Historical evidence for the death of Jesus’ disciples and very early Christians

by James Bishop

It is true that some legendary accounts exist detailing the disciples deaths, but not for all of them and their associates. We also have some evidence for other early Christians that never recanted their faith in their Lord Jesus even in the face of death. These early Christians had lived close enough to the time of Jesus and his contempories to be sure of Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection – to them this was an undeniable fact. What is some of this evidence?

In chapter 5 of a ‘Letter to the Corinthians’ authored by the early church father Clement, writing around 95 – 97 AD, we see that he attests to Paul’s martyrdom. According to him Paul “suffered martyrdom under the prefects.” This is probably reliable since we know, from his own epistles, that Paul suffered willingly for Jesus and faced the prospects of death many times throughout his voyages (2 Corinthians 6:5). Clement is obviously knowledgeable about the events of the early church and can be trusted on that end. Clement was also an associate of Peter, and Paul met both Peter and James – this indicates the possibility of inside information. To that extent we can trust his account, an account written very early (probably at the same time as our latest book of the New Testament, Revelation) which again gives it credence.

Another piece of evidence for Paul’s death as a martyr is found in 2 Timothy 4:6-8: “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith.”

Now, 2 Timothy is not held by scholars to be a genuine Pauline epistle, but rather a letter written by someone else other than Paul. In the above verse we see that whoever authored it had knowledge of Paul’s death. If one holds that someone other than Paul wrote this after the fact, I then think that makes it more reliable as a reference to his martyrdom. By the time a pseudo-Pauline author would have written that, they would open themselves up to being discovered if what they wrote didn’t fit with the facts of Paul’s demise. On that end we can be sure that Paul died for his belief in a flesh and blood Jesus. A common reply here would be that Paul doesn’t count because he never met Jesus in person. Again, Paul knew of the historical Jesus by referencing events of his life on several occasions, and even met his brother James and closest disciple Peter. Paul clearly knew what he was willing to suffer and eventually die for.

Another important piece of evidence is the martyrdom of Stephen recorded in Acts 7:58-60. Stephen is thought to have died around 34 AD, a few years after Jesus’ death, and on that note he would have known, like Paul, for what he was dying for.  He would likely have had eyewitness and first hand knowledge about Jesus, and was thoroughly convinced. Lastly, we are also told that James, the brother of John, was put to death by Herod in Acts 12:2. No-one knowingly dies for a lie…

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Historical evidence for the death of Jesus’ disciples and very early Christians | Historical Jesus studies