As we have seen, the available evidence does not support the idea that Jesus’ original followers subscribed to a miraculous physical resurrection. It suggests instead that their beliefs centred on the promises Jesus had made about returning from heaven as ‘the Son of Man’ to establish God’s Kingdom on Earth, which they would then rule with him.
Elements of this promise survive in the gospels as we have them, even if there are, in all four, obvious concessions to Paul’s Christ figure; the gospels were, after all, written after Paul’s version of Christianity had begun to take hold. Significantly, the promise of the triumphant appearance of the Son of Man ‘within this generation’ is present in Q, the source of many of the sayings common to both Matthew and Luke’s gospels that they didn’t get from Mark. It’s also there in the sources (L and M) peculiar to each of the gospels. Obviously L, M and Q pre-date the gospels that later made use of them. Scholars think Q could have been written as early as 40CE, a few years after Jesus’ death, with some sayings earlier than that. It pre-dates Paul too and reflects a tradition that has nothing to do with him or his convoluted theology.
Q, in fact, has no sayings attributed to the resurrected Jesus, nor anything from his trial, the crucifixion or resurrection.1 How can that be? Were they not important to the early believers who compiled it? The answer can only be, no, they weren’t. For the creators of Q what mattered was what Jesus said – his ethical teaching and his promise to return as the Son of Man, within his hearers’ lifetime, to inaugurate the Kingdom of God on Earth in which the disciples would reign alongside him (Matthew 19:28). To be part of this Kingdom, people had to become righteous, not have it gifted to them (Matthew 5.20 & 48). This was the ‘good news’ for Jesus’ earliest followers, the gospel as it is preserved in the Q source.2 The lie that the disciples were to rule the world with Jesus inspired them to spread the news of the coming Kingdom; they demonstrate little interest in a reanimated dead man or a magical salvation formula.
So, did the disciples die for their faith in the Risen Jesus? Highly unlikely. They don’t seem, despite the later stories in which they feature, to attach any importance, at least in Q, to visions of a resurrected god-man.
How did they die, then? The simple answer is that, for most of them, we don’t know. They could have met their end when the original church community in Jerusalem was annihilated by the Romans in 70CE. The Romans didn’t particularly care what a minority group of fanatics believed – they were rebellious Jews who needed to be taught a lesson.
If not slaughtered by Romans in their capture of Jerusalem, then perhaps the disciples died for their seditious belief in the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God, just as Jesus had before them. The Bible records the deaths of only two of them: Judas, who appears to have committed suicide using two different methods depending on which account you believe (Matthew 27:5-8 or Acts 1:18-19), and James, brother of John, who, according to Acts 12.1-2 was executed by Herod Agrippa 1. By the time Acts was written, however, somewhere between 80-90CE, the beliefs of the original followers had been swallowed up by Paul’s alternate version of the faith; we have no way of knowing how accurate the report of James’ death is. It’s hard to believe it was merely because he thought an old pal had risen from the dead. It is hard to believe this of any of them. For the other disciples there are only traditional accounts of how they died ‘for their faith’ with nothing to corroborate these legends.
It is quite possible Jesus’ original followers died for reasons unconnected with their outlandish beliefs in an imminent supernatural kingdom. They could just as easily have died of natural causes. One thing seems probable – they did not die because they believed in a resurrected Messiah. It’s not that they didn’t believe in a physical resurrection – they did – but they were convinced it would only happen with the arrival of God’s Kingdom on Earth, as prophesied in Daniel 12.1-4.
That it had already happened to their former leader did not figure in their beliefs, their writing or even their thinking.
1 Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus Before the Gospels, p279-280
2 ‘But for Q, Jesus was indeed principally remembered as a teacher of great wisdom and high moral demands, as an apocalyptic prophet anticipating the imminent end of the age, and one whose miraculous activities showed that the day of judgement was soon to come. For the author of Q, Jesus’ teachings provided the goal of the Christian life. Followers of Jesus are those who adhere to his directives for how to live, in anticipation of the coming kingdom of God.’ Bart. D. Ehrman, Jesus Before the Gospels, p280
Updated to include link to Matthew Ferguson’s celsus blog.