Friday, March 23, 2012

Early Sources On The Death Of The Apostles (Part 5)

(Previous parts in this series: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4.)

Larger Groups Of Apostles

I've been citing passages in which the apostles and their contemporaries discuss the death of one or two apostles. I now want to turn to passages in which they address the death of a larger number of apostles together.

Ignatius wrote:

"For I know that after His resurrection also He was still possessed of flesh, and I believe that He is so now. When, for instance, He came to those who were with Peter, He said to them, 'Lay hold, handle Me, and see that I am not an incorporeal spirit.' [see Luke 24:39] And immediately they touched Him, and believed, being convinced both by His flesh and spirit. For this cause also they despised death, and were found its conquerors." (Letter To The Smyrnaeans, 3)

Polycarp commented:

"I exhort you all, therefore, to yield obedience to the word of righteousness, and to exercise all patience, such as you have seen set before your eyes, not only in the case of the blessed Ignatius, and Zosimus, and Rufus, but also in others among yourselves, and in Paul himself, and the rest of the apostles. This do in the assurance that all these have not run in vain, but in faith and righteousness, and that they are now in their due place in the presence of the Lord, with whom also they suffered. For they loved not this present world, but Him who died for us, and for our sakes was raised again by God from the dead." (Letter To The Philippians, 9)

He characterizes all of the apostles as "exercising all patience", as running "in faith and righteousness", and as following Jesus' example. What's translated as "all patience" in my quote above is rendered as "unlimited endurance" in Michael Holmes' translation (The Apostolic Fathers [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2005], 215). It's doubtful that Polycarp would describe the apostles in such terms if they had gone the way of Judas or Demas. When he mentions that the apostles "loved not this present world", he's apparently thinking of a contrast to Paul's comments about Demas (2 Timothy 4:10). Polycarp is holding up the apostles collectively as examples of faithful endurance.

The Reception Of The Sources

Earlier in this series, I mentioned that the audiences these sources were addressing should be taken into account. We should consider not only to whom a document like Acts or First Clement was written, but also the other individuals and groups who made use of the document. If a document gives us information about the death of the apostles, then the reception of that document indicates how widespread that information was, how credible it was thought to be, etc. I'll cite several examples and recommend some resources that have further material on the subject.

For some examples of how the New Testament authors viewed each other's writings, such as Matthew's use of Mark and Paul's citation of Luke's gospel as scripture (which has implications for Acts), see here and here. Papias tells us that a church leader who predated him, probably the apostle John, spoke highly of Mark's gospel and named Peter as that gospel's primary source. See here.

There's widespread use of the New Testament documents among contemporaries of the apostles who wrote outside of the New Testament, like Ignatius and Polycarp. For many examples, see Bruce Metzger's The Canon Of The New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997) and Clayton Jefford's The Apostolic Fathers And The New Testament (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006).

Another factor to consider is the reception of the extra-Biblical documents beyond their initial audience. First Clement was written for the Corinthians of Clement's day, but it was highly esteemed by the Corinthians afterward as well (Eusebius, Church History, 4:23). Andrew Gregory and Michael Holmes note that Polycarp makes use of First Clement (in Paul Foster, ed., The Writings Of The Apostolic Fathers [New York, New York: T&T Clark, 2007], 22, 112). In the same document, Polycarp speaks highly of Ignatius' letters and refers to how he's sending those documents to the Christians of Philippi, at their request (Letter To The Philippians, 13).

Think about the implications of the evidence I've just outlined. The information about the death of the apostles that I've been discussing in this series seems to have been widely comprehended, discussed, and accepted, often by sources who were in a good position to have reliable knowledge on the subject. A wide diversity of individuals under a large variety of circumstances were involved, covering a vast number and range of geographical locations. As an illustration, consider Clayton Jefford's comments on the early reception of Matthew's gospel:

"[Matthew was] widely recognized among the numerous churches of the early second century...A careful reading of the Ignatian correspondence reveals that the bishop is very familiar with this particular gospel in comparison with remaining texts. Though he makes only rare reference to passages from the text of Matthew itself, he uses the work as the springboard for a variety of comments, thus to reveal a close familiarity with Matthean concerns and the ideas that are characteristic of the Matthean mindset. We can easily find a number of these usages....Ignatius makes use of phrases that appear to be unique to the text of Matthew...The potential parallels between Ignatius and the Gospel of Matthew would seem to be is clear that the Gospel of Matthew, both as a literary source and as a foundation for faith, gained an early status as the most widely known and utilized of our gospel texts through the churches of the early Christian world. The apostolic fathers attest to this fact on a wide scale. Connections to Matthew are evident in the Didache, the Epistle of Barnabas, throughout the letters of Ignatius, in 1-2 Clement, and in the Martyrdom of Polycarp. This suggests that the text of Matthew circulated quickly around the Mediterranean and gained an authoritative status quite readily among disparate churches in different locations." (The Apostolic Fathers And The New Testament [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006], 110, 140-143)

As significant as sources like Matthew, John, and Polycarp are in themselves, we should keep in mind that they represent the beliefs of a far larger number and diversity of people.


We gain significant information about the death of all of the apostles from the writings of the apostles and their contemporaries. We don't have to go to accounts that are generations or centuries removed from the apostolic era for reports of the apostles' willingness to suffer persecution and their faithfulness to the point of death.

For five of the apostles, we're given significantly more information than we have for the others:

James, the son of Zebedee
James, the brother of Jesus

I doubt that it's a coincidence that those apostles are among the most prominent in other contexts as well. Because they were so prominent in other settings, they would come to mind more than the other apostles when a subject like perseverance or martyrdom came up. Other factors also would have influenced who received more and less attention. Josephus discusses James because of his relevance to Ananus. Clement was writing from Rome, and he seems to refer to Christians who suffered in the Neronian persecution in that city just after he discusses martyrs among the apostles (First Clement, 6). Given his Roman setting and his interest in Roman martyrs, it's not surprising that he would use Peter and Paul as illustrations of apostolic martyrdom rather than, say, Thomas and Nathanael. Similarly, it's to be expected that Ignatius would write to the Ephesians about Paul's martyrdom rather than Matthew's.

We should remember that these authors knew more than they tell us in their extant writings. What they've left us is largely an accident of history. Though the documents they've left us don't single out individuals like Bartholomew and Philip for martyrdom accounts, it doesn't follow that they had no significant information about the circumstances surrounding the death of those apostles. When men like Ignatius and Polycarp comment on the apostles in general, the implication is that they thought they had reliable information on more than five of them.

And that opens the door to taking later sources more seriously. The more the information in question was preserved early on, the more it would have been available to be used by later sources as well. As a general principle, later sources are less reliable. And other factors have to be taken into account, like inconsistencies among the sources. However, whatever inaccuracies there are in some of the later claims about the death of the apostles, we shouldn't assume that there wasn't much interest in the subject until those later generations or that there is no significant core of truth to the later accounts.

It should be noticed, though, how credible the earliest accounts are. Their simplicity, restraint, and verisimilitude, for example, offer a stark contrast to what we find in some of the later accounts. The earlier accounts aren't credible just because of their earliness and the sources behind them. There's a lot more that commends them.

Before I bring this series to a close, I want to address the question of what it was that motivated the apostles to suffer as they did, even to the point of martyrdom. One of the reasons why I've wanted to write this series is that we're in the Easter season. The resurrection of Jesus is prominent in the New Testament and foundational to Christianity. The apostles' lives were transformed by it. Clement tells us that part of what motivated the apostles was that they were "fully assured by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ" (First Clement, 42). Ignatius comments that they "despised death, and were found its conquerors" because of their experiences with Christ risen from the dead (Letter To The Smyrnaeans, 3). Their belief in Jesus' resurrection was rooted in history, and so is our belief in their perseverance and martyrdom.

No comments:

Post a Comment