One of the most powerful reasons we can believe the New Testament is real history, is that most of the original apostles and other disciples died to bring us this history. As many have said, no one dies for what they know is a lie, so if they died for their beliefs, we can be sure they were not inventing history. It is also true that the original eyewitnesses of Jesus died for what they witnessed and knew to be true, not from second hand reports such as martyrs in other religions and cults.
But some critics have tried to cast doubt on whether or not the original apostles or other early disciples were in fact actually martyred. They claim that the sources for this history are late or that they are biased because they are Christian sources. How can we be sure that they actually died as martyrs?
First, we see in the New Testament evidence that to be a Christian was a dangerous thing to be. Jesus Himself warned his followers that they would be persecuted (Matt. 24:9). And of course it started with Jesus, and his crucifixion, attested to as fact by believers and skeptics alike. Jesus predicted the martyrdom of Peter in John 21:18-19, and the suffering and martyrdom of James and John (Matt. 20:23). Luke, who is described by former skeptic Sir William Ramsay as a great and reliable historian, recorded the martyrdom of both the apostle James and persecution of Peter (Acts ch. 12) and of Steven (Acts ch. 7) Luke also records how Peter and John were threatened for preaching Christ (Acts 4:13-21). Paul had endless persecution from the Jews of his day and was once stoned and left for dead by them (Acts 14:19-20, 2 Cor. 11:25) , so why shouldn’t we believe the tradition that he and Peter were eventually killed in Rome?
These are just a small sample of reliably recorded historical events in the New Testament that show they were sure enough of the facts of their testimony to be willing to suffer and die for them.
We also have at least seven separate sources that speak of the martyrdom of the apostles in addition to Luke, namely, the early church fathers. Some, like Clement of Rome, Ignatius, and Polycarp, were pupils of the disciples and wrote in the late first and early second centuries. We also have Tertullian, Dionysius of Corinth (through Eusebius), and Origen, and if we include the martyrdom of James the brother of Jesus, three more sources. Some like Tertullian appealed to public record for evidence also. Many of the early church fathers were martyred, too. If these students of the original apostles were martyred, and they said they were following their teacher’s examples, then how much more likely that their teachers were killed for their faith also? And how about the silent testimony of the catacombs in Rome, the tombs of the next several generations of Christian martyrs following in their predecessor’s footsteps?
Just because they were biased toward Christianity doesn’t mean they weren’t reporting facts. After all, people who have been very interested and “biased” to present the atrocities of the Holocaust would have wanted to make sure they got their facts straight about the deaths of those they were writing about.
But we aren’t done yet. There are also non-Christian sources, writing about first century events. Josephus mentions the death of James the brother of Jesus. Tacitus’s writings show that Christians were being killed in Rome only 30 years after Christ’s crucifixion. Suetonius shows the same evidence, as does Pliny the Younger in his letter to the Emperor Trajan. Pliny even mentions that it is said that true Christians can’t be persuaded to renounce their faith. These secular writers reported that people were being tried and executed just for the crime of professing their faith in Jesus. Also, significantly, there are no sources that dispute these events or talk about the apostles living long, prosperous lives somewhere on the seacoast. And not likely that any of them recanted, either, since this would have been reported and exploited by their enemies. This is evident since enemies of Christianity such as Celsus and others did not hesitate to bring up the betrayal of Judas, and even the denials and failings of Peter.
So the evidence for the martyrdom of those who recorded the Bible and propagated the Christian faith is indeed massive and conclusive. The wonder is that skeptics still desperately try to sow seeds of doubt about this. I guess it’s the last resort of cornered foes!