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.