Can We Trust the Early Traditions of Apostolic Martyrdoms

by J Warner Wallace

The deaths of the apostles are often cited by Christian Case Makers in an effort to demonstrate the certainty and validity of those who witnessed the Resurrection of Jesus. When an eyewitness is willing to die, rather than deny his testimony, there’s good reason to believe he actually observed what he’s reporting or he’s simply crazy. When multiple eyewitnesses are similarly convinced, the most reasonable conclusion is their testimony is an accurate record of events. I’ve discussed the attestation of the disciples in Cold Case Christianity, but the question remains, are the traditions related to the martyrdoms of the Apostles a true record of their deaths? Many critics have cited the sometimes questionable historical accounts of these martyrdoms. It’s true: The early, local church narratives are often stylized and enhanced. Given this reality, why should we trust anything these accounts offer? I think there are several good reasons to accept the claims of martyrdom, even while remaining cautious about specific details:

The Imperfect, Yet Reliable Accounts Are Best Explained by Apostolic Martyrdom
Judges admonish jurors not to reject a witness’ testimony out of hand just because the witness might be mistaken about a particular detail. The real question is simply this: Is the witness wrong about everything or might there be an explanation for the inaccuracies (protecting the core truths of the witness’ testimony)? I’ve never had a witness in a criminal trial who was right about everything, but these same witnesses were considered reliable by the jury. The ancient witnesses must be evaluated in a similar manner

The Ancient Climate is Best Explained by Apostolic Martyrdom
It’s clear there was a consistent desire on the part of early Christians to die as martyrs. It’s also clear these martyrdoms occurred regularly (if not often) and were chronicled (and celebrated) by ancient authors. The best explanation for this early cultural climate among the faithful was simply the example offered by the original eyewitnesses…

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Can We Trust the Early Traditions of Apostolic Martyrdoms