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A favorite argument for Jesus's crucifixion claims that his disciples would not have risked their lives for the cause had they known that the resurrection was a hoax. It is "the" argument for making Christianity popular. 


Christian lore has it that most of Jesus's disciples were martyred. Accordingly, we should accept his resurrection as the truth. After all, Jesus's own disciples must have believed it, since they pressed on in the face of persecution. Liars or pranksters would have folded their tents and fled rather than be persecuted for something they didn't believe in. I would insist that the emotional force of this argument is its real power. The argument itself is superficial and its strange to argue that in a time of paranormal miracle occurrences that people should be expected to behave as we would understand normal. The environment was not normal. And what if a paranormal influence altered their psychology? We cannot rely on their tragic cruel deaths as signs that they were so sure they had the truth dying for that they actually died for it. Oops! Nobody died for belief in the resurrection. If those men died it was because they believed their visions of Jesus risen were reliable. Seeing a man saying he is risen is not the same as being a witness to the resurrection. They were not there when the body supposedly revived and transformed into a magical being.


A source will continue for us.


The claim that Jesus's disciples were martyred is unproven and highly questionable. We have only the word of early Christian writers, many of whom were given over to pious fabrication. At best, early Christian martyrdom was greatly exaggerated. Thus, 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.


The above scenario assumes intentional dishonesty on the part of Jesus's disciples, an unnecessary assumption from the skeptic's point of view. Neither is it necessary to challenge the assumed historicity of the martyr stories. 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. Perhaps one of them was out fishing and saw Jesus amidst the waves. They might have been seeing Jesus under every tree and behind every bush, only to have their hopes dashed--until a fateful combination of events "confirmed" a sighting. Within a cult group, the flimsiest evidence can easily evolve into proof, so that the group ends up convincing the individual of his own tentative hallucinations or delusions! As absurd as this scenario may seem to the reader, it is wholly consistent with known group psychology. The power of true believers to fool themselves, especially in a cult group, can never be underestimated. Reverend Robert M. Price (Beyond Born Again, 1993) has probed this scenario. By quoting scientific studies and pulling together historical information on messiahs who arose after Jesus, Price has shown just how easily this sort of thing can happen. It has historical parallels. Look at the Jehovah's Witnesses for a quick example, that of their invisible return of Jesus! (See also pages 34-35 in G. A. Wells' Who Was Jesus? for a discussion of witness psychology.)


Consider the recent tragedy at Rancho Santa Fe, just north of San Diego. There 39 people committed suicide, apparently in the belief that their physical death was a necessary step before being picked up by a spaceship traveling in the tail of comet Hale-Bopp! You might ask how anyone in their right mind could possibly believe such a thing, but is their belief any more absurd than a belief in biblical inerrancy? There is absolutely nothing about the Bible that even remotely justifies it as a divine, inerrant work. Yet, millions of people have been brainwashed into believing that it is the greatest thing that was ever written!


The main difference between the two beliefs is that Bible-belief usually doesn't prove fatal to the believer. Its damage is chiefly limited to our educational system and to good government (church-state separation). Nor can we dismiss those 39 men and women as retarded idiots, since they were computer programmers. Note the heavy use of small, group environments by both Bible-believers and this UFO cult, which is ideal for restricting contact with the outside world even as it reinforces the group's beliefs in the individual. Thus, Bible-believers have a lot more in common with those UFO folks than they would care to admit, and, at times, it shows in crazy individual or group actions.


The above two scenarios, of course, assume that we have an eyewitness account that has been passed down to us more or less intact. 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. Such doctrines as the resurrection may have been fixed decades later in distant cities, for the most part, by people who had their own agendas. We tend to forget that our standard view of Jesus today is a product of later centuries. Movies and books have given us a false familiarity with those times; what we actually know about Jesus, if anything, is what has survived the purges of the first few centuries. If we could actually go back in time, we might find that some early Christian communities viewed Jesus only as a teacher, that his crucifixion played no doctrinal role for them.


It is naive to think that the truth would have gotten back from a few elderly disciples to destroy such developments. We know of historical groups where legend developed despite the active protests of the group's living founder! It is not a matter of memories going bad but rather of enthusiastic supporters, out of touch by way of geography or time, who are only too happy to write their own version. Popular views often persist even in the face of repeated denials by the key players. Thus, Jesus's few surviving disciples may have actually denied that Jesus was resurrected when the matter came up, their voices a feeble protest amongst the increasing din of popular approval.


Finally, a minority of Bible scholars believe that Jesus never existed. The historical evidence is essentially non-existent as G. A. Wells and others have shown, adding plausibility to this view. We may be dealing with a myth that accumulated historical justification over time. It would not be the first time such a thing has happened. Perhaps the mythical Jesus came into being as a popular savior god 130 years before the time the "historical" Jesus was supposedly born. How odd, that the earliest literature on Jesus, written by Paul, takes a dry, doctrinal view devoid of the glorious miracles that Jesus supposedly did. Perhaps the myth grew "historical legs" as the competition got tougher. The larger the Christian circle became the more contact it would have had with the competing religions. Thus, Jesus's disciples may have never existed.


The above argument for Jesus's resurrection has more holes in it than a slab of Swiss cheese. That is to say, we have several plausible scenarios that undermine its supposed proof. The burden of proof is obviously on the Christian apologist. It is he who claims to have a good argument for Jesus's resurrection. Therefore, the skeptic is not obliged to disprove the Christian argument; he or she need only show that it has no force, that there are other plausible scenarios that could easily circumvent its chain of reasoning. And that is exactly what I have done, to the extent that a letter will allow.


Dave Matson.




1997 / July-August


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. In this issue (pp. 10-11), Dave Matson has rebutted this argument by showing how that the postresurrection appearances of Jesus could well have been only imaginary or psychological experiences of those who allegedly claimed that they saw Jesus alive after his death. If so, then the apostles who were martyred (if indeed any were) would have died not for what they knew to be true but only for what they thought they knew was true. There's a big difference.


To have a cogent argument, then, Christian apologists would have to prove the unprovable and establish that the apostles did actually know that their postresurrection experiences were real and not merely psychological, and with all of the apostles long dead, there is no way that any apologist could do this. There is even another hurdle in the path of this argument that is impossible for resurrection proponents to clear. They must show convincing evidence that the apostles did indeed suffer martyrdom for what they preached.


Christians bandy this argument about so much that many will no doubt think it strange that anyone would question that the apostles died as martyrs, but the truth is that the evidence of widespread martyrdom in the early church is very weak. The claim assumes the historical accuracy of the New Testament, which makes some scattered references to persecutions of early Christians (Acts 8:1; 11:19; 13:50; 2 Thess. 1:4), but if the accuracy of the New Testament is to be assumed, then it would be pointless to debate any of the major apologetic claims, because the New Testament does claim that Jesus was born of a virgin, that he worked many miracles, that he was resurrected from the dead, that he ascended into heaven, etc. 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).


So if more than two centuries after Christianity had its beginning, an important "church father" like Origen could say to a doubter that those who "have endured death for the sake of Christianity" could be "easily numbered," that gives little support for the traditional view of the apostles and early Christians dying in droves for their beliefs.


In the matter of martyrdom suffered by the apostles, there is a larger question that needs to be resolved. Were the apostles even real historical persons? There are reasons to suspect that at least some of them were merely legendary figures. 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. In Philippi, Paul and Silas were allegedly beaten and thrown into prison for having cast a "spirit of divination" out of a young lady who had brought considerable gain to her masters through fortune-telling (Acts 16:16-24). While they were in prison, a great earthquake struck (as earthquakes did so often in those days when Christian activities were going on), opened the doors, and shook off the bonds of Paul and Silas (v:26). In Lystra, Paul and Barnabas were mobbed by a crowd and worshiped as the gods Jupiter and Mercury (Acts 14:11-13). Later Paul was stoned in the city, dragged outside, and left for dead (v:19). While preaching in the province of Asia, a pagan mob rioted in protest of Paul's preaching and would have lynched him and his companions except for the intervention of a town clerk (Acts 19:23-41). Everywhere Paul went controversy like this allegedly followed him, yet there are no records outside of the New Testament of any of his activities.


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?


In The Search for the Twelve Apostles, Dr. William Steuart McBirnie examined the maze of traditions about the fate of the apostles, and although he seemed to retain his belief that the apostles were real historical characters who had suffered persecution and often martyrdom, he admitted that the traditions were sometimes so inconsistent and contradictory that it cannot now be determined how all of the apostles died. He referred to Tertullian's claim that the apostle John was tortured and "boiled in oil but was delivered miraculously," and then admitted that "(t)his story does not seem to have much foundation in historical fact," even though tradition says that the Church of San Giovanni "has been built on the spot in Rome" in honor of the apostle's escape (Tyndale House, 1977, pp. 116-117). McBirnie concluded that the best traditional evidence indicates that John died in Ephesus of old age. If this is so, John would not have been an example of an apostle who died for what he knew was right.


McBirnie had no better luck in trying to determine the fate of other apostles. He found Matthew to be an especially confusing case. Various traditions had Matthew preaching in places as far flung as Ethiopia, Persia, Parthia, Isidore, and Macedonia (p. 176). The traditions relate preposterous accounts of attempts that were made to kill him, which he, like John, miraculously escaped from. In one tradition, a jealous king tried to have Matthew burned alive, but the flames flew out, took the form of a dragon, and curled around the king. McBirnie concluded that "(t)here are too many stories of Matthew's death to be certain just where he died" (p. 182), but even though he had earlier cited Heracleon and Clement of Alexandria (The Miscellanies, 4, 9), who had both said that Matthew died a natural death (pp. 175-176), McBirnie would not give up so easily on his desire to find martyred apostles. "It is perhaps possible that Matthew was martyred in Egypt upon his return from Ethiopia in Africa," he said, "but this conclusion is not certain" (p. 182, emphasis added).


Uncertainty was what McBirnie seemed to find everywhere in his research. He found traditions that said Bartholomew was "flayed alive and crucified in agony" in India after banishing a demon from the idol of a king (p. 135). He found other traditions that said Bartholomew was martyred in Armenia. To reconcile the conflicting traditions, he cited Edgar Goodspeed, who had suggested that "India" was a "term very loosely used by the ancients" (p. 133).


McBirnie's search for the fate of the other apostles uncovered traditions that were just as inconsistent and uncertain as those noted above. He claimed that his research took him three times to the island of Patmos (where John allegedly wrote Revelation) and to the locations of the seven churches of Asia cited in Revelation (p.7). He traveled to Germany, Rome, Greece, Lebanon, and "almost every Middle Eastern country." The other locations he visited and libraries and archives he claimed to have used are too numerous to list here, but the results of his research were as noted above, i. e., too much inconsistency and contradiction to determine with certainty how and where the apostles died.


Despite the uncertainty he found in his research, apparently McBirdie still retained his belief that the apostles were real historical people who had suffered persecution and martyrdom for their faith. No doubt many Christians who read this article will lay it aside and continue like parrots to ask the same question: "Why would the apostles have died for something they knew was false?"


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