In his videos, the skeptical YouTuber Paulogia questions how strong the evidence is for the suffering and deaths of the apostles, even if we assume that the book of Acts is historically accurate. He points out that we have limited information about their suffering, mostly just about Peter, John, and later, Paul. We don’t know much about what happened to other apostles like Simon the Zealot, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thaddeus, Thomas, and more. It’s like they disappeared from pages of reliable history, so we’re not sure about the dangers they might have faced or what risks they really took.
In his response to Catholic apologist Trent Horn, Paulogia says:
In (Acts) chapter 5, Peter and the apostles are brought before the Sanhedrin and threatened with death for preaching. If I’m generous and say this is early enough for Apostles to still be synonymous with the twelve, then this is conclusive in the story. They’re flogged, told to stop, and then sent on their way. After this, the use of the word “Apostle” is fuzzy. Barnabas and Paul are explicitly included as apostles in chapter 14. So, it’s definitely not a term limited in scope to just the original 12, by then, but probably before as well. Even so, if we go reference by reference, verse by verse, whatever group the apostles were, they’re not preaching (call me pedantic if you want), but even if I take it at face value, we have the original 11 preaching up until the first time they were told to stop. That’s all Acts is evidence for. After that, it’s just the Peter and John show in the Acts of the Apostles that describe Peter and John being brought before the Sanhedrin, and then the Paul and Barnabas show. This is why I say that the 12 disappear from reliable history.This Resurrection Argument Doesn’t Add Up (Trent Horn response)
As you can see, Paulogia also questions the way the term “apostle” is used in Acts. In Acts 14:14, we see that Barnabas is called an apostle, even though he wasn’t one of the original twelve apostles. And obviously, Paul himself wasn’t one of the original disciples. Does this flexibility in using the term “apostle” create some uncertainty? To explore these questions in this blog post, I’ll be referring to William Paley’s important work, A View of the Evidences for Christianity.
Thinking ahead to potential doubts like those presented by Paulogia, Paley gives us proof that many who said they saw Christian miracles were deeply committed. Paley writes that there is sufficient evidence that the “apostles passed their lives in labours, dangers, and sufferings, voluntarily undergone in attestation of the accounts which they delivered, and solely in consequence of their belief of those accounts; and that they also submitted, from the same motives, to new rules of conduct.”
Their Leader Was Crucified
First, Paley talks about how historical records like Tacitus’s Annals 15:44 confirm that Jesus was killed in Jerusalem. Acts tells us that the religion started in Jerusalem, then spread to Judea and beyond. Tacitus’s account matches this, saying that the religion faced challenges but still spread to places like Rome, attracting many followers in 30 years.
Now, think about the early followers of Christ. They saw their leader die a horrible death. It’s reasonable to think they knew they might face the same danger. If Jesus was crucified, they probably expected trouble too. Peter giving testimony on Pentecost with the disciples put them at risk for their message.
The Warnings of Jesus
Next, all the Gospels depict Jesus foreseeing that his closest followers would face persecution. This is evident in these passages:
- In Matthew 10:16-18, Jesus commissions the twelve to preach. Matthew writes: “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles.”
- Mark 10:29-30 states: (Speaking to the twelve) Jesus proclaimed, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.”
- In Luke 21:12-16, Jesus addresses the twelve again. Luke writes: “But before all these things, they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons. You will be brought before kings and rulers for My name’s sake. But it will turn out for you as an occasion for testimony. Therefore settle it in your hearts not to meditate beforehand on what you will answer; for I will give you a mouth and wisdom which all your adversaries will not be able to contradict or resist. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death.” (See also Luke 11:49, 12:5-7)
- John 16:2-3 once more features Jesus addressing the twelve: “They will put you out of the synagogues; yes, the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service. And these things they will do to you because they have not known the Father nor Me.” (Also see John 15:20 and 16:33)
These are just a few examples of Jesus warning his followers about persecution. Paley’s argument relies on the idea that we can’t be absolutely sure that Jesus predicted these events and that they happened exactly as he said. That would be question begging. But we can think about two reasonable possibilities: 1.) either the Gospel writers accurately wrote down what Jesus said, and these events happened as he predicted, or 2.) they added these predictions to Jesus’ teachings later because the events matched what they wrote. The other two possibilities are less likely: 3.) either Jesus lied and made his followers afraid of something that wasn’t real, or 4.) people who lived during those times got it wrong and mistakenly thought Jesus said these things.
The letters of the early church
Paley’s next argument is based on the letters in the New Testament. These letters encourage people to stay strong during tough times and offer comfort during times of persecution. Some examples of these passages are:
- Romans 8:35: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword” (cf. Rom 5:3-5)
- 2 Corinthians 4:8-11: “We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed— always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.”
- Philippians 1:28-29: “and not in any way terrified by your adversaries, which is to them a proof of perdition, but to you of salvation, and that from God. For to you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake”
- James 5:10-11: “My brethren, take the prophets, who spoke in the name of the Lord, as an example of suffering and patience. Indeed we count them blessed who endure. You have heard of the perseverance of Job and seen the end intended by the Lord—that the Lord is very compassionate and merciful.”
- Hebrews 10:32-36: “But recall the former days in which, after you were illuminated, you endured a great struggle with sufferings: partly while you were made a spectacle both by reproaches and tribulations, and partly while you became companions of those who were so treated; for you had compassion on me in my chains, and joyfully accepted the plundering of your goods, knowing that you have a better and an enduring possession for yourselves in heaven.”
- 1 Peter 4:12, 13, 19, Writing to “the pilgrims of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia”, the author of 1 Peter writes: “But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.”
- Revelation 2:10, addressing the church at Smyrna: “Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
- Galatians 4:29: “But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now.”
- 1 Thessalonians 2:14: “For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God which are in Judea in Christ Jesus. For you also suffered the same things from your own countrymen, just as they did from the Judeans.“
Paley asks us to think about why these texts were written. Were they just meant to deceive people in the future about what early Christians went through, even when there wasn’t an urgent need for encouragement? If these texts really come from the time they say and were being read back then, it’s very unlikely they were made up just to fool later generations. It’s hard to believe that passages, even if they seem strange and were thought to be false by people at the time, were included only to influence far-off generations. While such manipulations might happen in later fakes, it doesn’t make sense to apply this idea to the original context.
Think about where these letters were sent and the recurring theme of suffering and persecution. They were written to various churches in places like Corinth, Thessalonica, Galatia, Rome, Thyatira, Smyrna, Philippi, and others. These letters show that being a Christian in these areas wasn’t very safe. Additionally, the Corinthian church knew about Peter and Jesus’ brothers. The Galatian church was familiar with Peter, James (who was Jesus’ brother), and John. And at the very least, the people who got the letter of 1 Peter knew who Peter was. Paul also mentions that the Thessalonian church suffered, just like the church in Judea did. So, where did all the twelve apostles originally come from? Judea.
Furthermore, Paul talked about the twelve apostles (1 Corinthians 15:5). He hung out with Peter for two weeks (Galatians 1:17-19) and met James and John, even sharing his Gospel with them (Galatians 2:1-9). If you only had a vision of the Lord, and the other apostles seemed to have gone back to their old jobs, like fishing, collecting taxes, or being a Zealot, wouldn’t that make you wonder what was going on? Furthermore, there is very good evidence that Luke traveled with Paul and also appears to be acquainted with the disciples. He names the twelve both in his Gospel and in Acts. Is it really reasonable to think Paul had no awareness of the other, less discussed disciples?
Evidence from the book of Acts
Paley’s fourth point is based on what we have recorded in the book of Acts: Right from the beginning of his teachings to his violent death, Jesus was fully committed to sharing his message in Judea and Galilee. He chose twelve close followers to help him, and they traveled with him to different places. Sometimes he sent them out in pairs to share his teachings, and there was a short time when they went to Jerusalem ahead of him. But for the most part, these followers were always with him. They were there when he was arrested and killed in Jerusalem. After he finished teaching, he told them to spread his message and gather followers from around the world.
A few days after Jesus left them, his close followers, along with some family and regular supporters, gathered in Jerusalem. They knew it was now their job to spread the religion. They decided to pick someone new to replace Judas, who had left them before but later felt really sorry and died in a tragic way. They were very careful about who they chose. They wanted someone who had been with Jesus from the very beginning and had seen Jesus risen from the dead (Acts 1:12, 22). They started their mission in Jerusalem, bravely telling people that Jesus, who was crucified, fulfilled the prophecies and was the judge chosen by God. They encouraged people to believe in him for the promise of eternal life and to show their faith by getting baptized (Acts 2:38-39).
Before long, a significant number of people believed their message, forming a close-knit community. As the Jewish authorities began to take notice of this growing movement, Peter and John, both counted among the twelve disciples, were arrested while addressing a gathering at the temple. They spent a night in prison before appearing before a council of Jewish leaders. After some deliberation, the council could only issue threats because these determined men adamantly refused to stay silent. They insisted on their duty to share what they had personally witnessed and heard (Acts 4:1-22).
It’s worth noting that Barnabas, later recognized as an apostle, sold his possessions and donated the proceeds to the apostles, presumably the twelve. This distinction emphasizes the unique position of the Twelve compared to later apostles (Acts 4:36-37). This seems to contradict Paulogia’s claims about the hyper-flexibility of the term “apostle.” The author of Acts seems to distinguish the twelve apostles. We can’t infer that the term was malleable solely because Barnabas and Paul were also referred to as “apostles.”
Shortly after, all twelve apostles were arrested and put in prison. When brought before the Jewish Sanhedrin again, they were scolded for their disobedience and beaten for their defiance. Despite being ordered to stop talking about this Jesus, they persisted in preaching, both in the temple and from house to house (Acts 5:18-32).
In Acts 5:28, the leaders clearly show their understanding of this confrontational message when they accuse the apostles of attempting to “bring this man’s blood upon us.” The implication is that all twelve apostles courageously confront the very individuals who played a role in Jesus’s crucifixion, publicly accusing them of murder, just a month and a half after the event.
The twelve considered their lives completely dedicated to this cause and put the community’s day-to-day affairs in the hands of others (Acts 6:1-4). Up to this point, the common people generally supported the new religion, which is why the Jewish authorities did not resort to more extreme measures. But, it wasn’t long before the enemies of the faith began to argue that it was a threat to their law, Moses, and their temple. (Acts 6:12-14) These accusations gained traction, leading the people to join their leaders in stoning a devoted member of the new community, Stephen. (Acts 7:55-60)
The death of Stephen marked the beginning of a widespread persecution, as illustrated by the actions of Saul, who “made havoc of the church, entering into every house, and taking men and women committed them to prison” (Acts 8:3). The persecution was so severe in Jerusalem that most of the new converts left, except for the twelve apostles. The new believers in various places kept sharing the religion and stayed in touch with the twelve leaders. The twelve even sent representatives to the areas where their message was well-received, such as Samaria. (Acts 8:14)
Something big happened when the persecution, initially centered in Jerusalem, extended to other cities where the Jewish Sanhedrin’s authority over fellow Jews was recognized (Acts 9:1-2). A young man named Paul who had vehemently opposed the faith, even getting permission to arrest converted Jews in Damascus, suddenly converted to the religion he had sought to destroy.
After becoming a Christian, we see Saul (later known as the apostle Paul) arriving in Jerusalem and attempting to connect with the disciples there. However, the disciples were apprehensive about him, doubting his sincerity as a follower of Jesus. Barnabas intervened by bringing Saul to the apostles, explaining how Saul had encountered the Lord on his journey, talked with Him, and fearlessly proclaimed Jesus’ name in Damascus. As a result, Saul gained acceptance among the disciples, moved freely in Jerusalem, and boldly preached in the name of the Lord.
Once more, although Barnabas is referred to as an apostle later in Acts, in this instance, he introduces Paul to what appears to be the group of the original Jerusalem apostles for their approval. (Acts 9:26-28) Furthermore, Paul faced danger not only from his former associates but also from the Jews in Damascus, who watched the gates day and night. He narrowly escaped by being lowered in a basket from the city wall. In Jerusalem, attempts were made to put him to death, so he was sent back to his native Cilicia for safety.
For a short period, there was a break in the suffering experienced by Christians, likely due to reasons connected to Jewish civil matters or other public concerns. It’s not entirely clear. This respite lasted only a few years, approximately three or four years after Christ’s crucifixion. During this time, Christian communities were established in Judea, Galilee, and Samaria, despite earlier persecutions. The original preachers continued their work, with one prominent figure going on extensive journeys. Those who had left Jerusalem due to persecution traveled as far as places like Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch (Acts 11:19-20). Jerusalem once again became the center of their mission, where preachers shared their experiences, resolved community issues, sought guidance, and sent out teachers.
However, the period of peace didn’t last long. Herod Agrippa, who had recently assumed control of Judea, implemented harsh measures against Christians. He executed James, the son of Zebedee, one of the twelve apostles, and a member of Jesus’ inner circle (Matthew 17:1, Mark 5:37, 14:33). This act pleased the Jews, leading Herod to arrest Peter, who had also been associated with Jesus during his life and played an active role in the faith’s propagation. Acts tells us that Peter was miraculously freed from prison and escaped from Jerusalem (Acts 12:3-17).
Starting at Acts 13, the story now takes a more focused path. While the other apostles and the early followers of Christ continued to spread the new faith with dedication and courage, we shift our attention to the separate accounts of Paul. We’ve already described his extraordinary conversion to the religion and the significant change in his behavior.
Paul, along with Barnabas, who joined the early followers in Jerusalem, left from Antioch with a specific mission to spread the new religion in different regions of Asia Minor. As they journeyed, they faced insults and threats to their lives in almost every place they visited. In one town, they were even expelled, and in another, an attempt was made to stone them. In Lystra, they faced a violent attack, and one of them was stoned and left for dead.
It’s important to note that although these two men were not original apostles, they worked closely with the original apostles. After completing their journey, they were sent to Jerusalem with a special message. There, they shared the experiences and success of their mission with the apostles and elders (Acts 15:12-26). In return, they received a recommendation from the apostles to the churches as men who had risked their lives for the faith. The rest of Acts outlines Paul’s preaching and tribulations until he reaches Rome to appear before Caesar. Note that the apostles in Jerusalem were who Paul and Barnabas were submitting themselves to.
Is Acts reliable?
Now, I’m not assuming that Acts is reliable here. I realize Paulogia thinks it’s a dubious source, but I’m more than willing to argue in favor of its trustworthiness, and I have plenty of articles and videos to back up my position. And I would be happy to have a discussion with Paul regarding the credibility of Acts. However, remember that Paulogia argues that even if we accept Acts as a trustworthy source, it doesn’t really prove that the apostles were willing to endure suffering, except for a small group of them, and even that doesn’t get us very far.
But if we do consider that the events in Acts might be untrue and that the stories of suffering were fabricated and imposed on churches, it raises some questions. If Acts was written between 64-85 AD, wouldn’t at least some of the churches themselves have knowledge of the real events? Could the account not be easily proven false? Why would anyone take such a risk in making up such a story in the first place?
That being said, I’ll provide a brief defense of the reliability of Acts concerning our theme of persecution here. The historian behind Acts provided an account about Paul has strong supporting evidence. We have letters written by Paul himself during the same time period that the history of Acts covers, or referring to that time. These letters unintentionally confirm many details in the history, and they don’t borrow from each other.
What’s crucial here is that the history accurately describes the hardships that the apostle Paul endured. The way Paul talks about his life and work in his letters matches what the history (Acts) says, and it casually and subtly lines up in terms of the timing, location, and order of events.
For instance, in Acts 16:23-24, the history mentions that Paul was “severely flogged” and was “thrown into prison” in Philippi. In 1 Thessalonians 2:2, a letter from Paul himself recalls how “we had previously suffered and been treated outrageously in Philippi, as you know, but with the help of our God we dared to tell you his gospel in the face of strong opposition.” Acts tells us that after being released from Philippi, Paul went to Thessalonica. (Acts 17:1)
In Acts 17:5, the history talks about the assault on the house where Paul stayed in Thessalonica. The master of the house was dragged before the magistrate for allowing Paul as a guest. In 1 Thessalonians 1:6, Paul’s letter to the Christians of Thessalonica remembers how “they had received the Gospel in much affliction.” He goes on to say “you suffered from your own people the same things those churches suffered from the Jews.” (1 Thessalonians 2:14)
The author of Acts also mentions an insurrection in Ephesus in Acts 19, which nearly cost Paul his life. In 2 Corinthians 1:8-10, we find Paul describing his despair and thanking God for his deliverance shortly after leaving Ephesus.
Acts further tells us that Paul was expelled from Antioch in Pisidia, attempted to be stoned at Iconium, and actually stoned at Lystra (Acts 13:50; 14:5, 19). In 2 Timothy 3:11, there is a letter from Paul to a favorite convert who he met in these areas. In the letter, he appeals to that disciple’s knowledge what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured.” Acts 16:1 indirectly tells us that Paul met Timothy, already a Christian convert, when he returned to Lystra.
In Acts 20:34, the history has Paul telling the Ephesian elders that he worked with his own hands to support himself and his companions. In 1 Corinthians 4:11-12, written during his time in Ephesus, Paul asserts, “even to that hour I labored, working with my own hands.”
These interlocking details, along with many others related to different parts of Paul’s history, from independent sources, not only confirm the accuracy of the account in the specific points observed but also enhance the credibility of the entire narrative. They support the author’s claim to be a contemporary of the person (Paul) whose history he writes and, for a significant part of the story, a companion. If he’s getting all these claims right, why would we believe he’s just making up stories about Peter, John, James, or the rest of the twelve being threatened, beaten, or killed?
Moreover, this author claims to have been present with Paul during Paul’s visit to the Jerusalem church in Acts 21 when “all the elders, including James, were present” (Acts 21:18). During Paul’s imprisonment in Caesarea Maritima (for at least two years), Luke would have had plenty of access to many people who witnessed Jesus’ resurrection, as Caesarea is only about 75 miles from Jerusalem, where many of these witnesses lived. Because Luke knew the Jerusalem apostles, he could accurately report what they were saying about the nature and variety of post-resurrection encounters with Jesus and the persecutions they endured.
Paulogia’s unreasonable standard
Paley sums up Paul’s persecutions in Acts by saying “Although our Scripture history leaves the general account of the apostles in an early part of the narrative, and proceeds with the separate account of one particular apostle, yet the information which it delivers so far extends to the rest, as it shows the nature of the service. When we see one apostle suffering persecution in the discharge of this commission, we shall not believe, without evidence, that the same office could, at the same time, be attended with ease and safety to others.”
This is an apt point. Paul doesn’t just mention his own suffering but also talks about how the other apostles experienced similar hardships. He says, “I think that God has set us apostles at the end of the line, like men condemned to die in the arena. We have become a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings. We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored! To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world—right up to this moment” (1 Corinthians 4:9-11).
Furthermore, just to recap, in the earlier part of Acts, when we read about the other apostles, we observe a pattern of them getting arrested, beaten, and threatened. In one instance, two of them were seized, imprisoned, and brought before the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:3, 21). Later, all of them were imprisoned and beaten (Acts 5:18, 40). Soon after, one of their followers was stoned to death, and this led to intense persecution against their group, pushing most of them out of the city (Acts 7:58-60; 8:1). Not long after that, one of the twelve was beheaded, and another was sentenced to the same fate (Acts 12:1-2). All of this happened in Jerusalem within ten years after Jesus’ death and the start of the movement. So Paul’s statement is again consistent with what we see in Acts.
When there’s strong, positive evidence supporting a claim with no evidence against it, dismissing it based on mere possibilities is highly problematic. For example, if your neighbor has a tortoiseshell cat, and you’ve seen them taking excellent care of this cat, another neighbor suggesting they may have another hidden, mistreated cat with no evidence to support this claim is unreasonable. You already have substantial evidence that your neighbor is a responsible pet owner, which should be enough to counter such insinuations. (Credit to Lydia McGrew for this illustration.)
This situation parallels the discussion about the apostles and their preaching in the early chapters of Acts. There is explicit proof that the twelve apostles courageously preached about the resurrection. The subsequent chapters also imply their continued boldness even in the face of persecution. This positive evidence suggests that at least twelve named individuals, and possibly more, remained resolute in their beliefs with no evidence of abandonment.
While it’s theoretically possible that one apostle may have renounced their beliefs, the careful historian in Acts implies the opposite. Insisting on even more detailed evidence from the author of Acts, like specific information about exactly how many individuals were beaten in Acts 5, their precise identities, and whether they were present at the exact locations described in the Gospels, is like demanding a search of your neighbor’s house to further establish that they don’t have an abused animal hidden there.
John’s Gospel on Peter
Let’s look at some further evidence for the suffering and martyrdom of Peter. In John 21:18, Jesus tells Peter that he will face a death against his will when he’s old, with his hands stretched out. John clarifies in verse 19 that Jesus was referring to a death where Peter would glorify God, likely describing crucifixion.
This imagery strongly suggests crucifixion, given its central role in early Christianity. Jesus Himself was crucified, and He urged His followers to bear their cross. Early Christian texts, like the Epistle of Barnabas (12) and Justin Martyr’s Dialogue With Trypho (90-91), use similar language for crucifixion. John’s remark about Peter glorifying God in his death suggests that Peter remained faithful to Christ until the end and did not recant.
If we assume that John’s gospel was written in the late first century, it means John 21:19 reflects Peter’s martyrdom as a past event. Jesus predicted it, and John commented on it afterward. Given John’s prominent position in the church and his close relationship with Peter, he was a highly credible source regarding the circumstances of Peter’s death. But putting aside whether Jesus really said those words, it’s highly improbable that the author of the fourth gospel would have credited Jesus with this prophecy unless it had happened just as described.
In the past, Paulogia has complained that the “stretch death” idea is a bit of a “stretch” because it’s not explicit enough. However, this is merely an appeal to possibility; martyrdom is most likely a death that would glorify God (John 21:19). There’s also an air of inconsistency here coming from Paulogia. If Peter died from natural causes instead of martyrdom, where’s the supporting evidence? If skeptics propose alternative scenarios, why is there such a lack of historical traces? If he’s going to demand multiple sources from a Christian, what do we say when he offers none?
The Apostolic Fathers
Paley also discusses evidence from the early church fathers. I’ll focus on the earliest sources. Skeptics often dismiss these sources as unreliable due to their later writing dates. But let’s consider not only the authors but also their audiences. Take 1 Clement, for example. It’s written by Clement of Rome, who was a disciple of the apostles according to Irenaeus. (Against Heresies 3.3.3) He led the Roman church, which included contemporaries of the apostles and had recent contact with apostles like Paul and Peter, both believed to have been martyred in Rome. Clement was well-placed to provide reliable information about the apostles’ deaths, particularly Paul and Peter.
Now let’s think about Clement’s audience. He wrote to the Corinthian church, which, like the Roman church, had contemporaries of the apostles and recent contact with an apostle, Paul. The Corinthians were in a good position to judge the credibility of Clement’s account of the apostles’ deaths. Additionally, later sources indicate that 1 Clement was well-received in Corinth and among early Christians in general. Similar considerations apply to Ignatius and Polycarp, who were both considered to be direct students of the apostles and writing to churches who had correspondence from apostles.
Also, pay attention not just to the explicit statements made by these sources but also to what they appear to assume and imply. For instance, do they expect their audiences to already have knowledge of the information they’re sharing? Are they aware of any competing accounts they need to address? With those considerations out of the way, let’s dive in.
Writing at around 95 AD, Clement tells us:
By reason of jealousy and envy the greatest and most righteous pillars of the Church were persecuted, and contended even unto death. Let us set before our eyes the good Apostles. There was Peter who by reason of unrighteous jealousy endured not one but many labors, and thus having borne his testimony went to his appointed place of glory. By reason of jealousy and strife Paul by his example pointed out the prize of patient endurance. After that he had been seven times in bonds, had been driven into exile, had been stoned, had preached in the East and in the West, he won the noble renown which was the reward of his faith, having taught righteousness unto the whole world and having reached the farthest bounds of the West; and when he had borne his testimony before the rulers, so he departed from the world and went unto the holy place, having been found a notable pattern of patient endurance.1 Clement, 5
It’s also noteworthy that Clement mentions Peter and Paul as having gone to their place of glory when they died and that Paul was found to be a remarkable example of patient endurance when he entered Heaven. This implies that both of them endured their executions without giving up their faith in Christ.
In the early 2nd century, Ignatius and Polycarp seem to refer to all the apostles together. Here’s Ignatius:
For I know that after His resurrection also He was still possessed of flesh, and I believe that He is so now. When, for instance, He came to those who were with Peter, He said to them, ‘Lay hold, handle Me, and see that I am not an incorporeal spirit.’ (see Luke 24:39) And immediately they (i. e. Peter, and those who were present with Peter at Christ’s appearance) touched Him, and believed, being convinced both by His flesh and spirit. For this cause also they despised death, and were found its conquerors.Letter To The Smyrnaeans, 3
And here’s Polycarp, whom Irenaeus informs us was a disciple of John. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.3.3)
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, 9
When writing to the church in Philippi, Polycarp characterized all the apostles, not just Paul, Peter, James, and John, as exercising patience, and “running in faith and righteousness,” and following Jesus’ example in the way they faced death. Ignatius of Antioch also emphasized their shared disdain for death.
The details surrounding the deaths of the apostles were widely acknowledged, discussed, and generally accepted. Many of the sources providing this information were well-placed to offer reliable accounts. These sources often had direct connections to the apostles and came from cities such as Smyrna, Antioch, and Rome, writing to churches that were intimately familiar with the apostolic tradition and had even hosted apostles.
Seperating fact from fiction regarding the apostles’ willingness to suffer
We shouldn’t just assume that all early Christians believed their leaders were unwaveringly faithful or always martyred just because they wished it so. The early Christians, including the apostles, faced criticism in texts like the Gospels, Acts, and Galatians, etc. If an apostle stumbled, like Peter, Judas, or Demas, it’s all that reasonable to think that early Christians would hide this and write a more positive narrative. Such apostles would likely have tarnished reputations, just like Peter and Judas.
While some early sources claim that John was martyred, there was not unanimous agreement on this matter. The early church historian Philip of Side mentions Papias’ assertion of John’s martyrdom in a now-lost writing, while Tertullian, writing in the third century, suggests that John survived being boiled in oil. (It’s worth noting that Papias claims to have known John the Elder.) In cases where there is a strong consensus regarding figures like Paul or Peter being martyred, it’s reasonable to believe that these claims are supported by solid evidence rather than mere blind faith.
Paulogia demanding third-party courtroom scenes depicting the apostles’ refusal to recant, followed by stonings, crucifixions, or beheadings, as the only definitive proof of all the apostles’ sincerity is arbitrary and unnecessary. When we witness one apostle facing persecution while fulfilling their commission, it’s only logical to infer, without concrete evidence to the contrary, that this role was not characterized by ease and safety for others. Paulogia seems to rely on possibilities and mixes up what’s possible with what’s likely. A more thorough examination of the New Testament and the Apostolic Fathers might be helpful for Paulogia here.
Erik is the creative force behind the YouTube channel Testify, which is an educational channel built to help inspire people’s confidence in the text of the New Testament and the truth of the Christian faith.