One of the arguments that Jesus was physically resurrected is that he appeared to his Disciples, and they believed it to the point they died for it. If it were a “hoax” they would not have “died for a lie.” For many Christians, this is the anchor of the argument for a resurrection. We can discuss empty tombs, and swoon theories and wrong tomb theories, but many keep coming back to the fact that the disciples believed it to the point of dying and cannot get around it.
It is not as strong an argument as Christians believe, and few have actually researched the area. In order to explain why the argument is frail, we must understand what exactly is being claimed first.
The claim is composed of five elements. It requires:
1) A group of individuals;
2) Specifically named;
3) Who saw a physically resurrected Jesus;
4) Willingly dying for this belief; (key issue)
5) And not for any other reason.
In the back of our mind, it must be remembered that the events surrounding the early church were not recorded contemporaneously, but after they had happened. These are not daily reports, nor newspaper headlines. Paul recorded certain events, then the Gospels were written, and finally Acts was written.
Whether one holds that these were written only a few years, or many decades after the event, either situation provides ample opportunity to add, remove, or modify events with just the flick of a pen. We should keep a careful and cautious eye investigating these events.
The longer the period of time from the happening to the writing, the better the opportunity to introduce legend, or hyperbole, or myth. Many Christians do not accept books written after 100 CE as being too late. Too far after the event. This argument has the same problem.
Let’s review each element.
Group of Individuals Certainly a most significant force of this argument is that not one, or two, but many of those persons claimed to have seen a physical resurrected Jesus.
If all we had were one or two disciples, it is very possible they saw a vision, had a dream, and deluded themselves. One? Very possible. 12? Not so likely, is how the argument goes.
In fact, we can tragically recall the events of Heaven’s Gate, in which one person, Marshall Applewhite became convinced there was a spaceship traveling behind the Hale-Bopp Comet. We all agree this man was delusional (he had a history of mental instability), yet was firmly convinced of an untruth. So convinced, he not only died for this belief, but managed to convince 37 others to die as well.
Equally, one disciple could possibly convince other disciples of seeing a physically resurrected Jesus. In order to make this case powerful, the proponent would like to state every disciple, each from their various beliefs and walks of life, uniformly confirms as to what they saw. In short—they need a group.
And is that what we see? Well….not exactly. During Jesus’ life he had many followers. But primarily he had Twelve Disciples. Of the Twelve, he displayed a preference for Peter, James and John. (Mark 14:33) Traditionally, even of these three, John was slightly closer. (Jn. 21:20)
But following the resurrection, it is Peter that assumes the leadership role among the Disciples. He preaches the first sermon. Although he is walking with John, it is Peter that heals the cripple on the way to the temple. (Acts 3:6) John, the beloved disciple, receives cursory mention, and then is heard no more. In fact, when counting separate instances in the Acts of the Apostles, John Mark is referred to as many times as John the Disciple, and John the Baptist is referred to more! What happens to John is not recorded in Acts.
Philip, another disciple, also receives cursory mention. Assuming he was one of the Seven (Acts 6:5) a story is recounted about his witnessing to an Ethiopian eunuch. (Acts 8) What happens further to Philip is not recorded.
Peter is the most talked about disciple in the early church. The first part of Acts is replete with his tales. By Herod (died 44 CE) his tales start to peter out (sorry) and he is only mentioned once more in the Council of Jerusalem. (Acts. 15:7) What happens to Peter is not recorded.
The rest of Acts focuses on Paul’s ministry.
The only disciple noted as killed is James, the brother of John (Acts 12:2) and even then it is merely an introduction into a story about Peter. More on James in a bit.
The inspired Bible does not record all Twelve of one accord. It does not mention what each one did separately. It does not indicate they were not “dying for a lie.” While referred to as a group, the events recorded as history do not include information as to their death.
The concept of an entire group is not laid out specifically in the Bible, and must be read, in between the lines. The Bible does not provide us very much information at all for this argument. It begins to smell of speculation.
Specifically Named. There are other people recorded as having seen Jesus physically appear after his resurrection, but are not specifically named. Without even knowing who they are, attempting to lay any claim as to their mode or reason for death becomes mere speculation.
The argument for silence cuts both ways—if one can speculate that these unknown persons are some that died, it is just as credible to speculate they are not. The problem with silence is that it doesn’t tell us anything.
Remember, this is not the silence of “the Bible says it, but history does not record it, so it still could have happened. Just because History is silent doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.” No, here we have history AND the Bible not recording it. The silence has graduated to nobody stating it, but it still could be true.
In fact, to some extent, these unknowns hurt this claim. Paul, writing first about them, claims Christ appeared to more than five hundred at the same time. (1 Cor. 15:6) Matthew admits that some actually saw this resurrected person but doubted. (Mt. 28:17) Doubted about whether it was he, whether he had died, or whether it was a vision or not is unclear. The author of Acts, writing last, concedes within a few months of this appearance, there were only 120. (Acts 1:15)
Simple math tells us 500 seeing –120 believers = 380 believers that doubted! In other words, on this argument, 3 out of 4 believers would not die for the lie—they did not believe in a physical resurrection!
As we shall see, we have problems enough confirming what happened to the few actually named, let alone starting to guess over people we do not know, as to how they possibly died, and the possible reasons why.
The Gospels record various women having seen Jesus. Their deaths are unknown and unrecorded. Paul, of course, does not even mention their existence. While they are named, I do not recall ever seeing their deaths as being reason to prove the resurrection of Christ, and will not address them.
We have exactly twelve named individuals—the eleven disciples and James, the brother of Jesus. Again, Paul gives us James as a witness, but the Gospels do not. (As a side note, I am presuming “The Twelve” is a title in 1 Cor. 15:5, and does not include Judas. If Paul was including Judas, that becomes an interesting story, but committing suicide does not help this particular argument any.)
We know we are looking for the events surrounding twelve individual men’s death. The searching narrows.
Saw a physically resurrected Jesus You may have noticed I did not include Paul in the list of named individuals. That is because Paul saw Jesus in a vision, not within the 40 days prior to Jesus’ ascension. Paul’s vision (or the vision of any other) does not confirm or deny a physical resurrection and provides us no new information on the subject.
Proponents of this argument occasionally indicate Paul as one of those that wouldn’t “die for a lie.” They forget what they are arguing. This is a claim that Jesus physically resurrected, with a body that walked, talked, ate fish and touched people. That people saw this body, and because of the miraculous implications, went to their death. It is not a claim about what visions people have at a later time.
If Jesus died, and his soul was taken to heaven (a spiritual resurrection) Paul could still have a vision of Jesus. If Jesus died, and physically re-animated, and then ascended to heaven, Paul could still have a vision of Jesus. Paul’s vision provides no information that mandates a physically resurrected Jesus.
Paul, in recounting his interaction with Jesus, refers to it as “God’s son revealed in me.” (Gal. 1:16) Paul indicates that Jesus appeared to him, just like Jesus appeared to the other apostles. (1 Cor. 15:8) [Is Paul arguing that Jesus appeared as a vision to the other apostles? Hmm….]
But Acts makes it very clear this is a vision. Paul is recorded as only seeing a flash of light and hearing only a voice. (Acts 9:4; 22:7; ) Paul records later seeing Jesus in a vision. (Acts. 18:9; 22:17; 23:11) Paul tells King Agrippa this is a vision. Acts 26:19
Paul speaks of getting information directly from Jesus. (1 Cor. 11:23. 2 Cor. 12:9) Every encounter of Paul with Jesus is in the form of a vision. This does not even remotely promote a physical resurrection.
I wonder if any Christian that claims Paul is helpful in this regard consistently maintains that method. We have visions of the Virgin Mary today. Is this evidence that not only Jesus, but also Mary was physically resurrected from the dead? Of course not!
This is belief that Mary, living in heaven, occasionally graces us with a ghastly apparition, or a ghostly appearance left on the incidental grilled cheese sandwich. It has absolutely, positively nothing to do with her physically resurrecting. (Although it is confirmation of a spiritual resurrection, perhaps.)
Any visions, or appearances of a spiritual Jesus do not qualify for this particular argument. While they may be interesting in other discussions—not here
Why they died The crux of the matter.
You can die. You can be a Christian. You can even die because you are a Christian. You can be a martyr. But all that does not mean you had a choice as to whether to “die for a lie.”
In order for this argument to work, the proponent would need to demonstrate that the disciple (or James) had an opportunity to avoid death by claiming, “It is a hoax,” and did not take it. Simply dying because they are a Christian, (while making them a martyr) is not enough for this argument.
Let me use a few examples to emphasize this point. Imagine I decided to go on a killing rampage. I decide, for whatever inexplicable reason, that I will kill all Christians whose name starts with “X.” The extent of depth of the person’s belief, whether they actually saw Jesus or not, makes no difference on my violence. They will die, because they are Christians, and even be martyrs, but they had no choice in the matter. It was my picking out Christians, not what they believe.
Or another. Tacitus recounts Nero blaming Christians for the burning of Rome (64 C.E.) and then persecuting them. Whether the Christians recanted, or did not would not make a whit of difference. They were being the “fall-guy” for the blame of a crime. Traditionally Peter was killed during this persecution. How would that provide him an opportunity to absolve himself, and avoid dying for a lie?
Imagine Peter leading a church service at that time, and Roman Soldiers bust in:
Soldier: All right. Who is in charge here?
*Everyone points to Peter*
Soldier: You, and your entire group here are charged with the crime of arson. You will be tried, found guilty, and executed, and not necessarily in that order.
Peter: But it is all a hoax. Jesus wasn’t physically resurrected. I don’t want to die for a lie.
Now, is the Soldier going to apologize for bothering Peter, and then leave, chuckling how he single-handedly eliminated Christianity? Of course not. He will proceed with his orders, and, regardless what Peter says, Peter will die. Yes, he is a martyr. Yes, he died for being a Christian.
But that does not address the crux of this argument—did he voluntarily assume a risk that by claiming it was a hoax could be avoided? According to Acts, the Disciples were the first vocal supporters of the new Christian Church. Any persecution that would focus on the leaders would center on these disciples. They could not “avoid” it by recanting. By then it is far too late.
King Herod, having killed one disciple, arrests Peter because it would please the people. (Acts 12:3) Whether Peter would have died or not at this point was dependant on what the people wanted, not what Peter would or would not say.
A more modern example would be the Salem Witch Trials. A young woman would be accused of being a witch. After various accusations, cross-examinations and times of imprisonment, she may “confess” to being a witch.
Does anyone believe this confession would be accurate—they really were a witch? Nope. It would be felt the confession was extracted out of them by violence. According to Christianity’s own claimed history, the methods of torture and persecution would be as bad. If someone even overheard Peter say it was a lie, would they record it as a truth? Not at all, in the same way, they would assume he was coerced into the statement.
Some of the accused women insisted they were not, nor ever were witches—yet they were still executed! When a persecution cycle begins, what the accused say will neither save them, nor damn them. They will be killed, regardless.
Some of the accused women offered up others, in the hope of saving themselves. It only brought in more martyrs and saved none. If 10 or 15 people all accused a disciple, regardless of whether that disciple decried it was all a hoax, they would still die.
According to Acts, the Disciples were at the forefront of the Christian movement. They would be well known, and acknowledged as the leaders of the church. If the persecution was as widespread, and involved literally the death of Christians, the Disciples would be singled out. They would be marked for death, despite any trial, any statements, anything they might claim. The person that argues, “would not die for a lie” forgets that the impetus of persecution, for whatever reason, would not stop simply because the Disciple recanted. That is not what persecution was about! It was about stopping the movement through threat and application of violence.
In order for this argument to be persuasive, the proponent would need to show how and what manner the named individuals died. We have no facts, no history, no Biblical support. It is here this argument crashes.
Before we briefly look at four specific examples, the last requirement—
Not for any other reason Although Christians may not like the materialistic side to it, there would have been a great deal of wealth and power as the leaders of this new movement. Perhaps they were in it up to their necks, before realizing it might mean their necks, and could not extract themselves from it in time.
We have twelve disciples and the brother of Jesus all from Galilee. Some had houses, some had family, but in a word—they had roots. After the Pentecost, the most natural place to begin this new movement was at home, in Galilee. But what do they do? Stay in Jerusalem. How are all twelve (not a one returns to Galilee) able to afford and survive this move? Even the family of Jesus comes along. Acts 1:12-14.
A simple question—what are they living on? They had either given up their jobs, or only worked part-time for three years. Funds must be low. The answer becomes apparent; they are living off the funds of the new converts.
People were selling their possessions, and giving to those in need. (Acts 2:45) As the Disciples had little or nothing, they needed the most!
Ever research First Century Economics? Not much is known, of course, but it seems that landowners tended to live in towns, and have managers work the tracts of agricultural land in the country. The landowners may have houses both in the country and the city. If one did not read Jesus’ penchant for the poor, in reading Acts it would seem that Christianity attracted the rich!
Acts 4:33 says the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of Jesus. Is it just coincidence that the very next sentence notes that all who possessed land and house(s) sold them and brought to the proceeds to the apostles’ feet? Barnabas is mentioned as having done so. (Acts 4:37) And, obviously, our very famous couple, Ananias and Sapphira. They provided a portion of the sale of their land, but lied about giving all of it. God killed them. Great fear spread through the church. (Acts 5:11)
One could apostatize, preach against Paul, and cause division in the church, and be forgiven. But lie about money? That was a capital offense, causing fear among the constituents. Proponents of this argument might need to face the fact that the reason the disciples and church was persecuted, and the reason what they said would not matter, is that it was a wealthy competitor to other religions.
Now for our examples:
James the Disciple Killed by Herod for reasons unknown. Acts 12:1 says Herod was “harassing the church” and killed James with a sword. We can speculate that James was given a chance to recant and save his life, but that is pure guesswork. Not in the text, not in the history.
This argument is supposed to validate the physical resurrection. How strong is it to be based on pure opinion? Further, Stephen’s death was exemplified as being a martyr’s. (Acts 7:59) If the author of Acts felt that James’ death was as well, would it have received more than a mention?
More importantly, it was not recorded that Herod couldn’t get James to break, so he went after Peter. He went after Peter for political reasons—because it would please the Jews. Herod wanted a public trial! Why hold a public trial, if James had held true to a physical resurrection? That would hurt Herod’s position. More likely Herod was to put on a “show” trial, and then execute Peter, without Peter even having a chance to say anything at all.
We can opine that James could have saved his life by recanting, but it is presuming the very argument the proponent is trying to make.
Per chance the next one will fair better.
James the Just The only named individual we obtain our information from an extra-Christian source, Josephus. Here, though, it would seem that James was killed for political reasons, and, again, had nothing to do with what he could, or would not say.
If you read the passage, without the identifier that James was the brother of Christ, there is nothing here to indicate James was a Christian, no Christian activity for which he would have been accused, nothing specific as to why he was even targeted. Without that identifier, we would not even be looking at this section!
Ananus, a Sadducee, decided to flex his political muscle, assembled a Sanhedrin without consulting the Pharisees, formed an accusation against James, and had him stoned. The Pharisees, upset over this breach of their law, have Ananus deposed.
There is nothing here about James being questioned, what James could or would have said, or even if James had said, “It was all a hoax” that Ananus would have let up. James was merely a safe pawn of a rival belief, which Ananus used to show he was boss by killing him.
Just like the other James, the only way to claim he voluntarily did not “die for a lie” is to read it into the story. Make it up.
Peter Really the best shot for martyrdom. Whoever wrote 2 Peter wanted to tie it into Peter himself, and writes as if it was prepared within a short time period prior to his death. (2 Peter 1:14) This demonstrates knowledge of his death, and a connection to bolster the validity of the book.
Whoever wrote John 21:18 presumes his audience has knowledge of the fact not only that Peter is dead, but how he died. (While it certainly could be read as crucifixion, it is not exactly clear.) Again, indication of general knowledge of Peter’s death
1 Clement 5:4 designates Peter as a martyr. Unfortunately, none of these accounts tell when, where, or the circumstances of Peter’s death. Yet again, we are left with speculation as to the ability of Peter to avoid death by virtue of any claim about the physical resurrection of Christ.
The problem with 1 Clement is that the author only lists Peter and Paul as martyrs. No James the Disciple. No James the Just. No Philip. No Simon. No Thaddaeus. After listing Paul, the next biggest names he can come up with are Danaids and Dircae. You remember them, of course, from….from…..well, no we don’t remember them.
Even placing 1 Clement as early as 95 CE, there should be more of these disciples well known for being martyrs. Yet strange silence.
The most famous of all—Peter—and as of the end of the First Century, we have no information as to how he died. More speculation.
And that is it for information within the Disciple’s lifetime. After this, it becomes information from someone who heard it from someone else. Dangerously introducing a high likelihood of myth making, and lack of reliability.
Bartholomew Those that have read the Gospel of Mark, with the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, know he is one of the Disciples. If one only read the Gospel of John, one would ask, “Who?” But, Mark, Matthew and Luke do not record a Nathaniel as a Disciple, but the Gospel of John does.
As always, the resolution proposed is that Bartholomew had two names, and the Gospel of John only knew him by Nathaniel. As that may be, the last individual record the Bible gives of Bartholomew is prior to the Pentecost. (Acts 1:13) Nothing is stated as to how he died.
Nothing in the Second Century. Nothing in the Third Century. Not until the very beginning of the Fourth Century do we hear the tale of Bartholomew’s ministry and death. Not until Eusebius records that Pantaeus heard from other converts that Bartholomew had preached in India. Sounds a bit like “I heard it from a friend, who heard it from a friend, who heard a rumor about it.”
Even then, there ARE conflicting legends, as to his name, how he died, and where he preached. Since one legend claims he was flayed alive, he can be depicted as holding his own skin. Yuck.
These legends are too removed in time from the events to be of any value. If Christians today can see the usefulness of having a disciple die a horrible death in support of Christianity, it should be no surprise that others thought of it as well.
In reviewing these claims of how the Disciples would not die for a lie, we begin to see that the tales of how they did die did not emerge until more than 100 years after they lived. Far too long a time to develop a legend to be of any use. Of course I am assured this is not legend, but “Church Tradition.” What I see is a shifting of methodology: when it is convenient to be too late, it is considered invalid information, when convenient, it is “tradition.”
Don’t believe me? Look at the developing legend of Jesus. With Paul we start on bare-bone facts. A Jew that was betrayed, crucified, buried and resurrected. No ministry, no miracles, no sermons, no parables, no quotes of any kind (The Eucharist comes directly from Christ.) Mark begins to flesh out the tale, giving us one year of Jesus’ ministry. Matthew and Luke add even more, giving us birth narratives, resurrection stories and more sayings. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, and Gospel of Thomas give us even more history and statements of Jesus. As time develops, we get more and more and more fantastic stories, and even of Letters back and forth between Jesus and a king!
The Christian often rejects anything dated after 100 CE as being “too late.” Too much time for legend to be written. No verification, since those that would have seen it are dead.
But when it comes to the disciples’ death, faced with the lack of information, the same Christian will claim that traditions would have been valid, even though they were not recorded for 200 years!
A bias is showing, here.
When faced with the question, “Would the Disciples die for a lie?” I reply, “When did they die, how did they die, and what were the circumstances of their death?” Upon review, we see that it is a guess, pure opinion that they had a chance to recant and save their lives.
History does not record it. The Bible does not record it. The church does not record it until so long after, it cannot be considered reliable. The proponent of this argument, through all the claims, and statements and cute catch phrases, is really saying, “I guess they wouldn’t die for a lie, but I have no facts to demonstrate otherwise.”