The disciples risked their necks
That the disciples suffered and were willing to die is multiply attested. Peter and John were arrested by the Sanhedrin and commanded not to preach in the name of Jesus, a command they openly defied. (Acts 4:18-20) Shortly afterward, all the apostles were arrested and flogged. (Acts 5:18, 40) We have the martyrdom of Stephen recorded in Acts 7:55-60. Acts 9:1-2 tells us about Paul threatening and imprisoning Christians before his conversion. We learn of the martyrdom of James the brother of John in Acts 12:1-2.
Paul's sufferings are recorded in Acts and in his own letters to the churches, most notably 2 Corinthians 11: "Five times I received the forty lashes minus one from the Jews. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked. I have spent a night and a day in the open sea. On frequent journeys, I faced dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my own people, dangers from Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers at sea, and dangers among false brothers; toil and hardship, many sleepless nights, hunger and thirst, often without food, cold, and without clothing."
The Jewish historian Josephus records the death of Jesus's brother James. (Antiquities 2:200) The martyrdom of James is also recorded by Hegesippus, a Christian chronicler of the 2nd century.
The witness of the early church fathers
Clement of Rome, a Christian pastor who was a contemporary of the apostles reports the sufferings and deaths of Peter and Paul. He wrote in 95 AD "Peter, through unrighteous envy, endured not one or two, but numerous labors; and when he had at length suffered martyrdom, departed to the place of glory due to him. Owing to envy, Paul also obtained the reward of patient endurance, after being seven times thrown into captivity, compelled to flee, and stoned. After preaching both in the east and west, he gained the illustrious reputation due to his faith, having taught righteousness to the whole world, and come to the extreme limit of the west, and suffered martyrdom under the prefects. Thus was he removed from the world, and went into the holy place, having proved himself a striking example of patience." (1 Clement 5:3-7)
Polycarp, another contemporary of the disciples also wrote of the disciples' sufferings: "I exhort you all, therefore, to yield obedience to the word of righteousness, and to exercise all patience, such as you have seen [set] before your eyes, not only in the case of the blessed Ignatius, and Zosimus, and Rufus, but also in others among yourselves, and in Paul himself, and the rest of the apostles. [This do] in the assurance that all these have not run in vain, but in faith and righteousness, and that they are [now] in their due place in the presence of the Lord, with whom also they suffered. For they loved not this present world, but for Him who died for us, and for our sakes was raised again by God from the dead." (Letter to the Philippians, Ch. 9)
Both Clement and Polycarp were not just contemporaries but were reported as knowing the apostles. Irenaeus was a student of both men. He tells us that Clement “had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them,” and that “Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna…)” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.3.3)
Tertullian of Carthage (155-220 AD) also writes about the fates of James, Paul, and Peter: “That James is slain as a victim at the altar, that Paul is beheaded has been written in their own blood. And if a heretic wishes his confidence to rest upon a public record, the archives of the empire will speak, as would the stones of Jerusalem. We read the lives of the Caesars: At Rome, Nero was the first who stained with blood the rising faith. Then is Peter girt by another, when he is made fast to the cross.” (Scorpiace 15)
Notice that Tertullian says these are matters of public record. He essentially says, “If you don’t believe me, go to the libraries and investigate it for yourself!”
Sometimes people will risk death for something false, but not for something that they know to be false without some sort of shot at an earthly reward that makes it worth their while. Rather than offering anything tangible here and now in this life, Christianity promoted giving and loving sacrifice and minimized the importance of earthly power.
In the case of the life of Paul, he lived a single life and worked with his own hands to provide for himself and his traveling companions. He clearly was not motivated by power, sex, or money. (1 Corinthians 7:8, 2 Corinthians 4:5, 2 Thessalonians 3:8)
On the significance of their sufferings:
“After Jesus’ death, the disciples endured persecution, and a number of them experienced martyrdom. The strength of their conviction indicates that they were not just claiming Jesus had appeared to them after rising from the dead. They really believed it. They willingly endangered themselves by publicly proclaiming the risen Christ.”
- Dr. Michael Licona, New Testament scholar and author. He is Associate Professor in Theology at Houston Baptist University and the author of The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach