Who among us hath not heard the old drum that the apostles and earliest followers of Jesus would not have been willing to die for their beliefs, if they knew that the resurrection had been a lie? Since we know that the apostles had died for their teachings, clearly they must have been true! While they can often include fallacies, I seldom I find an apologetic argument that is the literal embodiment of one: argumentum ad martyrdom. Despite being a logical fallacy resting on the bizarre premise that people cannot die for lies, I will play the apologetic game anyways to show that things become far more problematic for those arguing this point when we actually investigate the circumstances of the apostles’ deaths and find that they are virtually all ahistorical legends, full of contradictions, and little more than magical absurdities. To borrow an analogy used by Bob Price, it would be like an Oz apologist arguing: “Where else would the Yellow Brick Road lead, if not to Emerald City?” Such an argument distracts from the fact that there is no Yellow Brick Road in the first place. In like manner, apologists want to use the argumentum ad martyrdom to prove the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection through the martyrdoms, but, as we will see, one will already need belief in miracles to be credulous towards many of the fantastic accounts detailing the supposed deaths of the apostles.
1. To See Is to Know!
A key feature of the argumentum ad martyrdom is that it rests upon the personal certainty of the martyr. After all, Japanese kamikazes died for their beliefs, but does that mean that they knew for a fact that their emperor was a god, or just believed it? Apologists recognize this weakness, so they try to argue that the apostles not only believed in the resurrection, but also saw and knew that it was true. However, like the mythical Hercules battling the many-headed hydra, the apologist can only attempt to refute one objection by giving rise to many others. First and foremost, we do not have the writings of any of the original twelve apostles, so how do we know what they taught and believed anyways? Mainstream biblical scholarship rejects the “eyewitness status” of NT books assigned to apostolic authorship–like Matthew and John–as well as the second hand accounts of attendants of the apostles–like Mark and Luke (for further elaboration on problems with the traditional authors of the Gospels, see my essay “Why Scholars Doubt the Traditional Authors of the Gospels”). Without knowing who any of these anonymous authors were, we cannot be certain that their accounts, written half a century later, accurately reflected the beliefs and teachings of the apostles. Furthermore, when we do have instances, such in the Book of Acts, when Peter and Paul’s speeches are recorded, biblical scholars such as Bart Erhman have pointed out that the speeches contain no distinction in their style or word choice between the two speakers. In other words, given their similarities, the speeches probably come from one person, namely the author of Acts, who took extensive creative liberties in writing, as was the habit of many ancient authors (which I discuss further here). Given the fact that these texts date to a later generation of Christianity, their highly extraordinary and often contradictory accounts of Jesus’ resurrection and post-mortem appearances should not be taken literally to reflect the earliest Christians’ belief in the resurrection, especially when they could have easily been embellished by legendary development. So the apologetic premise that the apostles knew that the resurrection was true already runs into problems when we do not even know for certain what they believed.
There is one exception, however: the apostle Paul. Unlike the original twelve, we actually have 7 letters in the New Testament that are indisputably written by Paul. But once more, another objection shoots up: Paul never knew Jesus during his life and ministry, never claimed to see the physically resurrected Jesus of the Easter event, and instead writes vaguely about an “appearance” (something that could just be a vision, subjective experience, or possibly a hallucination) that he experienced of Jesus later. However, even Paul’s description of his conversion is too vague to be treated as a miraculous appearance. We have 1 Corinthians 9:1 where he claims to “have seen the lord,” 1 Corinthians 15:8 where he writes, “he appeared also unto me,” and Galatians 1:15-16 where he states that god “was pleased to reveal his son in me.” Such statements are no more grandiose than many people who describe their religious conversions to Christianity today, without literally claiming to have seen the physical resurrected Jesus. Paul never says that he or anyone else saw Jesus face to face. Even if we are historically sloppy, however, and allow Paul’s own statements to be spliced with the legendary accounts in Acts 9, 22, and 26, what more do we get? Paul seeing a light from the sky and hearing a voice shout down at him, something that, even if true, could be far more probabilistically explained by a heat stroke on the road to Damascus rather than a miraculous resurrection.
What does make Paul more valuable, however, is that he claims to have met the disciples and provides details about the original twelve. Paul is thus our best window into what the original apostles may have believed. How does he describe what they saw of the resurrected Jesus? In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul describes the appearances of Jesus using the Greek verb ὁράω (“to see”), but as the Liddell and Scott Greek English Lexicon (s.v. ὁράω) points out, ὁράω also can mean “to see visions” (the same vocabulary, for example, is also used to describe celestial visions of the god Aesculapius). In fact, when specifically used in the passive form ὤφθη, as it is in 1 Corinthians 15, the verb often means “to appear in visions,” which could be interpreted to mean “Jesus appeared in visions.” Paul describes his own vision using ὤφθη and uses the same terminology to describe Jesus’ appearances to the twelve apostles. Given that Paul’s own testimony suggests that he only experienced a vision of Jesus, and given that he describes the other apostles’ experiences the same way, the earliest Christians’ belief in the resurrection may have been inspired only by celestial visions of Jesus raised to heaven (a possibility I discuss further here), and at the very least does not amount to any definitive claim to have seen a flesh and blood Jesus in an earthly setting (as I discuss here). But then again, since we don’t have the testimonies of any of the original disciples, we will never know what they even believed anyways, which makes it further ridiculous to argue about what they knew. Paul’s testimony is the best that we have and even this only points towards visionary experiences, which can easily be caused by alternative explanations, such as someone having spiritual ecstasy, misinterpreting his or her senses, hallucinating, or being led by their imagination. Personally, I think that Paul did believe that he had an experience of Jesus, but since all this could have been happening in his head, it is no proof that he knew to have done so.
2. The Yellow Brick Road Is Make Believe
So the apologetic premise that the apostles knew to have seen a physically resurrected Jesus is bunk, but they still died for their beliefs, right? That must mean something! But where is their martyrdom described in the New Testament, anyways, or in any 1st century CE account? Well, with the exception of a brief reference to James the Son of Zebedee and possibly James the brother Jesus (both of whom we will discuss below), absolutely nowhere. Where do we get the stories of the apostles’ deaths? From non-canonical Christian sources written centuries later that apologists would entirely shy away from in an instant as mere apocrypha, if they did not have to quote mine the deaths of the apostles to bolster their arguments.
Paul: We have just discussed how Paul’s beliefs are those that we know most about. How did Paul die? Well, our earliest narrative of Paul’s death is from the apocryphal Acts of Paul written about a century later (c. 150 – 200 CE) . Here is what this later and dubious source provides about Paul’s execution on the orders of the emperor Nero:
“Then Paul stood with his face to the east and lifted up his hands unto heaven and prayed a long time, and in his prayer he conversed in the Hebrew tongue with the fathers, and then stretched forth his neck without speaking. And when the executioner struck off his head, milk spurted upon the cloak of the soldier. And the soldier and all that were there present when they saw it marveled and glorified God which had given such glory unto Paul: and they went and told Caesar what was done.”
Wait! Let me read that again. Milk shot out of his neck? Paul then briefly resurrects, appears to Nero and rebukes him, and then appears alongside Luke and Titus at his grave. And you are trying to use this (miraculous) resurrection to convince me of a resurrection? Very quickly, the yellow bricks disappear, and this apologetic ends up leading nowhere. What else does the Acts of Paul record? Well, there is another part where a fierce lion is unleashed on Paul in the arena, but the cuddly king of the jungle decides instead to snuggle up at Paul’s feet. God then unleashes a magical hail storm to kill the audience. Clearly that is a sober historical fact, which eases our skepticism about the earlier resurrection of Jesus, right? Sure…
What about the original twelve disciples?
Peter: Although Peter’s death is vaguely alluded to in some parts of the New Testament (e.g. John 21:18; 2 Peter 1:13-15), the actual scene and manner of his death is nowhere to be found within it. Instead, the legendary account of saint Peter being crucified upside down in Rome is first recorded possibly over a century later in the apocryphal Acts of Peter (c. 150 – 200 CE). Modern scholars have doubts that Peter ever even went to Rome (seeing as Paul makes no mention of Peter being there in his Epistle to the Romans, even though tradition claims that Peter traveled there first, and the fact that Peter allegedly founding the church at Rome would serve as propaganda for the leadership of the city’s congregation). The Acts of Peter also includes events such as Peter causing a dog to speak human language, raising a smoked tuna fish from the dead, and battling a magical flying magician named Simon. Apologists quote mine one of the four events above to bolster their arguments. Guess which one it is?
Andrew (Peter’s Brother): After Paul and Peter, the New Testament says even less about the other apostles and many of the later apocryphal accounts of their deaths become even further distant and less reliable (yes, I know that is hard to believe). For one, the Acts of Andrew (c. 150 – 200 CE) records that he was crucified in the Achaean city of Patras. This account is written possibly over a century later, but it could be believable, right? Well, if you also believe the first couple paragraphs of the Acts of Andrew, where Andrew cures a blind man, raises a boy from the dead, and magically summons an earthquake to kill a woman who was trying to have sex with her own son (rather than just killing the woman directly). Andrew later magically heals everyone else who was hurt by the collateral damage of this magical earthquake.
James the son of Zebedee: Alright, enough of these later legends! The New Testament Book of Acts records James the son of Zebedee’s death. Take that, skeptics! Well, what exactly does it say? Here is the grand and detailed narrative of his valiant death:
“It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword.” (Acts 12:1-2)
Surely he was killed because Herod Agrippa and his men, like Orwellian thought police, hunted down James to force him to deny what he knew about the truth of the resurrection! Um, it doesn’t say that. Surely James was tortured and given many opportunities to admit the resurrection was false and be spared, but he confessed its truth each time! Um, nothing about that either. Instead we just have a brief sentence with no details at all about the specifics of James’ death. Later in the chapter an angel appears and helps Peter magically escape from prison, despite being guarded by four squads of soldiers. So magic still surrounds this brief and factually sounding reference. James’ unspecific death, not even a martyrdom since there is no indication that he could have avoided the death, is the best apologists have to offer in this argument…
John the son of Zebedee: Apologists will tell you that John was alone of the disciples not to face a grisly death. Too bad the early 2nd century church father Papias (whom apologists try to use as a source for the authorship of Matthew and Mark) instead records that John was killed alongside his brother James in Herod’s persecution (see F.P. Badham in “The Martyrdom of John the Apostle”). That sure does throw a wrench into the “disciple whom Jesus loved” living a long life and writing the 4th Gospel. Tertullian tells us that he was boiled alive in oil, but that it felt to him like a warm bath. Irenaeus has him live until the reign of Trajan. Pick whatever unreliable source you like.
Philip: We receive the account of Philip’s death in the apocryphal Acts of Philip (350 – 400 CE). The narrative depicts Philip confronting serpent and dragon idol worshipers in the the city of Hierapolis. Later in medieval legends St. Philip is actually depicted as a battler of dragons. Philip along with Bartholomew are crucified at the order of the proconsul (though, Bartholomew is later taken down). Before his death, however, Philip prays and opens up an abyss within the city that swallows up the proconsul’s house, the dragon temple, and 7,000 men. Take that pagans! Afterwards a voice sounds from Heaven and Philip receives the Crown of Martyrdom (we will have more to say about this with Stephen below).
Bartholomew: So Philip died, but old Bart got away. What happened to him? Well, Eusebius has him go to India, where some traditions place his martyrdom. Though other accounts have him die in Armenia on the West Coast of the Caspian Sea. The Church of Bartholomew on Tiber Island at Rome claims to hold his remains. What about the manner of his death? One tradition has him drowned, another beheaded, and a third flayed and crucified. Would Bartholomew have been willing to die at three different places and in three different ways, if Jesus’ resurrection had been a lie? Once more, the Yellow Brick Road is the lie, though Emerald City is too.
Thomas: What happened to our skeptical friend doubting Tom? Eusebius has him go as a missionary to Parthia. The late 4th century pilgrim Egeria or Aetheria records in her epistles that Thomas’ burial place was at the Syrian city of Edessa. The apocryphal Acts of Thomas (c. 200 – 225 CE) has him go to India, where the deranged king Misdaeus has Thomas speared to death. Later Thomas appears to Misdaeus in a vision and the king uses the dust from Thomas’ tomb to cure his son of a demon possession. I think we can doubt Tom’s story a bit…
Matthew: Finally we are back to a disciple whose name people recognize. What became of the former tax collector? Well, traditionally he ministered to the Hebrews and wrote a gospel in Aramaic (though the Gospel of Matthew is written in Greek). However, he is also said to have journeyed to Ethiopia (not in Africa, but south of the Caspian Sea), in order to spread the good news (other places he is rumored to have visited are Parthia, Macedonia, and Syria). Even modern Christian sources acknowledge the dubious nature of his death. The Catholic Encyclopedia (“St. Matthew”) writes, “Of Matthew’s subsequent career we have only inaccurate or legendary data … There is a disagreement as to the place of St. Matthew’s martyrdom and the kind of torture inflicted on him, therefore it is not known whether he was burned, stoned, or beheaded.” Well, at least two traditions have to be false, or more likely all three are.
James the son of Alphaeus: Scholars cannot even make out the identity of this James (couldn’t people in the ancient world come up with more names?!). Some traditions have him as James the Less and/or James the Just, others as a brother or cousin of Jesus, and still more as the brother of the tax collector Matthew. Let’s go with the tradition that gives apologists the most ammunition and assume he was Jesus’ brother, James the Just. I say this because for the first time we may have outside corroboration of an apostle’s death. The Jewish historian Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews 20.9.1), in one of his two passages that may refer to Jesus, records what appears to be the death of Jesus’ brother James:
“He [the high priest Ananus] assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, 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.”
There you have it, outside corroboration of both Jesus and his brother James’ martyrdom! Bullet proof, right? Well, not exactly. Biblical scholar Robert Price, among others, have argued we may have the wrong Jesus and the wrong James here:
“Recently some have suggested that this incident, originally related by Josephus, intended no reference to James the Just, the “brother of the Lord.” It would make a lot of sense if the ambushed James was James, son of Damneus, the brother of Jesus, son of Damneus. The implied scenario would be one in which Ananus arranged to have a rival of the priesthood eliminated on trumped-up charges but did not get away with it. Once his crime was known, he was thrown out of office, and the brother of the murdered James was awarded the office Ananus had sought to render secure for himself. In this way, the slain James was avenged at least insofar as his surviving brother, Jesus, received the office James had been cheated out of. The reference we now read to “Jesus called Christ” might originally have read (or denoted, even if it read as it does now) “Jesus, called/considered high priest.” In both Daniel 9:26 and in the Dead Sea Scrolls, ‘an anointed one’ (which is what Josephus has here, no definite article denoting “the Messiah”) means ‘high priest.'”
But let’s once more grant the benefit of the doubt and assume that this passage refers to the historical Jesus and his brother James (which, admittedly, is the majority scholarly opinion). According to Josephus he was killed on account of “breaking the law,” not of proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection. In other words, James was killed for a reason that was common among the Jews of that period (including non-Christian Jewish sects): disputes over the interpretation of the Law. Is there any indication that he could have denied the resurrection to spare himself? No. As with James the son of Zebedee, we have another ambiguous death. How about our other sources for how James the Just died? Eusebius records a different version from a lost passage of Hegesippus (c. 180 CE), where the Pharisees ask James for advice about how to put down Christians. James instead boldly states that Jesus is in heaven at the right hand of god. Enraged, the Pharisees throw him off a cliff, which doesn’t kill him, then they stone him, and finally a fuller throws his laundry drying staff at James, which finishes him off. James was hung out to dry, so to speak. *badum tssssh*
Simon the Zealot and Jude the Apostle: Now we are covering the deaths of apostles that not even many Bible geeks know much about. Not much is said about Simon the Zealot or Jude the Apostle in the New Testament or even later, but they are often teamed up as a duo. Different accounts of them features deaths ranging from being sawn in half, crucified, or even dying peacefully. Though our most famous account of them is from the lost Acts of Simon and Jude attributed to Abdias, the bishop of Babylon, and now only found in the 13th century novel The Golden Legend. In this story, Simon and Jude are allegedly axed to death in Beruit, Lebanon. Immediately after lightning issues from the sky and the two men are tuned to coal. But even our fanciful Golden Legend notes that there are other conflicting traditions after this passage. I will also have my readers know that The Golden Legend has another story where the emperor Nero becomes pregnant with a frog. I will leave it to you to decide how much stock you want to put in medieval fairy tales.
Judas Iscariot: Wait! Judas was a traitor and he certainly wasn’t martyred! Why have I included him here? As we have already seen, the apostles’ martyrdoms are all found in embellished and legendary accounts designed to lavish them with praise, rather than record historical facts. Need further proof? Let’s examine the reverse paradigm. Judas was evil, so he needs an especially shameful and awful death. So the New Testament provides, with Matthew having him hang himself (27:5), but Acts providing a conflicting account of Judas falling face first into a field and blowing up (1:18). How do we reconcile the discrepancy? Apparently by inventing even more fantastical and ludicrous legends. Another tradition about Judas’ death is found in a scholium attributed to Apollinaris of Laodicea, where he quotes the 2nd century church father Papias. Here is what is written:
“Judas did not die by hanging, but lived on, having been cut down before choking. And this the Acts of the Apostles makes clear, that falling headlong his middle burst and his bowels poured forth.”
Alright, contradiction saved! A top class apologetic harmonization! But what exactly caused Judas to die from blowing up, if he didn’t die from hanging? This is one account of what Papias is said to have written:
“Judas walked about as an example of godlessness in this world, having been bloated so much in the flesh that he could not go through where a chariot goes easily, indeed not even his swollen head by itself. For the lids of his eyes, they say, were so puffed up that he could not see the light, and his own eyes could not be seen, not even by a physician with optics, such depth had they from the outer apparent surface. And his genitalia appeared more disgusting and greater than all formlessness, and he bore through them from his whole body flowing pus and worms, and to his shame these things alone were forced. And after many tortures and torments, they say, when he had come to his end in his own place, from the place became deserted and uninhabited until now from the stench, but not even to this day can anyone go by that place unless they pinch their nostrils with their hands, so great did the outflow from his body spread out upon the earth.”
And a shorter version reads:
“Judas lived his career in this world as an enormous example of impiety. He was so swollen in the flesh that he could not pass where a wagon could easily pass. Having been crushed by a wagon, his entrails poured out.”
What?! So Judas’ life became a My 600-lb Life TLC episode? Wider than a chariot, eh? Well, at least Judas got the side benefit of a larger package! Now, let me ask you this: if a later Christian author could write such a blatantly fictional account to vilify a bad disciple, what’s stopping them from writing blatantly fictional accounts to praise good disciples? In fact, Papias’ writing (c. 130 CE) dates earlier than most of our accounts of the other disciples’ deaths! How much can we trust accounts that are even later than this absurdly fictional one?
Stephen: Alright, we are out of apostles and have found hardly any reliable martyrdoms, mostly only later legends and embellishments. But apologists still have a couple cards up their sleeve. What about Stephen? He wasn’t an apostle but he was martyred, and we have a 1st century CE account of his death in Acts! True, but Stephen’s character is once more problematic. First off, we know next to nothing about Stephen. He shows up randomly in Acts 6 and some members of a synagogue confront Stephen and accuse him of blasphemy. For what? Saying that he saw a physically resurrected Jesus? Nope, for allegedly preaching that Jesus would change the Laws of Moses. Stephen then gives a massive speech about the Old Testament, which concludes with Stephen accusing the Jews of breaking the Law by killing Jesus. Enraged, the Jews stone Stephen to death. So Stephen was a martyr, and what do martyrs receive? Well, as we saw with Philip, martyrs receive the Crown of Martyrdom. Wait a second! What does the name “Stephen” mean in Greek? The name comes from the word στέφανος, which mean “crown.” You are telling me that Mr. Crown suddenly pops up in the narrative to be martyred and tacitly receives the Crown of Martyrdom? Mere coincidence? It’s hard to know, but given the symbolism of the name, along with the fact that we know nothing about Stephen elsewhere, Stephen could possibly be little more than an allegorical invention . In that case, old Steve may never even have existed to be martyred in the first place. But, even if he was a historical person (which I don’t think is tenable with the limited evidence), Stephen is not stoned to death for preaching that Jesus physically rose from his grave, but for blaspheming the Laws of Moses. The passage says nothing about the resurrection event, or any personal knowledge that Stephen had of it.
Matthias: Wait! There was another apostle! After Judas Iscariot died the apostles appointed Matthias to take his place. Do we have a reliable martyrdom for him? Well, according to Nicephorus he was stoned to death at Colchis in modern day Georgia. In the Synopsis of Dorotheus he preached to cannibals near the Black Sea and died at Sebastopolis. Hippolytus of Rome has him die of old age in Jerusalem. Pick whatever unreliable, made up story you like.
3. Can Someone Really Not Die for a Lie, Anyways?
As we have seen, most of the martyrdoms above are ahistorical legends whose reliability cannot be trusted. Do we have a historically documented martyrdom, though, that can test the veracity of one’s claims? We do. On June 27, 1844, after willingly giving himself up for arrest in Carthage Jail, Illinois, Joseph Smith was killed by an angry mob. Joseph Smith claimed to have found golden plates of Jewish writings in the Americas, as well as to having been visited by Jewish Native American spirits. (Many of the other founders of the Mormon movement likewise faced persecution, and yet did not recant their claims to have witnessed the golden plates, as discussed by Richard Anderson in Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses.) Unlike the original twelve disciples, what Joseph Smith believed was well documented by contemporary sources. Furthermore, finding golden plates and translating them into English is much harder to hallucinate than merely having a vision of your dead leader. Smith could not have experienced a vision: he was either lying or he did find the golden plates. Did Smith in the face of persecution renounce his claim? Nope. So Smith died for something that he knew was a lie? Apparently he did. So even if there is a Yellow Brick Road, the path can still lead elsewhere, to the originators of any religion making up stories to spread new religious beliefs.
But Joseph Smith wasn’t executed because he claimed to find golden plates! He was jailed under the charge of suppressing a newspaper in Nauvoo, Illinois. True, but the apostles were executed on other charges in their available sources, not for believing in the resurrection of Jesus. James the Just was supposedly executed for “breaking the law.” The story of Stephen has him stoned for teaching things that members of a synagogue believed went against the Laws of Moses. Pliny the Younger records that Christians were killed for refusing to sacrifice to Pagan idols. But that was a common cause for Pagans to persecute even non-Christian Jews. Apologists like to cite the persecution of the Christians under Nero as a historical background for the martyrdoms of Paul an Peter. But Nero didn’t execute Christians for believing in the resurrection of Jesus, but because he had accused them of starting the great fire at Rome in 64 CE. Denying the resurrection would hardly spare one from charges of arson. The Roman and Jewish authorities of the 1st century CE were not like agents in the Matrix trying to force people to believe in a false reality. Early Christians were (on occasion) persecuted for refusing to sacrifice to the Roman emperor, or for clashing with Jews over their interpretation of the Law, or on other charges unrelated to merely believing in a resurrection. People believed in all sorts of wacky religions in antiquity. Both the Roman and Jewish authorities had other priorities.
The apologetic argumentum ad martyrdom slogan fails every step of the way. We do not know what the original twelve apostles even believed, let alone what they knew. The legendary accounts of the apostles’ martydoms are so packed with miracles that it requires belief in things such as resurrections, as in the case of Paul, to believe in the account of the martyrdom in the first place. So the whole argument becomes circular: apologists recognize that the miraculous resurrection of Jesus is unbelievable, so they appeal to the supposed “fact” of the apostles’ deaths in an attempt to prove it, but these accounts are full of miracles and resurrections as well. It is appealing to magic in order to prove magic. Finally, we do have reliably documented cases where people like Joseph Smith died for lies, so the whole premise that it could not happen is false in the first place.
Next time when an apologist asks you, “Would the apostles have been willing to die for their beliefs, if they knew that the resurrection had been a lie?,” just ask them to include the actual details of the martrydoms. “Would Paul have been willing to have milk shoot out of his neck, resurrect, and then appear to Nero, if he knew that Jesus’ resurrection had been a lie?” Reframing the question to include the actual details of these stories exposes that the very premises the apologists are relying on are false. The argumentum ad martyrdom is just another flimsy arrow in the apologetics quiver, one that I have now examined in detail and revealed to have fallen short of its target.
 First Clement (an anonymous letter written around the early 2nd century CE) does mention the deaths of Peter and Paul, but provides no narrative behind the circumstances, such as whether Peter or Paul were even executed for preaching the resurrection (as opposed to breaking the law, or being accused on other charges, such as arson, which Tacitus reports Christians were charged with after the great fire of 64 CE), or whether either would have been spared for denying the resurrection. 1 Clement (5) states:
“Peter, through unrighteous envy, endured not one or two, but numerous labors, and when he had finally suffered martyrdom (μαρτυρήσας), departed to the place of glory due to him. Owing to envy, Paul also obtained the reward of patient endurance, after being seven times thrown into captivity, compelled to flee, and stoned. After preaching both in the east and west, he gained the illustrious reputation due to his faith, having taught righteousness to the whole world, and come to the extreme limit of the west, and suffered martyrdom (μαρτυρήσας) under the prefects. Thus was he removed from the world, and went into the holy place, having proved himself a striking example of patience.”
The only thing in this passage that states Peter and Paul died from “martyrdom” at all is the verb μαρτυρέω (“to bear witness” or “be martyred”), but this is vague and provides no details about the circumstances. Likewise, as NT scholar Laurence Welborn (The Anchor Bible Dictionary, v. 1, pg. 1060) notes, “The account of the deaths of Peter and Paul in chap. 5 is not that of an eye-witness,” so that 1 Clement does not amount to any first-hand knowledge of the apostles’ martyrdoms. The earliest sources to provide actual details for their deaths are, for Peter, the apocryphal Acts of Peter, which also includes things like a talking dog and flying magician, and, for Paul, the apocryphal Acts of Paul, which depicts milk shooting out of Paul’s neck when he dies. Thus, our earliest narratives about Peter and Paul’s deaths are entirely legendary, and 1 Clement is far too vague to provide any solid details about the circumstances.
A further point that should be made is that the reference in 1 Clement about Paul dying in “the extreme limit of the west” may suggest that he had ended his life in Spain, rather than Italy. In that case, 1 Clement would actually contradict the account in the Acts of Paul, making the traditions for Paul’s death further problematic. Aside from his death, sometimes Paul’s own personal testimony about the persecution that he had experienced while evangelizing is used as part of the argumentum ad martyrdom apologetic. Most notably, Paul states in 2 Corinthians (11:23-26):
“I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers.”
While this testimony is earlier and more reliable (although it is possible that Paul may be exaggerating the details or flattering himself), it nevertheless suffers from many of the other objections listed above. First off, Paul never states that the Jews were persecuting him for preaching about Jesus’ resurrection. A far more likely culprit for their antagonism would be their differing beliefs about the interpretation of the Law, particularly with regard to Paul’s insistence on converting Gentiles without circumcision. Likewise, as noted above, it can be granted that Paul probably believed that he had experienced a post-mortem encounter with Jesus. But, since Paul did not claim to have seen a physically resurrected Jesus in an earthly setting, his experience would have likely been entirely subjective, and could have been caused by a hallucination or his own imagination. Due to this circumstance, it cannot be claimed as a fact that Paul knew he had seen Jesus after his death, which diminishes the notion that he would not have endured persecution for a lie. Finally, there have been several other religious movements that have experienced persecution for evangelizing. Richard Anderson in Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, for example, discusses how several of the original witnesses of the alleged golden plates experienced persecution similar to Paul’s, and yet did not recant their faith. For all of these reasons, Paul’s own personal testimony about receiving persecution during his ministry is likewise a poor apologetic for the resurrection of Jesus.
 The idea of a “crown of martyrdom” or “crown of immortality” may go back to as early as Ignatius of Antioch (see here), who allegedly died in 107 CE. Some scholars, such as Richard Pervo (Dating Acts), date Acts to as late as 120 CE. Perhaps the author got the idea of a crown of martyrdom from similar motifs at the time, though it is very plausible that such a motif existed earlier in the 1st century CE. Regardless, Acts is our sole source for Stephen, and given that he plays a brief, symbolic role in Acts, just randomly showing up in chapter 6, and given that his name could imply symbolism, we can’t merely assume that he was a real person.