post) gauge from. I worked through these looking to see how substantial the primary resources were and then judged the likelihood [based] upon their credibility.

    Now I understand this isn’t cross-examination, and this may be the way C. Michael Patton speaks, but I still can’t figure out why there isn’t a straight answer to this question.

    Bill Pratt: I cannot understand why you are struggling to understand plain English.
    Because it hasn’t been plain at all!

    Look. Ask me. Ask me if I have read the primary sources. Look at my blog entry on Peter’s death. I would say something like, “Sure. One starts with reading 2 Peter and John to see the authors know Peter is dead. I’ve read ‘em. The next is 1 Clement (with a questionable dating, so a glance at Eusebius is necessary, as well as the contra position of Tertullian). I’ve read ‘em.

    “Then one needs to look at the Martyrdom of Polycarp to understand the genre (with a quick read of Lucian to further understand what we are talking about). Read ‘em both.

    “Now we move to Acts of Peter (with a read of Acts of Paul, because they seem to be aware of each other) giving the specific details of Peter’s death. Read ‘em.

    “Finally to Tertullian, to see the dating of Acts of Peter, as well as Tertullians’ question regarding the reliability of Acts of Paul, yet reliance on the contents. Read him. Anything beyond that is secondary.

    Is that so hard? And before one claims they don’t have enough time, or it’s too hard (despite my providing the links!)—it is the Christian apologist who is claiming this argument is so strong. I would hope they would at least take the time to look at the underlying facts.

  15. For those interested, two days ago I directly asked C. Michael Patton (both by e-mail and in the blog entry) to explicitly state his sources, in an attempt to end this lingering issue.

    I did not receive a reply.

  16. There are those here who criticize C. Michael Patton or even Bill Pratt on the historical evidence for the deaths of the apostles yet make no effort of their own to research this topic.

    A good place to start is the book “The Twelve: The Lives of the Apostles After Calvary” by C. Bernard Ruffin.

    If you complainers are sincere about this topic then spend a few bucks and read the book.

    Ruffin’s resources are excellent.

    But if all you do is delight in complaining and criticizing then you would be best served moving on to an agnostic or atheist blog.

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