While Christians often talk about the death (and resurrection) of Jesus Christ, they often don’t give much thought to the the deaths of his earliest followers. No doubt this is because of the centrality of Christ’s death and subsequent resurrection for Christian faith. Additionally, the historical sources for accounts of the deaths of the apostles are considerably less reliable than those attesting the final hours of the Lord Jesus’ life. Nevertheless, there are various traditions surrounding the martyrdoms and deaths of the apostles and earliest followers are Jesus which are worthy of our reflection. Below are short renditions of some of the more widely attested accounts of the testimonies of the martyrs (please remember– these are traditions, often put together with spotty and somewhat questionable sources).
Perhaps the most widely known tradition concerning apostolic martyrdom is that of Peter who is said to have been crucified in Rome upside down during the reign of the Emperor Nero (typically dated around 64 CE). According to tradition, Peter felt unworthy to die in the same manner as the Lord Jesus, and thus was apparently crucified upside down on an x-shaped cross.
James, brother of John (not to be confused with any of the other prominent James’ in the early church), was executed with the sword in Jerusalem, and is generally understood to have been beheaded. Some traditions hold that one of the Roman guards assigned to watch him was so overcome by James’ faith that he joined him in his execution.
The apostle John faced martyrdom during a wave of persecution (likely either under Nero or Domitian) and according to tradition survived being boiled in a vat of boiling oil without harm. Due to this, John was apparently exiled to the island of Patmos, where he may have written the Apocalypse (Revelation). Traditions remains somewhat divided as to whether he died on Patmos or returned to Asia Minor, though in either case John is understood to be the only Apostle to have died peacefully.
Bartholomew (Nathaniel) traditionally went as a missionary to Asia Minor (present day Turkey), where he was flayed to death with a whip in Armenia. Unbeknownst to most modern day Christians in the West, the Christian church long thrived in Armenia, a location where writings later included in the New Testament canon were widely circulated.
Tradition holds that Andrew was, like his brother Peter, crucified upside down on a cross, though in Patras, Greece. After being severely whipped and tied to the cross to prolong his agony, Andrew apparently preached to his tormentors for several days before passing away.
The apostle Thomas has several different traditions concerning his missionary work and martyrdom. One of the earliest indicates that he travelled to present day India and established several churches before being killed with a trident by a Brahman priest. Of special note concerning this tradition was that when later missionaries came to India several hundred years later, they found extant copies of what appeared to be the Gospel of Matthew circulating among the Christians already on the subcontinent.
Matthew (traditionally understood to have been the evangelist who wrote the gospel) traditionally suffered martyrdom in Ethiopia after writing his gospel. Traditions concerning his death are somewhat scarce, though he seems to have been killed via the sword.
James the Just, brother of Jesus and leader of the early church in Jerusalem, has the clearest evidence concerning the circumstances surrounding his martyrdom, as the Jewish historian Josephus (Antiquities 20.9) records that he was killed under the direction of the Jewish High Priest around the year 62 CE. Some have argued that a different James (perhaps James son of Zebedee, John’s brother) was the James killed in 62 CE, with Church Fathers such as Hegesippus and Clement of Alexandria apparently reporting his date of death closer to 69 CE. In either case, traditionally James was thrown from the pinnacle of the Temple and then beaten to death by a mob.
The evangelist John Mark (traditional author of the gospel bearing his name) apparently died in Alexandria, Egypt after being dragged through the streets by a team of horses.
Jude, author of the canonical Epistle of Jude and traditional half-brother (or adopted brother) of Jesus is traditionally understood to have been shot to death with arrows.
Matthias, the man chosen to replace Judas Iscariot in the Acts of the Apostles, was likely stoned and then beheaded.
The evangelist Luke (traditional author of the gospel bearing his name) was allegedly hung in Greece sometime in the late 60’s or early 70’s CE for preaching too boldly there.
And finally, Paul (formerly Saul) of Tarsus was beheaded by the Emperor Nero in Rome (he wasn’t crucified because he was a Roman citizen). The traditional dating for Paul’s death hinges upon a number of factors, including a dating of the chronology of his letters and the account given in the Acts of the Apostles. Paul many have been martyred around 64 CE, though many church traditions indicate that he was released after the imprisonment recorded in Acts and travelled for a few more years before being against arrested and sentenced to death.
Why do we share these traditions? At least in part because these traditions offer a historical glimpse into the early Jesus movement. The earliest followers of Jesus did not expect to live the easy, persecution free lives that many of us assume are normal. As you can see from the above tradition, each early leader of the church faced persecution, and most suffered horrible deaths for their living and professing their faith in Jesus of Nazareth as Messiah. May their faith and example spur later followers of Christ on to a faith that stands for the truth, even in the face of death.