The “Die for a Lie” Gambit

A traditional Christian apologetic device is the attempt to prove Christianity’s claims by pointing out that early Christian martyrs would not have died for a lie. That is, they would not have gone to their horrific deaths had they not been convinced of standard Christian claims about Jesus. Frequently, a criterion is put forward that Jesus’ resurrection must have been authentic because it was witnessed by people who took such solace in it, and derived such confirmative strength from it,  that they were willing to endure martyrdom – thus supposedly “proving” that Jesus did rise from the dead, and implying that other Christian claims about him are true. Unfortunately, from a historical-biblical perspective, and from a common-sense point of view, this great foundational buttress can be rather easily put to rest.

If we respect the criterion that the martyr must have witnessed the resurrection, we are already in trouble, because:

First – the earliest resurrection accounts were not about an empty tomb and a resuscitated corpse imbued with magical powers. Rather, they were about visionary experiences such as apparitions and “auditions” (hearing a divine voice), and about nascent Christ-mysticism in which the experiencer claimed a union with the risen Christ, or his Spirit, within the subjective self, pscyhe, and/or soul. Therefore a “witness to the resurrection” was not an eyewitness – either of a re-animated body or of an empty tomb. “We have seen Jesus” in its earliest version refers not to seeing a physical person with the physical eyes, but rather to mystical union, “insight”, visionary experiences,
‘Gnosis”, etc.  All of these experiences were reports of internal encounters with the divine as expressed and embodied in the risen Christ.  Thus, to call upon one of these very earliest “witnesses to the resurrection” – as if their testimony could give evidence of a material event in the physical world – is simply impossible. Moreover, it is crucial to realize that the stories of the risen Jesus as a body that could be touched and could consume food, etc., were very late accretions to an original tradition that viewed the resurrection as a purely spiritual category.

Second – all the original resurrection experiencers (except Paul) were Jews living in Judea and Galilee. This narrows down the potential original witnesses to a confined social group in a confined territory. The first martyrs were not the Gentiles so often depicted in films dealing with Roman persecutions of Christians in the wider Roman Empire. Properly the question focuses only on Palestinian Jews – and even more narrowly,  on Jews who had followed Jesus in his ministry.

Third – the NT gives no evidence at all that any Jewish Palestinian Christian was martyred directly for belief in the resurrection. Stephen, reportedly the first Jewish martyr, was killed not because he thought Jesus was risen – there was nothing heretical about such a belief, no matter how “oddball” – but because, like Jesus before him, he challenged the hegemony of the Temple priesthood.  Stephen did not “die for Jesus”.  Stephen died because he alienated the priesthood.

Fourth – there is no evidence in the NT that any really major apostle or disciple of Jesus was persecuted or executed for resurrection-belief. Nor were they oppressed because they believed a particular “lie” or a particular “truth” about Jesus’ divinity, since for them Jesus was not the Trinitarian Son and second person in the Godhead that Gentile Christianity would later invent. Again: the NT does not record a martyr’s death for any major member of the Twelve or the immediate circle of Jesus-supporters – not his mother and family, not Peter, not even James his brother (James was eventually killed by priests, not Romans, but the NT does not report this incident). In fact, since it was only Jesus who was arrested and executed, while the rest of his followers went free – and even made Jerusalem “who kills the prophets” the center of their operations – it is safe to conclude that they were not in line for martyrdom. Nor does the NT even depict the Twelve as missionaries to the Gentiles – they did not “go and preach to all nations”, nor did they receive martyrdom – as far as can be known, except through the opaque lens of pious Gentile traditions (Peter crucified upside-down in Rome, Paul beheaded).

To reiterate:  The first experiencers of the resurrection did not die for that belief, or belief that Jesus was the Messiah. They died because they continued Jesus’ conflict with the priesthood.

Therefore the entire “they wouldn’t have died for a lie” gambit is nothing but a self-serving bit of Christian propaganda. And it’s logically unsound, because (of course) thousands of people have died for untrue beliefs – only they did not, or would not, consider that the beliefs were untrue. Believing in the “Die for a Lie” gambit shows only a sad lack of historical and biblical knowledge, as well as a truly unfortunate willingness to think like C.S. Lewis.

So, finally, to answer the question originally posed, “Who were those Christian martyrs and resurrection-witnesses, who did nor not ‘Die for the Lie’ ? … the answer is: NO ONE. It’s a myth that the church fabricated to comfort itself and attempt to make Jesus’ posthumous career seem more real to believers and to naive seekers. It really resembles what happens with the Humpty-Dumpty story.

If most people are asked to draw Humpty-Dumpty, they will probably sketch an egg. However, the original Humpty-Dumpty narrative is not about a humanoid egg who fell off a wall and got itself irreparably broken. At minimum it’s probably about a public figure whose career was brought to ruin. But at the story’s origin, there was no egg.  And similarly, with Christian claims of witnesses to the resurrection who died for that belief/experience … there was no ‘egg’because there were no such martyrs to begin with.

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2 thoughts on “The “Die for a Lie” Gambit

  1. Aaron Lopez

    Biblical interpretations are complex and the most easily mistaken of all literature studies. It’s the error of pagans as much as it is Protestants, and your personal readings have definitely contributed to the culmination of the idea that there are no such thing as Christian martyrs. A point by point address:

    1) Traditional interpretation (i.e form the earliest accounts from the time of the Apostolic age) states that the New Testament gospels are to be interpreted as witness to a bodily resurrection. It then conforms with Christ’s prophecy of his own triumph over physical death, brings to light the miracle of the transfiguration, makes sense of an Incarnate God, and justifies the understanding that everything God created was good, including material form such as the body. Christian and Jewish understandings of experiencing the divine are explicitly external experiences, but the totality of the reality is that they are beyond human comprehension, paralysing the body and the soul.

    2 and 3) Stephen was recorded as dying for the faith. The theme of his speech was that the Jews denied God by denying Jesus, giving the history of Jews as being unfaithful to God, and that killing Jesus, who is God, is the ultimate betrayal. He further states that they resist the Holy Spirit, and do not have God with them. He is stoned for this. To say he dies simply for being “in conflict with the priesthood” is missing the forest for the trees.

    This is sufficient also for explaining the error of Jesus being condemned to death simply for denying the Jewish priesthood. He is explicitly told he is committing blasphemy by calling Himself the Son of God by the Sanhedrin (and in the gospel narratives, they are said to be plotting against him when he speaks out against wrongful Jewish spiritual practices during his three year ministry), but they are unsure of how to kill him, so they send Him to Pilate and charge him of things a Roman pagan could understand. Jesus is constantly shown to be on the side of “Truth”, and then he is charged with petty things by evil men.

    4) There’s a fundamental straw man argument made that Christians believe martyrs were made for believing in bodily resurrection as belief worthy of death by the Jews. Incorrect. Only the Sadducees were explicit in rejecting bodily resurrection. Other Jewish sects had other ideas about life after death, of which Jesus was offering another.

    The theme of rejecting God throughout the Bible is one of truth and morals, whether it’s Moses against the Egyptians, Joshua against the Canaanites, or Jesus against the Jews. Animosity is drawn between those who hear the Word and receive it, or hear the Word and reject it.

    Furthermore, the age of martyrdom occurred after the first Apostles of the New Testament had been martyred, common sense would dictate. None of the apostles would be writing of their own death, except James’ death by Herod is recorded in Acts 12.

    What perplexes me with sola scriptura adherents is that they believe a community of Christians (the Church) wrote the New Testament, yet cannot fathom that the Church continued after the back cover of the Bible is closed. Yes, Peter and Paul were real. Yes, Peter and Paul were killed for their Christian belief. Yes, John was the only person who died of old age. We know this because these are these are the testimonies handed to us from their time. Peter had assistants (then successors) named Clement and Linus. Clement wrote letters. Clement and Linus had more successors, and so on and so forth.

    In order to deny Christian martyrdom, you unfortunately have to start dismantling a massive part of history in antiquity beyond the Bible. It’s like denying an historical Jesus never existed. I’m sure we all got over that one, but this one is just as silly.

    As an addendum, the denial of Christian martyrdom, funnily enough, is small baby steps in order to deny the Christ. While I find the “Die for a Lie” gambit poor in methodology and part of poor Protestant proselytizing, it does beg questions. But the truth of the matter is that naysayers are perturbed by the glorification of martyrs and Christ, rather than the facts themselves. Let me paint the narrative another way:

    “Yeshua ben Josef was born in an animal food bowl, disturbed the Jewish religious, and was put to death like a miserable adult non-citizen. Those zealous enough to follow in his foot steps also died easily avoidable deaths.”

    That language is more easily digestible and readily acceptable to non-believers. It almost sounds like an ISIS mini-story,, and we can now imagine all 120 of his faithful followers “idiotic” enough to be executed for radicalism.

    So I reiterate, the problem is when we Christians venerate the cross and glorify those who die swearing by Christ to “martyrs”. It’s tied with morals and truth, and that’s the part non-Christians don’t like. If we understand the narrative of the Bible, is right on course for God’s chosen.

  2. rennyo01 Post author

    Thanks for dropping in and for your detailed comments.

    I’m not denying martyrdom in Judaism or Christianity, I’m saying that not _every_ Christian martyr died because of belief in Jesus’ _resurrection-. The Greco-Roman Christian martyrs didn’t die because they believed in Jesus or his resurrection, but because they refused to sacrifice to the emperor’s familiar spirit, because they met in secret to perform unknown rituals, because they would not serve in the imperial forces, etc. As to Stephen, I’ll grant that while he may not have been “executed” directly by the priesthood, still Saul’s presence at the incident may indicate he was there as an agent of the priesthood. Also I doubt that the incident is totally historical because, unlike the case of Jesus, Luke presents Stephen as being killed by mob violence – understandably so, given his vitriol against “the Jews” and “their fathers”. Perhaps, as in the Gospels, the priesthood had a hidden hand in rousing the crowd against Stephen, or perhaps the incident occurred when a Roman governor was in absentia, giving the crowd (and perhaps the priesthood) a much freer hand than usual; but in any case the priestly presence was so prevalent in Jesus’ execution that I find it difficult to believe that it was completely absent from Stephen’s. I regard Stephen’s “witness against the Jews” as extremely unlikely historically, especially given that Jesus himself rarely indulged in such rhetoric (except of course in John’s Gospel). Listing all the crimes and unfaithfulness of “the Jews” is a much more Pauline and Johannine fault than it is Jesus’ own preaching.

    You wrote about “explaining the error of Jesus being condemned to death simply for denying the Jewish priesthood”. But I never claimed that criticism of the priesthood was the only (“simply”) cause of Jesus’ execution!

    It was, however the prime instigator in the Synoptics (not in John, where Jesus’ raising of Lazarus substitutes) for starting the wheel in motion. Matthew 21:15: “And when the chief priests and scribes saw [everything that Jesus had just done in the Temple] they were sore displeased…”

    Later, when Jesus is teaching in the Temple, the priests are so outraged that they attempt to seize him – then and there (Matthew 21:46): “But when they sought to lay hands on him, they feared the multitude, because they took him for a prophet.”

    Clearly, then, Jesus’ anti-priesthood demonstration in the Temple marked him for persecution, if not death. And Mark 11:18 puts the situation even more strongly: “And the scribes and chief priests heard of it, and sought how they might destroy him: for they feared him, because all the people were astonished at his doctrine”.

    You wrote: “In order to deny Christian martyrdom, you unfortunately have to start dismantling a massive part of history in antiquity beyond the Bible. It’s like denying an historical Jesus never existed. I’m sure we all got over that one, but this one is just as silly.”

    As you must know, Mythicism is thriving at this time and it does deny Jesus’ historical status. I disagree with it, but I don’t think it can be simply dismissed as “silly”.

    Regarding me dismissing history/beyond the Bible, I am not at all persuaded that the Church’s origin story is unassailably historical. Every canonical and non-canonical (“heretical”, “Gnostic”) teacher and scripture attached themselves – accurately or not, truthfully or not – to some great figure of the apostolic or subapostolic age. This was _de rigeur_ at the time.

    Crucially: forms of Jewish Christianity were flourishing well into the Fourth Century, we know from the reports of church Fathers, historians, and heresiologists. It would seem from the claims of such groups that the true “apostolic succession” remained, as would be expected, in Palestine/Judea, Transjordan, Syria, etc. It did not pass from Jesus’ original disciples (Paul was not an original disciple) into the the Gentile world. The original Jewish sectarian “church”, after James’ (brother of the Lord’s) martyrdom was still being led by Jesus’ own relatives for generations after his death. This is called the Jerusalem Caliphate, and its lineage of Jesus’ disciples and successors was called “the Desposyni” – the Heirs, the Lord’s people.

    Thus, ideally, Gentile Christianity, before it declared itself “the true Church”, should have traveled to the East and learned about the authentic _Jewish_ apostolic succession from the actual successors. What seems to have happened instead was that these original “Poor” Jewish Christians (Ebionities, Nazoreans, etc.) were condemned as “Judaizers” and heretics by the nonJewish church which falsely assumed the mantle of being Universal, Catholic and Apostolic. So I see no really cogent or compelling to place more credence in the Gentile church’s origins-stories over the Jewish church’s origins-stories.

    You wrote: “explaining the error of Jesus being condemned to death simply for denying the Jewish priesthood. He is explicitly told he is committing blasphemy by calling Himself the Son of God”

    True – and Jesus not only calls himself Messiah/Son of God. He also calls himself, or at least identifies himself, with a figure called “the Son of Man”. He doesn’t say that the Son of God will come on the clouds in great glory. He says that it is the _Son of Man_ who will come in the sky. Son of Man is more than a polite circumlocution that Jesus humbly used as a self-deferential surrogate for “I” and “me” (although in a few cases, he does use it as such).

    The Son of Man in the Hebrew Bible and – most crucially – in the Second Temple/”intertestamental” period – Jesus’ time – was seen as a mysterious figure living in Heaven with God, angelomorphic, “like” a man but _not_ a man, something like the primordial Sky Man or Adam Kadmon, sharing certain essential traits with God’s chief angel, Yahoel. If Jesus claimed to have special knowledge of this figure so that he could predict its coming, or if Jesus actually identified personally with the Son of Man, it is clear why the priests would have wanted him out of the picture, quite separately from their outrage over his Temple demonstration. They knew that any “Second Power in Heaven” messianic concept was dangerously close to fragmenting Yahweh’s “Oneness”. If they perceived that Jesus was identifying himself personally with the celestial Adam Kadmon, they would have reason to cry “blasphemy” – for in that case Jesus was claiming to be more than human, and indeed claiming to be some kind of Heavenly Power.

    Be that as it may, you can see that the priests did start to scheme seriously against Jesus because of his condemnation of the Temple sacrificial system. And you can see that I never denied Christian martyrdom. Finally, you can see that I think that the priests condemned him for “Son of Man” blasphemy _as well as_ for damning their hegemony of the Temple.

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