There are conflicting legends about the deaths of the twelve apostles, making the historical evidence difficult to interpret. This is partly because early Christians wanted their homes to be known as the final resting place of an apostle.
While this may make finding the truth more of an “adventure”, every Christian should investigate the historical record for themselves.
Who Was Martyred and When?
- James (Martyred: 44–45 A.D.)
- Peter (Martyred: ca. 64 A.D.)
- Andrew (Martyred: 70 A.D.)
- Thomas (Martyred: 70 A.D.)
- Philip (Martyred: 54 A.D.)
- Matthew (Martyred: 60–70 A.D.)
- Nathanael (Bartholomew) (Martyred: 70 A.D.)
- James the Lesser (Martyred: 63 A.D.)
- Simon the Zealot (Martyred: 74 A.D.)
- Judas Thaddeus (Martyred: 72 A.D.)
- Matthias (Martyred: 70 A.D.)
- John (Martyred: 95 A.D.)
- Paul (Martyred: 67 A.D.)
The martyrdom of some of the apostles is more certain than others. For instance, historians don’t dispute the martyrdom of Peter, Paul, or James. Many of the other accounts have decent historic validity as well, but some raise the eyebrow and prompt agnosticism.
However, when boiled down to their least common denominator, it is feasible to believe that all but one of the apostles suffered a martyr’s death, even if we can’t be sure of the exact details.
Why Were They Martyred?
Amidst some uncertainty, one thing is clear—the reason given for their deaths was the same. They were killed because they claimed to be eyewitnesses of Christ’s death and resurrection. They all died because of an unwavering, unrelenting claim that Christ rose from the grave. They died for Easter. This article doesn’t cover all the evidence so you might want to check out 14 Evidences for the Resurrection of Jesus and 14 References.
The gruesome death of the apostles, as recorded below, is one of the greatest gifts God ever gave to the Church. It contributes much to Christian apologetics by answering the question “How can you be sure of the resurrection of Christ?”
See: The Resurrection of Jesus by Dr. Gary Habermas the world’s leading expert on the resurrection.
After looking at all the best sources, the most likely scenarios for each apostle’s death are detailed below. At the risk of spoiling some of the “legends”, I’ve graded each account:
- A = Highest Probability
- B = High Probability
- C = Low Probability
- D = Lowest Probability
Read through the accounts below; make it an Easter tradition. This may sound odd, but I thank God for bringing about the apostles’ deaths. They sealed their testimony in the blood of martyrdom, providing a firm foundation for our faith in the risen Christ.
1. James (Martyred: 44–45 A.D.)
Probability Grade: A – James’ martyrdom, C – executioner’s martyrdom
James, the apostle of the Lord, was the second recorded martyr after Christ’s death (Stephen was the first). His death is recorded in Acts 12:2. Where it says of Herod Agrippa:
He killed James the brother of John with the sword
Both Clement of Alexandria and Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History II.2) report that after seeing the courage and unrecanting spirit of James, the executioner was so convinced of Christ’s resurrection, that he was executed with him.
2. Peter (Martyred: ca. 64 A.D.)
Probability Grade: A
Although Peter denied Christ three times just before the crucifixion, after the resurrection, he was willing to be martyred for his belief. In John 21:18–19 Jesus even told Peter how he would die:
Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.”
According to Eusebius, Peter thought himself unworthy to be crucified in the same manner as his Master, and asked to be crucified “head downward.”
3. Andrew (Martyred: 70 A.D.)
Probability Grade: B
Andrew, who introduced his brother Peter to Christ, was martyred six years after Peter. After preaching Christ’s resurrection to the Scythians and Thracians, he too was crucified for his faith. As Hippolytus tells us, Andrew was hanged on an olive tree at Patrae, a town in Achaia.
4. Thomas (Martyred: 70 A.D.)
Probability Grade: B – Thomas’ martyrdom, D – the method of execution.
Thomas was known as “doubting Thomas” because of his reluctance to believe the other apostles’ witness of the resurrection. In John 20:25 Thomas states:
“Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”
After this, Christ appeared to Thomas and he believed unto death. Thomas sealed his testimony as he was thrust through with pine spears, tormented with red-hot plates, and burned alive.
5. Philip (Martyred: 54 A.D.)
Probability Grade: C
Christ corrected Philip when, in John 14:8–9, he asked:
Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?
Philip saw the glory of Christ after the resurrection and was undoubtedly amazed at Christ’s response to his request. Philip evangelized in Phrygia, where hostile Jews had him tortured and then crucified.
6. Matthew (Martyred: 60–70 A.D.)
Probability Grade: B
Matthew, the tax collector, desperately wanted the Jews to accept Christ. He wrote The Gospel According to Matthew about ten years before his death. Within its pages one can see the faith for which he spilled his blood. In Matthew 28:20 the resurrected Christ says:
“And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
These comforting words likely sustained Matthew when we was beheaded at Nad-Davar:
7. Nathanael (Bartholomew) (Martyred: 70 A.D.)
Probability Grade: C
Nathanael, whose name means “gift of God”, was truly given as a gift to the Church through his martyrdom. In John 1:49, Nathanael was the first to profess Christ:
Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
He later paid for this profession through a hideous death. Unwilling to recant his proclamation of a risen Christ, he was flayed and then crucified.
8. James the Lesser (Martyred: 63 A.D.)
Probability Grade: B – that he was cast down from the temple, D – that he was being beaten to death with fuller’s club after the fall.
James was the appointed head of the Jerusalem church for many years after Christ’s death. He undoubtedly came in contact with many hostile Jews who in Matthew 27:25 said:
And all the people answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!”
To force James to deny Christ’s resurrection, these men positioned him at the top of the Temple in Jerusalem. Unwilling to deny what he knew to be true, James was cast down from the Temple and finally beaten to death with a fuller’s club to the head.
9. Simon the Zealot (Martyred: 74 A.D.)
Probability Grade: B
Simon was a Jewish zealot who strived to set his people free from Roman oppression. After he saw with his own eyes that Christ had been resurrected, he became a zealot of the Gospel.
Historians tell of the many places Simon proclaimed the good news of Christ’s resurrection: Egypt, Cyrene, Africa, Mauritania, Britain, Lybia, and Persia.
His martyrdom, brought about by a governor in Syria, verified his testimony for Christ.
10. Judas Thaddeus (Martyred: 72 A.D.)
Probability Grade: C
In John 14:22, Judas asked Jesus:
Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, “Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?”
After he witnessed Christ’s resurrection, Judas knew the answer. He preached the risen Christ in the midst of pagan priests in Mesopotamia. He was eventually beaten to death with sticks, showing to the world that Christ was indeed Lord and God.
11. Matthias (Martyred: 70 A.D.)
Probability Grade: D
Acts 1:26 recorded how Matthias replaced Judas Iscariot (the betrayer of Christ who hanged himself) as the twelfth apostle of Christ:
And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.
Matthias is believed to have been one of the seventy Christ sent out during his earthly ministry, as Luke 10:1 records:
After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go.
This qualifies him to be an apostle. Matthias, of which the least is known, is said by Eusebius to have preached in Ethiopia. He was later stoned while hanging upon a cross.
12. John (Martyred: 95 A.D.)
Probability Grade: A – that he was not martyred, C – that he was thrown into boiling oil.
John is the only one of the twelve apostles who died a natural death. Although he did not die a martyr’s death, he did live a martyr’s life. He was exiled to the Island of Patmos during the reign of Emperor Domitian for his proclamation of the risen Christ.
It was there that he wrote the last book in the Bible, Revelation. Some traditions say he was thrown into boiling oil before the Latin Gate. While this didn’t kill him, it likely scarred him for life.
13. Paul (Martyred: 67 A.D.)
Probability Grade: A
Paul, was a self confessed persecutor of the Christian faith as he states in Galatians 1:13
For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it.
Paul was brought to repentance as he traveled to Damascus. Ironically, he was on his way to arrest those who held to Jesus’ resurrection. Paul started as the greatest skeptic, but spent the rest of his life proclaiming the Christ he once persecuted.
Writing in 2 Corinthians 11:23–27, defending his ministry, Paul tells of his sufferings for the name of Christ:
Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.
Finally, Paul met his death at the hands of Emperor Nero when he was beheaded in Rome.
Objections & Blind Leaps
People do not die for their own lies, half-truths, or fabrications. The apostles’ deaths increase our confidence in the historicity of the resurrection to the point that disbelief is inexcusable.
Because the apostles died proclaiming to have seen Christ die, rise from the grave, and ascend into heaven, Christ must be who He claimed to be.
However, some may object to my reasoning; you may object. The question that gives rise to the objection is this: Don’t many people die for something they believe?
To be sure, many have died for their beliefs, but dying for something doesn’t make it true. The 9/11 bombers certainly died for their beliefs, but do their deaths validate those beliefs?
From a historical standpoint, the difference is night and day. Since they received their beliefs secondhand, the 9/11 bombers could have been deceived. Therefore, their deaths don’t provide support for those beliefs.
For example, if I died for my faith in Christ’s resurrection, that would demonstrate my conviction. However, it wouldn’t actually verify Christ’s resurrection from the dead. Why? Because I didn’t see it. I wasn’t an eyewitness.
However, it would be a different story if I died as a martyr having been an eyewitness to Christ’s resurrection. Why? Because as an eyewitness I’d be dying for a belief I know the truth-value of.
At this point, there are only three options for explaining the apostles’ belief:
- They died for something they knew to be a lie.
- They were delusional or crazy.
- They were right; Christ did rise from the grave.
We’ll examine each of these three possibilities below. However, there are more than three possibilities. Check out some alternative explanations for the resurrection of Christ.
Explanation #1 – The Apostles Died for Something They Knew to Be A Lie
This explanation places the burden of proof upon the proponent and lacks any historical credibility. It would take a greater leap of faith to believe this than the Biblical witness.
Explanation #2 – The Apostles Were Delusional or Crazy
Saying the apostles were crazy, suffers the same weakness as the previous objection. There is no historical evidence to support the insanity for even a single apostle, much less all of them. Again, this explanation requires more faith than simply accepting their testimony.
This is similar to the idea that the apostles stole Christ’s body, but it doesn’t fair any better.
Explanation #3 – The Apostles Were Right
The only viable option is that Christ actually did rise from the grave and is who He claimed to be. The other explanations are leaps into the dark. The motives for these blind leaps are many I’m sure, but let me mention a couple of the most likely.
Blind Leap #1 – A Bias Against the Supernatural
People who deny the evidence for Easter are sometimes motivated by a bias against the supernatural. This bias starts with the assumption, “Christ did not rise from the grave because it’s impossible for people to rise from the grave”. This argument begs the question and therefore has no force.
It may be true that people don’t normally rise from the grave; but lack of personal, empirical evidence doesn’t prove its impossibility.
However, I do understand this bias. It’s foolish to uncritically accept stories that fall outside our God-given means of empirically acquiring information. But belief in the resurrection of Christ is in no way an uncritical belief (at least it doesn’t have to be). The evidence compels us to adjust our bias at this point.
Blind Leap #2 – Emotional Bias
Many people have an emotional bias against even the idea of God. For some, this comes from their upbringing. They have a commitment to what their parents taught them. They want them to be right, and will do everything in their power to cheer for those beliefs. Why? Because their parent’s beliefs have become their own, and they have a lot invested in them.
Blind Leap #3 – Jilted Experience
For some, their objection may be caused by a failure (in their judgment) of God to meet their needs. They become apathetic to the evidence for the resurrection of a God who doesn’t meet their needs.
Emotions are a more powerful source for belief than facts. But while emotional objections are understandable, they can’t be sustained. We cannot let emotions rule our thinking. We must look past our experience and traditions to the truth, which can then lead our emotions properly.
In conclusion, listen to the words of Ignatius (a second century church father) as recorded in Ignatius: The Epistle of Ignatius to the Tarsians, III:
“Mindful of him, do ye by all means know that Jesus the Lord was truly born of Mary, being made of a woman; and was as truly crucified. For, says he, “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of the Lord Jesus.” 11 And He really suffered, and died, and rose again. For says Paul, “If Christ should become passible, and should be the first to rise again from the dead. 12 And again, In that He died, He died unto sin once: but in that He liveth, He liveth unto God. 13 Otherwise, what advantage would there be in [becoming subject to] bonds, if Christ has not died? what advantage in patience? what advantage in [enduring] stripes? And why such facts as the following: Peter was crucified; Paul and James were slain with the sword; John was banished to Patmos; Stephen was stoned to death by the Jews who killed the Lord? But, [in truth,] none of these sufferings were in vain; for the Lord was really crucified by the ungodly.”
The evidence is there. Do you believe?
BONUS – Discussion Questions:
- Why might we be compelled to thank God for the death of the apostles?
- If the apostles had recanted their faith in order to save their lives, how might things be different?
- It was said that one cannot compare the deaths of the 9/11 hijackers and their religious convictions to that of the apostles. Summarize the difference.
- If someone died for a belief in something they saw, this would add credibility to their belief, however extraordinary. Give a modern-day example of some extraordinary claim that would parallel the death of the apostles. It does not have to be real; be creative.
- The apostles were God honoring men. While they were sinners in need of God’s mercy, they followed Christ as much as anyone. Why do you think God allowed such suffering in their lives?
- Do you think that the apostles imagined that Christians would be reflecting on the gruesome circumstances of their deaths 2,000 years later? Explain.
- Read Roman 8:28. Considering the suffering of the apostles. What does this tell you about God’s purpose for suffering? How might it give you hope in your own suffering?
All verse quotations in the article are from the ESV