It was with much excitement and anticipation that I began reading Sean McDowell's The Fate of the Apostles. As McDowell notes, many apologists, past and present, have argued that the willingness of Jesus' apostles to become martyrs suggests that they really believed Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to them. However, he notes that "despite the popularity and importance of this argument to historical Jesus studies, little scholarly work focuses primarily on evaluating the evidence for their martyrdoms."[p. 2-3] And so we find that McDowell's work is a search for answers. He notes:
"Questions naturally remain, then, which strike to the heart of the apostolic message: Were the apostles hopelessly biased? Did they really believe Jesus had appeared to them after his death, or did they fabricate the entire story? Do the deaths of the apostles provide positive evidence for the resurrection accounts? And perhaps most importantly, most fundamentally: How strong is the actual historical evidence that the apostles of Jesus died as martyrs? In offering this study, I hope to answer these questions."[p. 3]
From the onset, the author makes it clear that he will only concern himself with "the historical evidence for the martyrdom of the apostles...studying the earliest available sources, including New Testament documents, with particular focus on the book of Acts, the writings of the early church fathers, pseudepigraphical writings such as the Acts of the Apostles, Gnostic sources, and other extra-biblical accounts." [p. 5] Then, as McDowell goes on to explain, "The reliability of the historical evidence for each apostle will be analyzed individually and assessed based upon the quantity and quality of the available historical data."[p. 6]
McDowell makes clear that he will argue that "careful historical analysis revealed that the apostles were willing to die for their faith, and that in fact many did. The strength of their convictions demonstrates that they were not fabricating their claims about Jesus, but that they actually believed their claims that Jesus had risen from the grave." [p 19-20]
In Chapter 1 McDowell explains the layout of the book, the methodology behind the investigation and deals with some preliminary problems in investigating the historicity of the original 12 apostles and their fates.
In Chapter 2 the case is made that the Christian faith was a “resurrection movement” since its inception.
In Chapter 4 the historical evidence is presented for the persecution of Christians in the first century.
As McDowell notes, "Chapters 5 through 18 are the core of the book and the linchpin of the argument. The chapters begin with the most attested apostles, such as Peter and Paul, move to the moderately attested apostles, such as Andrew and Thomas, and conclude with the least attested apostles such as Simon the Zealot and Matthias. After the historical evidence is presented, each apostle is analyzed with a historical ranging from not possibly true—certainly not historical—to the highest possible probability—nearly historically certain." [p. 20-21]
Finally, in Chapter 19 the author "summarizes the evidence from the investigation and draws broad conclusions concerning the fate of the apostles regarding the evidence it provides for the resurrection" and further addresses, "Three pressing objections..." [p. 21]
Strengths of the Book
Skeptics and apologists alike have been guilty of overstating their case when it comes to the martyrdom's of the apostles. Some skeptics have been responsible for attempting to abandon every claim of apostolic martyrdom because admittedly some of the accounts are less reliable than others. On the other hand, some defenders of the Christian faith have been at fault for presenting all of the apostolic martyrdom's as equally well-attested. This reader is glad to report that you will find no such errors in McDowell's treatment of the subject. Throughout the book, the author strives to handle the data objectively and honestly.
For example, when discussing the martyrdom of the Apostle Peter, the author readily admits that "Scholars disagree significantly over the fate of Peter"[p. 72] and when explaining how to properly evaluate the evidence for the apostle's martyrdom he explains "we must evaluate each piece of evidence individually and then consider the overall strength of the case. This study focuses primarily on the literary evidence since the archaeological evidence is far less conclusive." [p. 73.] This is just one example of the author being honest about the scholarship surrounding his case and not attempting to stretch the data to bolster his conclusions.
This reviewer also appreciated the easy-to-follow layout of the investigation. The author's approach is both systematic and comprehensive. Moreover, throughout the inquiry both critical and non-critical literature is interacted with extensively.
In addition, apologists like myself who value the minimal facts argument for the resurrection will find this work a welcomed addition to their library and it will serve to help them strengthen their case that God rose Jesus from the dead. As McDowell notes, "The consistent testimony of the New Testament and the earliest sources shows that the apostles were witnesses of the risen Jesus and willingly suffered for the proclamation of the gospel. No evidence exists that any wavered in their faith or commitment. Of course, this does not mean they were necessarily right, but it does mean they really thought Jesus had risen from the grave and they bet their lives on it." [p. 337]
The author also does a commendable job of anticipating potential objections to his case and responding to them. For instance, when the fact of the apostolic martyrdoms is raised, some are quick to point out that throughout history individuals have died for their beliefs and this certainly doesn't make their convictions true. McDowell responses persuasively:
"In contrast to the beliefs of Buddhist monks and Muslim radicals and any other modern martyrs, including Christians, the beliefs of the apostles was not received secondhand, but from personal experience with the risen Jesus (Acts 1:21-22; 1 Cor 15:5-8). They proclaimed what they had seen and heard with their own eyes and ears, not stories received from others (Acts 1:3; 2:22-24). Peter not only claims that he was an eyewitness but that the events took place in public and that his audience had full knowledge of them. The events were not done secretly in a corner. Buddhist monks and Muslim terrorists are certainly willing to suffer and die for a faith they received secondhand, but the apostles were willing to suffer and die for what they had seen with their own eyes.
If Jesus had not risen from the grave and appeared to his apostles, they alone would have known the falsity of his claims. In other words, if the resurrection did not happen, the apostles would have willingly suffered and died for something they knew was false. While people die for what they believe is true, it is a stretch to think all the apostles were willing to suffer and die for a claim they knew was false. The suffering and deaths of the apostles testify to the sincerity of their beliefs that they had seen the risen Jesus." [p. 338]
For those interested in studying the historical Jesus and how the Christian faith began, Sean McDowell's The Fate of the Apostles is a must read. His investigation is precise and his conclusions are straightforward.
Furthermore, budding apologists, as well as seasoned apologists, can learn much from the humble and objective manner in which the author presents his case.
McDowell has succeeded in writing an unparalleled scholarly and highly readable study of the apostolic martyrdoms.
I highly recommend this book!
Courage and Godspeed,
Many thanks to Sean McDowell for the review copy!