r m p

Theological Publications






Would the Apostles Die for a Lie?


I frequently have occasion to debate conservative believers on topics such as the historical existence of Jesus, the reliability of the gospels, and the reality of the resurrection. My concern in this column will be to address some of the major issues that come up like clockwork in debate after debate. You may have wondered about these questions, or they may have been posed to you in similar exchanges. The first I want to take up is the claim that Jesus must have risen from the dead as the gospels report, or else we would have to imagine the apostles of Jesus giving their very lives for the sake of what they knew was a fiction, and this is just too much to believe. That would be taking a joke, or a hoax, farther than any sane person would be willing to do! Conversely, since they were gladly martyred for (which means, literally, “witnessing to”) their faith, isn’t this strong evidence that their testimony was true, that Jesus did rise from the dead?

The psychological point is not a bad one, though one must keep in mind the very great power of “cognitive dissonance.” History has shown there is pretty much no extreme people will not go to in defending that which they have a great stake in. If you had spent decades defending the proposition that Jesus rose from the dead, even if you had originally merely surmised or guessed it, even had you made it up, you might well give your life than back down from the claim, to save face, because otherwise your life would be revealed as one big joke, and some people simply cannot live that down. The second-century writer Lucian of Samosata tells us that Proteus Peregrinus, a charlatan prophet, immolated himself because he could not resist such a grandstanding opportunity. Also, remember Joseph Smith; non-Mormons believe he had concocted the whole Mormon religion, yet he was willing to die for it. Does that make it true?

But let’s go back a step. In fact we do not know that the earliest preachers of Christianity were martyred for their faith. The New Testament does not tell us for sure. Acts 12:2 doesn’t tell us whether James had the chance to recant before being axed, and John 21:18 is so vague that verse 19 has to tell the reader that v. 18 somehow refers to Peter’s death, perhaps a reinterpretation. Our earliest “information” comes from unreliable second- and third century documents, starting with the anonymous but so-called First Epistle of Clement, which says, vaguely, that Peter and Paul “witnessed” to their faith in Rome (apparently implying their martyrdom) because of “jealousy.” This in turn seems to be a reference to the Apocryphal Acts of Paul, Peter, Andrew and others, which have the apostles martyred at the instigation of jealous pagan husbands whose wives, having been converted to Christianity, would no longer sleep with them. These Acts abound in legends, such as Paul baptizing a talking lion. Tertullian (late second century) says the Apostle John survived being boiled in oil. Thus we have no real reason to believe the earliest preachers, whoever they may have been, were martyred for their faith.

In fact, it is an open question among New Testament scholars whether the earliest Christian preaching even involved any resurrection. The early Q Document, apparently used by both Matthew and Luke, seems to have had no mention of either the saving death or the resurrection of Jesus. Maybe the resurrection, as I think (see my book Deconstructing Jesus), was a subsequent embellishment of the Jesus story.

Finally, while we are usually safe in assuming that your average martyr, heroically giving his or her life for a cause, sincerely believes in that cause, we still have to ask whether sincerity is the same thing as being right. Plenty of people are sincerely mistaken. 


 By Robert M. Price


Copyright©2009 by Robert M Price
Spirit of Carolina Web Design