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Quote of the Day: Would the Disciples of Jesus Die for a Lie?

bart ehrman

QUESTION: Another very very popular evidence put forward for the resurrection is “the disciples would not have died for what they knew was a lie, therefore it must have happened.” I hear this all the time. You note that they really believed they saw Jesus after he died so they were not lying. However, is there evidence (historical or literary) that they were killed because of their belief in Jesus’ resurrection?

Ah yes, if I had a fiver for every time I’ve heard this comment over the years, I could retire to a country-home in Maine…. Several other people have responded to this question on the blog by saying that we have lots of records of lots of people who have died for a something that they knew, literally, not to be true. I am not in a position to argue that particular point. But I can say something about all the disciples dying for believing in the resurrection.

The way the argument (by Christian apologists) goes is this (I know this, because I used to make the same argument myself, when I was a Christian apologist!): all the apostles were martyred for their faith, because they believed Jesus had been raishgggged from the dead; you can see why someone might be willing to die for the truth; but no one would die for a lie; and therefore the disciples – all of them – clearly believed that Jesus was raised from the dead. And if they *all* believed it, then it almost certainly is true (since none of them thought otherwise, they must have all seen Jesus alive after his death).

The big problem with this argument is that it assumes precisely what we don’t know.   We don’t know how most of the disciples died.   People always *say* that the apostles were all martyred.  But next time someone tells you that, ask them how they know.  Or better yet, ask them which ancient source they are referring to that says so.

The reality is this.  We simply do not have reliable information about what happened to Jesus’ disciples after he died.  In fact, we scarcely have any information about them while they were still living!  Read the Gospels, and ask yourself what they tell us about Bartholomew, or Judas-not-Iscariot, or Thaddaeus and so on.  Answer: next to nothing.  And what does the book of Acts tell us about what they did after Jesus death and resurrection?  Answer: next to nothing (just some comments about them as a group, not as individuals).  And what does the book of Acts tell us about how they died?  Almost nothing.  (Acts does mention the death of James and the death of Stephen – the latter was not a disciple and did not have a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus granted to him.)

Nor do we have reliable accounts from later times.  What we have are legends, about some of the apostles – chiefly Peter, Paul, Thomas, Andrew, and John.   But the apocryphal Acts that tell their stories are indeed highly apocryphal.   They are great reading and great fun, highly entertaining and highly enlightening for what later Christians were saying about these earlier champions of the faith.  But they are not historically reliable accounts of their lives (recall Peter and the smoked tuna and Peter and the flying heretic) or their deaths (such as Peter’s crucifixion upside down; during which he gives a long sermon).


In case someone should object – why would anyone believe so fervently in the resurrection without being an eyewitness?? – need I point out that there are about a two billion people today who believe it without being an eyewitness?  Really, truly, and deeply believe it?   You don’t need to see Jesus with your own eyes to believe what someone else says about him, that *they* saw Jesus with their own eyes.   So too with the early disciples.  None of them left us any writings, so we don’t know what they saw, heard, or experienced.   And we don’t know how most of them died.   And so it makes no sense to argue that they were martyred because they “knew” on the basis of their own experience that Jesus had been raised.

— Bart Ehrman, The Bart Ehrman Blog, Would the Disciples Die for A Lie? Proofs for the Resurrection, September 13, 2018

If you aren’t a registered member of Dr. Ehrman’s blog, I encourage you to pony up $24.99 and join his site.  Dr. Ehrman is a prolific writer, and he covers many interesting Biblical and historical subjects. All proceeds go to charity. I thoroughly enjoy reading his writing.


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    Becky Wiren

    Thanks for mentioning Bart Ehrman and his blog. I went ahead and signed up again for a year. I certainly don’t have enough to read (HEAVY SARCASM) although his blog is definitely worthwhile.

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    Lots of people believe lots of things that are false.

    So…most protestants, at least of the fundamentalist ilk, don’t give much weight to Catholic church tradition like the stories of the martyrdom of the apostles. Why would they insist that Jesus’ disciples were martyred?

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    I’m reminded of UK Prime Minister, Lloyd-George giving a major speech in 1918 saying we could be proud of the war effort that made the UK ‘a country fit for heroes.’ Apart from the millions of bereaved folk, the surviving ex-soldiers – amputees, gassed victims, the blind, deaf, burned and more, found they were destitute on the streets. I’m sure most of them started out in 1914 altruistically believing the lie that their sacrifices would be totally worth it. In fact no sacrifice was too great in this ‘war to end all wars’ as it was touted. (Lloyd-George’s birthplace is near me and a shrine to those who still think he was a hero, the welsh are short on real heroes, so magnify the few they have. I think he was despicable, not least in openly keeping a mistress in the Prime Minister’s London residence, whilst being a pillar of his evangelical chapel and thus publically demeaning his long-suffering wife and children.)

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    This is a salutary lesson. I often see this argument used to support Christianity, namely why would the disciples martyr themselves for something they didn’t believe in. It’s not an argument I often engage, but I do watch from the sidelines, and the usual response is of the type that might refer to Muslims flying aeroplanes into buildings. Matt Dillahunty tends to adopt this approach on Atheist Experience. Bart Ehrman’s article is a neat sidestep, as it undermines the Christian case without recourse to the actions of others. And of course arguing that there is no evidence regarding the means of death of any disciple allows their very existence in the first place to be challenged.

    Having established that pretty well every part of the OT is historically untrue it would seem that it may be beginning to look the same way for the NT…?

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    A while back I stumbled upon a YouTube video that sounded like it was written by a non-believer about this very issue. The guy gave devil’s advocate for all the various martyrs and then went on to refute himself. (Weird I know, but that’s how they roll.) I can’t find the link, but as I was watching it I began to think of objections to the heuristics he presented. Of course it was just another sneaky apologist. The real problem is that, as you point out, these are in fact legendary martyrdoms. The motivation to write such stories is that they are a great motivation to early Christians (you ain’t doing enough, look at Stephen over here) as well as to present them as sincere believers. I wish I could find the video, alas it isn’t coming up.

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