More of the Same: Eric Bess Reviews Sean McDowell’s “The Fate of the Apostles”

Below is a guest post by my friend Eric Bess, in which he reviews Christian apologist Sean McDowell’s book The Fate of the ApostlesExamining the Martyrdom Accounts of the Closest Followers of Jesus. McDowell defends the apostolic martyrdom argument for the resurrection, which I have discussed in this previous blog essay. Bess critiques both the relation that McDowell draws between the persecution of the apostles and the resurrection, as well as McDowell’s interpretation of sources.

This recent book by Christian apologist Sean McDowell attempts a defense of the apostolic martyrdom argument for the resurrection. McDowell’s overall thesis is pretty much standard fare in apologetics. As he puts it (pg. 259):

Screen Shot 2017-09-22 at 12.20.13 PM“The consistent testimony of the New Testament and the earliest sources shows that the apostles were witnesses of the risen Jesus and willingly suffered for the proclamation of the Gospel. No evidence exists that any wavered in their faith or commitment. Of course, this does not mean they were necessarily right, but it does mean they really thought Jesus had risen from the grave, and they bet their lives on it.”

McDowell devotes individual chapters to examining the evidence for the martyrdom of 14 chief apostles and assigns various levels of probability to the reliability of the traditions concerning each. Only five apostles receive relatively high probability ratings for their martyrdoms (that is, dying for their beliefs, not merely being killed), one apostle’s martyrdom is concluded to be improbable, and the remaining eight receive ‘plausibility’ ratings. Of those eight, one’s martyrdom is judged ‘more plausible than not,’ while the rest are rated ‘as plausible as not.’

There are two main problems I found with McDowell’s argument:

Problem 1: Dying for Seeing a Dead Man Alive?

McDowell’s argument on relation of the resurrection to the persecution of the apostles strikes me as poorly developed, even somewhat lazy.

McDowell can’t point to any evidence that the promulgation of Jesus’s resurrection per se would lead to persecution or martyrdom. He knows, contrary to popular romantic imagination, that: “There are no early and reliable historical accounts to indicate the apostles were given the opportunity of recanting their faith at the moment of their deaths” (pg. 6). He also explains, “Christians were largely persecuted for three reasons: following a crucified ‘criminal,’ practicing apparently bizarre rituals, and refusing to pay homage to the Roman gods” (pg. 263; see also pp. 51f.). Once he cites disruption of a local cult-based economy in the case of Paul as a reason for persecution (pg. 40). It should be noted that these are specifically Roman reasons (McDowell states “the Jews” persecuted Christians first [pp. 47f.], but doesn’t explain why).

Both of these points knock the appeal of the martyrdom apologetic down a few significant notches. They concede that the apostles wouldn’t have been opposed for simply preaching a resurrection, first of all, and second, even if they were, there’s no reason to believe retracting the claim would have saved them anyway. Indeed, the charming story of a man who came back from the dead would have been at home in the world of ancient mythology, just as early Christian writers like Justin Martyr (First Apology 21) and others stated outright. Readers should also be aware that McDowell is arguing that the apostles understood they were risking their necks specifically for the claim that they had seen Jesus alive again, not merely for believing he was alive again (more below), but it is just as bizarre that the apostles should suffer persecution or martyrdom for even this more narrow assertion.

So how does apostolic preaching of the resurrection support McDowell’s thesis? He can only argue that the truth of the resurrection was the central message of the apostles (ch. 2), and that they began to observe that when they went around spreading this message, they risked bad things happening to them (for whatever reason), yet they continued to travel and spread it anyway (pp. 8, 261, 263-5). Unlike martyrs in other religions, the apostles would have known their claim that Jesus reappeared to them alive was false if they didn’t really believe he had (pp. 259-61). This obsessed need to convince everyone they saw Jesus alive again, despite the risk of attracting unwanted attention to those aspects of their religion that were the real problem (e.g., not worshiping the gods), illustrates, in McDowell’s thinking, that the apostles must have truly believed what they said they saw.

In response, can this much attenuated argument establish their sincerity? Evangelical scholar E. Margaret Howe points out that the claims of appearances in themselves were insufficient to bring about the understanding that Jesus had been resurrected. Grasping the revelation of that fact was accompanied by a variety of other factors, including the previous teachings and predictions of Jesus, the Eucharist, the Hebrew Bible, and a sense of commission [1].

The Gospel of Luke, for example, goes out of its way to show that Jesus couldn’t even be recognized as resurrected until the Jewish scriptures were sufficiently grasped (see Luke 24:13-48). The Gospel of John makes much the same point, even downplaying the significance of seeing Jesus in favor of having faith (John 20:9, 29). In short, the apostles would not have had to primarily insist they saw Jesus alive again in order to convince others the resurrection happened. Thus, even if they happened to ‘bet their lives’ in some uncertain sense, that can’t be said to demonstrate the ‘sincerity’ of that claim, since the resurrection need not be predicated exclusively on it. The earliest Christian literature in the New Testament makes it clear that other strategies of persuasion were available.

Additionally, we don’t possess reliable biographies of the apostles (see below) or any evidence from the several apostles themselves of how they understood the nature of what they were preaching or doing. McDowell takes the word of the author of Acts at face value as a direct window into each of their minds (he invokes Acts 5.17ff. several times, especially when he knows the evidence from his much later sources is useless; see, e.g., pp. 167, 186, 203, 235, 241, 247, 252, 255, 266, 272), but doesn’t consider the possibility that the author of Acts had propagandistic reasons for portraying the apostles collectively this way.

McDowell also fails to consider any successes of the apostles in spreading a message of resurrection and how those successes might mitigate any sweeping understanding on their part that their preaching would inevitably lead to persecution or death. Cult leaders are typically willing to risk some opposition if, for instance, being mercilessly slaughtered isn’t inevitable. McDowell fails to show this in the case of the apostles. Being embroiled in unforeseen and unintended consequences (e.g., upsetting a local economy) isn’t proof of sincerity, and once the apostles had committed themselves to the message, their honor was at stake, and therefore admitting to lying or any expressions of ‘wavering’ would have been difficult, especially with the possibility of hostile reaction from those they had already misled [2].

The New Testament scholar Richard C. Miller has also recently made the case that the resurrection and the claims of seeing Jesus were stock-in-trade religious items of Greco Roman antiquity, not to be understood in a ‘historical’ fashion, but as the expected appendix to the life of a great but unjustly killed man as Christians attempted to persuade the peoples of the ancient world of their countercultural values and teachings [3]. Even if it were not the case that the resurrection was to be understood as a non-historical fable, the strategy of proclaiming the resurrection could well be understood as a legitimation of Christian counterculture.

It is often forgotten by apologists that Christianity didn’t begin ex nihilo after the death of Jesus, but in a millenarian movement hailing from rural Galilee while Jesus was alive. As argued in the work of Richard A. Horsley, for example, this movement was shaped by real life (largely harsh and oppressive) socio- economic and historical conditions, and was devoted ultimately to the renewal of Israelite society by reestablishing moral principles of ancient Israelite tradition in its promulgation of the ‘kingdom of heaven’ [4]. After Jesus was embarrassingly executed, tales of its founder’s miraculous return from death would have provided an answer to that embarrassment as the Christians endeavored to sway others to their vision of how the world ought to be.

Thus, the resurrection would have been helpful, not inimical, to the Christian agenda, even if the apostles had to fabricate claims of their seeing him alive again and even if they experienced persecution leading to martyrdom. Their preaching wouldn’t demonstrate their sincerity, for then their ‘willingness’ to suffer persecution in the course of preaching the resurrection lay not in any ‘sincere’ attempt to convince others they saw him, but in changing the world as they experienced it according to their original ideals.

In arguing for its centrality, McDowell merely counts multiple references to the resurrection in early Christian literature as if to show the resurrection was something to be believed simply because it was ‘true,’ or as if acknowledging it as true exhausted everything about early Christian religion. For McDowell, the resurrection is a matter of pure christology and mystical supernaturalism. It shows “the Lordship of Christ” (p. 18) and points to “new life in Christ” (p. 23). He pays no attention to any other aspects of the early Christian movement or to how the rhetoric of the resurrection might have worked as a strategy in the service of early Christian ideals and values for society.

Finally, these are all vague generalities anyway. There’s very little in the way of specific data to tie down any of the possible scenarios to the actual historical experience of the individual apostles, which leads to the next problem.

Problem 2: Incredible Sources

For both their missionary travels and deaths, McDowell relies on what struck me as dubious interpretations of a few passages in the Gospels and Acts, and on much later Christian literature, including shameless forgeries and other texts, like the various apocryphal ‘Acts’ of the apostles, that he concedes are replete with ridiculous, non-historical tall tales.

However, McDowell is incredulous, but not, I would suggest, in the appropriate way. Amidst the many late examples of storytelling, he asks whether there is a “historical core” (pg. 11). He simply can’t bring himself to seriously consider the possibility that much later Christians were simply fancifully expanding on passages in the New Testament, which he must admit many Christians did, given his acknowledgment of the plethora of contradictory, legendary fabrications.

For example, John was said to have survived after being boiled in oil, according to Tertullian (pg. 150 & n.66), while the Acts of John says John was poisoned, but survived (pg. 151 & n.67). As the one apostle whose martyrdom McDowell deems improbable, he is also said or implied to have been martyred in various texts (pp. 148ff.) Bartholomew is said to have survived after being nailed to a temple (pp. 211f.), but McDowell also notes five different ways Bartholomew is said to have been martyred in various contradictory texts (pg. 220). Matthew was burnt to death, beheaded with a sword, or stabbed with a spear according to various traditions (pg. 229). James ben Alphaeus is said to have been stoned by Jews and buried by the temple (which probably represents a confusion with James, ‘brother of the Lord’), but he is also said to have been crucified (pp. 232f., 235). Thaddeus is said to have been killed with swords, arrows, or stoned (pp. 240-2). Simon the Zealot was said to be killed with a sword, an ax, or crucified (pp. 249f.). Matthias was allegedly killed by stoning, burning, or stabbing with an ax or lance (pp. 255, 257). Several apostles with martyrdom stories, including John, Philip, Thaddeus (pg. 207), Matthew (pp. 226-9), Simon the Zealot/Canaanite (pp. 249f.), and Matthias (pp. 255, 257), are also said to have died peaceful deaths.

As an example of the way McDowell reasons, consider the apostle Andrew. Immediately after noting as justifiable the (in my opinion, obviously sound) conclusion of one scholar that the fate of this apostle can’t be known from any current evidence, he immediately demurs (pg. 185):

“I cannot believe that the earliest traditions of the works and fate of the apostle Andrew, an important and well-known figure in the first and second centuries, were entirely fabricated, unconnected to a reliable tradition.”

He really just can’t believe it. Christians just invented stuff like this to serve their agenda with no historical basis whatsoever? Perish the thought! Or else, why did McDowell write this book? He continues (ibid.):

“We cannot dismiss the consistent and relatively early account of his fate by crucifixion. Some accounts differ as to where he was crucified, but there is broad agreement that he died in this manner. There is no early contrary tradition claiming a natural death, which for an apostle as prominent as Andrew is not insignificant.”

There are contradictory tales concerning his crucifixion, but they all agree he was crucified? This argument didn’t carry any weight when he discussed Simon the Zealot a bit later, stating that: “crucifixion was a common means of execution and that hagiographers wanted to paint the apostles similarly to the crucified Christ” (pg. 250). So why should this warrant his incredulity with respect to Andrew? It doesn’t, and neither does the absence of any ‘contrary’ tradition regarding a peaceful death. Why should there be such a tradition?That Christians had a more salient motive to invent martyrdom tales of the apostles (affirmed by McDowell, pp. 12f.) makes the existence of such a tradition unlikely! In fact, it would make the several cases of peaceful deaths noted above more likely to be true, if anything—obvious considerations McDowell seems to carefully avoid.

In defense of his use of the various obviously fanciful apocryphal Acts, McDowell notes a few items of archeological evidence that support some features of some of the accounts. I can only recall three examples: McDowell cites archeological evidence establishing the historicity of an Indian monarch and his brother mentioned in the Acts of Thomas (pp. 168f.); he also states there is archeological evidence supporting aspects of the Acts of Andrew (pg. 180), but doesn’t discuss it; and he mentions a tomb in Hierapolis (where the Acts of Philip says Philip was crucified), which one archeologist strangely believes once contained the remains of Philip (pg. 207). But these meagre items can hardly lend serious credibility to these narratives, even in a broad sense (i.e., if you ignore the outrageously nonsensical specific stories in them). Works of pure fiction without any appreciable “historical core” can peripherally match real history too.

McDowell also cites Christine Thomas as saying that while, e.g., even the Alexander Romance contains fanciful legends, it still narrates the main (historical) events of Alexander the Great’s life. McDowell thinks the apocryphal Acts can illustrate the fates of the apostles in the same way (pp. 82f., 167). But Alexander was (it goes without saying) a widely known and by far more important public figure, in contrast to the apostles. For all the disruption they caused in several countries all over the map with their putatively hated message, no one ever seems to take notice of them outside of late Christian literature filled with legends, or comment on their finally being killed off. Further, Peter is one of the five apostles assigned a high probability rating for his martyrdom based on the evidence of his dying in Rome under Nero. Yet, McDowell honestly notes the Acts of Peter (c. 180-90 CE) conspicuously fails to connect Peter’s death with Nero (pg. 84).

When McDowell turns to earlier and less dramatically unreliable sources, such as Josephus and Acts, he always interprets these sources in ways that are transparently biased towards his view. It’s almost as if his paradigm of glorious martyrdom interprets the data for him, and he’s unable to think outside of that lens. As but one example, consider the execution of James, the ‘brother of Jesus’ according to Josephus’s Antiquities 20.197-203. Let us grant that this refers to James, the brother of Jesus. Josephus tells us that this James was killed by the ambitious high priest Ananas during an interstitial period after the death of the Roman governor Festus, before the newly appointed governor Albinus had arrived to take office. James and others (Josephus does not state who these others were) were accused of breaking the law and stoned.

McDowell willfully reads this in light of later Christian legends about his martyrdom, such as the fanciful account of Hegesippus. James probably died for his ‘Christian’ faith in the resurrection and went out in a glorious example of martyrdom. Josephus is consistent with these later legends, but would have had no interest in taking note of the decidedly Christian spins on the event, thus it isn’t surprising that he doesn’t (see pp. 130-3).

McDowell, however, fails to take note of the fact that Josephus reports the morally upstanding citizenry condemned this act. Herod Agrippa II condemned this act. The arriving governor Albinus condemned this act. It is surprising that Josephus, who is explicit about sectarian rivalry elsewhere, fails to note the basis for Ananas’s execution of James as related to his Christian affiliations. If Christians were making the spectacular upstarting splashes they make in the stories of Acts, this is doubly surprising. Josephus in no way corroborates the Christian narrative of widespread, obsessive persecution of Christians such as is depicted in texts like Acts.

There seems to be a host of problems with McDowell’s use of sources. He appears uncritical and gullible, drawing many unwarranted inferences from questionable texts based on superficial analyses of those texts.

There is much more I could say about my problems with McDowell’s attempt to defend this apologetic. But hopefully this is enough to show why I was not impressed with this book.

-Eric Bess

[1] E. Margaret Howe 1975, ‘“…But Some Doubted.” (Matt. 28:17) A Reappraisal of Factors Influencing the Easter Faith of the Early Christian Community,’ Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 18/3, pp. 173-180.

[2] Argued best, among many other pertinent points, by Richard C. Carrier, ‘Did the Apostles Die for a Lie?’ (accessed 9/21/2017). This article alone pretty sinks McDowell’s entire book.

[3] Richard C. Miller 2015, Resurrection and Reception in Early Christianity [New York & London: Routledge].

[4] E.g., Richard A. Horsley 2005, ‘Jesus Movements and the Renewal of Israel,’ Christian Origins, ed. R. A. Horsley, pp. 23-46. On Horsley’s account, the apostles would have already been regularly accustomed to the risk of opposition while traveling about Galilee sharing their message, which couldn’t have included a resurrection: “Charged to expand Jesus’ own mission of preaching and healing, these workers were apparently also, in effect, carrying out what might be called community organizing. The expectation, surely based on experience, was that a whole village might be receptive or hostile. In the former case it apparently became associated with the wider movement. In the latter, curses might be called down upon it for its rejection of the opportunity offered: ‘Woe to you Chorazin! Woe to you Bethsaida!'” (p. 37).

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One Response to More of the Same: Eric Bess Reviews Sean McDowell’s “The Fate of the Apostles”

  1. busterggi says:

    Not too critical, actually pretty nice considering the codswhallop the book is claiming. I find it amazing that Christians are perfectly willing today to dismiss most of what was once thought dogma regarding the fictionalized (sometimes completely) biographies of two millenia worth of saints. Apparently they can’t see that its all part of a fictional continuum.

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