What Ever Happened to the Apostles?

We have heard their names and have read their letters but have you ever wondered what happened to this band of simple, unschooled men who had been with Jesus? The New Testament tells us about two of the apostles. It speaks of Judas, the betrayer, being so remorseful that he committed suicide with a gruesome combination of hanging and falling (Matthew 27:3-6; Acts 1:15-20). And it tells of James the son of Zebedee, who was executed by Herod about 44 AD (Acts 12:2). Except for the fact that Josephus mentions the other James (the son of Alpheus), we do not have definitive, primary source historical material confirming how the other Apostles died. However, we do have church tradition which offers some pretty interesting stories.

There is strong tradition to suggest that Peter and Paul were both martyred in Rome under Nero’s persecution somewhere around 66 to 68 A.D. Paul, the Roman citizen, was beheaded while Peter was crucified. Tradition tells us that Peter did not feel worthy to die the same death as his Savior, so the Romans obliged by crucifying him upside-down (the symbol of keys and an upside-down cross have long been connected with Peter).


It is said that Andrew went to the country we now know as Russia. Christians there claim that he is the one who brought the gospel to them. Andrew was also said to have preached in Asia Minor, Turkey and Greece. It was in Greece where he was crucified on an “X” shaped cross for his message and faith.


While most active in Syria, tradition has Thomas taking the gospel to India. Today the ancient Marthoma Christians claim him as their founder. It is said that he died there, being run through either by one spear or the spears of four soldiers.


Matthias and James son of Alpheus are both thought to have gone to Syria where Matthias was burned to death and, according to Josephus, James was stoned and then finished off with a club to the head (other tradition adds that his body was then sawn into pieces). James’ brother, Thaddaeus (also known as Jude), is the disciple we know least about. It is said he was killed with arrows.  


Simon the Zealot has two stories. One says he went to Persia and was executed when he refused to worship the sun god. Another story has him traveling to the west coast of Africa and then up to England where he was crucified.


Bartholomew (Also known as Nathanael) traveled to India where he translated the Gospel of Matthew. One story says he was beaten and crucified by “impatient idolaters” while another says he was skinned alive and beheaded.


The former tax collector, Matthew, is said to have traveled to Persia and Ethiopia. Some of the oldest stories say he was not martyred while another says he was stabbed in the back by a swordsman sent by the Ethiopian king after he criticized the king’s morals.


It is reported that Philip had a powerful ministry in North Africa. Later, in Egypt (or possibly Asia Minor), out of anger for his wife’s conversion, a Roman proconsul arrested Philip and put him to death through scourging and crucifixion.


Finally, there is the man whose letters we currently read, the Apostle John. You can almost feel his age as he writes to his “dear children” and keeps his comments brief. John is the only apostle who is universally thought to have died a natural death from old age. He was a leader in the Ephesian church and was said to have brought Jesus’ mother, Mary, into his own home. In the middle 90’s, during Domitian’s persecution, he was exiled to the island of Patmos. It is believed that it was while he was on this island that he received the revelation that is contained in the last book of the Bible.


There is no way for us to confirm the veracity of these stories. Even so, while we don’t know how accurate these stories are, we can clearly see that they speak the same message and that this singular message is most probably true. Jesus’ apostles were faithful to the end and would not change their belief in His teaching or resurrection even when faced with angry mobs and their own gruesome deaths.


As it is today, so it was back then. If even one of these famous men has recanted by denying the message of Jesus or His resurrection that recantation would have splashed onto human history in a way that could not have been hidden. The fact is, not one of them ever did. Jesus did come. He did perform many astounding miracles as evidence of who He is. He did touch and change lives in profound ways. He did speak of the Kingdom of God breaking into our world. He did die a substitutionary, sacrificial death on our behalf, rising in power, ascending in victory and one day returning in glory. They saw and they believed to the very end of their lives. Jesus’ words to Thomas are powerful to us here. “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet believed” (John 20:29). Jesus had many people in mind when He spoke these words, many people, including you and me!


Even though we have not seen, we believe. Thanks for all you do to reinforce the truth of Christ’s life by helping me see His life in and through you. While we may not see Him directly, we see Him—be it every so dimly at times—through each other in the Body of Christ, the Household of God…and this is enough.


Believing with you until He returns or calls us home.