Thinking Out Loud

January 6, 2014

We Track a Story People Were Willing to Die For

Crucifixion of St. Peter (Wikipedia Commons) Click image for link

Crucifixion of St. Peter (Wikipedia Commons) Click image for link

This appeared back in August — that’s forever ago in blog years — at Nailing It To The Door, a blog by Dan Martin. It was the eighth in a series of posts titled, Why I Believe; this one being The Testimony of Witnesses. To read this at source and then navigate to find the other parts, click this link.

There is no question in my mind that one of the most compelling reasons to believe specifically the accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings is the testimony of those who were there.  This is, I’m quite sure, a problematic claim for those who object to faith; I’ve encountered many rants on the unreliability of the gospel accounts, though I find that the same people who protest about the unreliability of the gospels tend to be far more credulous when looking at any other ancient written histories.  But there are two particular things about the Apostles and other first-century Christians that I find highly compelling.

The first is specific to the Evangelists who wrote the four canonical gospels (and I really do mean the canonical ones; I’ve read a number of the others and they differ so much in character that the judgment of the councils in rejecting them seems to me quite sound).  C.S. Lewis probably said it best in his 1959 lecture “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism:”

“I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one [of the stories in the Gospel of John, for example] is like this… Either this is reportage – though it may no doubt contain errors – pretty close up to the facts; nearly as close as Boswell. Or else, some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic narrative.” (see the full essay here; quote on p. 155)

Put perhaps a little more simply, the gospels just don’t look like anybody else’s idea of what mythical or divine characters ought to be, do, or say.  Weird and off-center as they might seem now, they were even weirder and less-probable in the time they were written.  Things only turn out that oddly if they’re either real (truth really is stranger than fiction) or very creatively written.

But even more compelling to me is the fact that the authors and their other compatriots were willing to die for the truth of what they had written or said.  And die they did, in some pretty horrible ways.  According to tradition and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (1563):

  • Philip was crucified
  • Matthew was “slain with a halberd”
  • James the brother of Jesus was beaten, stoned, and clubbed to death
  • Matthias (elected to replace Judas) was stoned and beheaded
  • Andrew was crucified
  • Mark was “dragged to pieces”
  • Peter was crucified upside-down
  • Paul was beheaded
  • Jude was crucified
  • Bartholomew was beaten and then crucified
  • Thomas was speared
  • Simon the Zealot was crucified
  • John was “cast into a cauldron of boiling oil,” survived, and was later exiled to the island of Patmos; “He was the only apostle who escaped a violent death.”
  • Barnabas is said to be martyred, though the means of his death is not reported.

These guys, unlike later generations of Christians killed by the thousands under various rulers, knew exactly what they were dying for.  They claimed to have seen and heard it themselves.  If they were faking it, they sure were willing to take their deception to a really crazy, extreme end.

I’m not saying that death alone testifies to truth.  Many hundreds and thousands have died for falsehoods throughout history … I think of the infamous Jonestown mass suicide in the 70s … but the difference, at least as I see it, is that these people were deluded by a charismatic leader who ordered them to their deaths.  Jesus did no such thing, and in fact he was already dead and gone (if we presume fakery) or dead and raised (if we accept the Gospels) before any of the apostles faced their deaths.  These men went willingly to gruesome deaths because they couldn’t recant the truth of what they’d spent their lives teaching.

There are, of course, many more martyrs since the first century.  While I have no desire to diminish their testimony, it seems to me that it’s of a different category.  Except for however they may have experienced the Holy Spirit in their own lives, the thing for which they died was removed from them in that they no longer could testify to having seen Jesus with their eyes, heard his teachings from his very lips with their own ears, and even sat and broken bread with him.  No one, however intense their experience, has had the same level of personal, experiential linkage to Jesus Christ that those first-century apostles had.  And when they were invited to either confess to their lie or die in pain, they insisted it was no lie and accepted the consequences.  Two millenia later, that testimony remains, to me, difficult to refute.


  1. I went on your blog, and saw the picture falsely depicting peter as being killed in rome…
    you are obviously a roman catholic,,,
    ??Peter was not killed in Rome,,in fact there is nothing in the Scriptures to indicate that he went to rome..

    Comment by spookchristian — January 6, 2014 @ 10:40 am

    • I am growing increasingly sympathetic to bloggers who don’t allow comments.
      (1) You are not a regular part of this blog community, or you would know I’m not Catholic. Check out blogs just a little more carefully before you leave comments.
      (2) I did not write the article. This is a re-post. The article is about reasons for faith, reasons we can trust the scriptures, and one of the reasons is that people were willing to die for it. That’s what the article is about. That’s what you’re welcome to comment on. That’s how this works.
      (3) Rather than ‘borrow’ the article and the picture with it, I selected a unique picture. I’m sorry it doesn’t meet your standards. Go to Wikipedia Commons, find the original source and take it up with them. OR, click through, read the article at source, and you might find you like their picture better.

      I hope your day improves.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — January 6, 2014 @ 4:51 pm

      • sorry about that…
        I seem to be a tad oversensitive to stuff.
        I would be offended as well, if someone thought that I was a roman catholic.
        .I wouldn’t be happy.


        Comment by spookchristian — January 7, 2014 @ 1:44 am

  2. You are obviously a Christian who has great respect for the heroes of the faith.
    You are obviously a believer in providing ‘apologia’ for the faith – reasons to believe.
    You are obviously someone who likes to resource documentation outside of but in connection with the New Testament in order to have interested parties see validity in our faith claim and is it can be relayed via traceable, historical traditions.
    You are obviously fed up with stick-in-the-mud types like ‘Spook Christian’ (what kind of a title is that?) who just want to stir up controversy in order to feel personally/selfishly empowered rather than closer to their Lord and Savior.

    Keep doin’ what you’re doing, Paul. :-)


    Comment by Flagrant Regard — January 6, 2014 @ 7:21 pm

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