Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Fate of the Apostles--Evidence of the Resurrection?


            Christians sometimes point to the martyrdom of the first apostles as evidence for the resurrection of Jesus.[1] They base their hypothesis on the premise that people don’t die for a lie they know to be false. People might die for a lie that they believe to be true, but not one they know to be false.

            In his book, The Resurrection of Jesus, historian Michael R. Licona states this about Jesus’ disciples:

After Jesus’ death, the disciples endured persecution, and a number of them experienced martyrdom. The strength of their conviction indicates that they were not just claiming Jesus had appeared to them after rising from the dead. They really believed it. They willingly endangered themselves by publically proclaiming the risen Christ.[2]

Tradition holds that the apostles died willingly for their belief that Jesus was resurrected.[3] But how can one be historically sure that the apostles were martyred for their faith? In his new book Fate of the Apostles, popular Christian apologist Sean McDowell investigates and carefully evaluates the historical evidence of the martyrdom of the apostles, focusing on the earliest sources available, “including New Testament documents, with particular focus on the book of Acts, the writings of the early church fathers, pseudepigraphical writings such as the Acts of the Apostles, Gnostic sources, and other extra-biblical accounts.”[4] However, he concentrates on first and second century sources containing “living” memory, which he describes as “transmitting personal memory of events that trace back to the apostles themselves.”[5]

            To begin, McDowell defines “martyr” as “one whose testimony for Jesus results in death, which is now the standard Christian understanding of ‘martyr.’”[6] Next he refutes two primary arguments against doing the historical investigation into the deaths of the apostles. First, lack of information about some of their deaths “does not undermine the significance of what does exist.”[7] Second, despite some evidence being “stuff of legend,” there is some clear historical evidence within the legends which make them worth examining.[8] Then he presents clear evidence that the resurrection was central to early Christian preaching, kerygma.[9] In other words, the apostles had resurrection faith.

            Setting the stage for examining evidence for martyrdom of the apostles, McDowell first identifies and explains the Twelve Apostles as: Peter, John (son of Zebedee), Thomas, Andrew, James (son of Zebedee), Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, James (son of Alphaeus), Thaddeus, Simon (the Zealot), and Matthias.[10] Next he surveys both historical and legendary evidence for the persecution of the early church.[11] Finally, he devotes the rest of the book (fourteen entire chapters) examining the evidence for the persecution and martyrdom for each of the Twelve Apostles, plus Paul and James (the brother of Jesus).

            In the end, McDowell concludes that there is “convincing evidence Peter, Paul, James, the son of Zebedee, and James, the brother of the Lord, died as martyrs.”[12] Additionally, he states it is more probable than not that Thomas died as a martyr, and more plausible than not than Andrew did, too.[13] As for the rest of the apostles, using the “living memory” test, McDowell suggests that there is simply not enough evidence to confidently conclude they died as martyrs. This is due partly because there is little information available, conflicting information, or later information (after the second century), making it less reliable. Here are his conclusions for each of the apostles:

1.     Peter—the highest possible probability
2.     Paul—the highest possible probability
3.     James, brother of Jesus—very probably true
4.     John, the son of Zebedee—improbable
5.     Thomas—more probable than not
6.     Andrew—more plausible than not
7.     James, son of Zebedee—the highest possible probability
8.     Philip—as plausible as not
9.     Bartholomew—as plausible as not
10.  Matthew—as plausible as not
11.  James, son of Alphaeus—as plausible as not
12.  Thaddeus—as plausible as not
13.  Simon the Zealot—as plausible as not
14.  Matthias—as plausible as not[14]

McDowell summarizes by saying, “although there is no early evidence each of the apostles died as martyrs, some general claims make their individual martyrdoms more likely than not.”[15]

            So does this evidence prove Jesus died and was resurrected? What about people from other faiths who have died for their beliefs, like Muslims or Buddhists? McDowell responds, “there are many martyrs outside Christianity; I don’t claim that only Christians have martyrs, but that the apostles died uniquely for the belief that they had actually seen the risen Christ, which demonstrates the sincerity of their convictions.[16] Additionally, in contrast to modern martyrs such as Muslim terrorists and even Christians, “the beliefs of the apostles was not received secondhand, but from personal experience with the risen Jesus...”[17] Modern martyrs may have been “willing to suffer and die for a faith received secondhand, but the apostles were willing to suffer and die for what they had seen with their own eyes.”[18] There is no evidence they ever recanted their faith.[19]

            In conclusion, although the evidence of the martyrdom of the apostles does not prove the resurrection of Jesus, it does show they sincerely believed it. “They were not liars.”[20] There is no better explanation for the reason the apostles were martyred than that they were committed to something that truly happened—the resurrection of Jesus Christ.





[1] Sean McDowell, The Fate of the Apostles: Examining the Martyrdom Accounts of the Closest Followers of Jesus, (London and New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2015), 1.
[2] Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2010), 366.
[3] McDowell, The Fate of the Apostles, 1.
[4] Ibid., 3.
[5] Ibid. McDowell cites to Markus Bockmuehl, “Peter’s Death in Rome? Back to Front and Upside Down,” Scottish Journal of Theology 60 (2007): 7-13.
[6] Ibid., 5.
[7] Ibid., 9.
[8] Ibid., 11.
[9] Ibid., 17-23.
[10] Ibid., 25-36.
[11] Ibid., 37-53.
[12] Ibid., 259; emphasis added.
[13] Ibid.; emphasis added.
[14] Ibid., 263-264; emphasis original.
[15] Ibid., 263; emphasis original.
[16] Ibid., 3; emphasis original.
[17] Ibid., 260.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ibid., 265.
[20] Ibid., 264.

Mark 16 - Do We NEED a Happy Ending?


        Until just a few years ago when my husband mentioned it, I didn’t even know there was a question about the ending of Mark 16. Sure enough when I opened my Bible, in between verse 8 and 9 it says in brackets, “The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20.”[1] When comparing the shorter ending with the longer ending, it is clear that the longer version is a happier ending. Did Bible editors include the longer version just to give us a happy ending?

            The shorter ending is not a happy ending. It ends rather abruptly with women coming to Jesus’ tomb to anoint his body with spices only to find the tomb empty. A young man dressed in white tells them not be alarmed and to go tell the disciples that Jesus will meet them in Galilee. Trembling and bewildered they flee the scene, and say nothing to anyone because they were afraid.[2] Whereas the longer ending has Jesus speaking to the apostles, His ascension to heaven, and the apostles going out to preach and do miracles.[3] How do we decide which is the real ending? And, does it matter?

            In his book The Resurrection of the Son of God, New Testament scholar N.T. Wright states that those in favor of the shorter reading support their position by arguing that the earliest manuscripts of the gospel of Mark (fourth-century codices Sinaiticus and Vaticanus) end with verse 8.[4] The longer reading is found in the fifth-century manuscripts (led by Alexandrinus).[5] Since then, most manuscripts include the longer text.[6] (In case you were wondering about the earliest papyrus fragments of the New Testament, no copies of Mark 16 have yet been found.[7])

Wright pops the bubbles on the theories of either endings. He reveals that most contemporary commentators agree that while both the shorter and longer endings “are extremely interesting, they are almost certainly not by Mark.”[8] Wright concurs by rejecting both endings, claiming they are “lame substitutions.” He argues that Mark wrote a different ending which is now lost,[9] or, alternatively, Mark did not finish his book before he died—someone else finished it for him.[10]

So what are we to do with all these theories? Do we allow this uncertainty to shake our faith or cause us to doubt the rest of Scripture? Does this affect the evidence for a resurrected Jesus? When faced with the unknown, it is necessary to return to what is known. There is plenty of other evidence from the New Testament, early Church Fathers, and even non-Christian ancient historians for the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Even if we cannot be sure of a happy ending to Mark, we can be sure of a happy ending for those who believe in Jesus Christ. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.”[11]
           





[1] Mark 16:8-9. All Scripture quotations from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.
[2] Mark 16:8. The “women” are identified in Mark 16:1 as Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome.
[3] Mark 16:19-20.
[4] N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 617.
[5] Ibid., 618.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid., 617.
[10] Ibid., 623.
[11] John 3:16.