|On "How Did the Apostles Die?"|
This item correctly begins, "Christian apologists, both real and would-be, argue that the willingness of the apostles to die for their faith is proof that the resurrection of Jesus was a real experience in their lives. People will die for what they believe to be true, the argument goes, but they would not die for what they know is not true." A hint is made at the idea of group hallucinations; we'll get to that in that context. Our issue here is with the claim, "the evidence of widespread martyrdom in the early church is very weak." The article grants "scattered references" in the NT to martyrdom (which it summarily dismisses) and then says:
Outside of the New Testament, however, evidence of wholesale persecutions of early Christians is primarily a tradition that has been foisted on an unsuspecting Christian public. In his debate with Celsum, Origen, as late as A. D. 240-250, said that the number of Christian martyrs was "few" and "easily numbered":
For in order to remind others, that by seeing a few engaged in a struggle for their religion, they also might be better fitted to despise death, some, on special occasions, and these individuals who can be easily numbered, have endured death for the sake of Christianity (Contra Celsum, Book 3, Chapter 8, emphasis added).
For a response to this, see here.
Our writer then goes on to make the inquiry, "Were the apostles even real historical persons?" No secular historian would even think of tendering such an idea. But we are told, "There are reasons to suspect that at least some of them were merely legendary figures." Why?
Here presumably were men who took the gospel into various countries and provinces, but the only records of their activities are to be found in the traditions and writings of early church leaders, who had a special interest in the growth of Christianity. According to the book of Acts, for example, the apostle Paul stirred up public controversy almost everywhere he went on his missionary tours.
Examples from Acts are offered, and then it is said:
Everywhere Paul went controversy like this allegedly followed him, yet there are no records outside of the New Testament of any of his activities.
I'll make this very easy on our writer. Here is an article with a list of writers contemporary to this period. Explain which of these would have known about, and been concerned with, Paul's activities, and then tell us why. Be sure and deal with the issue noted here.
Now as to the apostles themselves, it is written:
Since the New Testament is relatively silent on postresurrection activities of the other apostles, we "know" even less about their evangelistic work. What we do know is mainly a matter of tradition, which is all that Christians can offer in support of their claim that the apostles died for their beliefs. The problem with these traditions is that they are (1) unverifiable and (2) contradictory. One tradition, for example, says that the apostle Paul was tried in Rome and executed, but another tradition says that he was released and went to Spain to do more missionary work. So which tradition do we accept? When traditions are in conflict, how do we determine which, if any, is the truth?
Our writer does not cite these traditions, their sources, or their dates, but in the case given both are taken to be true. Paul's execution in Rome is understood to be the result of an arrest after his journey to Spain, which in turn was after the time of Acts.
Our article closes with an overview of In The Search for the Twelve Apostles by Dr. William Steuart McBirnie, who, it is said, "admitted that the traditions were sometimes so inconsistent and contradictory that it cannot now be determined how all of the apostles died."
For what it is worth, I hardly consider this to be a problem. Records and accounts of the lives of private individuals are scarcer than a rational thought at the office of The Skeptical Review.
As noted in the link above, Christianity in the Roman era was a social risk on the order of today sitting down in Central Park and praising Mullah Omar for his courage. The apostles and early believers did not need to die in order to prove their dedication to the truth of the faith.
This leads now to a related article, not asking How, but Why the apostles died. It begins with presumptive invective:
...for all we know, the disciples of Jesus may well have been scoundrels of a sort who thrived in the limelight. It would not have been the first time that a cult stretched the truth for its own glory. After their leader was crucified, they could have simply spread the word that he had arisen on the third day. Mighty Jesus had arisen, and they were his special disciples! Being an inconsequential group, nobody would have bothered to investigate them. Several minor cults were probably making similar claims. Later, as the cult gained in size and became "respectable," any serious investigation was out of the question. True believers would have assumed positions of authority and filled in Jesus's history according to their own doctrinal understanding.
For all we know as well, the disciples may have been Roman aristocrats, or Assyrian warlords; but none of this is verified by any evidence, no more so than the idea that the disciples were scoundrels. Our critic needs to put himself in the shoes on men of the first century; he might gain some grasp of how impropbable these propositions are. One did not "get in the limelight" by issuing claims that others found outrageous or disgusting: a crucified Messiah, who was also a member of a people (Jews) who promoted depraved superstition; difficult behavioral requirements and relinquishing of favored vices; a resurrection (not at all popular among the Greco-Romans, who looked at that as we would look at a zombie). The Christian message didn't engender popularity prizes or attention.
As for being inconsequential, and a serious investigation being out of the question: If we are to believe Tacitus, it was not so inconsequential that it was not singled out for treatment by Nero, and later by Titus at Jerusalem, and not so inconsequential that Paul and the Sanhedrin ignored it, and the ancients were more than capable of serious investigation, and did keep records orally and in writing, our critic's bigotry notwithstanding. Finally the bit about "true believers" has no evidence at all behind it.
Perhaps the disciples initially believed Jesus's claims and were later too entrenched in their belief to admit that they had been wrong. Psychologically, they may have had too much at stake to simply back out. Perhaps, after a period of initial depression and confusion, they had forced themselves via group reinforcement to believe that Jesus had risen even though none of them had actually witnessed the event. One or more of the group may have mistakenly identified a perfect stranger at a distance as Jesus, only to lose him to a crowd.
Not a shred of this comports with any written or historical evidence.
Our critic makes an allusion to Robert Price's work, presumably on Sabbatai Sevi, which we have shown here to be of no relevance. A parallel is also drawn to the Jehovah's Witnesses belief in an invisible return of Jesus, and the Hale-Bopp cult, but this is apples and oranges: explaining away a non-event which results in no action isn't at issue; what is at issue is explaining a claimed event and the considerable actions that resulted.
As a side note, our critic claims that Bible belief causes damage "chiefly limited to our educational system and to good government". This is an amazing claim in light of our secularized school system producing vast numbers of people who cannot even read, while private and religious schools produce excellent students.
Perhaps Jesus was originally a teacher with no pretensions of godhood, who taught that the world was coming to an abrupt end. The entire idea of Jesus's resurrection may have been added to deify him, to put him on par with the popular savior gods of that era--the competition as it were.
Our critic will need to explain how monotheistic Jews came to ascribe godhood to a mere human -- which no critic has yet been able to do satisfactorily. The best they can do is say that the NT writers were all Greeks, or speculate that the Gospels were written far from their source, and compare to the other savior gods, but as shown here none of these is a match.
Our critic also throws the Christ-myth (see here). All of these are given under the heading of "plausible scenarios". In fact none of them are; they don't deserve that title. Skepticism is often its own religion that fights in the face of evidence.