(Originally published on The Bart Ehrman Blog. Ehrman debunks some unsubstantiated claims routinely made by evangelicals)
Over the past few years I’ve wondered how many of the disciples of Jesus came to believe that he had been raised from the dead. The traditional answer is that all eleven of them (the twelve minus Judas, who hanged himself before it happened) did, along with a handful of women, among them Mary Magdalene. I suppose that’s probably right, but I’m not *completely* sure.
In the end, I’m afraid we simply don’t know. The problem is that our sources – even the ones completely favorable to the earthly disciples of Jesus — are virtually silent about them. We know almost precisely nothing about what they thought, what they did, and what they came to believe. Paul says nothing about them (of the twelve, he mentions only Peter and John). The book of Acts portrays Peter, and to a much lesser degree John, as important before and immediately after the conversion of Paul, but then they themselves virtually disappear from the narrative. And the other nine or ten are discussed almost not at all.
Why is that? I really don’t know. But my hunch is that the author of Acts simply hadn’t heard any stories about the things they said and did. Why would that be? Again, I really don’t know. Was it because he simply wanted to focus on the main people: Peter, James, (John,) and Paul? But why were these the main people? Why wasn’t it important to know what the others were doing? Is it that his sources of information didn’t give him anything? Is it that they in fact didn’t do anything important? Did they just go back home to Galilee to eke out an existence until they died? Do we even know that they came to believe in the resurrection?
Acts (at the beginning) and the Gospels (at the end) are in fact explicit that all eleven became believers. But if so, why aren’t there any stories about them?
It is in the context of this puzzling issue that I want to broach a question that I often get asked, one that is commonly asked by evangelical Christian apologists:
How could the disciples have made up the idea of the resurrection? They were all martyred for believing in it [the questioner states]. Who would be willing to die for a lie? And would all twelve be willing to die for a lie?
It’s a provocative question, but I’m afraid I always have to turn it around on my questioner to ask: How do you know that the disciples were all martyred for believing in the resurrection? In fact, how do you know how they all died?
The questioner, of course, has no idea. S/he has simply heard that all the disciples were martyred. When asked where they have heard such a thing, they usually have no answer. When asked what sources from the ancient world ever say such a thing, again, obviously, they have no answer.
And that’s because there is no ancient source from anywhere *near* the lives of the apostles that says any such thing.
There is a statement that James the son of Zebedee was martyred in the book of Acts. There are hints that Peter and Paul died before the Gospels and Acts were written. There is the hint that the “Beloved Disciple” had died before the final form of John’s Gospel was written. But in none of these three cases (Peter, Paul, the Beloved Disciple) is it clear *how* they died (James is killed by Herod for some reason; possibly Peter was unwillingly put to his death?) or whether it had anything to do with believing in Jesus’ resurrection.
There are later legends about these figures – and others (James the brother of Jesus; John son of Zebedee) – indicating that they were martyred. But you don’t start getting these traditions until the late second century. And the traditions really are legendary. Just to give one famous example: The earliest account of the death of Paul is in a work called The Martrydom of Paul. There he is beheaded. And when his head is lopped off by the executioner, there spouts forth not blood but milk. Presumably, since milk is the liquid that gives life, this means he has now inherited life. Really interesting story. But historical?
And what about the others? Andrew, Philip, Nathaniel, Bartholomew, and the others? How did they did? We don’t know. Would they have died for a lie? We don’t know. Were they martyred? We don’t know. Were they executed for believing that Jesus had been raised from the dead? We don’t know.
I’m not saying that they did *not* die by execution or for believing in the resurrection. I’m saying we don’t know. And if we don’t know, then it’s not really a very good argument to say that Jesus must have been raised from the dead because all his disciples came to believe he was and they were all killed for this faith because no one would die for a lie.