There is a well known apologetic that is given as evidence regarding the resurrection of Christ. Preachers, teachers, theologians and laypeople point to the deaths of the apostles as circumstantial evidence concerning that event. They say things like “People will die for a cause if they believe it to be true, but they won’t die for a lie. The 12 apostles suffered horrendous deaths as martyrs for the cause- now why would they endure such profound suffering if they believed it a lie?”
It has become a forgone conclusion that all the apostles save one were martyred and that their gruesome, grotesque end is known. They say things like “Church tradition has it that……” or “Church history tells us that….” and that seems to be the end of it, as if such matters are settled and secure. They have an assumed confidence in the historicity of these accounts, supposing we have sufficient certainty to know what actually happened, and in turn they recount this to others without impunity.
There are several problems with this though, the least of which is that even a cursory examination of the accounts of the deaths of the apostles show gaps, contradictions, conflicting testimony, unreliable witnesses, suspect testimonies and incredible uncertainty.
The whole thing really is a complete mess, and it seems that if someone told me “Church tradition has it that they all died a martyr’s death” and I would ask them “What traditions? What church fathers?” No one would even have a clue. Its a good line, but it harder to back up once you go deeper than surface-level sound clips.
To offer a single example, let’s discuss the supposed martyrdom of Bartholomew the apostle.
Finding primary sources for the Martyrdom of Bartholomew has been a nightmare. What we typically see is “some local traditions have him going to India. Other traditions record him as serving as a missionary in Ethiopia. Mesopotamia, Parthia, and Lycaonia.” I find that incredibly unhelpful and have not been able to track down most of those so-called traditions. To that end after some careful research I’ve managed to dig up the most relevant and recent sources for the evidence of the Martyrdom of just one of the apostles.
1. The Biblical Evidence. There is no biblical extant evidence of the fate of Bartholomew. The Scriptures are wholly silent on the matter.
2. Hippolytus of Rome. [170-235] The details of Hippolytus’ life and his writings have generally all been forgotten and little is known about him. He wrote:
“Bartholomew, again, preached to the Indians, to whom he also gave the Gospel according to Matthew, and was crucified with his head downward, and was buried in Allanum, a town of the great Armenia”. [Hippolytus. On the Twelve Apostles of Christ. Ante-Nicean Fathers, Vol. 5.]
Hippolytus does not give us sources for this account, and likewise his authorship of said source is highly disputed. That is to say- we don’t even know if he actually wrote it. But if he did, it is also interesting to note that Hippolytus reports natural deaths for four of the twelve disciples. [John, Matthew, Thaddeus, and Simon the Zealot, which would contradict Eusebius and others regarding other apostolic deaths.]
3. Eusebius of Caesarea, [AD 263 – 339] Recounts only that Bartholomew went off to India:
“Pantænus was one of these, and is said to have gone to India. It is reported that among persons there who knew of Christ, He found the Gospel, according to Matthew, which had anticipated his own arrival. For Bartholomew, one of the apostles, had preached to them, and left with them the writing of Matthew in the Hebrew language, which they had preserved till that time.” [Eusebius. Church History. Book V. Chapter 10.]
4. Jerome. [ 347 – 420] In his commentary on Matthew he mentions a number of no-longer-extant apocryphal gospels, including a document entitled The Gospel of Bartholomew [Sometimes called the Questions of Bartholomew] This document is strongly Nestorian and was condemned as heretical by the Gelasian decree. The Questions of Bartholomew describes several conversations between Jesus and the apostles regarding the Crucifixion, Christ’s adventures in hell, and the resurrection. In the book, Jesus gives Bartholomew power and authority over the people and demons populating hell, which gives him the ability to question Satan about his battle with Heaven. Written possibly as early as the 6th century, it does not cast light on his death.
5. There is a non-Biblical document called the “Martyrdom of Bartholomew” written as early as the 5th century by an unknown source, which claims that Bartholomew was martyred by King Astyages in Armenia:
“Then the King rent the purple in which he was clothed, and ordered the holy apostle Bartholomew to be beaten with rods; and after having been thus scourged, to be beheaded.”
Interestingly enough, in this book the demons are speaking amongst themselves about how to recognize him, and they are given this description “And the demon answered and said: He has black hair, a shaggy head, a fair skin, large eyes, beautiful nostrils, his ears hidden by the hair of his head, with a yellow beard, a few grey hairs, of middle height, and neither tall nor stunted, but middling…His voice is like the sonnet of a strong trumpet; there go along with him angels of God, who allow him neither to be weary, nor to hunger, nor to thirst; his face, and his soul, and his heart are always glad and rejoicing; he foresees everything, he knows and speaks every tongue of every nation.”
6. Moses of Chorena, a writer who lived either in the late 5th century or sometime in the 7th century, wrote:
“There came then into Armenia the Apostle Bartholomew, who suffered martyrdom among us in the town of Arepan. As to Simon, who was sent unto Persia I cannot relate with certainty what he did, nor where he suffered martyrdom. It is said that one Simon, an apostle, was martyred at Veriospore. Is this true or why did the saint come to this place? I do not know I have only mentioned this circumstance that you may know I spare no pains to tell you all that is necessary.” [ History of Armenia . Section IX]
7. The Acts of Phillip. A bizarre, mystical, Gnostic apocryphal late 4th century book. In a later addition to it we read:
“And the Saviour said: O Philip, since you have forsaken this commandment of mine, not to render evil for evil, for this reason you shall be debarred in the next world for forty years from being in the place of my promise: besides, this is the end of your departure from the body in this place; and Bartholomew has his lot in Lycaonia, and shall be crucified there; and Mariamne shall lay down her body in the river Jordan. [Addition to the Acts of Phillip. Paragraph 52]
8. Allegedly there is an old Roman Breviary which states:
“In Great Armenia Bartholomew led the king, Poplymius, and his wife, in addition to twelve cities, to the Christian belief. These conversions very much enkindled the jealousy of the clergy there. The priests succeeded in stirring up the brother of King Polymius, Astyages, to such an anger that he gave the gruesome order to have Bartholomew skinned alive and then beheaded. In this martyrdom he gave his soul back to God.”
I have not been able to locate any source for it.
So here’s where we are; concerning the apostolic work of Bartholomew we have only unreliable and contradictory statements. The earliest accounts have been lost. The first that have been preserved originated between 450 and 550 in the eastern provinces of the Byzantine Empire with traces of Nestorianism. His manner of deaths range from being beaten, beheaded, flayed, crucified, and natural causes. He is said to have died in dozens of different places and countries, and most of the information that supposedly sheds light on his death was written hundreds of years after his actual death, in unreliable, unbelievable, fantastical sources.
I would suggest that during the first several centuries after Christ, stories about Him, the apostles, and their lives — not to mention writings on the meaning of Christ’s life, the duties of a Christian, and predictions about the end of the world — exploded into existence and the adventures of Bartholomew consists entirely of that- stories, traditions, myths and legends.
That is just one of the apostles. There are 11 more, and the majority of them have histories just as twisted and convoluted, if not way worse.
While we have stronger and more solid evidence for the martyrdom of some of the other apostles, the point I want to make stands; we don’t even know that Bartholomew was martyred. We don’t know how, why ,where, when or even IF. We don’t with any certainty know a single detail about his death, other than that he indeed did die.
Appeals to Church history and Church tradition are useless and confusing, and so because we want to speak the truth we need to be precise. I think it’s fair to say something like “While we have a mess to sort our regarding which apostles died where how and why, its reasonable to conclude that many of them if not most of them probably were martyred for their faith”
It doesn’t have the impact that “They were all martyred for their faith and suffered this specific gruesome fate..”, but the purpose is not maximum impact, but maximum truth so that God may be glorified.