We know that Jesus chose His apostles for the most important mission in history.
“And he said unto them, Go ye unto all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned” (Mark 16:15-16).
But other than the New Testament accounts of the lives and the preaching of a few of the apostles, where did they all go and how did their lives end?
There are a few passages in Scripture that give an indication of what was going to happen to some of them. The other accounts of their lives and fates that have come down to us from non-Scriptural sources cannot be verified. There is a certain credibility in the reports of most of them having died as martyrs, in the fact that the New Testament does give a clear indication of that likelihood.
The following is intended to be a brief summary of what is known, what is not known, and what has been passed down regarding the twelve apostles listed in Matthew: “Now the names of the twelve apostles are these…” (Matt 10:24).
Peter, Andrew, James the son of Zebedee, John the son of Zebedee, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, James the son of Alpheus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Canaanite, and Judas Iscariot. We have also included Matthias and Paul. Matthias because he succeeded Judas, and Paul because of his prominence in the New Testament.
But where are Luke and Mark? Many of us (who can’t remember the Sunday school song “There Were Twelve Disciples”) would put them on our list but they were not of the twelve that journeyed with Jesus throughout his ministry. They were disciples.
The difference between an apostle and a disciple
What is the difference between an apostle and a disciple? Simply put, all Jesus’ followers were disciples, but apostles were those he specifically sent forth to preach. We in this age are Jesus’ disciples, but we are not apostles in the same sense the subjects of this article were. Think about it this way. Under the law, all priests were Levites, but all Levites were not priests… only those who were the sons of Aaron. Jesus definitely sent Paul forth to preach, and good cases can be made for including some others under the designation of ‘apostles’ as elsewhere in this issue, but the names we listed will serve our purposes adequately.
Scriptural indications of the apostles’ future fates
General prophetic warnings were given by Jesus to the affect that his followers were going to be subjected to persecution, beatings, and as we know in the case of Stephen, martyrdom. Mark 13:8-13 is a good example:
“…ye shall be beaten… brother shall betray the brother to death, and the father the son; and children shall rise up against their parents, and shall cause them to be put to death… ye shall be hated of all men…”
Jesus’ conversation with two of his apostles serves as a prophetic warning in a specific example. In Matthew 20:20-23 we have the exchange between the mother of Zebedee’s children, who were the apostles James and John, asking Jesus to grant that her two sons “may sit, the one on thy right hand, and the other on thy left, in thy kingdom.” Jesus responded with this question to James and John:
“Are ye able to drink the cup that I shall drink of, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? They say unto him, We are able. And he saith unto them, Ye shall drink of my cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with…”
The baptism Jesus was about to be subjected to was the cross and all it entailed; extreme torture, suffering, humiliation, and death. Jesus’ assurance that James and John were going to face similar trials was prophetic of their fates, and a reasonable indicator of what awaited all the apostles.
James, John’s brother, is the only apostle on our list whose martyrdom is recorded in Scripture. Acts 12:2 is the brief statement that Herod: “…killed James the brother of John with the sword.” James’ death fulfils the Lord’s warning in the extreme.
But what happened to the rest of them?
The problem with early records
The trustworthiness of the stories that come down to us suffer from their profusion, their mutual contradictions, and their obvious mistakes (in geography for example) and finally from the wide-spread tendency towards creative writing. But that does not mean that they are all false. Not by any means. They suffer in our minds from the same effect that that one lie has on all the truths we have ever spoken. It brings everything under the same cloud. We see in this example an exhortation to our own integrity.
We suggest, therefore, that we read what follows from the premise that, in the main, there does appear to be a consistency in the accounts that the apostles died in witness for their faith. The following is not being brought forward in any attempt to prove or disprove anything, but in the hope that there is much to be gained in inspiration and encouragement for our own walk towards the Kingdom of God.
What do the early records tell us about the apostles and their deaths?
This brief summary will not address the Scriptural accounts of the apostles lives already covered in the preceding articles:
Peter: There are reasons to think that Peter went to Syria, Babylon, Corinth, and Rome, not necessarily in that order. Paul in Galatians 2:11 said: “But when Peter was come to Antioch (in Syria)…” That is all that is said. How long he was there we do not know. Peter’s closing sentences include: “The church that is at Babylon, elected together with you, saluteth you, and so does Marcus my son” (1Pet 5:13). This certainly looks like Peter was writing from Babylon.1 However, this salutation has also been pointed to as support for Peter being in Rome because Babylon has been taken to mean Rome (Rev 16:19; 17:5; etc.). There are many historical sources that place Peter in Rome. Tertullian states that Peter was crucified in Rome by Nero. Eusebius, who died in AD 339, was a friend of Constantine and is supposed to have had access to all the documentation that existed. He compiled a “History of the Church.” Eusebius maintained that Peter was crucified on June 29, AD 67. Peter was supposed to have requested that he be crucified upside down. Most accounts say that this was at Peter’s request, but that he gave no reason.
Andrew, Peter’s brother: Nothing is said in Scripture about Andrew after the resurrection. Legendary accounts place him in Philippi, Macedonia (near Greece) in AD 69. Andrew was making many converts which was bound to raise tensions. Rome was extremely sensitive to any kind of organization meeting for any reason. The Roman Empire was a conquered empire. Uprisings and revolts were always fomenting. Conspiracies and assassinations were common in the capital city itself. An example of how far reaching Rome’s concerns in this area were is seen in Emperor Trajan’s (circa AD 98) response to a letter from Pliny, a Roman official who was sent to govern the province of Bythnia. A large fire occurred in the city of Claudiopolis and it gave rise to the suggestion that the citizens organize a fire department. Pliny wrote to Trajan for his permission to proceed and Trajan turned him down. The following is an excerpt from Trajan’s response to Pliny:
“…but we must remember that it is societies like these (in this case a volunteer fire department) which have been responsible for political disturbances in your province, particularly in its cities. If people assemble for a common purpose, whatever name we give them and for whatever reason, they soon become a political club.”
This injunction against all clubs regardless of their purpose comes up repeatedly. We point this out to illustrate that, along with Christians being persecuted for their religious beliefs, as an organized entity they were automatically under suspicion regardless of their religion. We can readily understand the town clerk’s concern in Acts 19:40 when he spoke to end the riot in Ephesus, “For we are in danger of being called into question for this day’s uproar…” Being “called into question” by your Roman overlords was not going to be a pretty prospect for any of them. Rome did not like upset. According to one tradition Andrew met his death in the following way. He had miraculously healed the Roman-appointed governor’s wife, but he viewed it as an alienation of affection. The Roman governor was going to put an end to Andrew’s growing Christian church. Andrew was arrested and tied to a cross. He was not nailed to the cross so that his death would take much longer and be more painful. Ultimately he was cut down but died shortly thereafter.
James, John’s brother, a son of Zebedee: As already noted, his murder by Herod is recorded in Acts 12:2. One wonders why a chosen apostle would be cut down so early in the beginnings of early Christianity. But there is no profit in speculation. An aside if I may: Fifty plus years ago when a young brother and sister who were extremely active in preaching were killed in a tragic auto accident the brotherhood was in shock. Questions were raised. My father, Bro. John Sommerville, concerned that I might be hearing unprofitable questions, wrote me pointing to the example of James’s early death as an example of these kinds of unexplained tragedies. His point was that our lack of knowing why is no call for unprofitable speculation. It was wise counsel. We are under no obligation to answer every cause.
John: The Scriptures give us a good account of John through his writings. Iranaeus in various passages of his own writings agreed with the generally accepted tradition that John lived up to the time of Emperor Trajan. Tertullian states that John miraculously survived being immersed in boiling oil after which he was banished to the Isle of Patmos where he received and wrote the book of Revelation. He is supposed to have been the only apostle who died a natural death, although if the tradition of his being boiled in oil is accurate he certainly was persecuted. That this could have occurred is not incredible in any way when we consider the miraculous deliverances from snake bite, prisons, and near drownings, etc. that Paul experienced.
Philip: As we have already learned, there was a lot more to Philip’s life than most of us had thought. According to tradition he preached in Asia Minor (essentially Turkey today), in Carthage, and finished his life in Hierapolis, Syria. Carthage was a city in Tunisia which is northern Africa on the Mediterranean coast across from the Sicilian boot of Italy. It is 1,500 miles from Jerusalem as the crow flies. If this tradition is correct, it is another example of the far flung regions to which the gospel was spread. He is thought to have baptized 3,000 Gentiles and 1,500 Jews before going to Syria. Philip is supposed to have been crucified upside down like Peter in AD 90, probably during the persecution under Emperor Hadrian. The circumstances that allegedly preceded his death are disturbingly similar to Andrew’s. The Roman governor in Hierapolis became upset when Philip cured his wife of an eye disease. Whether or not this was the case, we do know that the apostles had the Holy Spirit and were able to miraculously heal people.
Bartholomew: His name only shows up four times in the New Testament. Once in the accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke when the apostles are listed and again in Acts 1:13 when all the apostles except Judas are gathered in the upper room. There has also been raised the possibility that Bartholomew was also called Nathanael which would give a little more background. C. Bernard Ruffin cites both Eusebius and Jerome as believing that Bartholomew went to India. Evidently a scholar by the name of Pantanaeus was sent to India by Demetrius, bishop of Alexander, around AD 180. When Pantanaeus got to India he found a copy of the Gospel of Matthew, written in Hebrew, which had been brought there by the apostle Bartholomew. The idea of Matthew being written in Hebrew may sound strange at first: however there is a long history of Jewish settlements in India that go back as far as 2,500 years. Jews were forced into exile from Israel at various stages in their history, and because so little is known about what happened to them we refer to them as “The Lost Ten Tribes of Israel.” (One wonders if they will make up a large part of Elijah’s ministry when he returns.) Under Israeli law Jews from anywhere in the world have the right to return and live in their ancestral land. In the October 20, 2013 issue, the Jewish newspaper Haaretz reported that 2,000 Jews from the Bnei Menashe community in India were now living in Israel and 5,000 more were waiting to immigrate. The number of Jews in India today may exceed 2,000,000. According to traditions, the local ruler Astriagas became upset over the number of people that Bartholomew was baptizing and began a persecution of the budding Christian community. Bartholomew was beaten with clubs, skinned alive, and finally beheaded. It is because of this tradition that Michelangelo’s painting “The Last Judgment” depicts in grizzly detail Bartholomew holding aloft in his right hand a knife, and in his left his empty, rumpled skin.
Thomas: Nothing is said about Thomas in the Bible after he is listed as present in the upper room after Jesus’ ascension. However there are copious accounts of his preaching activities in the legendary accounts that have come down to us. Thomas is believed to have been active in Osorene which is north of Palestine (eastern Turkey today), Iran, Armenia, and India. Evidently there is a Syriac document circa AD 200 known as “The Acts of Thomas” which is a historical fiction novel supposedly based on Thomas’ preaching work in India. In this case however there may be more substantial reasons to believe that Thomas preached in India. Portuguese traders and missionaries were astounded to arrive in India in the 16th century to find a large, active community of Christians who firmly believed that their community had originally been founded by Thomas. There were ancient books written in Syriac, songs, and a large amount of oral tradition. Thomas is supposed to have met his death on July 3, AD 72. He is thought to have died from stab wounds received at the hand of Brahman priests who feared that his preaching threatened Hinduism.
Matthew: There is little which is consistent said about Matthew after the resurrection. There is speculation that he may have gone to Ethiopia. However, all the accounts agree in two essential elements: he preached and died for his master. And this educated, formerly affluent disciple, became the first man to write down the teachings of Jesus.
James the son of Alpheus: As with several of the apostles, not much is recorded about them in the New Testament period. It is thought that he stayed in Jerusalem, and according to a tradition he was stoned to death by a mob of irate Jews.
Thaddaeus: He is listed in Matthew 10:3 as “Lebbaeus, whose surname was Thaddaeus,” however he was listed in some ancient versions of Matthew as Jude. (He is not considered to be the author of the Epistle of Jude.) Jude, Judas, and Judah are the same name and were one of the most common names extant in Israel which sets the stage for confusion. The reference in Luke to “Judas son of James” (NIV), almost certainly refers to the same individual. If Thaddaeus and Jude (Judas) are the same person he is the one referred to in John 14:22 where John carefully identifies the Judas he is referring to as, “not Iscariot.” Nothing more is said about Thaddaeus. Briefly summarizing from C. Bernard Ruffin’s work we learn that Eusebius and the “Apostolic History of Abdias” related the following. Thaddaeus and Simon the Canaanite (Zealot) teamed up towards the end of their ministry and were preaching in the city of Suanir in Persia (Iran). The miracles they performed and the conversions that followed caused those with a vested interest in the local deities to violently oppose them. A mob was incited to violently attack the two apostles. They began to stone them. One man ran up and thrust Thaddaeus through with a spear. Simon was seized and sawn in pieces. How accurate this is we have no way of determining, however it does call to our minds Hebrews 11:37: “They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, and were slain with the sword…”
Simon the Zealot (Canaanite, KJV): Again, there is virtually nothing about him in the Bible. As noted, one tradition holds that he died with Thaddaeus.
Judas Iscariot: We know all that we need to know about his life and the manner of his death from the Bible. When the full enormity of what he had done had sunk into his mind and conscience he repented and tried to return the bribe which he had taken from the chief priests:
“…he cast down the pieces of silver in the temples, and departed, and went and hanged himself. And the chief priests took the silver pieces… and they took counsel together and bought with them the potter’s field, to bury strangers in” (Matt 25:5-7).
However, we read “Now this man purchased a field with the reward of iniquity; and falling headlong, he burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out” (Acts 1:18). So presumably Judas hung himself, and when he was cut loose from the rope he fell to the ground and burst asunder. The potter’s field was purchased with his ill-gotten funds and so it is credited to his account. Three-and-one-half years in the presence of God’s son, witnessing his miracles and hearing his words was worth 30 pieces of silver to Judas. I believe that it was Bro. Harry Tennant who posed this question to us in his lecture one day: “How much are you willing to sell Jesus for?” How do we value our priorities?
Matthias: He was Judas’ replacement, chosen as recorded in Acts 1. Nothing more is said about him in Scripture. It is possible that he preached in Armenia. Tradition holds that he was stoned to death by a hostile crowd of Jews after returning to Jerusalem around AD 51, which, if so, would make him the second apostle to die.
Paul: We know from Scripture that Paul was in Rome and that it was there that he is believed to have met his death. Paul had come so close to death so many times, as he recounts in 2 Corinthians 11:23-27. There was a horrific persecution of Christians in Rome by the emperor Nero from about AD 65, until Nero’s deposition and suicide in AD 68. The Roman historian Tacitus tells us that Nero had self-acknowledged Christians arrested. Then, on their information, large numbers of others were condemned (“…children shall rise up and cause their parents to be put to death”). Some were dressed in animal skins to be torn to pieces by dogs. Some were crucified, and others were turned into human torches. Paul is supposed to have been beheaded about AD 66.
What do we take away from these accounts?
Willingness to die for what one believes, is agreed on all hands to be the ultimate proof of the sincerity of one’s convictions. Martyrdom does not prove those convictions as being correct, as the recent proliferation of suicide bombers, etc. shows. However, there is no questioning the sincerity of the beliefs of those who are willing to die in the furtherance of their cause. The apostles believed that Jesus Christ was the resurrected Son of God. And if you believe that fact you believe what Jesus preached… all of it.
Perhaps there is one question that we could profitably consider for ourselves. Can we imagine a situation, a circumstance, where we would be willing to die rather than disown and dishonor our Lord? If you have invested enough time to read these articles, spend three minutes now with your eyes closed and imagine a scenario, a trial, a confrontation, a change in the laws and the liberal climate in the lands in which we live, perhaps brought on by terrorist threats and war, that could force you to have to renounce your Christadelphian faith… or face extreme consequences. How did you do? How would I do?
We pray we will never be tested as the apostles and other martyrs in God’s name were tested.
Ken Sommerville (Simi Hills, CA)Sources: There are no original records extant today. Almost all of the extra-Scriptural information comes from the legends and traditions that writers and historians in the first four hundred years after Christ collected and, for the most part, brought forward with no means of verification. We are indebted to the following for most of the information in this article: C. Bernard Ruffin, “The Twelve… The Lives of the Apostles After Calvary.” Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., Huntington, Indiana, 1997. The author frames his many historical citations and allusions in a very readable treatment of the subject. Encyclopedia Britannica, 1957 Edition. Excellent summaries on most of the apostles referencing their sources. Robert L. Wilken, “The Christians as the Romans Saw Them,” Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1984. A good insight into how the Romans viewed the Christians; documented with actual copies of correspondence between Roman officials. And of course the ubiquitous internet… Notes: 1. [Editor]: I am not sure why Christadelphians (and others) generally assume that Rome was referred to here. The use of Babylon as a cipher for Rome came about much later.