In my previous blog entry, I started to discuss the testimony of first century Christian martyrs (specifically those who claimed to be eyewitnesses to the resurrection) as part of my cumulative argument for the bodily resurrection of Jesus. In this blog post, I will discuss the evidence and circumstances surrounding the martyrdom of the apostles Peter and Paul.
The Martyrdom of Peter
Of particular significance is the martyrdom by crucifixion of the Apostle Peter. In accordance with Jesus’ prediction, Peter had denied the Lord three times during Jesus’ interrogation, in the interests of preserving his own life, for he was terrified of the possible outcome if his allegiance to Jesus became known. The stakes were high, and it seems that the prospect of crucifixion truly terrified Peter. According to Mark 14:66-71 – “While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came by. When she saw Peter warming himself, she looked closely at him. ‘You also were with that Nazarene, Jesus,’ she said. But he denied it. ‘I don’t even know or understand what you’re talking about,’ he said, and went out into the entryway. When the servant girl saw him there, she said again to those standing around, ‘This fellow is one of them.’ Again he denied it. After a little while, those standing near said to Peter, ‘Surely you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.’ He began to call down curses on himself, and he swore to them, ‘I don’t know this man you’re talking about.’”
This incident is almost certainly authentic for the following reasons:
• The embarrassment factor – it puts Peter in a bad light, and makes him out to be a coward of the worst sort. Despite Peter’s emphatic affirmation that “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you,” the fear became too much for him, and he cracked under the pressure.
• It appears in Mark’s Gospel – which Peter played a large part in contributing to.
• This incident is attested to in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and independently in John (being included in all four of the Gospels).
And yet it can be taken as historically certain that Peter boldly went to his death by crucifixion for his testimony that he had personally seen the resurrected Lord. The earliest sources for this date back extremely early indeed. John 21:18-19 anticipates Peter’s death in this way: “…when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and take you where you do not want to go.”
Not only is Peter killed by crucifixion, but even upside down at his own request because he did not feel himself worthy to be crucified in the same manner as his Lord. Peter’s death is attested to by Clement of Rome, Tertullian, Jerome and also by Origen. Origen, for example, writes that “Peter was crucified at Rome with his head downwards, as he himself had desired to suffer.”
Such a radical transformation demands explanation. My contention is that by far the best explanation is, in the words of 1 Corinthians 15, “…he appeared to Peter.”
Peter’s martyrdom experience also authenticates his claim to be a first-hand eyewitness. He writes in 2 Peter 1:16-18, “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honour and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.”
The Martyrdom of Paul
We know from multiple sources that Paul – who was then known as Saul of Tarsus – was an enemy of the church and committed to persecuting and killing Christians. Paul himself says that he was converted to a follower of Jesus because he had personally encountered the resurrected Lord.
In addition to Paul’s writings, we have six ancient sources (Luke, Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Tertullian, Dionysius of Corinth and Origen) reporting that Paul was willing to suffer continuously and even die for his beliefs. Again, liars make poor martyrs.
Thus we can be sure that Paul not only claimed the risen Jesus appeared to him, but that he sincerely believed that he had. Paul’s emphasis on the resurrection is iterated in 1 Corinthians 15: “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.”
One cannot make the claim that Paul was a disciple of Jesus who was primed to see a vision of him due to wishful thinking or grief after the execution. Saul was a most unlikely candidate for conversion. His mindset was to oppose the Christian movement that he believed was following a false messiah.
Paul’s radical transformation from persecutor to missionary and martyr demands an explanation – the best of which by far is that he is telling the truth when he says he met the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus.
While the testimony of martyrdom may carry weight only in so far as it demonstrates the sincerity of one’s beliefs, it nonetheless — at the very least — is suggestive that the disciples were sincere when they claimed to have met, and interacted with, the resurrected Christ. With respect to the disciples’ claims, there are basically three possibilities: (1) They were lying; (2) they were honestly mistaken; and (3) they were telling the truth about what they actually saw. This argument militates against the first of those possibilities. The number and variety of the post-resurrection appearances, in combination with the counter-Judaic nature of the claims in question, militates against the second of those possibilities.
In my next blog post in this series, I will discuss the multiple and independent sources attesting to the resurrection appearances of Jesus.