One of the strongest arguments for Christianity comes from the martyrdom of the apostles. It doesn't prove the "whole case", but it does establish a very important link in the chain. The basic premise is this:
Christian tradition holds that eleven out of the twelve apostles (Judas Iscariot killed himself, but he was replaced by Matthias, bringing the number back up to twelve) died a martyr's death for their faith. John is the one exception. We all know of people who have died for things that turned out to be a lie. Any number of cult followers die because they sincerely believe some piece of propaganda that their leader has fed them. But the position of the original Christian apostles is critically different. These apostles claimed that they personally saw the risen Jesus. They were not told this and just gullibly believed it. They claimed to be eye witnesses.
The claim that is sometimes lodged against Christianity is quite simply that these early church leaders made it up. In order to form this new church, they came up with a joint story and started spreading it around the world. Christians, though, respond that this is nonsense. What motive did these men have for making this story up? Would they get power? Honor? Prestige?
No. Instead they were ostracized, shunned from society, imprisoned, tortured, and killed. All these men had to do to avoid this fate would be to fess up; admit that the story wasn't true and renounce this new religion they were attempting to found. But in spite of the horrible fate that awaited them, they never changed their story. At a minimum, we can conclude that these men honestly believed that they had seen Jesus die, then come back to life three days later.
One objection lodged against this Christian argument is that there is supposedly no evidence that the early Christian fathers ever actually died for their faith. There is supposedly no evidence of anyone who ever claims to have seen the risen Christ who was then executed for preaching their beliefs.
So is there any evidence to support the Christian martyrdom claims? That is the point of this post. I will admit for starters that we do not have contemporaneous documentary evidence of the martyrdom of all the apostles. But I will argue that the evidence we do have makes it truly ridiculous to claim that these men did not suffer greatly and in all likelihood die for their beliefs.
Let's start with James, the brother of John. James was one of the first apostles to join Jesus. The two brothers were fishing with their father Zebedee when Jesus called to them and they followed Him (Matthew 4:21-22). It certainly appears that James was with the rest of the disciples when Jesus appeared to them after His resurrection because the only disciple mentioned who was not there was Thomas (John 20:19-31). Plus, the Bible references many other appearances to the disciples as a group.
Acts 12:1-2 records the following:
"It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword."
Keep in mind that the Bible is a collection of books written during the same generation when these events took place. You can't exactly go around spreading rumors that James was executed by Herod when there are still people around to say, "No, he didn't, he fell off a cliff." Or worse yet, "He's not dead, I just had lunch with him last week!"
So there's one of the early church fathers. How about others?
What about James, the brother of Jesus? He was not one of the twelve. In fact, when Jesus was alive James did not believe He was the Christ. But he became a believer after Jesus was resurrected and was soon the leader of the Christian church in Jerusalem. In 1 Corinthians 15:7, Paul records that Jesus "appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also." Because Paul records that Jesus appeared to James in addition to "all the apostles", he cannot be referring to either James the brother of John or James son of Alphaeus, as both of these men were among the apostles. The only other James intricately involved in the early church who would be worth mentioning was James, the brother of Jesus. So he clearly saw the resurrected Christ.
Did he die for his faith? Yes he did. And this time his death is recorded by someone who was no friend to Christianity.
Flavius Josephus was a Jewish historian who lived from 37-101 A.D. He was not a Christian. But he was writing during the time that Christianity was first spreading around the Roman Empire.
In his work "Antiquities", Book XX, Chapter 9, Part 1, Josephus made the following entry:
"Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned."
This isn't the only record of James' martyrdom. Hegesippus was a Christian historian who lived from 110-180 A.D., within a generation of the church fathers (some estimates have John the apostle living until approximately 90 A.D.). Hegesippus' works are unfortunately lost, but they were not lost yet at the time another Christian historian was writing. Eusebius lived from 275 - 339 A.D., and he quoted several passages from Hegesippus in his works. One quote comes from the fifth book of Hegesippus' "Memoirs", and it says:
"12. The aforesaid Scribes and Pharisees therefore placed James upon the pinnacle of the temple, and cried out to him and said: 'You just one, in whom we ought all to have confidence, forasmuch as the people are led astray after Jesus, the crucified one, declare to us, what is the gate of Jesus.'
13. And he answered with a loud voice, 'Why do you ask me concerning Jesus, the Son of Man? He himself sits in heaven at the right hand of the great Power, and is about to come upon the clouds of heaven.'
14. And when many were fully convinced and gloried in the testimony of James, and said, 'Hosanna to the Son of David,' these same Scribes and Pharisees said again to one another, 'We have done badly in supplying such testimony to Jesus. But let us go up and throw him down, in order that they may be afraid to believe him.'
15. And they cried out, saying, 'Oh! oh! the just man is also in error.' And they fulfilled the Scripture written in Isaiah, 'Let us take away the just man, because he is troublesome to us: therefore they shall eat the fruit of their doings.'
16. So they went up and threw down the just man, and said to each other, 'Let us stone James the Just.' And they began to stone him, for he was not killed by the fall; but he turned and knelt down and said, 'I entreat you, Lord God our Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.'"
Eusebius, Book II, Chapter 23, Parts 12-16.
There is certainly more detail in Hegesippus' version, but both end up with James being stoned.
So contrary to some assertions, we do have documentary evidence of the martyrdom of both James the brother of John and James the brother of Jesus. And understand that this treatment of Christian leaders was perfectly consistent with what we know about how Christians as a whole were being treated at the time.
Take, for example, this passage from Tacitus, a Roman (non-Christian) historian who lived from 55 - 117 A.D.:
"But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace."
The "conflagration" Tacitus is referring to is the burning of Rome, for which Emperor Nero blamed the Christians and inflicted "the most exquisite tortures" upon them.
Nero was Emperor from 54-68 A.D., the same time period when the early church fathers were spreading the Christian gospel. So it is during the lives of the early apostles that these "exquisite tortures" are taking place.
Considering the violent hatred that was spreading against Christianity, it defies reason to believe that the early apostles were not, at a minimum, heavily persecuted for their beliefs, and in all likelihood killed just like church tradition says they were (For all the persecutions that Paul faced even before he was martyred see 2 Corinthians 11:23-27).
The point of the argument holds true. Even if these apostles somehow escaped personal execution (a proposition that seems extremely unlikely considering the evidence), they clearly saw Christians being tortured and killed all around them. They must have lived every single day of their lives in fear that they would be next. They had every incentive to recant this "lie" if that is really what it was. But they didn't. All records we have show them continuing to preaching the gospel without even one record of any of them backing down.
People sometimes die for something that is untrue. But it is extremely unlikely that such a large group of people would be willing to be imprisoned, tortured, and killed over something they KNEW to be a lie. That's because they didn't make it up. After Jesus' death, these men clearly saw someone who, at a mimimum, we can conclude they believed to be the same man they had followed around and learned from for three years during Jesus' earthly ministry.