Did the Apostles Die for a Lie?

Photo of a medieval wooden diptych with twelve frames, six on each side, showing in paintings the legendary martyrs deaths of all twelve Apostles (Paul substituted for Judas).Do we have good evidence that Paul or any of the original twelve Apostles died for their belief in the risen Jesus? Nope. Nevertheless, Justin Bass claimed so in a lecture you can view online (Evidence of the Apostles’ Martyrdom).

I may eventually write a commentary on the whole Carrier-Bass debate, now that it’s available for viewing online.

But first I want to post my observations of that previous lecture he gave that pertains to the subject. I viewed and annotated that in preparation for our debate, and had all my notes ready at the table. And yet, though Bass leaned on this claim in our debate (the famous “No One Would Die for a Lie” gambit), I didn’t need to get into much detail to refute his argument against the clock.

As I noted in the debate, he couldn’t establish that they died for anything more than a vision, and visions are ubiquitous across religions—even now, but then especially. He couldn’t even establish that they could have avoided their deaths by recanting. Or even that what they died for was their belief in the resurrection, rather than their moral vision for society, or (I could have added) some other belief they wouldn’t recant—such as their already-Jewish refusal to worship pagan gods, the only thing Pliny really ever killed Christians for (the resurrection was never even at issue); and that’s the only explicitly eyewitness account we have of any Christians being killed for anything in the whole first hundred years of the religion.

But there is a lot more to be said.

I’ve taken down this gullible argument before (see A Digression on Witnesses Being Willing to Die). I’ll quote that below. As have others (a good quick summary with links to the best examples is provided by Bob Seidensticker, and we must add to that Matthew Ferguson’s excellent and more recent survey in March to Martyrdom). The argument has really been dead for decades. Why Christians keep using it astonishes me. That they think it is convincing is proof positive that Christians are hopelessly gullible. Which is ironic. Because it is precisely the gullibility of Christians that collapses the argument itself. People often believe unwaveringly in things on very poor evidence (“people die for all kinds of bullshit,” as a dear friend once said—the Heaven’s Gate cult being a prominent example, where all the evidence that their belief was false was available; they died for it anyway). That’s why the “No One Would Die for a Lie” argument is so sad. Christians today don’t even know that by believing that argument, they are in themselves illustrating the very reason why that argument is unsound.

Here is how it breaks down…

No One Dies for a Lie?

The false dichotomy the argument starts on is that what someone dies for is either known by them to be true, or known by them to be false. But the Law of Excluded Middle says: what someone dies for might not be known by them to be false. Countless people throughout history have been fully convinced that gods or ghosts spoke to them, by the mere fact that they dreamt it, or hallucinated it.

The ancients did not make a distinction between waking visions and divine appearances in dreams. Both were called visions, and treated as equally authoritative, and often even referred to with the same vocabulary, such that when someone said they saw a vision or had a revelation, you often can’t tell whether they mean in a dream or not (see William Harris, Dreams and Experience in Classical Antiquity, Harvard 2009). This was a point Dr. Bass was unaware of in the debate, and tried denying (thus revealing that, like most Christian apologists, he invents arguments in his defense when he lacks actual expert knowledge, and asserts them with total confidence—yet, ironically, in buying the Die for a Lie gambit, he still thinks total confidence is a marker of being right!). And hallucinations are common features of human experience anyway, especially in cultures conducive to it, as ancient cultures were, especially among the most pious (see my discussion, with references, examples, and scholarship, in On the Historicity of Jesus, Chapter 4.6, Element 15).

Thus countless people die for a “lie” in the sense that they don’t know that what they are dying for is false. This is most obviously true for non-eyewitnesses, who die merely for trusting someone else’s word (many religions have many examples of this happening, from Mormonism to Islam to Buddhism, Hinduism, Paganism, and beyond). But it’s also true for “eyewitnesses,” whose own minds have lied to them. And also, of course, eyewitnesses who are being conned (and indeed many a person has been fully convinced of something that was in fact a perpetrated sham). And also witnesses who aren’t sure of what they saw, but who believe they will gain eternal life if what they saw is what they are told it was, or want it to be—convincing themselves it must be true, merely to avoid personal despair.

And that does not even require a vision. For example, as Robert Price well put it:

Let us imagine ourselves among the apostolic community in those early days. We hear reports from several of the brethren that they have seen the slain Jesus alive again. Naturally our eyes widen; our ears perk up. And, like Thomas, we ask, “Are you sure? Tell me about it!” One tells us, “Of course I didn’t realize it was Jesus at the time. It only dawned on me later” (so Luke 24:13–32). Another says, “It didn’t really look like him, I admit, but later on I realized it must have been Jesus” (so Matt. 28:17; John 20:14–15; 21:2–12). And so on. I submit to you that we would be well justified to wonder what might have happened, and not to be convinced that our friends had actually seen Jesus. (TEC, p. 230)

But visions and ecstasies and religious experiences, too, can be vague in detail, yet confidently interpreted however one most hopes, needs, or desires, or as the anchoring community, colleagues, or charismatic leaders suggest. World history is replete with people who have successfully lied to themselves.

But it’s also possible for people to die for what they know is a lie—simply because they value something more. If someone believes a lie is essential for persuading the world to morally reform itself for the greater good (or to win a culture war in general: see my discussion in Not the Impossible Faith, Chapter 8), and that person values that greater good more than their own life, they will certainly die for the necessary lie. But even if someone values their own honor or reputation more than their own life, and admitting a lie would destroy that, they, too, will instead die without recanting even though it would save them, merely to preserve their honor and reputation. Even if in fact the whole thing was a financial scam (as rather tantalizingly argued it was, in J. Duncan M. Derrett, “Financial Aspects of the Resurrection, ” TET, Chapter 11, pp. 393-410; see also Robert M. Price, “Explaining the Resurrection without Recourse to Miracle,” TEC, Chapter 9, pp. 219-232). But no matter what their motives. More so if the honor or reputation—or security or emotional or financial or physical wellbeing—of their family (or community or congregation or flock) depends on their not recanting a lie. Then, again, they will die for a lie before recanting it, merely for the good of their family or other in-group. Thus, people will die for even what they know to be a lie, for their cause, their honor, their family, or their community.

There are so many ways people will die for a lie that the premise that no one does or would is plainly false.

The Problem of Evidence

As I wrote over a decade ago:

It is neither necessary to assume they made it up, nor is it certain that if they did they would be unwilling to die for some greater good that they saw in their creed. And if any original eyewitness did face death and recanted we might not have heard about it: Matthew’s remark at 28:17 that some eyewitnesses didn’t believe may be seen as a rhetorical defense against evidence of recanters. But most importantly…most believers, and all whom we know died for their belief, were not eyewitnesses. …

It is important not to forget that, in actual fact, we have no reliable record of any eyewitness dying for their belief. The closest we have are brief mentions, like that of the execution of James the brother of John in Acts 12. But that is not an “account,” containing few details about the circumstances of his death, or whether recanting would have saved him, or what it actually was he thought he was dying for. All real martyrdom accounts are of converts, not witnesses, except for that of Peter. But the account of his death is first found in the Gnostic Acts of Peter, a tale which includes, among other things, a talking dog, a flying wizard, and the resurrection of a tunafish.

We have a few mentions, but no details—no accounts.

All accounts of martyred Apostles, all of them, are full of the ridiculous and thoroughly biased toward glorifying the subject and persuading the reader to have confidence and believe, and at least a century late, and by unknown authors using unknown sources—in fact, we cannot even establish that they were using sources at all. Not one eyewitness or even contemporary source exists for any of them. Nor any neutral witnesses (or even contemporaries). Nor any critical historical account at all. What we have instead, are the very worst and least reliable sources you can ever have for anything. (See Candida Moss, The Myth of Persecution, Harper 2013.)

Hence as I said even then:

[T]he first actual account of a martyr is that of Stephen (Acts 7:54-60). But Stephen was not recorded anywhere as being among the original disciples or among the witnesses of any appearance of Jesus: he is listed as being a very devout member of the later converts (Acts 6:5). One might say that as he is being set upon by a mob, he has a vision of Jesus sitting next to God in the sky, but this is clearly not a physical appearance: none of the mob or onlookers saw this. …

Moreover, Stephen gives a speech, professing the belief for which he is killed and is willing to die, yet he does not mention the appearances of Jesus after death, nor the empty tomb, or anything like that. He merely professes that Jesus was the messiah, fulfilling Jewish anticipations, and that Jesus was unjustly killed. Indeed, he does not even claim that Jesus was God or the Son of God. Stephen seems to be treating Jesus like all the other famous prophets who were killed, and whose deaths were regarded as a rebuke upon the wickedness of Jewish authorities who reject God’s message. Stephen, and others in the early church, may thus have seen their victory in the belief and salvation of the believer, not in Jesus’ resurrection.

Thus, even in this highly biased and unreliable account (for Acts is hardly ever to be trusted on such things: see Chapter 9 of OHJ), “Stephen was willing to die for a lot less than the claims of Jesus’ appearances or even divinity.” And if that was so for him, it may well have been so for all the Apostles as well. They might all have originally seen themselves as dying for the honor of a prophet who they believed spoke God’s word. And little else. Just like Stephen. Whose account indeed appears to be a model fiction representative of all early martyrs (see OHJ, Chapter 9.5). If the author of Acts was using a source for that, there evidently were no other martyrdom accounts available (otherwise the author would have used them). Or they all looked just like this one (and therefore the author only needed one, to represent them all). Either way, the later legends are exploded. In reality, rather than fiction, the Apostles who died for their beliefs, like Stephen, were not dying for what they saw (beyond at best visions). They were dying, rather, for an abstract belief—and for their honor and defiance against a corrupt elite (See OHJ, Chapter 5.1, Elements 22 through 29; and NIF, Chapter 8).

Hence as I already said that decade ago:

[It] is not enough to say that Stephen “could” have been thinking of the resurrection when he died, because the point is that we have no evidence of any kind that he died for that reason, and therefore no basis for assuming that he did. If any of the eyewitnesses stood firm for the same reasons Stephen did, then we don’t even need to explain why they would be willing to, since Stephen’s reasons contain nothing miraculous in them.

And that’s it. Accounts of any recantations would have been erased from the record; our earliest description of the reasons non-recanting martyrs died does not have anything to do with witnessing an actual risen body of Christ; we cannot rule the same out for any other actual deaths; and all subsequent accounts are bogus.

Wait…Who Died?

And of course, that’s not the only problem:

But I have been accepting an assumption here: that the original believers were actually willing to die. Yet by all accounts, they avoided violence by any means possible. Look at the adventures of Paul, for example, e.g. Acts 9:23-25, 29-30. And why did what happened to Stephen never happen to Peter or any eyewitness? Is it an accident that Peter recants precisely when he cannot protect himself from sudden retribution [e.g. Mark 14:66-72], but then reconverts when safe? And who else among the original cast could fall back on Roman citizenship for self-defense like Paul did? [e.g. Acts 22:25-29]

Even the one early account of Peter’s death that we have, if true at all [it comes half a century later than Acts and is unsourced and full of the ridiculous, as previously noted], claims that he was killed for political reasons [and not really for his belief]. If their story was in any sense a sham, the [Apostolic] conspirators would actually seek to spread their message while guarding themselves. They could have easily maneuvered other followers into the path of violence (a deed no more unscrupulous than the possible murder of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11), or even left town when it suited them (see, for example, Acts 8:1)—and what are they doing in Tyre, begging Paul not to go back to Jerusalem in Acts 21:3-6? See also 22:18, etc. …

In Jerusalem, as far as we are told, there was also no unified opposition to the creed (Acts 5:33ff., 23:6ff.), there was large enough support to actually instill fear in the persecutors (Acts 5:26, 4:21-22), no other source records any persecution in Jerusalem, not even Josephus (though he describes many riots and violent disputes), the legal powers of the Sanhedrin did not extend to any Greek quarter or city in the region (like Tyre), and Paul and the other persecutors merely put people in prison (Acts 5:17, 8:1-3), which was always, for whatever reason, easily escaped (Acts 5:19, 5:22 [BTW, I find it curious that this jailing happens almost immediately after the murder of Ananias and Sapphira…suggesting perhaps we aren’t being told the real reason for the Apostles’ arrest]). Moreover, no non-Jews would have cared [or hardly any—local politicking aside, e.g. 2 Cor. 11:32-33], and there were whole cities of non-Jews in the Palestinian area, as well as Samaritans right between Galilee and Judaea, who also would not have cared. Acts even says there were often times of peace (Acts 2:47, 9:31). Surely the opposition must have been rather fickle, if it allowed this.

But there are more direct questions we can ask: When Paul returns to Jerusalem, preaches the creed, and starts a riot, it is only he, and no one else in the church—who were clearly there (Acts 21:17ff.)—who is attacked or arrested. Why is that? And why do the reasons he is attacked have nothing to do with his profession of Christianity? (21:29, 21:38) Why does there have to be a conspiracy of foreigners to trump up a false charge and drag out false witnesses to get Stephen arrested? (6:8-14) And why does Paul only report that it was refusal of circumcision that caused persecution, not belief in the resurrection? (Galatians 6:12)

On the other hand, how is it possible that a persecuted church can maintain its council of elders right in Jerusalem for years on end? [See Galatians 1-2] They must have been very wily indeed. Why were they not all killed or arrested? Why is the only actual death we hear [details] about in this persecution that of Stephen, which was an isolated riot, begun over what was actually a trumped-up misunderstanding of what the Christians were actually preaching (Acts 6:13-14), and not a reaction against what they actually believed? There is simply too much reason to doubt that the “persecution” of any eyewitnesses would have been serious enough to dissuade them from any plan that had enough merit to get them going in the first place.

Or that it had anything to do with witnessing the resurrection. By all the earliest accounts, even Acts, it did not.

It should also be noted (for those who don’t know or have forgotten), we have no evidence any authors of any of the Gospels were killed (at all, much less for anything they wrote). We don’t even know who they were.

What Does Bass Say?

Nothing relevant. Everything above is undeniably true. End of argument.

Though Bass himself professes belief in the martyrdom legends (evincing that gullibility again), he admits in his video lecture that those legends have no reliable sources, and that accordingly historians don’t trust them. But he then claims we do have reliable evidence that at least three eyewitnesses died for their testimony to seeing the risen body of Jesus: Peter, Paul, and James. Thus proving that Bass doesn’t know what reliable evidence means. Or how to reason logically from evidence at all.

First, to recap:

Even if we could establish that the original Apostles were killed for professing Christianity (whether lynched or executed), which is already a tall order…

  • What did they die for? A social cause? A vision? A dream? Their honor? Their monotheism?
  • We have no accounts from any of them of why, nor from anyone who knew them, or even from anyone who knew anyone who knew them.
  • And we have no accounts establishing that recanting would have saved them (yet they would have no reason to recant even a known lie, much less a false belief they thought was true, if there was no profit in it).

And Bass does not counter any of that. Case doubly closed.

But for amusement’s sake, let’s look at his three examples…

The Apostle Peter

The only account we have of the martyrdom of any of these men prior to 4th century and later legends is solely for Peter, and solely in the Acts of Peter, which as I already mentioned is the most ridiculous tale ever told, with wizards flying through the sky over Rome before crowds of thousands, talking dogs in the public street, and the resurrections of smoked fish. And even that one ridiculous account for Peter has him officially killed for not praying to Roman gods (in other words, for not renouncing his Judaism), not even for failing to recant that he saw a vision of Jesus (much less touched his body). And that was just as a pretext for what the story relates was actually a political vendetta unrelated to his theology. This also of course comes a hundred years late and cites no sources. Not even its author is known. It’s an obvious fiction.

So we can’t use that. Unless we are the most gullible of rubes.

Bass then tries to rely on the canonical 2 Peter. Which is almost unanimously agreed by experts to be a forgery. The evidence for this is more than sufficient for doubt (Wikipedia explains, here and here, as does Bart Ehrman, summarized in Forged, and detailed in Forgery and Counter-Forgery). This Epistle is not a reliable source by any definition. And even it doesn’t say anything about why Peter was to be killed or what claim or belief, if any, he could recant to escape. It also conspicuously omits any mention of his having seen the risen Jesus. And as a forgery, it’s all a lie anyway. So much for that.

Bass then leans on a vague allusion in the canonical Gospel of John 21:18-19. He does not mention that most top experts conclude the obvious, that that chapter is an appendix added after the original Gospel of John was written (see the end of John 20). It’s the latest layer of redaction. And all specialists on John agree this was written in the early to mid second century, by authors unknown (yes, plural: John 21:24). And its stated source (something written by an unnamed “Beloved Disciple”) is fictional (see OHJ, Chapter 10.7). So by definition, also not a reliable source. Worse, it merely alludes to the Acts of Peter (in which Peter is crucified upside down). It has no other plausible source. And still this allusion in John says nothing about why Peter was killed or what he could have recanted to escape his death. It is therefore evidentially useless.

Likewise 1 Clement merely says Peter was martyred. Not why, how, or what for. (He doesn’t even say it happened in Rome.) And so too all other later sources, whose only known sources, in turn, are 1 Clement or the Acts of Peter.

And that’s it. That’s all the evidence there is. Which is effectively none.

Sorry, Dr. Bass.

The Apostle Paul

Dr. Bass cites Tacitus and Suetonius as sources for the deaths of Peter and Paul.

But Tacitus never mentions Nero killing Peter or Paul. It’s unlikely Tacitus originally wrote the passage in question about Christians being persecuted by Nero anyway (an interpolation is more likely, inspired by the forged Correspondence of Paul and Seneca crafted in the early fourth century; before then no Christians were ever aware of such an event: see my peer reviewed demonstration of this conclusion in Hitler Homer Bible Christ, Chapter 20; Tacitus was probably writing about an unrelated Jewish rebel group). But even if he did, he says they were executed for arson. (To which they confessed!) Recanting their Christianity would not have helped them.

No other Christian source describing the martyrdoms of Peter or Paul for two hundred years after that has any knowledge of this fire having anything to do with it, or of any part of the account in Tacitus at all. The ridiculous Acts of Peter (once again) is the first and for centuries the only account of the martyrdom of Peter, and it never mentions any fire or any connection to a fire. Nor are any more than a few other Christians killed with them (rather than a great multitude as Tacitus claims). And none are killed in any of the more peculiar ways Tacitus describes. So we can’t use Tacitus to corroborate anything about the death of Peter or Paul.

Suetonius at least mentions a persecution of Christians under Nero (unless that, too, is an interpolation: OHJ, Chapter 8.11) but he also knows of no connection between Nero’s persecution of Christians and the fire. He does not connect them, nor write about them at all near to each other. Suetonius also doesn’t mention Paul or Peter being among those persecuted, nor any other witnesses. Nor does he say what belief exactly they were persecuted for, or what they could possibly have recanted to escape dying (or even that they died; it’s only at best implied). So Suetonius is useless as a source here, too.

Bass then tries to rely on the canon again, by citing 2 Timothy 4:6-8. But that’s a Pastoral Epistle. Pretty much all non-fundamentalist experts agree those are forgeries. Their style, vocabulary, and theology differ substantially from the authentic seven Pauline letters. Besides, the notion that Romans or Jews would let Paul write letters from jail so as to continue conspiring with fellow criminals, much less that Paul could expect to stay in jail unkilled for the months it would take for all the correspondence and travel he commands, and that fellow criminals could visit him without being arrested (vv. 9-14) is all, let’s be honest, bullshit. So this is not a reliable source. It’s complete fiction. And yet even the forger does not say what Paul was to die for, what he was arrested for, or by whom, much less why Paul believed Jesus was risen, or what he could have recanted to escape. Useless.

The canon doesn’t help him, so Bass turns to the apocrypha.

This is where things really go south for him.

Unlike many experts, I actually suspect 1 Clement is an authentic letter (more properly a hand-delivered homily) written in the late 60s A.D. (see OHJ, Chapter 8.5). But this is no comfort to Bass. Because 1 Clement 5 says Paul died in Spain (“at the farthest end of the West”); the letter exhibits no knowledge of his dying in Rome. Evidently that tradition didn’t exist yet. But that means the tradition that Paul died in Rome (as much later claimed) is fake. It was not around near to his actual death; it was invented later. Even tradition has this letter written around 95 A.D. Yet even by that standard, the earliest references to Paul’s death claim he died in Spain. And even still, Clement does not say how he knows this or from whom. We have no account here of why Paul was killed, what exactly he was dying for, or what he could have recanted to save himself. So this is of no use to Bass, either.

The funny thing is that the legend that Paul died in Rome, which resulted in inventing a fictional story thereof centuries later, appears to have been started by a careless reading of 1 Clement. It started with a misreading of Dionysius of Corinth, who in a letter written around 170 A.D. (which doesn’t survive but was quoted by Eusebius in the 4th century) says Peter and Paul died at the same time—not that they died in the same place: “…both of them went to our Corinth, and taught us in the same way as they taught you [in Rome] when they went to Italy; and having taught you, they suffered martyrdom at the same time” (lit. homoiôs de kai eis tun Italian homose didaxantes, emarturêsan kata ton auton kairon = “and like each other having taught in the same place in Italy, they were martyred at the same time”). (Notably the Acts of Peter does not have them killed at the same time. Paul is not even in Rome when Peter is executed there.)

This could confusingly be misread as saying they also both died in Italy, but conspicuously that is not what the sentence actually says. It doesn’t even mention Rome specifically. It just says they shared three common traits: both taught in Corinth, both taught in Italy (esp. Rome), and both died at the same time. Possibly Dionysius thought they both died in Italy at the same time. But that’s not what he explicitly says. And either way, Dionysius appears to be getting the notion that they died at the same time (or also place) by carelessly reading 1 Clement, which he names, and implies as his source. Because Clement wrote from Rome, and listed their deaths together in an overall account of martyrs across large spans of time, but does not actually say they died at the same time, and (as just noted) Clement goes on to say Paul died in Spain, not Italy (and does not say where Peter died).

In fact, all later sources only use Clement as their source, or sources like Dionysius who were using Clement as a source. There is no other source. Clement is therefore our only remotely credible source for the death of Paul. And Clement discredits all other accounts of the death of Paul, and tells us nothing useful about the death of Paul. So we appear to have a telephone game, whereby a source that lists their deaths together is mistaken as saying they died at the same time, which is then mistaken as saying they both also died in Rome (merely because that is where Clement wrote from), and then with those three mistakes in the evolving record, someone centuries later invented a story of them being killed together in Rome (because forgery and fakery were the normal mode of literary production among Christians: see OHJ, Chapter 5.3, Element 44). We can get nowhere with evidence like this.

Of course, that’s even moot anyway. Because Paul is not actually a “witness” to anything but a dream or vision, as he swears in Galatians 1. So even if we had any usable sources on his death, they would have been useless. That he was willing to die for a revelation, doesn’t even increase the probability that Jesus actually appeared to him (any more than it increases the probability of any other god having actually appeared to anyone, despite countless people sincerely believing gods had done so). It would therefore be of no use as evidence, even if we could establish Paul was killed for any relevant reason—by the Christian’s own fallacious argument, his death would only prove Paul believed his visions. Like countless other revelators in countless other religions have. And, as I pointed out in the earlier section above, the Christian’s own argument is fallacious anyway. So it can’t really even prove that.

So once again, all the evidence we have, is basically none.

Sorry, Dr. Bass.

The Apostles James

Which James? Bass seems confused. At one point he seems to think we have evidence for the martyrdom of James the brother of Jesus; at another point he seems to think we have evidence for the martyrdom of James the brother of John (one of the pillars, alongside his brother John, and Peter). Whether there even was a James the biological brother of Jesus is questionable. The evidence is dodgy (see OHJ, Chapters 9.3 and 11.10). But let’s just assume there was a difference between these two guys, one the brother of Jesus (A) and the other the brother of John (B).

We have no credible accounts of either of their deaths.

The legend of the martyrdom of James recorded in Hegesippus is ridiculous in every way (see OHJ, Chapter 8.8). Hegesippus seems to think it was the account of James (A). But the account itself seems to actually be about James (B). Since it’s late, ridiculous, anonymous, propagandistic, and unsourced, it’s useless as evidence. None of it is credible.

But more problematic is whether you decide the story in Hegesippus belongs to (A) or (B). For Christians it’s a damnable choice. Because if you decide it’s actually (B), then it appears no one knew what happened to (A), because Hegesippus thinks it’s (A), and therefore didn’t know another account for (A). That means there probably wasn’t one. Or if you decide the account in Hegesippus was actually written to be about (A)…then the report in Josephus (which we’ll see in a moment) cannot be about (A)! Because the two accounts completely contradict each other in nearly every respect. They cannot be reconciled (see OHJ, Chapters 8.9 vs. 8.8).

The report in Josephus was probably never even about Christians at all, much less about either James (see OHJ, Chapter 8.9 and HHBC, Chapter 19). The two words linking it to a brother of “the reputed Christ” are highly likely to be an accidental interpolation, probably substituted for what was originally there, two other words stating this James was a brother of the Jesus who was “the son of Damneus.” Christians are not mentioned. Not even in the passage as it now stands, James is not called a Christian, and Christianity is not mentioned as the reason he was convicted and executed. Nothing is said about what he was convicted of, why, or what he believed, or what he could have recanted to survive. So even if it is an account of (A), it’s useless as evidence.

Worse, if you decide Josephus was indeed writing this as an account of (A), then you have to reject the entire account in Hegesippus as a fabrication (you can’t claim both credible)—and you also have to explain why neither Hegesippus nor evidently his source (if he even had one) had ever heard of the alternative account in Josephus. You face the latter problem even if you decide Hegesippus was confused and mistakenly telling a story about (B). Because that means he still had never heard of this other account for (A). You also have to explain why no one else ever did either, for centuries (even Origen didn’t know this passage in Josephus, contrary to what is commonly claimed—he only knew a story identical to the one in Hegesippus, and mistakenly thought it was in Josephus: see HHBC, Chapter 19).

So it’s a mess. But no matter which way you turn, for either James, you either have an account that is useless, or an account that is not remotely credible, or no accounts at all. In other words, no relevant evidence.

That gets us nowhere. So Dr. Bass turns to Acts, but again is confused. Acts does not say the James killed by the sword was the brother of Jesus. It says it was James the brother of John (Acts 12:2). No other James is killed in Acts. Or in any other Christian source for 150 years. Acts never mentions James the brother of Jesus at all (nor does Luke’s Gospel ever do). Meanwhile, Acts does not say why James the brother of John was killed, what exactly he was dying for, or what he could have recanted to save himself. It simply says he was executed. And that’s it. So this is useless even if we could trust it. And really, we can’t. Because the author of Acts is a shameless liar and fabricator, who never identifies themself or any of their sources (see OHJ, Chapter 9.1). So that’s double useless.

It’s also amusing to see Dr. Bass sometimes confuse the James who dies in Acts with the James who dies in Josephus. Not only because Acts is explicit that the executed James is the brother of John, not Jesus, contrary to Josephus as the text currently states, but also because Josephus says his James was stoned, not beheaded, contrary to Acts; and by the High Priest, not king Herod Agrippa, contrary to Acts; and in the 60s, not the 40s, contrary to Acts.

Not even 1 Clement mentions either James having died, despite listing the major martyrs he knew. If he wrote as traditionally thought in 95 A.D., that argues no important James was ever martyred; and Josephus cannot have been writing about a martyrdom even Clement himself had never heard of (nor then can Acts be telling the truth about James the brother of John being martyred)—because Josephus wrote before 95. Even if Clement wrote in the late 60s A.D., these things remain doubtful. Josephus puts the death he records in 62 A.D. How could such a recent and momentous martyrdom not have been mentioned by Clement? Indeed, how could Clement not think even the death of the other, earlier James worth mentioning? Suspicion mounts.

In the end, we have no credible accounts of either James the brother of Jesus or James the brother of John being martyred for their belief in a risen body: there is no credible data on why they died, what they died for, or what they could have recanted to avoid being killed. We have no eyewitness source even attesting that they died. For all we know, if they were killed at all, they died for the same insignificant reasons as Acts records for Stephen. All the same can be said, as we saw, of Peter and Paul.

So once again, all the evidence we have, is basically none.

Sorry, Dr. Bass.

Conclusion

All we have are unreliable sources for the deaths of these three men. Not one is by an eyewitness to any of the three deaths. Not one cites or names any source for how they know anything about their death. And either we have accounts that are wholly not credible (being the very least credible kinds of sources you can ever have), or tell us nothing usable for the argument (not why they died, what for, or whether they could escape by recanting)—in fact, in many cases, both. These are simply not at all reliable records for establishing these guys witnessed a real resurrection rather than a seeming revelation; or witnessed anything at all, for they may have been dying for greater causes than that. For Dr. Bass to think otherwise exemplifies gullibility.

All other Apostle martyrdoms aren’t even attested in credible sources, much less described in any credible sources. They only appear in very late, very ridiculous, wholly unsourced propaganda. Garbage, as far as historical sources go.

And that’s where we are.

  • There are so many ways people will die for a lie that the premise that no one does or would is plainly false.
  • No credible sources record any witness dying for any specific claim or belief (they say neither why they were killed, what they were dying for, or whether recanting would even save them).
  • No eyewitness source exists or is even mentioned for their even having been killed at all.
  • And what evidence we have, evinces the fact that the original Christian Apostles preached for decades unmolested, even in the heart of Jerusalem itself. If they were ever killed for any reason, even then, it was evidently extraordinary and unexpected.

Any one of those facts ends this argument. All four just leaves a well beaten dead horse.

So we have no reliable evidence supporting the resurrection here. Time to move on.

Liked it? Support Richard Carrier on Patreon!

28 comments

  1. Ben H April 7, 2016, 5:06 pm

    Do you (or anyone else reading the blog for that matter) happen to know of any examples of people throughout history who have died for something that they knew to be false? I don’t doubt that it occurs for the motives you listed, but it would be nice to have examples on hand. Joseph Smith is the only one that immediately comes to mind, who was willing to die on multiple occasions, and then eventually did die, ultimately, because of stories he made up.

    Reply
    1. Everyone in history who died rather than reveal something that would undermine their mission or cause exemplifies the point. And wars are replete with heroes who have done that. But to find specific examples of persons who have died for their reputations or honor over the truth, for example, would require a dissertation level study. It’s obviously within the realm of human psychology. Everyone dies for what they value more than their own life. And everyone values something more than their own life. And that something isn’t always the truth.

    2. Pierce R. Butler April 11, 2016, 12:06 am

      “What we now call Spain, or possibly what we now call Portugal…” would be more – hmm, I was about to say “precise”, but that doesn’t fit for introducing further ambiguity. Less likely to be incorrect, anyway.

    1. It suffers from not being Bayesian.

      The letter about the Christians is unique in Pliny’s correspondence as the only one to deal with a religious crisis. That fact alone does not cast the letter into suspicion. One would likely find the same results if you picked any letter in his corpus that had a highly unique subject (like his letter about the death of his father). Bayesian analysis forces you to ask whether there could be other explanations for your results. And uniqueness of content will cause enormous deviations in style even for the same author simply because a different subject requires a different vocabulary and posture.

      Notably, what Tuccinardi fails to show is a graph showing where every one of Pliny’s letters falls on his stylometric curve. He incorrectly assumes that if it falls on a tail of the bell curve it is correspondingly less likely to be authentic, but that’s invalid. As would become apparent when you plot every letter on the graph. Statistically it is inevitable that some letters will fall on the tails. In fact, that is true by definition. The graph comes from plotting Pliny’s letters! In other words, the area under the graph at that point in the tail literally includes several letters of Pliny. That’s how the math constructs the graph. And that will be true for every author, ever.

      Accordingly, this method cannot be used to demonstrate a spurious letter. It can be useful in a combined argument. But by itself, we already expect Pliny to have some authentic letters plotting there. So we need to know if this letter plots there because it is not by Pliny. Or if it plots there because it’s a unique topic. Or if it plots there by mere random chance.

      So, no, I’m not persuaded.

    2. As a reply to Dr. Carrier on this issue:

      The study in question isn’t Bayesian by definition, not by omission. It’s a pure frequentist approach, which has its drawbacks but also its advantages.

      I’m also not sure you’re reading the graph correctly. The testimonium is a MAJOR outlier, right at 3 sigma. Could it be different purely by chance? Sure. What is that chance? According to our statistical test, it’s .3 percent, or about one in three hundred. Not very good odds.

      You say that other Pliny fragments fall in the tails but I don’t see that at all – the tails are made up of control fragments from Cicero and Seneca. No other Pliny fragment falls outside the traditional 95% range.

      Speaking as a trained frequentist, not a trained Bayesian, the research design looks solid and the results are unambiguous – the PT is different from the rest of the Pliny corpus for some reason other than random chance…whether it’s been meddled with or outright forged is an open question. Without actually replicating the paper personally I couldn’t say anything else, but I see no reason to doubt its conclusion.

    3. If that’s correct, and no other Pliny letter falls outside that range, then you have a better argument indeed. And yes, the final question then is comparing the two hypotheses for why it is such an outlier.

      But I’m confused as to how only one one of Pliny’s letters would be an outlier in a graph comparing it to non-Pliny material. Shouldn’t you be testing if the letter is unusual compared to other letters of Pliny? Do you have a graph for that? That is, mapping only how the stylemetrics match across the letters of Pliny alone?

  2. John MacDonald April 7, 2016, 7:12 pm

    Excellent article Dr. Carrier! I would add that the original Christians might have even felt they received divine command to lie about Jesus. The bible definitely praises lying in certain circumstances:

    (1) God rewarded the Egyptian midwives for lying to the Pharaoh:
    – And the king of Egypt called for the midwives, and said unto them, Why have ye done this thing, and have saved the men-children alive? And the midwives said unto Pharaoh, Because the Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women; for they are lively, and are delivered ere the midwives come in unto them. Therefore God dealt well with the midwives. Exodus 1:18-20
    (2) Rahab was “justified” when she lied about Joshua’s spies:
    – And the woman [Rahab] took the two men and hid them and said thus: There came men unto me, but I wist not whence they were; and it came to pass about the time of shutting of the gate, when it was dark that the men went out; whither the men went I wot not; pursue after them quickly, for ye shall overtake them. But she had brought them up to the roof of the house and hid them with the stalks of flax. Joshua 2:4-6
    – Was not Rahab, the harlot, justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way?. James 2:25
    (3) David lied to Ahimelech when he said he was on the king’s business. (He was King Saul’s enemy at the time.) We know that God approved of this lie, since 1 Kings 15:5 says that God approved of everything David did, with the single exception of the matter of Uriah.
    – David said unto Ahimelech the priest, The king hath commanded me a business…. 1 Samuel 21:2
    (4) Elisha told King Benhadad that he would recover, even though God told Elisha that the king would die.
    – Benhadad the king of Syria was sick … And the king said unto Hazael … go, meet the man of God, and enquire of the LORD by him, saying, Shall I recover of this disease? Elisha said unto him, go, say unto him, Thou mayest certainly recover: howbeit the Lord hath showed me that he shall surely die. 2 Kings 8:8-10
    (5) In the Deuterocanonical book of Tobit, the angel Raphael lied to Tobias, saying “I am Azarias.”
    – Tobias said to him: I pray thee, tell me, of what family, or what tribe art thou? And Raphael the angel answered … I am Azarias. Tobit 5:16-18
    (6) Jesus lied when he told his family that he wasn’t going to the feast, but later went “in secret.”
    – [Jesus said] Go ye up unto this feast: I go not up yet unto this feast. … But when his brethren were gone up, then went he also up unto the feast, not openly, but as it were in secret. John 7:8-10
    (7) Even God lies now and then by putting lying spirits in the mouths of his prophets.
    – And there came forth a spirit, and stood before the Lord, and said, I will persuade him … I will go forth and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets. And he said, Thou shalt persuade him and prevail also; go forth and do so. 1 Kings 22:21-22

    Reply
    1. John MacDonald April 9, 2016, 10:17 am

      In fact, lying in the name of God was sometimes considered divinely initiated by God Himself. As I quoted above, even God lies by putting lying spirits in the mouths of his prophets: “And there came forth a spirit, and stood before the Lord, and said, I will persuade him … I will go forth and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets. And he said, Thou shalt persuade him and prevail also; go forth and do so. (1 Kings 22:21-22)”

  3. Pierce R. Butler April 7, 2016, 8:34 pm

    … in Spain (“at the farthest end of the West”)…

    Beep-beep: anachronism alert!

    That tells us he died in Iberia, possibly even Lusitania (aka Portugal these decadent days). I dunno when they started calling the not-quite-so-far-west part of that peninsula “Spain”, but am fairly sure that name came well after the Muslims made themselves at home in the lands they (mangling a Gothic label) dubbed al-Andalus.

    Reply
    1. Indeed. Spain is what we call the territory now. Spain isn’t even a Latin word.

      Similarly, I will refer to Asia Minor as Turkey, simply because most people know where Turkey is, but have no idea even what Asia Minor is.

  4. Robert,+not+Bob April 7, 2016, 9:52 pm

    I’m not criticizing in-depth analysis (that’s your job, after all), but really, except for Paul the only evidence of the apostles’ very existence is in the New Testament, right? So that horse has been dead even longer…

    Reply
    1. That isn’t a valid argument.

      I explain why in my discussion of the historicity of Paul. Most historical people in antiquity are poorly attested. Therefore, poor attestation is not an argument for ahistoricity.

      You need a reference class for poorly attested persons within which most members are not historical. Few such classes exist. Jesus does fall into several, however (as I show in OHJ, as discussed here). The Apostles do not.

      Besides 1 Clement mentions Peter as well as Paul. (And Paul himself mentions James and John and “the twelve.”)

      Nevertheless, besides Peter, and the brothers James and John, we are at a state of maybe 50/50 whether any other of the named “twelve apostles” really was such, since they originate in mythography (the Gospels) and thus need corroboration. Paul names several apostles unknown to the Gospels (e.g. Apollos). They are even more likely to exist than the names listed in the Gospels. Because for them we at least have an eyewitness source.

  5. lorn April 7, 2016, 10:49 pm

    Will people die for their beliefs? Will they kill?

    Anyone remember where we got the term ‘drink the Kool-Aid’?

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonestown

    Reminds me of a terrible, morbid Joke:
    Q) Why aren’t there any Jonestown jokes?
    A) Because the punch line is too long.

    It will probably always be ‘too soon’ for that one.

    Observing reality may break your heart, but it must be done.

    Reply
    1. Do note that the legend of Jonestown may have been distorted. Some survivors report, and some evidence corroborates, that coercion was employed. It is therefore not a wholly secure example of dying willingly. Some discussion here.

  6. Steven G. Clinard April 8, 2016, 1:51 am

    I think the only resurrection anyone has witnessed is that of this particular “well beaten dead horse”.

    I predict a rebuttal in 3 days….

    Reply
  7. Justin Legault April 8, 2016, 9:04 am

    Hi Richard!

    I’ve always wondered, even though we all know (Except Apologists) the Josephus passages were forged by Eusebius in the 4th century.

    Josephus was born in 37AD, after the alleged crucifixion and time of Jesus…Doesn’t that hurt their case? He was not a first account witness? He would probably only repeat what other Christians were saying to him.

    Bass had trouble accepting that Paul only had visions/hallucinations of a celestial Jesus.

    Philo of Alexandria 20AD, talked about a celestial Jesus never placing him on earth.

    Doesn’t he realize that the “telephone game” would make complete sense, given the 30-60yr gap for the Gospels?

    I think he has a certain confidence with his apologetic answers that if you just take his word for it, looks credible.

    But when you drop facts and site your sources, you can see Bass has no reliable evidence for any of his claims.

    What bothered me was his comments on the early creed, a few months, maybe years after Jesus’ death.

    You’ve mentioned that those are only assumptions, speculations, conjectures.

    Do we actually have ANY documented evidence/facts for his claims? Apart from his wishful thinking.

    If not, why would he even bring that up? Unless he was hoping you knew nothing about it to help his case.

    Thanks,

    Justin

    Reply
    1. No evidence other than that (1) stylistically it appears to be pre-Pauline and therefore pre-50; and (2) there is no evidence of it having changed (e.g. Paul never has to address that charge but says it agreed with the founders in Gal. 1). But it is plausible that the creed in 1 Cor. 15 (and the one in Phil. 2) originated with the cult itself under Peter (Cephas). I see no reason to even question that. They had to have invented a creed the very first year. Why would it have been a different one than Paul tells the Corinthians and confirmed with the founders in Jerusalem? (Gal. 1) Other hypotheses can be entertained, but without more evidence, they are more speculative than the evidence as it stands.

    2. Justin Legault April 11, 2016, 9:45 am

      In other words Bass is confused between “possible” and “probable”?

      Using conjectures as “facts” or high probability of it’s validity.

      I think he should read Proving History and learn the Bayesian method of reasoning.

      What’s frustrating the most, is fundamentalist apologists take something that is “possible” and use it as facts for their confirmation biases.

      Thanks Richard for taking the time off your busy schedule to answer.

      Justin

  8. This is a very good article, Dr. Carrier and a great follow-up to the debate that you had with Dr. Bass. I had the privilege of attending the debate (I was the guy running around with the big camera). Unfortunately, I think this also shows the downside of these types of debates.

    I would say that it is possible that it might take more time to debunk a bad argument than a good one, as your article here shows.

    Here is a guy with a Ph.D (Dr. Bass) making an argument for the historicity of the resurrection which is really no more than a slogan (Who dies for a lie?). It at first sounds plausible and of course he is able to say it with great conviction and personality because it is really more of a story than an argument and a story just seems so much more “user friendly.” Now, I hate to accuse Dr. Bass of being intellectually dishonest, but he did also (essentially) “argue” that Jesus must have walked out of the tomb because Christianity is the biggest religion. Again, a good story, but irrelevant.

    Unfortunately, as this post nicely illustrates, debunking the story takes much longer and is much more involved than the story — and even once you debunk the story, it keeps coming back like a vampire, refusing to die. Slogans are slogans because they are so easy to repeat after all.

    We see this all the time — “The glaciers melted so the earth has been warming for thousands of years.” It takes quite of a bit of data to refute that simple statement, and granted it is an important process, but not one that is going to “win” any debates with that data.

    Again, from the Milwaukee debate, Dr. Bass made another claim, (essentially) “While the evangelist “Mark” probably isn’t really “Mark,” we can assume that he is exactly like “Mark” in that he was the right hand man of Peter, therefore the gospel is essentially an eyewitness account.” Seconds to say, hours to refute. And it puts you in the unfortunate position of having to “prove” a negative. “I say it’s Mark and you can’t prove me wrong!”

    I have to say that I don’t have any great solutions. Obviously we have to continue to present refutations to such bad arguments, I just don’t know if the debate format is the way to go.

    Personally I would like to see a couple of tweaks. I could foresee a “debate” which is no “debate” at all, both speakers simply make their best case, no back and forth, no rebuttal. I think a lot more information actually gets out that way. Personally, I also feel that the best debates are between those whose positions are actually close to each other. For example, between Dr. Carrier and Bart Ehrman. What are the few things that leave Ehrman unconvinced? Can you convince him?

    Obviously nothing you could say could possibly convince Dr. Bass. I hate to say it (again) but I don’t think he is intellectually honest enough to BE convinced. But there must be other scholars whose position is more agnostic on historicity and those people I would love to hear more from.

    Reply
  9. John MacDonald April 9, 2016, 7:26 pm

    For Paul, Jesus resurrection is understood as the “first fruits” of the general resurrection, and so was a selling point for the new religion: “The end of the world is at hand, so you better join the winning team.” Christianity is all about winning converts and spreading the word:

    (A) 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” (Mark 1:17)

    (B) The Great Commission

    16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:16-20)

    (C) Sending out Emissaries

    Just as Moses had chosen twelve spies to reconnoiter the land which stretched “before your face,” sending them through the cities of the land of Canaan, so does Jesus send a second group, after the twelve, a group of seventy, whose number symbolizes the nations of the earth who are to be “conquered,” so to speak, with the gospel in the Acts of the Apostles. He sends them out “before his face” to every city he plans to visit (in Canaan, too, obviously).

    To match the image of the spies returning with samples of the fruit of the land (Deuteronomy 1:25), Luke has placed here the Q saying (Luke 10:2//Matthew 9:37-38), “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few; therefore beg the Lord of the harvest to send out more workers into his harvest.”

    And Jesus’ emissaries return with a glowing report, just as Moses’ did.

    (D) Paul was willing to do anything, even deceive, to win converts:

    19For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. 20To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; 21to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law.…(1 Cor 9:20)

    – Too many messianic groups had come and gone for the first Christians to think their group was destined for anything else in the face of the powerful Romans and Jewish elites. What was different for the first Christians was they did not have a backup plan if Jesus was killed, but rather that Jesus’ death was the plan.

    Reply
  10. Richard Carrier, thanks for the link.

    It looks like a useful discussion.

    I was 18 in November 1978 and Jonestown, with the great number of children and young adults my age was a body blow. The movement seemed like it had the best of intentions being anti-racist and cooperative, but then, with a whisper and a twist people were lining up for Kool-Aid.

    For sure there were those who resisted. They were “assisted”. The youths were given the poison first to eliminate resistance early and, once they see their children dead, to cultivate despair and a willingness to die. Once you see your children dead, many parents knowing they played an active roll in their death … what is left?

    It created what amounted to a moral siphon with the weight of the dead children drawing the entire community in after them.

    Reply
  11. scoobie April 12, 2016, 9:26 am

    A great read. Thanks for doing what you do. It would be a far more backward world without you around!

    Reply
    1. Wow. That’s weak. They actually aren’t embarrassed that’s their rebuttal?

      I especially like how he insists there are specialists on John alive today who date it before 100 AD. And then doesn’t name a single specialist on John alive today who dates it before 100 AD.

      I will assume he means fundamentalists. I don’t count fundamentalists as reliable scholars. Any more than I count astrologers as reliable astronomers.

    2. (P.S. I should allow that some non-fundamentalist specialists do at least allow the possibility John was written in the 90s. But not as a definite conclusion. And they generally all agree John used Luke as a source, so the specialist dating now of Luke to the 90s puts John unlikely so early.)

Add a Comment

I only publish comments by my patrons and anyone who or whose work I discuss in the article commented on. Comments must also follow good etiquette. Those who engage in dishonest, abusive, or harassing behavior may even be banned as commenters and patrons.

 

*