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What Happened to the Apostles?

Sean McDowell’s recent book The Fate of the Apostles is a welcome piece of scholarship. In church devotional literature, we hear all sorts of rumors about what happened to the apostles after the New Testament’s coverage leaves off. How much of what we hear is late, made-up legend? What exactly are the sources for what we hear? Can these sources be trusted?

McDowell rigorously examines the evidence for what happened to 14 well-known apostles: the original 11 who witnessed the resurrection, plus Matthias, plus Paul, plus James the brother of Jesus. Based on the evidence he discusses, here’s my opinion on what we can know about where these apostles’ lives went after Jesus’ resurrection.

Acts 12:1-2 gives us the case with the strongest possible evidence: the martyrdom of James son of Zebedee around 41 AD. Also very strong is the case for the martyrdom of James the brother of Jesus. Josephus, a non-Christian Jewish historian writing at the end of the 1st century AD, tells of his execution by Jewish leaders in Jerusalem in 62 AD, who claims that he was stoned to death. Hegesippus, a Christian writer around 170 AD, says that James was thrown from the pinnacle of the Temple, stoned, and beaten with a club, shortly before the Jewish rebellion. Clement of Alexandria (around 200 AD) agrees that James was thrown from the pinnacle of the Temple and beaten with a club.

Slightly less strong, but still virtually certain, is our evidence for the deaths of Peter and Paul. Quoted by the church historian Eusebius, Dionysius of Corinth writes around 170 AD that Peter and Paul “taught together…in Italy, and suffered martyrdom at the same time.” The most specific early testimony is from Tertullian around 200 AD, who writes that “Paul was beheaded.” He also writes that “Peter endures a passion like his Lord’s”, and “Peter is girt by another, when he is made fast to the cross.” However, the Gnostic Acts of Peter’s claim (end of 2nd century AD) that Peter was crucified upside down is less certain.

Less certain, but still highly probable, ranks the testimony that Thomas met his death in India. The tradition about Thomas is strong in the Indian church, but history in India was not written down until the 1500’s. The earliest written evidence we have is in the Gnostic Acts of Thomas (around 200 AD), which contains fanciful miracles, plus claims that Thomas preached against sex between spouses, but also mentions real historical details such as a 1st century king of north India named Gundaphar (Gondophares). The oral tradition in India dates Thomas’s arrival around 52 AD, and his martyrdom by spear around 72 AD at Mylapore, where he was buried.

The evidence is early, but hopelessly contradictory, about whether John was martyred, survived attempts to execute him, or died peacefully without incident. All evidence points to Ephesus as the place where he relocated. Tertullian records that “the apostle John was first plunged, unhurt, into boiling oil, and then remitted to his island exile.” The Acts of John (late 2nd century AD) claims that he survived poisoning. Irenaeus (around 180 AD) states that he died during the reign of Trajan (98-117 AD), making him extremely old. While Jesus says that John will drink from his cup of suffering (Mark 12:39), he also hints that John will outlive his comrades (John 21:20-23), which appears to be what happened.

The fates of Andrew, Philip, and the rest of the apostles are much less certain. Hippolytus (late 2nd century AD) and Origen (early 3rd century AD) both say he preached in Scythia; Hippolytus and the Acts of Andrew (late 2nd century AD) say he was then crucified back in Greece. (But St. Andrew’s traditional X-shaped cross dates to the 1100’s.) The apostle Philip (easily confused with the Evangelist) ministers in and dies in Hierapolis in central Turkey, although we cannot tell if he was crucified in the time of Domitian (90’s AD) or died a peaceful death.

According to Hippolytus, Bartholomew went to India, then was crucified in Armenia. Thaddeus ministered in Edessa in eastern Syria, then may have also been martyred in Armenia. Hippolytus says that Matthew “fell asleep” (died peacefully?) in Parthia, i.e. northern Iraq, although there is a late tradition that he was martyred in Ethiopia. Hippolytus says that James son of Alphaeus was stoned to death in Jerusalem. Dorotheus bishop of Tyre (300 AD) states that Simon the Zealot crossed North Africa, and was crucified and buried in Britain (could this be true?). The least is known about Matthias, but Hippolytus states that Matthias “fell asleep” (peacefully?) and was buried in Jerusalem.

So why does it matter what happened to the apostles? To me, it matters that despite all the sketchiness of the information we have on them, these apostles are real people, not mythical characters. It also matters that none of them abandoned Jesus after they witnessed his resurrection.

McDowell observes that people will die for beliefs in what they have heard second-hand, and they will die against their will (such as in the Holocaust), but no one dies for what they know firsthand to be false.  If the witnesses falter or prove untrustworthy, their claims are fatally undermined.  Of the 14 well known apostles studied by McDowell, all of them put their lives on the line for their faith, and we can be confident that several of them did die for their faith, which strengthens our reason to believe the message that they proclaimed.