It is true that some legendary traditions 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 Jesus even when in the face of death. These early Christians had lived close enough to the time of Jesus and his contemporaries to be sure of Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection. In other words, to them, whether mistaken or not, this was an undeniable fact. But what is some of this alleged 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 likely 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, which suggests a good possibility of early, insider 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, was penned) 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 (this of course denies that Jesus really appeared to him on the road to Damascus). Again, Paul knew of the historical Jesus by referencing events of his life on several occasions (at least 27 facts), and even met his brother James and closest disciple Peter. Paul clearly knew what he was willing to suffer and eventually die for. And on a last note Paul’s martyrdom passes the criterion of plausibility. In other words, Paul, as evidence within his genuine epistles, suffered many persecutions as he spread Jesus’ message of salvation to the world. He faced shipwrecks, flogging, jail cells, physical and verbal abuse etc. Knowing this, Paul’s martyrdom was always a likely possibility.
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 risking dying for. He would likely have had eyewitness and first hand knowledge about Jesus and was evidently 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.
Thirdly, we have an account of Jesus’ brother, James, being martyred in the work of Jospehus. Josephus writes: “and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.” (Antiquities 20 v.9) This is an important reference since Josephus must have obtained this information from a source outside that of the New Testament since no-where within the New Testament does it refer to James’ death. Another interesting point must be made that Jesus’ own family thought he was out of his mind. In Mark 3:21: “When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.” This is particularly striking since James, who doubted Jesus’ self claims, was willing to lead the early church after he witnessed the risen Jesus (Acts 15). This is something that, according to Josephus, he was martyred for. What could have so drastically changed this man’s heart and mind from a skeptic of Jesus to someone who would lead the church, and of which only to die for? Our best evidence says its the resurrection.
The apostle Peter’s death was also seemingly foretold by Jesus in John 21:18-19. Peter’s death is also reported very early by Clement in his Letter to the Corinthians (Chapter 5, written around 95 – 98 AD). Later Peter’s death is attested to by Tertullian (lived 155 – 240 AD) at the end of the 2nd century, and by Origen in Eusebius, Church History III.1 (4th century).
Historically, we can be confident of the martyrdom of Paul, Stephen, Peter, James (brother of John) and James (brother of Jesus). This makes a powerful apologetic for Jesus’ actual resurrection. However, another crucial point must be noted, and this is the willingness of the disciples to face death for what they proclaimed to be true. Again, what does our evidence tell us?
The disciples were sent to jail (Acts 5:21, 5:18), flogged and jailed (Acts 16:23), beaten (Acts 5:40), and received no help from pagans in times of distress (3 John 1:7). Despite being thrown in jail and beaten they still spread the Gospel (Acts 5:17–42). Many early Christian homes were invaded and the occupants were dragged to prison (Acts 8:3), some were stoned as in the case of Stephen (Acts 7:54-60). They suffered hardships for their services (1 Corinthians 4:9-13), and the church in Jerusalem suffered intense persecution (Acts 8:1-3). As mentioned above and reported by Josephus, Jesus’ brother James was martyred for his belief. Christians were told to take joy in their sufferings for the sake of Christ (1 Peter 4:16), and even James, the brother of John, was put to death by Herod (Acts 12:2). We are also told that the first statewide persecution of Christians was under Nero (AD 64), as reported by Tacitus (Annals 15.44:2–5) and Suetonius (Nero 16.2).
On top of this Paul tells us he was, for the sake of Jesus, whipped, beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, near starved to death and in danger from various people and places (2 Corinthians 6:5). Before Paul dramatically converted to belief in Christ, and in the period that he persecuted Christians, he self admittedly claims a hand in this persecution of the early Christians and their Church of God (Galatians 1:13, Acts 9:1–2). Yet after his conversion Paul, and other early Christians, rejoiced in their sufferings (Romans 5:3–4, James 1:2–4). Jesus warned his followers that they would be hated (Luke 6:22, John 15:18-20), and that they would be imprisoned (Luke 21:12, Matthew 10:19). However, they will be blessed for their perseverance (Matthew 5:10–12).
Clearly our best evidence tells us that the disciples, and early Christians were wholly convinced that Jesus had appeared to them from the dead. This conclusion is the consensus view of modern scholarship, namely that the disciples were convinced that Jesus had appeared to them convincing them that he was raised from the dead. Our historical evidence supports such a view.