Monday, March 19, 2012

Early Sources On The Death Of The Apostles (Part 1)

(This will be a five-part series.)

Information about the death of the apostles is important in many contexts. How long were the apostles alive to serve as witnesses of events or to lead the earliest churches, for example? What does the manner of their death suggest about their willingness to suffer for their beliefs? If any of them died as a martyr, how many did so? Did any of them renounce Christianity later in life? These and other issues related to the death of the apostles are significant, yet they often aren't addressed well by Christians or their critics.

What I want to do in these posts is lay out some of the information about this subject that we can derive from the apostles and their contemporaries. Once this series of articles is complete, I'll post an index to the series that will link to all five parts. I may supplement this series with other material in the future, which would then be added to the same index page.


- I'm interested in anything significant you can add to what I'm presenting in these posts. If you're aware of any information or arguments I don't mention, you can let me know in the comments sections of these threads or through email. (See my Blogger account for my email address.) I'm also interested in being corrected if I'm wrong about something. I'm willing to edit these posts in the future if warranted.

- I think the apostle John lived until the late first or early second century. I argue for that conclusion here and here. I'm not aware of any reason to think that any other apostle lived longer. Thus, I think it makes sense to place the close of the apostolic era roughly at the close of the first century. I'll set the date at the year 100. Somebody born just before John died would be a contemporary of the apostles. However, every contemporary I'll be citing seems to have been an adult by the time John died.

- I expect the large majority of readers to agree with me that the sources I'll be citing are apostles or contemporaries of the apostles. For those who don't agree with me about those general parameters, and for those who disagree with me on some of the lesser details, I'll recommend some resources. Somebody who agrees with me that Acts was written by a contemporary of the apostles might date the book a few decades later than I do and not accept Luke's authorship. Or somebody who agrees that Papias was a contemporary of the apostles might not believe that he had met any of the apostles. Somebody might consider all of the letters of Ignatius forgeries that were written after the timeframe I'm addressing. I won't be saying much about issues like those in this series, but I'll recommend some resources for those who are interested in reading more about such subjects. Concerning the New Testament documents, see D.A. Carson, et al., An Introduction To The New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2005) and Andreas Kostenberger, et al., The Cradle, The Cross, And The Crown (Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Publishing Group, 2009). An index of many of our posts on such issues can be found here. Concerning the extra-Biblical sources, see the following: Josephus, Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Papias. I responded to some arguments against the authenticity of First Clement and Ignatius' letters here. These are just several of many examples. You can search the archives of this blog, among other sources, for more material on issues like these.

- Though I'm limiting myself to the apostles and their contemporaries, I'm not denying that credible information can be attained from later sources. In fact, I think we do have some historically probable information about the death of the apostles from sources later than the ones I'll be addressing in this series. One of the reasons why I'm limiting myself to the apostles and their contemporaries is to counter the common misconception that we're dependent on later sources more than we actually are. As we'll see, there's a high quantity and quality of information we can attain from the earliest sources alone. It doesn't follow that later sources are of little or no value.

- I'm addressing sources that are probably, not just possibly, apostles or their contemporaries. The number of sources could be expanded if merely possible ones were to be included. A couple of examples are The Ascension Of Isaiah and The Epistle Of Barnabas. Those documents contain some relevant information, but I'm not aware of any reason to conclude that either document was probably written by a contemporary of the apostles. Similarly, though Justin Martyr, Hegesippus, and Dionysius of Corinth might have been born during the apostolic era, I don't know of any reason to conclude that it's probable.

- We should judge these sources case-by-case. Pointing to dubious accounts of the death of the apostles doesn't justify a dismissal of other accounts that are credible. And a source that was wrong about one subject might have been right about another. Christians are often guilty of accepting too much of what the ancient Christian sources claim, but critics often accept too little. Many people consider some ancient historians, like Thucydides and Tacitus, largely reliable. It wouldn't make sense to dismiss the testimony of those historians on the basis of the worse credibility of other Greek and Roman historians. Similarly, if the Acts Of Peter and Hippolytus make some dubious comments about the death of the apostles, it doesn't follow that we can't trust what Gaius and Origen reported on the subject. The presence of some errors in the writings of Josephus doesn't prevent critics of Christianity from relying on him for a lot of their information about the ancient world, including information they cite against Christianity. Similarly, if Papias comments on the death of the apostles in a context in which he was in a good position to have reliable information, it isn't a sufficient counterargument to point to mistakes he made in other contexts.

- We should consider the audiences of these early documents, not just the authors. Take First Clement, for example. The document most likely was written by Clement of Rome, who seems to have been a disciple of the apostles. He was a leader of the Roman church, a church populated by contemporaries of the apostles and a church that had recently been in contact with at least two apostles, Paul and Peter. And those two apostles are supposed to have been martyred in Rome. Thus, Clement was in a good position to give us reliable information on the death of the apostles, especially Paul and Peter. But we should also consider the significance of Clement's audience. He was writing to the Corinthian church. That church, like the Roman church, was populated by contemporaries of the apostles and had recently been in contact with at least one apostle, Paul. The Corinthians would have been in a good position to judge the credibility of what Clement wrote concerning the death of the apostles. And we know, from later sources, that First Clement was received well in Corinth and among ancient Christians in general. Similar observations can be made about the audiences addressed by Luke, Ignatius, Polycarp, etc.

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