Was the Apostle Bartholomew even Martyred? Myths that’ll Preach

This is a three-part series deconstructing three popular illustrations that pastors give their congregations, all of which might sound good or spiritual, but do not correspond to history or reality. The purpose is to build your discernment when people say bibley things, and not let evangelical historical sound bites lead you to repeat them.

There is a well known apologetic that is given as evidence regarding the resurrection of Christ, usually during The Easter Sermon. Preachers, teachers, theologians and laypeople point to the deaths of the Apostles as circumstantial evidence concerning that event. They say things like “People will die for a cause if they believe it to be true, but they won’t die for a lie. The 12 Apostles suffered horrendous deaths as martyrs for the cause- now why would they endure such profound suffering if they believed it a lie?

It seems to be a given that almost all the Apostles were martyred and that their gruesome, grotesque end is known. They say things like “Church tradition has it that……” or ” Church history tells us that….” and that seems to be the end of it, as if such matters are settled and secure. They have an assumed confidence in the historicity of these accounts, supposing we have sufficient certainty to know what actually happened, and in turn recount this to others  without impunity.

There are several problems with this though, the least of which is that even a cursory examination of the accounts of the deaths of the apostles show gaps, contradictions, conflicting testimony, unreliable witnesses, suspect testimonies and incredible uncertainty. The whole thing really is a complete mess, and it seems that if someone told me “Church tradition has it that they all died a martyr’s death” and I would ask them “What traditions? What church fathers” No one would even have a clue. Its a good line, but it harder to back up once you go deeper than surface-level sound clips.

To offer an example, the one I want to focus on is the supposed martyrdom of Bartholomew the Apostle. Finding primary sources for the Martyrdom of Bartholomew has been  a nightmare. What we typically see is “Some local traditions have him going to India. Other traditions record him as serving as a missionary in Ethiopia.  Mesopotamia, Parthia, and Lycaonia”. In the NewAdvent entry on Bartholomew by John Fenlon, we read without sources or citations “Other traditions represent St. Bartholomew as preaching in Mesopotamia, Persia, Egypt, Armenia, Lycaonia, Phrygia, and on the shores of the Black Sea. One legend, it is interesting to note, identifies him with Nathanael. The manner of his death, said to have occurred at Albanopolis in Armenia, is equally uncertain; according to some, he was beheaded, according to others, flayed alive and crucified, head downward, by order of Astyages, for having converted his brother, Polymius, King of Armenia.” I find that incredibly unhelpful and have not been able to track down most of those so-called traditions. To that end after some careful research I’ve managed to dig up the most relevant and recent sources for the evidence of the Martyrdom of just one of the Apostles.

1. The Biblical Evidence. There is no biblical extant evidence of the fate of Bartholomew. The Scriptures are wholly silent on the matter.

2. Hippolytus of Rome [170-235] . Though in his own day he was considered to be a very a prolific writer with high lietrary output, the details of his life and his writings have generally all been forgotten and little is known about him.  He wrote that “Bartholomew, again, preached to the Indians, to whom he also gave the Gospel according to Matthew, and was crucified with his head downward, and was buried in Allanum, a town of the great Armenia. [Hippolytus. “On the Twelve Apostles of Christ.” Ante-Nicean Fathers, Vol. 5.] Hippolytus does not give us sources for this account, and likewise his authorship of said source is highly disputed. That is to say- we don’t even know if he actually wrote it. But if he did, it is also interesting to note that Hippolytus reports natural deaths for four of the twelve disciples [John, Matthew, Thaddeus, and Simon the Zealot, which would contradict Eusebius and others regarding other apostolic deaths.

3. Eusebius of Caesarea, [AD 263 – 339] Recounts only that Bartholomew went off to India.  ” Pantænus was one of these, and is said to have gone to India. It is reported that among persons there who knew of Christ, He found the Gospel, according to Matthew, which had anticipated his own arrival. For Bartholomew, one of the apostles, had preached to them, and left with them the writing of Matthew in the Hebrew language, which they had preserved till that time.” [Eusebius.  Church History. Book V. Chapter 10.]

4. Jerome. [ 347 – 420] In his commentary on Matthew he mentions a number of no-longer-extant apocryphal gospels, including a document entitled The Gospel of Bartholomew [Sometimes called the Questions of Bartholomew]  This document is strongly Nestorian and was condemned as heretical by the Gelasian decree.  The Questions of Bartholomew describes several conversations between Jesus and the Apostles regarding the Crucifixion, Christ’s adventures in hell, and the resurrection. In the book, Jesus gives Bartholomew power and authority over the people and demons populating hell, which gives him the ability to question Satan about his battle with Heaven. Written possibly as early as the 6th century, it does not cast light on his death.

5. There is a non-Biblical document called the “Martyrdom of Bartholomew” written as early as the 5th century, which claims that Bartholomew was martyred by King Astyages in Armenia:   “Then the King rent the purple in which he was clothed, and ordered the holy apostle Bartholomew to be beaten with rods; and after having been thus scourged, to be beheaded.” Interestingly enough, in this book the demons are speaking amongst themselves about how to recognize him, and they are given this description “And the demon answered and said: He has black hair, a shaggy head, a fair skin, large eyes, beautiful nostrils, his ears hidden by the hair of his head, with a yellow beard, a few grey hairs, of middle height, and neither tall nor stunted, but middling…His voice is like the sonnet of a strong trumpet; there go along with him angels of God, who allow him neither to be weary, nor to hunger, nor to thirst; his face, and his soul, and his heart are always glad and rejoicing; he foresees everything, he knows and speaks every tongue of every nation.”

6. Moses of Chorena, a writer who lived either in the late 5th century or sometime in the 7th century, wrote “There came then into Armenia the Apostle Bartholomew, who suffered martyrdom among us in the town of Arepan. As to Simon, who was sent unto Persia I cannot relate with certainty what he did, nor where he suffered martyrdom. It is said that one Simon, an apostle, was martyred at Veriospore. Is this true or why did the saint come to this place? I do not know I have only mentioned this circumstance that you may know I spare no pains to tell you all that is necessary.” [ History of Armenia .  Section IX]

7. The Acts of Phillip. A bizarre, mystical, Gnostic apocryphal late 4th century book. In a later addition to it we read “And the Saviour said: O Philip, since you have forsaken this commandment of mine, not to render evil for evil,  for this reason you shall be debarred in the next world for forty years from being in the place of my promise: besides, this is the end of your departure from the body in this place; and Bartholomew has his lot in Lycaonia, and shall be crucified there; and Mariamne shall lay down her body in the river Jordan. [Addition to the Acts of Phillip. Paragraph 52]

8. Allegedly there is an old Roman Breviary which states “In Great Armenia Bartholomew led the king, Poplymius, and his wife, in addition to twelve cities, to the Christian belief. These conversions very much enkindled the jealousy of the clergy there. The priests succeeded in stirring up the brother of King Polymius, Astyages, to such an anger that he gave the gruesome order to have Bartholomew skinned alive and then beheaded. In this martyrdom he gave his soul back to God.” I have not been able to locate any source for  it.

So here’s where we are; concerning the apostolic work of St. Bartholomew we have only unreliable and contradictory statements. The earliest accounts have been lost. The first that have been preserved originated between 450 and 550 in the eastern provinces of the Byzantine Empire with traces of Nestoriansim. His manner of deaths range from being beaten, beheaded, flayed, crucified, and a host of others ends. He is said to have died in dozens of different places and countries, and most of the information that supposedly sheds light on his death was written hundreds of years after his actual death, in unreliable, unbelievable, fantastical sources. I would suggest that during the first several centuries after Christ, stories about Him, the apostles, and their lives — not to mention writings on the meaning of Christ’s life, the duties of a Christian, and predictions about the end of the world — exploded into existence and the adventures of Bartholomew consists entirely of that- stories, traditions, myths and legends.

That is just one of the Apostles. There are 11 more, and the majority of them have histories just as twisted and convoluted. While we have stronger and more solid evidence for the martyrdom of some of the other Apostles, the point I want to make stands; we don’t even know that Bartholomew was martyred. We don’t know how, why or where or even IF. We don’t with any certainty know a single detail about his death, other than that he indeed did die. Appeals to Church history and Church tradition are useless and confusing, and so because we want to speak the truth, we need to be precise. I think it’s fair to say something like “While we have a mess to sort our regarding which apostles died where how and why, its reasonable to conclude that many of them if not most of them probably were martyred for their faith”

It doesn’t have the impact that “They were all martyred for their faith and suffered this specific gruesome fate..”, but the purpose is not maximum impact, but maximum truth so that God may be glorified.

[Contributed by Dustin Germain]


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20 Responses

  1. rhology says:

    As a matter of fact, quoting ANYTHING from “church history” or “Church Fathers” is well beyond problematic.

    http://beggarsallreformation.blogspot.com/2011/07/christopher-and-church-fathers.html

  2. barry says:

    Yes, it is true that post-New Testament church history is sketchy as to the ultimate fate of the apostles, but the argument is still a very strong one. You need only look to the NT to know that Peter, James brother of John. and John were persecuted for proclaiming Jesus. In fact, Acts tells us that James was killed by Herod.

  3. Barry, its reasonable that the early Christians were persecuted, but that is not a argument that would lead us to believe that they were all executed. Where does the strength of the argument come from, in your opinion?

    As to the “Church Traditions” I find most of them messy and sketchy and quite frankly, they personally hold very little weight with me. I find them interesting- to be sure, and I very much like to read them. But I could think of few things less binding than quoting what a theologian from the 5th century taught about some spiritual issue. There are a few exceptions, but not many.

    • Barry says:

      My point is, the apologetic argument that the apostles who professed to be eyewitnesses to Jesus’ resurrection would not have subjected themselves to persecution if they knew the resurrection was a lie. I agree with the premise that people don’t generally suffer and die for a cause that they know is based on a lie. And we know from the Bible that at least two apostles (Peter and John) suffered for their professions, and we know from the Bible that at least one (James brother of John) died for his.

      • paperthinhymn says:

        I agree with you on that point. I think they suffered for their faith and were persecuted. I just have to reason to surmise that they were all explicitly martyred.

  4. I mostly find “church traditions” useful for combating Roman Catholic and their unjustified co-opting of said traditions.

  5. Mark says:

    Roman Catholicism is stimulated mostly through a works based Theology and their following of “believers” are indoctrinated without having a faith base of assurance of salvation through the shed blood of Jesus. (even if they do everything right)

    Not really unusual in comparison to other denominations that profess the Gospel, some of which broke away from the Catholics hundreds of years ago.

    They do believe that Christ sacrificed himself for our sins but are constantly reminded of their unworthiness thereby never attaining assurance of salvation.

    • JD Hall says:

      Well that presents a problem, my good brother. The problem is, we are indeed unworthy and will remain unworthy. Maybe I’m not understanding you. Christ’s sacrifice doesn’t make us worthy. We remain wholly unworthy. But Christ is worthy, and we are in Christ. His righteousness in worthy, and to us it is imputed. But I would argue that a regular reminder of our unworthiness is healthy. I think the confusion for many is an assumption that the assurance of our salvation comes from the source of our justification (our hope). The source of our justification is the faith we’ve been given in the death and resurrection. The evidence or assurance of our justification is sanctification. Maybe I’m straining gnats, here…

      • Mark says:

        Maybe I’m misunderstanding your point.

        The real problem I’m discussing, is when Methodologies cling strictly to Old Testament Standards with greater emphasis of a Works, Law and Sin Centered Ministries and less emphasis on Christ. Christ died on the Cross because of our unworthiness. If you are Preaching to a Congregation that doesn’t know why Christ died and needs constant reminders (4 to 16 times a month) of their unworthiness then you must not think they are very smart or you are still stuck in the Law.

        If you remind your kid how bad they are every time you teach them, at a certain point it becomes mentally and spiritually “abusive” and can crush their spirit and actually sparks either more rebellion and low self-esteem or both. (which I actually see happening in Churches today effecting all ages, which includes divorce)

        When “Law and Sin Centered Unworthiness” Theology takes center stage above Christ, then when followers hear from Ministers that the source of our justification is the faith we’ve been given in the death and resurrection and the evidence or assurance of justification is sanctification aren’t being emphasized the congregation won’t ever receive assurance. Which is the case of Catholics and even in other denominations that profess the Gospel but emphasizes more value in the Law more than Christ.

  6. JD Hall says:

    By the way, Dustin, I – for one – have been taught that John was the only disciple not to be martyred since I was knee high to a grasshopper and I’m not about to let some worthless blog with a Canadian contributor tell me any different. You’re messing up my ‘Murican evangelical myths, man.

  7. You and your ‘Murican! Just because your Church boats a giant statue of Jesus hanging crucified on the cross, dressed in a camouflage-patterned american flag tracksuit, with an AK-47 Strapped to his back and a chik-fil-a burger in his hand, does NOT mean that you have a monopoly on Evangelical “Truthiness”.

  8. /hangs head in shame.

    Our chik-fil-a’s are all made from moose meat 🙁

  9. Mark says:

    JD,

    You have already indoctrinated your congregation of their unworthiness so your congregation already knows they are unworthy so your constant redundancy is taking up more of your congregations valuable time, to do real worshiping.

    Trust me, in the dialogue I have had with you, I have a sense with your Methodology that your congregation is not going to lose sight of their unworthiness, even if you only remind them 1 once a month.

    A Pastor is like a parent, if you repetitively remind your kid how bad they are, but you are still going to feed them, even
    though they don’t deserve it, not sure if they are going to feel very festive.

    Are you suggesting that without repetitive reminders of our unworthiness, one can’t worship?

    • rhology says:

      Are you suggesting that without repetitive reminders of our unworthiness, one can’t worship?

      For my part, I wouldn’t say one CAN’T, but those reminders certainly help.
      Remember how humans have a problem with pride and sin and stuff? And how repentance is a fruit of regeneration?

  10. Mark says:

    rhology,

    I’ve witnessed repetitive focusing on our unworthiness and their ministry was more Works, Sin and Law Centered instead of Christ Centered while isolating other other teachings in the Bible. Works, Law and Sin Centered Preaching focuses on “Self” rather than Christ. (like the Catholics)

    Like I suggested JD has indoctrinated his church into a state of unworthiness and with his Methodology his church won’t lose sight of their unworthiness even if he force feeds their unworthiness only once a month.

    Truthfully, if the only material JD can offer is repetitively telling his congregation they are unworthy multiple times every service he must be strictly staying within the perimeters of TULIP, the Calvinist cliff notes of the Bible.

    Repetitively centering a ministry on “worthiness” is an unbalanced use of Scriptures which borders Spiritual Abuse. (like the Catholics, but without the statues and daily communions)

  1. June 5, 2014

    […] Consider this myth to be thoroughly debunked. For the others in the series, see The myth of the rope around the high priest’s ankle and The myth that all the Apostles were martyred […]

  2. June 27, 2014

    […] I have decided to do three more. Ergo, this is the fourth entry into a six part series [parts 1,2,3 available here] deconstructing popular illustrations that pastors give their congregations, all […]

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