Early Persecution: What happened to the apostles?

According to the 2021 World Watch List, 1 in 8 Christians around the world suffer persecution because of their faith. It’s a staggering number, equating to approximately 340 Million Christians being victims of very strong or extreme persecution.  

For Christians in Canada, where we enjoy freedom to express our faith and worship openly, persecution can seem foreign, something that is the exception and not the rule. Western Christianity has a tradition of being the dominant faith through centuries of North American history, and European before that. As a result, it can be easy to forget that this freedom is the exception, not the norm.  

Jesus himself said that “In the world you face persecution. But take courage, I have conquered the world.” (John 16:33, NRSV). For the early church, persecution was the expectation, not the exception. They suffered greatly at the hands of the Roman empire, and many were killed for their faith.  

On Pentecost Sunday, when we mark the arrival of the Holy Spirit and the beginning of the Church, it’s worth remembering that persecution of the Church is not new. Christians were ready and willing to die for their faith, and perhaps the best examples of this are the disciples themselves. They were responsible for establishing the first Christian communities, and they suffered as a result.  


Of the twelve, the Bible only records the death of two apostles. Judas Iscariot took his own life, apparently by hanging (Matthew 27:5). The other recorded death is James, brother of John. The book of Acts says that “King Herod laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword.” (Acts 12:1-2, NRSV). James was one of the first believers to be killed as a result of faith in Christ.  

As for the other ten, their deaths have been mostly left to history, legend, and church tradition; but this tradition indicates that most of them ended up giving their lives for the Gospel. The available information is sometimes unclear and often disputed; but it is still a clear indication of how the early church was ready to be persecuted and killed because they chose to follow Jesus.  


The only one of the twelve who seems to have survived to old age, being exiled to the Isle of Patmos where he was given the Revelation. Some accounts exist of this exile occurring after John survived torture. 


Possibly the most well-known of the traditional deaths, Peter’s was foretold by Jesus in John 21:18: “When you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” Peter was apparently sentenced to death by crucifixion. He did not even consider himself worthy of the same death as his beloved Jesus, and so his last request was to be crucified upside down.  


Andrew’s execution was similar to his brother Peter, in that he was crucified in a different way. According to the earliest historical sources, he was arrested while preaching in Greece. He was tied to an X-shaped cross, where he died. 


Apparently, Thomas preached in Syria and as far east as India. Early historical sources say that he was killed there by being stabbed with a spear.  


The death of the writer of the first gospel is the subject of multiple historical accounts. Most sources agree he preached in Ethiopia. Some sources say he was stabbed to death there, others attest that he escaped martyrdom. 


The fact that there were two Philips in the early church (the apostle and the deacon) make the historical accounts a little muddled. Some traditions say that the disciple converted the wife of an official in Greece, who then had Philip killed.  


All of the sources agree that Bartholomew’s death came as a result of his ministry, though the exact place and method isn’t always agreed upon. It seems that he was brutally whipped before being executed by either crucifixion or beheading.  

James the Less 

Another example of a name given to multiple church leaders, including James the brother of Jesus. Some traditions say that James was thrown from the top of the temple and then beaten with clubs, others say he was stoned. It’s not fully clear which of the James’ endured which death.  

Simon the Zealot 

Multiple accounts of Simon’s death exist, ranging from a few hundred to over a thousand years after he lived, so their credibility is questionable. Some accounts claim he was killed as far east as Spain, others that he died in Syria.  


Like many other disciples, Jude is generally said to have been killed while preaching in a different land, usually said to be Persia. In art, Jude is often shown with an axe, considered to have been the method of his execution. 

Why does this matter? 

Some of these traditions are more credible than others, but the fact that most of these apostles were supposedly killed while spreading the message of Christ shows how the early church felt about persecution. When faced with their death, these disciples must have remembered what Jesus said about persecution, and taken courage from the fact that “I have conquered the world.” And as a result of their faithful spreading of Christ’s message, the Gospel was taken to the ends of the earth. 

Today, that persecution continues. In addition to some believers being killed for their faith, many others suffer imprisonment, loss of community, family rejection, and more. In Canada, we are called to pray for our brothers and sisters who are persecuted; but we do not pray that persecution will end. Jesus certainly expected his followers to suffer for their faith. But we can pray for is that the hope of Christ’s victory over the world will be expressed through the lives – and deaths – of our persecuted family in the same way that it was in the early days of the church.  


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