Sunday, April 22, 2012

Robert Jenkin on Christian Martyrs

“Martyrs are Witnesses, . . . no other Religion was ever propagated by Witnesses, who had seen, and heard, and been every way conversant in what they witnessed concerning the Principles of their Religion; no Religion besides was ever preach’d by Men, who, after an unalterable Constancy under all Kinds of Sufferings, at last died for asserting it, when they must of necessity have known, whether it were true or false, and therefore certainly knew it to be true, or else they would never have suffer’d and died in that Manner for it.”

— Robert Jenkin
Evidence and Certainty of the Christian Religion (1734)


Geoffrey Charles said...

Hi, Brian.

What's the evidence that the apostles died for their belief in the resurrection specifically? I think Bart Ehrman doubts that there is any.

Thanks for your help,

Jason Engwer said...

Geoffrey Charles,

If you're interested, I wrote a series of articles about the death of the apostles, in which I limited myself to sources who were apostles or their contemporaries. You can find the series here. Even if we limit ourselves to those earliest of sources, we have a lot of information about the deaths of five of the apostles, as well as a lesser amount of information about the death of the apostles in general. We also should take into account the information we have on the suffering of the apostles, not just their martyrdom, since willingness to suffer and the experience of suffering are significant even when martyrdom isn't involved.

The early Christians held many beliefs. Their belief in Jesus' resurrection wouldn't have been singled out in their minds as the only belief they were suffering for. And their persecutors didn't single it out. But it was one of the foundational beliefs of the religion, and it was one reason among others for the persecution of the early Christians. See 1 Corinthians 15:1-20, for example. Or consider the foundational role the resurrection had in Paul's life, since it was an appearance of the resurrected Christ that converted him. Similarly, the resurrection appearance to James is the best explanation we have for his conversion. Even among those who were already Christians when Jesus appeared to them, His appearing to them brought about a major change in their lives. It was a fundamental motivating factor. When the early Christians suffered, they weren't suffering only for belief in Jesus' resurrection, but that belief was part of their motivation and a foundational part. In addition to the information we have from the New Testament, like 1 Corinthians 15, some of the contemporaries of the apostles writing outside of the New Testament tell us that belief in Jesus' resurrection was a major motivating factor to the apostles and their willingness to suffer. See part 5 in my series linked above for more details.

If we think of the belief system of the early Christians as a building, they didn't claim that the entire building was Jesus' resurrection. But they did believe that the resurrection was at the foundation and was needed to hold the building up. When they suffered for that building, their belief in that portion of the building's foundation was part of their motivation. It doesn't have to be the only reason why they suffered in order to be one of the reasons and a foundational one. Similarly, America's founders suffered for multiple principles within the Declaration of Independence. If we can't single out one principle in particular as the only motivating factor in their suffering, we don't conclude that their suffering is therefore irrelevant to an evaluation of what they believed regarding the principle in question.

Anonymous said...

I think it's important when you're making this point to point out that the apostles *were in a position to know the truth* and still gave up their lives, and died for it. Otherwise what you get in response is something like "The 9/11 bombers died for their beliefs too. Does that make them true?"

Geoffrey Charles said...


What do you think of this response:

Not if the location of Jesus body was unknown or inaccessible, or, if the location was known and after a few days after Jesus' death and the body had decomposed beyond recognition.

Geoffrey Charles said...

@Jason Engwer:

I looked through your series, thanks.

The reason I brought up Bart Ehrman is that he knows and has read the information you refer to, and yet he doesn't think there's evidence, let alone good evidence, that the apostles died for their belief in the resurrection.

And he doesn't strike me as somebody who holds views that are contrary to what modern scholarship has to say regarding the New Testament, early extra-biblical sources, etc.

How do we know the early disciples weren't killed for being thought of as anti-Rome, or for being identified as Jews (and thus killed with many other Jews during those times). Even if they were killed specifically because they were Christians, denying Christ for fear of martyrdom would've put the disciples back in Judaism (their previous religion), which was seeing many of its own martyrs during those days. Therefore, (former) Jews rejecting Christ was not necessarily a way to avoid martyrdom.

What do you think?

Jason Engwer said...

Geoffrey Charles,

You tell us that Ehrman has "read the information [I] refer to". I'd expect him to have read the Biblical and patristic sources I've cited, but it doesn't follow that he's considered every argument I've raised or has read all of the sources I've read on the subject. Ehrman has made a lot of false or misleading claims about early Christianity over the years. I cite some examples here and here. I don't assume that he's given a lot of thought to every issue related to early Christianity, nor do I assume that he's honest about every related subject. There are many people, including scholars, who disagree with Ehrman's position, as you represent it, on the issue in question. Telling us that Ehrman disagrees with me doesn't accomplish much.

You then tell us that "he doesn't strike me as somebody who holds views that are contrary to what modern scholarship has to say". But why should we go by what "strikes you", and why should we assume that something is correct if it's the most popular view in modern scholarship (if that's what you mean by "what modern scholarship has to say")? Ehrman has repeatedly disagreed with the most popular scholarly opinion on an issue (e.g., whether Peter and Cephas were the same person). Even if that weren't the case, why should we think that Ehrman makes an effort to discern and agree with what the most popular position is on every issue he addresses, and why should we think that his efforts are reliable? Ehrman's opinion carries some weight when he's addressing something within his field of specialty, but his assessment isn't all we have to go by. Rather, we also have to take into account the assessments of other scholars who disagree with Ehrman, Ehrman's significantly bad record on issues related to early Christianity, an overall balance of historical evidence that seems to contradict his conclusion, etc.

Furthermore, you aren't giving us any documentation that Ehrman has taken the position you're attributing to him. See the fifty-sixth through fifty-eighth minutes of the second hour of the video of Ehrman's 2008 debate with Michael Licona found here. Ehrman says that he thinks it's probable that Paul and Peter died as Christian martyrs. For reasons I explained earlier, belief in Jesus' resurrection would have been part of what they were dying for. It doesn't have to be the only reason in order to be one of the reasons. I don't know how consistent Ehrman has been on this subject, but once he acknowledges that Paul and Peter died as Christian martyrs, I don't see how he avoids the conclusion that they most likely died, in part, for belief in Jesus' resurrection.

(continued below)

Jason Engwer said...

(continued from above)

You go on to raise some objections that I've already addressed. You said that you "looked through" the series of articles I linked, but you apparently didn't read much of what's there. You're also ignoring some of what I wrote in my earlier post in this thread. I'll just give a few representative examples, using the apostle Paul as an illustration.

- As I mentioned earlier in this thread, the martyrdom of the resurrection witnesses isn't all that's relevant here. Other forms of suffering and a willingness to die as a martyr are relevant as well. For Paul, we'd take into account his suffering and willingness to suffer mentioned in Acts and in his letters (e.g., 2 Corinthians 11:23-33), for example. That evidence is also relevant to Paul's death, since his earlier suffering and willingness to suffer make it more likely that he died as a martyr rather than renouncing the faith at the close of his life.

- The absence of any early reference to the other scenarios you've proposed, in which somebody like Paul was executed for being "anti-Rome" or "as a Jew", is evidence against those scenarios. The absence of any mention of such scenarios is especially significant in non-Christian sources, who would have had so much reason to mention the scenarios if they believed them to be true or believed them to be credible enough to be presented as true. The absence of your alternatives in Christian sources must also be explained. As I mentioned in my series linked above, we don't begin with a default assumption that the early Christians were universally mistaken or dishonest when they reported something like Paul's martyrdom. You would have to argue for such a conclusion, as I've argued for my position.

- Another line of evidence against your alternative scenarios is the presence of contrary testimony. Not only are your alternative scenarios absent in the early sources, but your scenarios are also widely contradicted. I've documented many examples in my series that I linked earlier. Again, I'll use Paul as an example. In 2 Timothy 1:9-12 and 2:8-10, Paul's imprisonment and associated suffering, apparently including his impending martyrdom (4:6-8), are attributed to his Christian faith and Christian activity. He wasn't about to die for being anti-Rome or Jewish. He was about to die as a Christian. (Notice, too, that 2 Timothy 2:8 specifically includes the resurrection of Jesus as one of the beliefs for which Paul was suffering.) Similarly, Clement of Rome and Ignatius portray Paul as a faithful martyr, as my series documents. Polycarp, Dionysius of Corinth, Tertullian, and many other sources - representing a wide range of personalities, locations, theologies, etc. - refer to Paul's faithfulness until death, his martyrdom, and/or other relevant information. You would need to explain why your alternative scenarios (Paul reverted to Judaism before death, etc.) not only are so widely absent, but also are so widely contradicted by such diverse sources who agree that Paul died as a faithful Christian martyr.

I expand on these and other lines of evidence in the series I linked earlier.

(continued below)

Jason Engwer said...

(continued from above)

And I don't see how your response to thoughtfulfaith's post is sufficient. The resurrection witnesses were in a position to know the truth in a variety of ways, including ways you haven't addressed. They were in a position to know whether they had experiences they perceived as encounters with the risen Christ. You could dismiss the experiences as hallucinations, for example, but then you'd have to address the counterarguments. The notion that all of them hallucinated is highly dubious. The notion that they all then failed to recognize that they had hallucinated is even more absurd. Your speculations about what might have happened to Jesus' body have been answered by Christians for a long time. For example:

- Jewish burial customs involved the identification of the corpse for various purposes, even after the time of decomposition. The notion that Jesus' body wasn't marked out for identification in any way is highly unlikely. You'd have to argue for such a conclusion rather than just speculating against the odds.

- Jesus' body would have been recognizable by means of features that wouldn't have gone away within the timeframe you mentioned, like height, general weight range, length of hair, hairstyle, and crucifixion wounds, including the wound from the highly unusual spear thrust.

- The Jewish accusation that the body was stolen assumes that no body was present, even one whose identity was unknown or disputed. The Jewish argument also assumes that the location of Jesus' body had been known to His disciples.

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