If most of Jesus Christ’s inner circle of twelve disciples really were martyred because they remained faithful to their religious convictions, it would be strong evidence that they steadfastly believed that Jesus was who He claimed to be and that He was resurrected from the death He suffered on a cross.
People may be willing to die for their beliefs if they are confident that those beliefs are valid, but it would be incongruous for people with sound mental health to die for beliefs that they know are not valid. All the men who had comprised Jesus Christ’s inner circle of 12 Disciples, with the exception of Judas Iscariot, who died before Jesus was resurrected, certainly knew whether or not Jesus had demonstrated the attributes of God incarnated and whether or not He had been resurrected from death. (Scripture passages which indicate that these eleven Disciples saw Jesus alive after He was resurrected are found in all four of the Gospel books, including Matthew 28:16-17; Mark 16:14; Luke 24:36-37; and John 20:19-20, 26.)
Insofar as this article is concerned, the focal question is whether there is ample evidence that most of Jesus Christ’s inner circle of Disciples died as martyrs. For our purposes, the specific causes of their deaths are not particularly important, although there should be general agreement, rather than conflicting information. In any case, much of the information regarding how most of these men died is based upon oral tradition.
We will begin with the two Disciples about whom there is virtually unanimous agreement that they were not martyred: Judas Iscariot and John, the brother of James.
Judas: The Bible indicates in Matthew 27:3-5 that, after having betrayed Jesus Christ, Judas committed suicide. This occurred before Jesus was crucified and subsequently resurrected from death.
John: We are aware of no one who has seriously researched John’s death who does not agree that John died of natural causes attributable to old age, although there may have been at least one attempt to kill him. One source indicates that John was boiled in a huge basin of boiling oil, but was miraculously delivered from death.
Now, we will consider the evidence regarding how the other ten Disciples in Jesus Christ’s inner circle died.
Andrew, the brother of Peter: All the sources we consulted indicate that Andrew was martyred and, with the exception of one source that does not indicate how he died, they all state that he was crucified. (One of the sources that says Andrew was crucified also says that he was stoned.) Furthermore, most of our sources state that Andrew was crucified on an X-shaped cross.
Bartholomew (aka Nathanael): With the exception of one source that states there is no information as to how Bartholomew died and another source that did not comment on how he died, the other sources we consulted say Bartholomew died as a martyr. Be that as it may, several of the sources that say he died as a martyr state that there is no agreement as to how he was martyred, and there were significant disparities among the sources that expressed their belief as to how Bartholomew died.
James, the brother of John: Given the fact that the Bible mentions in Acts 12:2 that this disciple was executed with a sword, it is certain that he was martyred and how.
James, the Son of Alphaeus: Only one source that we consulted says there is insufficient evidence to indicate how this disciple died, whereas all of the other sources indicate that he was martyred. Although there are differences among these other sources as to how this disciple died, a majority of these sources indicate that he was thrown down from the pinnacle of the temple and then beaten and/or stoned to death.
Matthew, the tax collector: There is considerable disagreement as to whether Matthew was martyred or died a natural death. And, even the sources that say he was martyred differ significantly as to how he was killed.
Peter, the brother of Andrew: Every source that we consulted agrees that Peter died as a martyr, and all of them except one, which did not comment as to how he died, state that Peter was crucified. Among the sources that say he was crucified, all except one declare that he was crucified with his head downward (i.e., upside down).
Philip: Most of the sources we consulted express the belief that Philip was martyred. A slight majority of these sources say he was crucified, while the other sources believe that Philip was martyred in some other manner, that he may have died a natural death, or that there is inadequate information as to how he died.
Simon, the Zealot: Likewise, most of the sources we consulted indicate that Simon was martyred, but there is uncertainty as to how he was killed. Crucifixion or being sawn in half seem to be the two most likely possibilities.
Thaddeus (aka Jude): With the exception of one source that states Thaddeus may have died a natural death and another source that did not comment on how he died, the other sources we consulted say Thaddeus died as a martyr. However, there is considerable uncertainty as to how he was killed.
Thomas: All the sources that we consulted agree that Thomas was martyred. Most of these sources also agree that a relatively large, pointed weapon such as a spear, a lance, or a javelin was used to kill him.
It may be argued that although oral traditions on which many of the accounts of early Christian experiences are based are unreliable as to some details, it is highly unlikely that they contain complete fabrications and, therefore, we can have confidence that most, if not all, of the men in the inner circle of Jesus Christ’s disciples, other than John and Judas, were martyred, even though in a number of cases there is significant disagreement as to how they were killed.
The fact that there is such disagreement is somewhat troubling. Nevertheless, the fact that we do not have sufficient reliable evidence as to how most of these disciples were martyred does not mean that they were not martyred. It simply means that we cannot be sure how most of these disciples were martyred.
Even if some of the men in Jesus Christ’s inner circle of Disciples were not martyred, all of them, with the exception of Judas, who hanged himself soon after betraying Jesus Christ, knew not only what Jesus had taught but also whether or not He had been resurrected from death (see Matthew 28:16-20; Mark 16:14-16; Luke 24:36-43; and John 20:19-29).
However, if the Disciples knew that what they were teaching (or preaching) was not true, they were false witnesses who caused thousands of other people to die as Christian martyrs. This would have necessitated that the teachings of Jesus Christ about living a righteous life – teachings that the Disciples shared with multitudes of other people – would have been completely disregarded by the Disciples in order to promote their own agenda. Thus, the Disciples would have been despicable liars and hypocrites. We are aware of no source that even hints that the Disciples were men who would have acted so contemptibly.
Therefore, there is sound reason to believe that the Disciples knew that what they were teaching (or preaching) about Jesus Christ, including His resurrection, was absolutely true, and, as a result, they were willing not only to be martyred themselves, but also to motivate thousands of other Christians to die as martyrs.