"Now the names of the twelve apostles are these; The first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; Philip, and Bartholomew; Thomas, and Matthew the publican; James the son of Alphaeus, and Lebbaeus, whose surname was Thaddaeus; Simon the Canaanite, and Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed him."
—Matthew 10:2-4 (see also Mark 3:14-19)
Lately I've been thinking about the twelve apostles of Christianity. According to Mark and Matthew, their names are as given above, although puzzlingly, the parallel list in Luke 6 omits Lebbaeus Thaddaeus and replaces him with James' brother Judas, or Jude (apologetic tradition claims that the two are the same person). After Judas Iscariot's death, Acts 1 informs us that Matthias was chosen to replace him.
An oft-heard Christian apologetic asks, "why would the apostles die for a lie?" Save for John, tradition holds, all of the original apostles eventually died martyr's deaths - yet if the resurrection of Jesus was an invented story, they must have known that, and why would anyone go willingly to their death for a claim they knew to be untrue?
I'll get into this claim in a moment, but first, an observation. One of the things I think any Christian should find strange is how little space the Bible gives to the twelve apostles. A few prominent ones such as Peter and John get more attention, but most of them vanish completely out of history after being named, with readers never being told anything else about them or anything they did. It is remarkable how unimportant most of the apostles seem to be in the Bible.
Of all the apostles, the Bible records the death of only two: Judas Iscariot, who either hanged himself or fell and burst open (depending on which contradictory gospel account one believes), and James, son of Zebedee and brother of John, whom Herod killed "with the sword" (Acts 12:2). The Bible has Jesus imply, in John 21:18-19, that Simon Peter will die by crucifixion, but such an event is not recorded in the text.
The question is, how did the other apostles die? More importantly, how does anyone know? Where textual evidence is lacking, tradition has obliged, and a wide variety of local legends sprang up in medieval times about the apostles' journeys and eventual deaths. But most of these traditions are late, invented hundreds of years after the fact, and lack any basis in earlier evidence. They are simply stories, tall tales. Such popular myths provide no support whatsoever for modern Christian claims that the apostles were willingly martyred.
Below is a brief survey of what history has to say about the apostles, and what sources our traditions draw from:
Judas Iscariot: According to the Bible, either committed suicide by hanging (Matthew 27:5) or fell down and exploded (Acts 1:18). Not considered a martyr.
John: Not said to have been martyred. Reportedly died of old age.
James, son of Zebedee: Killed by Herod (Acts 12:2). The Bible gives no further information about his death, including whether it was willing. The fourth-century church historian Eusebius quoted an earlier, lost work by Clement of Alexandria which allegedly claims that James' calm demeanor at trial sufficiently impressed one of his accusers to convert him (source).
Simon Peter: Crucifixion, as implied by Jesus in John 21:18-19. Tradition usually holds that this occurred in Rome, as mentioned by second-century sources such as Tertullian and the apocryphal Acts of Peter. The Acts of Peter also claims that Peter accepted crucifixion willingly, making him one of the few apostles for which the claim of willing martyrdom is at all plausible. Eusebius dismissed this book as spurious and heretical (source).
Andrew: Reportedly martyred by crucifixion on an X-shaped cross ("St. Andrew's cross"). According to legend, he taught a gathered crowd while on the cross and refused their offer to take him down. This information comes from the apocryphal, probably second-century Acts of Andrew. Eusebius dismissed this book as spurious and heretical (source).
Philip: According to the apocryphal and probably fourth-century Acts of Philip, died after being hung upside-down with iron hooks through his ankles by the proconsul of Hierapolis. According to this book, before dying Philip cursed his enemies, causing seven thousand people to be suddenly swallowed up by an abyss. In return, Jesus appeared and rebuked Philip for "returning evil for evil", and told him that he would be admitted to Heaven, but only after being tortured outside its gates for forty days as punishment. Like Andrew, Philip allegedly refused a crowd's offer of rescue. The New Advent Catholic encyclopedia calls this work "purely legendary and a tissue of fables" (source).
Bartholomew: According to the third-century schismatic bishop Hippolytus, he was crucified in Armenia (source). A different tradition claims he was beheaded in India on the orders of King Astreges, who belonged to a demon-worshipping cult (source). Some traditions add that he was flayed alive before, or instead of, suffering either of these two fates. The New Advent encyclopedia says the manner of his death is "uncertain" (source), and adds that other than his name, "Nothing further is known of him".
Thomas: Tradition holds that he was sent to India to preach, where he was killed by being stabbed with a spear. This claim is made by local Indian Christians and an apocryphal gospel called the Acts of Thomas, which Eusebius dismissed as spurious and heretical (source). The New Advent encyclopedia says that "Little is recorded" of Thomas' life, and that "it is difficult to discover any adequate support" for the tradition of his death in India. It also notes that the Acts of Thomas presents Thomas as the twin brother of Jesus, which is not accepted by Christians today or in the past and seems to be a Christian/Gnostic-themed variation of a pagan salvation cult that followed twin gods called the Dioscuri.
Matthew: Conflicting traditions. Catholic.org says, "Nothing definite is known about his later life", and it is even "uncertain whether he died a natural death or received the crown of martyrdom". The Christian History Institute says, "We have nothing but legend about Matthew's death." Even among those who do believe he was martyred, there is no evidence as to where. Another source says there is conflicting information about whether he was martyred in Egypt or in Persia. The manner of his death is unknown, and some churches even say he died a natural death (source).
James, son of Alphaeus: Conflicting traditions. There are several people named "James" in the New Testament and early Christian history, and it is uncertain which, if any, should be identified with this apostle. He is often identified with the "James the Less" mentioned in Mark 15:40 as the son of Mary and Clopas, which is fairly uncontroversial. However, the Catholic church also identifies him with James, the brother of Jesus, which is not widely accepted by Eastern Orthodox and Protestant churches. If this identification is correct, the Jewish historian Josephus says that James was stoned by the Pharisees. This is seconded by Hippolytus. However, other sources (example) say that James son of Alphaeus was martyred by crucifixion in Egypt.
Jude/Lebbaeus Thaddaeus: Conflicting traditions. It is often said that he went with Simon to preach in Armenia, though New Advent says this legend is a late development not mentioned by contemporary historians of that region. The Catholic Patron Saints Index says he was clubbed to death; however, the apocryphal Acts of Thaddeus says he died naturally. Still another account says he was crucified (source). No reliable written sources seem to exist to corroborate any of this.
Simon the Zealot: Conflicting traditions. According to Catholic.org, Western traditions hold that he was martyred in Persia with Jude, usually by crucifixion, while Eastern tradition says he died naturally in Edessa. Other sources, according to New Advent, variously give his place of death as Samaria (Israel), or Iberia (Spain), or Colchis (Georgia), or even Britain. Some sources dispute the crucifixion account and claim he was instead sawn in half.
Matthias: According to the 14th-century historian Nicephorus, died by crucifixion in Colchis, in the modern nation of Georgia. Alternatively, the 17th-century historian Louis-Sébastien Le Nain de Tillemont says that he was stoned and then beheaded in Jerusalem. According to the New Advent Catholic encyclopedia, "all... information concerning the life and death of Matthias is vague and contradictory" (source). Many apocryphal sources confuse Matthias and Matthew.
As we can see, information regarding the life and death of the apostles is extremely dubious and fragmentary. This fatally undermines the Christian claim that the apostles were martyred for their faith; there is simply no good evidence that would support such a claim. The gaping void in the historical record when it comes to these twelve men is certainly strange and unexpected under the assumptions of orthodoxy - how could the original twelve Christians, handpicked by Jesus himself, vanish so completely out of history so quickly? However, it does support the mythicist theory that early Christianity arose from a tissue of legends, not from the exploits of actual historical figures. Jesus, the central figure of this myth, became better fleshed out over time, but this process never proceeded so far as to be applied to the apostles.
There is another important point here: for the modern apologists' claims to be proven, we must have evidence not only that the apostles died as martyrs, but that they died in a situation where recanting would have saved them. This requires specific and strong evidence, but then again, it is a very specific claim.
There is no biblical evidence that, for example, James could have saved himself by recanting Christianity. Herod might have been determined to kill him no matter what he said. The same goes for Peter's eventual presumed crucifixion. And these are the best attested of all the apostles' deaths (though that is a relative term). For the majority of the apostles, we have no good evidence even of how they died, much less that they could have saved themselves by recanting. Most of the sources we do have are late, contradictory, and dismissed as unfounded even by early Christian historians. The next time a Christian challenges you to explain why the apostles would have died for a lie, I suggest this response: "How do you know how the apostles died?" Judging by the cases I have seen, they will be unable to come up with an answer.