If you are like me then you have read about the first Apostles all your life but have you ever wondered what happened next for them? We know something about their three years with Jesus and a few years past more, thanks to the Biblical account. But beyond that, do we know any more?
Jesus has come and gone and passed the baton into the hands of His closest friends and followers – the 12 disciples come Apostles. But, if you’re like me, you’ve probably wondered what became of the men entrusted with the task of spreading the message.
Of the twelve Apostles, the deaths of just a measly pair, James and Judas Iscariot, managed to snag themselves a mention in the Bible. For details on the remaining apostles’ fates, we must rely on other ancient Christian texts and Church oral tradition.
One thing that we can be fairly certain of is the fact that most of them were killed in quite brutal, and gruesome way for refusing to shut up and the man they called the Messiah.
Drawing on the Bible, early Church writers, oral traditional and legend, here is what we can derive about the post-biblical lives, and deaths of each of Jesus Christ’s twelve closest friends.
Judas Iscariot was the disciple who etched his name in infamy by orchestrating the treacherous betrayal of Jesus in exchange for a mere thirty pieces of silver. It is he, whose fateful actions set in motion the chain of events leading to the crucifixion of Jesus.
It is possible that Judas was caught up in the false narrative that Jesus would become the great military leader that he believed the promised Messiah was supposed to be. His act of betrayal may have been an attempt to force Jesus’ hand, but it all backfired when Jesus refused to fight back and was sentenced to death instead.
Judas had an attack of conscience and tried to return the 30 pieces of silver, declaring to the Chief Priests, “Jesus is an innocent man!” They basically replied, “That’s your problem.”
Suffering from a severe attack of conscience, the Bible records that Judas hanged himself in the year 33 AD, perishing just before the crucifixion of Christ. He left behind a sombre legacy as the one disciple who didn’t receive a noble death.
James, son of Zebedee
James, the brother of John, is the other disciple whose death is documented in the Bible. In the book of Acts, we learn that during a time when the Apostle Peter was imprisoned, King Herod gave the order for James to be executed by the sword. That’s not the King Herod involved in the crucifixion narrative of Jesus, by the way, but his nephew, known as Herod Agrippa. Suffice to say, none of the five Herods mentioned in the Bible were particularly cuddly characters.
The fact that Peter escaped from Herod Agrippa, but James was killed, legend has it, was put down to James’ famous temper that possibly got him into trouble. Along with his brother John, they were known as the ‘Sons of Thunder.’ Historians estimate the year of his death to be around 44AD.
Matthew, the tax-collecting friend of Jesus, was the next disciple to be killed. Following the death and resurrection of Christ, legend has it that Matthew became a missionary in Ethiopia.
Interestingly, the Quran mentions several disciples of Jesus visiting Ethiopia without naming them specifically. However, Muslim exegesis holds to the tradition that Matthew was one of the disciples who went to Ethiopia to preach the message of Jesus.
Exactly how Matthew met his end is a matter for speculation. Some sources report that he was staked or impaled by spears and then beheaded. National Geographic presents a slightly varied account, saying that Matthew was likely “stabbed in the back by a swordsman sent by King Hertacus, the Ethiopian Emperor after Matthew criticized his morals, or rather, his lack thereof. The year is believed to be around 60AD.
James, son of Alphaeus
This James is sometimes referred to as James the Lesser and for good reason. We know very little about him, either from the Biblical narrative or afterward.
There are a number of characters named James in the Bible – the half-brother of Jesus, as well as the other disciple of the same name. However, tradition maintains that this James was crucified in Egypt, where he had been preaching the gospel, sometime around 62 AD.
The most famous of Jesus’ Apostles also died the most famous death. After the great fire of Rome in 64AD, Emporer Nero – renowned for his eccentricity, if not outright madness – was looking for a scapegoat to blame for the disaster. He pointed the finger squarely at the Christians, and, subsequently, a great persecution broke out that claimed the lives of several Apostles.
Peter was arrested and, after multiple trials in Rome, he was sentenced to death by crucifixion. However, feeling unworthy to be crucified in the same manner as Jesus, Peter requested to be crucified upside down on an inverted cross, which, according to tradition, he was.
Peter’s crucifixion was seen as the fulfillment of the words of Jesus:
John 21:18–19 “Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted, but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go. Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God.”
Just like the enigmatic figure of James the Lesser, Simon the Zealot remains a mystery in the annals of post-Biblical history. The absence of information surrounding his life after biblical times has given rise to a myriad of theories concerning his ultimate fate.
According to one account penned by ancient historian Moses of Chorene, Simon the Zealot met his martyrdom in the Kingdom of Iberia. However, an ancient biography known as The Golden Legend tells a different tale, claiming that Simon was martyred in Persia in the year 65 AD. Meanwhile, Ethiopian Christians have their own belief, asserting that Simon was crucified in Samaria alongside Thaddeus, another disciple. An alternate narrative alleges that Simon met his crucifixion in the unlikely setting of Britain, way back in the year 61 AD.
We do not know for sure, but we can be reasonably certain that Simon died as a martyr.
According to tradition, the prevailing belief holds that Thaddeus was killed during a missionary expedition alongside Simon the Zealot in the land of Syria.
According to The Golden Legend, in around 65AD, Simon and Thaddeus were responsible for destroying certain idols in the city of Beruit, which caused the local religious leaders to fly into a rage, attacking and killing Thaddeus with an axe.
Legend has it that Andrew was one of the most widely travelled disciples, going as far as Keiv in his missionary journeys. Consequently, today he is known as the patron saint of Ukraine, Romania, and Russia.
However, Andrew finally met his end in Greece in 69 AD, when a debate about religion between him and the Roman proconsul Aegeates turned nasty. Aegeates sought to sway Andrew from his steadfast devotion to Christianity. With hopes of avoiding the gruesome task of torturing and executing him, Aegeates attempted to coax Andrew into forsaking his faith. When the persuasion failed to yield the desired result, Aegeates resolved to unleash the full force of his torment upon Andrew.
He devised a cruel plan to prolong his agony, opting to bind him to a cross instead of nailing him, ensuring that his suffering would linger, stretching the boundaries of his endurance. Legend has it that Andrew was executed on an X-shaped cross, rather differently from Jesus. It took Andrew two full days to succumb, during which time he apparently preached to passers-by.
Unlike most of the other disciples, we have some fairly specific information on the fate of ‘Doubting Thomas.’
After the resurrection of Christ, Thomas embarked on a missionary expedition that took him all the way to India. However, it seems he got himself entangled in a heated clash with none other than the Hindu priests of Kali, who weren’t too pleased with his theological banter. In their divine fury, they decided to put an end to Thomas’s shenanigans and, well, ended up taking his life for supposedly insulting their deity.
According to the Acts of Thomas, our adventurous apostle met his fate in Mylapore, India, where he faced the wrath of spears wielded by those devout Hindu priests. And if you’re a stickler for details, mark your calendars because Syrian Christian tradition claims it all happened on July 3, 72 AD.
Bartholomew, like many apostles, met a fate that offers a buffet of theories, the most popular of which involved a horrifying combination of flaying and beheading. Yes, you read that right.
It is said that his skin was forcibly removed, leaving his flesh exposed, and then his head was separated from his body. That’s why, if you ever see artistic representations of Bartholomew, you might spot him either clutching his skin or wearing it as a rather macabre fashion statement.
Foxe’s Book of Martyrs reports that Bartholomew faced a different form of brutality while in India: “He was at length cruelly beaten and then crucified by the impatient idolaters.” Another tradition tells a different tale, proposing that Bartholomew was viciously beaten until he lost consciousness and was ultimately met with a watery grave, drowned in the depths of the ocean. Quite the twist, wouldn’t you agree?
No matter the specific manner of his demise, one thing remains clear: Bartholomew’s departure from this world was undoubtedly gruesome. Yet, amidst the discrepancies in the narratives, all the traditions converge on one point – Bartholomew’s death was inexorably tied to his dedicated ministry.
The Problem with Phillip is that there are two of them in the Bible, and early Christians seemed to have some difficulty trying to untangle the web of accounts attributed to each. Therefore, the precise details of Philip’s death remain largely elusive.
Multiple versions vie for attention, each presenting a distinct end. Some claim he passed away from natural causes, peacefully embracing his mortality. Others assert he met a more gruesome fate, with accounts ranging from beheading to stoning to upside-down crucifixion.
Nevertheless, amidst this fog of uncertainty, a few threads of tradition point towards Philip’s martyrdom in the ancient Greek city of Hierapolis. Polycrates of Ephesus, in a letter addressed to Pope Victor, attests to the final resting place of Philip, affirming his presence in Hierapolis.
Adding a touch of intrigue, the Acts of Philip emerges as an early and intricately detailed account of his martyrdom. However, as with any ancient text, the question of its reliability lingers. According to this narrative, Philip’s misadventures involved the conversion of a Roman proconsul’s wife, which provoked the ire of said proconsul. In a dramatic turn of events, both Philip and Bartholomew, his fellow disciple, found themselves crucified upside down. Yet, even in the throes of agony, Philip defied expectations and continued to preach, swaying the hearts of the onlooking crowd. So moved were they by his words that they demanded their release.
In a curious twist, the legend spins that Philip, with an air of remarkable self-sacrifice, urged the authorities to free Bartholomew but insisted they leave him hanging.
Among the Apostolic band, John holds the esteemed position as the one and only disciple traditionally believed to have breathed his last due to the wear and tear of time itself. While a few accounts hint at the possibility of other apostles meeting their natural end, the tradition surrounding John’s fate stands firmly rooted in the annals of history.
Before the breath of life departed from Jesus, he entrusted his mother, Mary into the care of the beloved disciple, widely identified as none other than John himself (John 19:26–27). It seems Jesus had a hunch that John would weather the storms of life and stand as a resilient pillar among his fellow disciples.
After the passing of Mary, John reportedly made his way to Ephesus, where he penned his three epistles. But the adventurous spirit within him did not wane. Exiled to the remote island of Patmos for fearlessly preaching the gospel, it was there that John received the divine revelation from Christ and inscribed the profound words within the Book of Revelation. Eventually, he returned to Ephesus, where, in the natural course of events, he peacefully breathed his last after 98 AD, having amassed an impressive number of years upon his mortal frame.
According to Tertullian, an ancient Christian writer, John was no stranger to persecution, despite eventually dying of old age. The Romans apparently once brought him to a grand colosseum, where they immersed him in a vat of scalding oil, though John survived.
Heroes or madmen?
While we don’t know many of the details, there is enough information available to us to conclude that almost all of Jesus’ closest friends laid down their lives boldly preaching the gospel of Christ.
These were the men who purportedly bore witness to all that Jesus did in his lifetime, his gruesome death, and his apparent resurrection. In fact, that each of these men went to their graves refusing the deny the resurrection as a literal historical event that they observed with their own eyes is one of the most compelling pieces of evidence we have for the resurrected Jesus.
Surely, if it were all a ruse, at least one of those men, under threat of incredible torture and death, would have broken rank and come clean about their made-up story about Jesus supposedly rising from the dead. Yet they remained steadfast in that belief until the bitter end.
They were either heroes or deluded madmen! I vote for heroes.