Persecution and death were dramatic parts of the lives of the first Christians. It’s difficult to imagine these awful acts of torture, imprisonment, and death, but the fact is these things really happened. Scripture is an accurate account of real places, where real events happened to real people.
Eleven of the 12 apostles, and many other early followers of Jesus, were willing to die because of their belief that Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead following his execution. These were eyewitnesses to the events surrounding Jesus. What does this prove? Well, it confirms human nature — people simply aren’t willing to die for a lie.
Look at history. No conspiracy can be maintained for very long when life or liberty is at stake. Dying for a belief is one thing, but numerous eyewitnesses dying for a known lie would be quite another. Here’s an account of early Christian martyrdom, as compiled from numerous sources outside the Bible, the most-famous of which is Foxes’ Christian Martyrs of the World:
Around 34 AD, one year after the crucifixion of Jesus, Stephen was thrown out of Jerusalem and stoned to death.
On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.
About ten years later, James, the son of Zebedee and the elder brother of John, was killed when Herod Agrippa arrived as governor of Judea. Agrippa detested the Christians, and many early disciples were martyred under his rule, including Timon and Parmenas.
Around 54 AD, Philip, a disciple from Bethsaida in Galilee suffered martyrdom at Heliopolis. He was scourged, thrown into prison, and crucified. About six years later, Matthew, the tax collector from Nazareth who wrote one of the Gospels, was preaching in Ethiopia when he suffered martyrdom by the sword. James, the half-brother of Jesus, administered the early church in Jerusalem and was the author of a biblical text by his name. At age 94, he was beaten, stoned, and clubbed to death.
Matthias was the apostle who filled the vacant place of Judas. He was stoned at Jerusalem and then beheaded. Andrew was the brother of Peter who preached throughout Asia. He was crucified on a cross, the two ends of which were fixed transversely in the ground. This is where we get the term, “St. Andrew’s Cross.”
Mark wrote one of the four Gospel accounts, with Peter as his source. Mark was dragged to death by the people of Alexandria in front of Serapis, their pagan idol. Peter was condemned to death and crucified at Rome. Multiple sources maintain that Peter was crucified upside down at his own request, because he felt unworthy to be crucified in the same manner as Jesus. Paul suffered during the persecution of Nero, and was ultimately beheaded in Rome.
The list goes on and on — Jude, Bartholomew, Thomas, and Barnabas. Even Luke, the author of Acts and the Gospel in his name, was ultimately hanged in Greece. Only the apostle John escaped a violent death, although he faced torture and banishment during his life.
Yet Christian persecution did not slow the growth of the Christian church during the first few centuries after Jesus. Even as its early leaders were imprisoned and killed, Christianity flourished throughout the Roman Empire. The historical record of martyrdom must be viewed as powerful evidence for the truth of the Christian faith — a faith grounded in historical events and eyewitness testimonies.