Was one of Jesus’ apostles really crucified upside down? Which apostle gave his name to a type of cross? Why does that cross appear on the flag of a great nation today? How many of the apostles became martyrs? Did any of them die natural deaths? The answers to questions such as these add little to our understanding of the gospel, but they do intrigue us.
Actually, we know little about most of the apostles, even the months they walked with Jesus. The New Testament gives scarcely more than the names of some of them; of others, only scanty bits of information. Almost all of our knowledge of them comes from the four Gospels. In Acts and the rest of the New Testament, even the most prominent apostles receive little notice.
But each apostle, in his own way, did the work Jesus commissioned the group to do. Tradition says that soon after the resurrection and ascension, realizing that their Master had commanded them to go into all the world to proclaim His gospel, the apostles divided the areas of earth among themselves, assigning to each a place of responsibility.
Whether for this reason or another, each went his way. Yet not one of the twelve was accom- panied by a scribe or recorder. No history of their lives and journeys exists. Paul, the “extra apostle,” stands alone in that regard. Our knowledge of the twelve depends on legend or tradition. Sometimes, but not often, these traditions may be supported by meager scraps of historical evidence.
Andrew and Peter
Andrew was the first avowed follower of Christ. Convinced by the testimony of John the Baptist—and by his own sight of Jesus—he believed, then brought his brother, Simon, to share his discovery. The brothers became followers; later the Master made them apostles.
Upon the division of labors, Andrew’s lot fell to Scythia. To this country north of the Black Sea and east of the River Danube he carried the good news, even as he had taken it to his brother. Since, according to this tradition, he brought the gospel to the Muscovites, the Russian church honors him as its patron saint. Tradition also takes him to other lands: Cappadocia, Bithynia, Galatia, Byzantium, and Achaia. In the last of these—a province of Greece—he suf- fered martyrdom.
Here, in the town of Patras, according to the story, he led Maximilla, the wife of the gover- nor, Aegeas, to proclaim herself a Christian. Her conversion so enraged Aegeas that he decreed the death of the apostle. In due time Andrew was crucified, by his request on an X-shaped cross. He felt himself unworthy to die on the same kind of cross that bore his Master.
“Hail, precious cross,” he sang as he was brought near. “Thou has been consecrated by the body of my Lord. ... Take me up from among men and present me to my Master, that He who redeemed me on thee may receive me by thee.” The apostle was beaten and secured to the cross—not by nails but by cords so that his suffering might be longer and more intense. From that time on, the X-shaped cross has been known as Saint Andrew’s cross.
Later Saint Andrew’s cross became a symbol of Scotland. Legend affirms that in A.D. 337 the emperor Constantius brought Andrew’s coffin to Constantinople and that in the eighth cen- tury a monk named Regulus, at an angel’s direction, took it to the United Kingdom. He final- ly came to the place where Saint Andrews, Scotland, now stands. Soon thereafter a gorgeous transverse cross brilliantly lit up the sky. The sign was followed by an outstanding victory of the Picts over their enemies, the English. Ever afterward the white Saint Andrew’s Cross on the blue of the sky has been the banner of Scotland.
The brother of Andrew, Simon Peter, heads all the lists of the apostles. With the account of the conversion of Cornelius, except for references in Paul’s epistles and the writing of his own epistles, he passed from the stage of recorded New Testament history. Legend subsequently connects him with three different places. The first of these is Antioch, where Peter is said to have been the first bishop of the church. There is no historical evidence for the claim. Indeed, the New Testament would have spoken of his presence if the story were true.
A legend that connects Peter with Asia Minor seems more likely. Peter’s first letter was addressed to the saints scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia and closes with a greeting from the church at Babylon. But was this letter written from the ancient city of Babylon? Many descendants of Jews once exiled there still remained. In fact, Judaism’s purest orthodoxy of the time may well have been found in Mesopotamia. A man like Peter would have naturally moved to such a center. But Eusebius, an early church historian, muddled the picture when he claimed that by Babylon Peter meant Rome. Most New Testament students seem to agree with Eusebius.
The unanimous tradition of early Christians is that Peter was in Rome, arriving there proba- bly about A.D. 61. As in the case of his brother, Andrew, Peter’s death was determined when several persons close to the center of government became Christians. Among these were four concubines of Agrippa, the prefect, and Xanthippe, the wife of Abinus, a favorite of the emperor.
After the anger against the apostles became intense, so a story goes, Peter’s friends urged him to flee Rome for his life. On his way out of the city, tradition claims that he met the Lord. “Quo [Whither goes thou, Lord]?” Peter asked. “I go into Rome to be crucified,” Jesus answered. “Crucified again?” Peter asked. Suddenly he knew the answer; his Master went into the city to bear the cross from which he himself fled. The apostle turned back to his martyrdom.
When the moment of his own crucifixion came, the apostle, acknowledging himself unworthy to die as the Lord had, asked to be crucified head downward. In this manner he met his death.
James and John, the Sons of Zebedee
The second pair of apostles are also two brothers: James and John, the sons of Zebedee. The New Testament mentions James alone only one time—in the account of his martyrdom: “Now about that time Herod the king laid hands on some who belonged to the church, in order to mis- treat them. And he had James the brother of John put to death with a sword” (Acts 12:1-2).
This execution occurred about 12 years after James had spent the last night of the Master’s life with Him in the garden of Gethsemane. During this 12-year period the apostle shared with Peter the leadership of the Jerusalem church. No reason for James’s arrest and death appears except that Herod Agrippa I, the Herod of the New Testament account, wanted to gain favor with the Jews.
Clement of Alexandria, a second-century writer, related a story of James’s death. The soldier who led James to the judgment seat was so impressed with the apostle’s bearing and Christian testimony that he confessed Christ for himself. The two were led away together. “Peace be with thee,” James said to him, and they were beheaded at the same time.
A legend says that James had preached in Spain before his execution and that after his death two followers, Hermogenes and Philetus, bore his body to that country. Many believe his body is still at Compostella. The name is a corruption of the Latin phrase At sanctum Jacobus Apostolom or the Spanish phrase Giacomo Postulo—James the apostle.
John, tradition says, was faithful to the trust that Jesus imposed on him: to care for Mary, the Master’s mother. He stayed in Jerusalem and cared for her until her death. Thereafter, so a story goes, he made his way to Rome, where he was thrown into a cauldron of boiling oil, only to escape miraculously.
The universal tradition is that John was banished to Patmos during the reign of Emperor Domitian; then after being released, he made his way to Ephesus. Here he spent his remain- ing days, growing to be a very old man. Many stories are told of this period of his life. When he could only with difficulty be carried to the church in the arms of his disciples or in a chair borne by his disciples, he was unable to utter more than a few words. “My little children, love one another,” he would say. In the end the apostle Jesus once called a son of thunder best remem- bered the Lord’s command of love. Even in his death he was not dead, the legend claims: the ground could be seen rising and falling about the place where he was buried.
Philip and Bartholomew
The third set of pairs in the group of apostles was Philip and Bartholomew. Philip, like Andrew, had a Greek name. He is not to be confused with Philip the deacon, who led the Ethiopian to faith, nor with the Philip of Caesarea, whose four daughters had the gift of prophecy. His brother, Bartholomew, whose name means son of Talmai, seems to be the Nathan mentioned in the fourth Gospel. His name then would be Nathanael Bartholomew or Nathan, son of Talmai.
Many legends exist about Philip, all of them fantastic works of the imagination. Legends take him to many places—Lydia, Asia, Parthia, and Gaul—but are almost unanimous that he became one of the great lights of Asia. Eusebius says he was martyred at Hierapolis. A legend about his martyrdom says that Philip was stripped, pierced in the ankles and thighs, and hung head downward. As he died, he requested that his body be wrapped not in linen but in papyrus, for he was not worthy that even his dead body should be treated as the body of Jesus was. No basis in fact seems to exist for this legend of his death, except that he likely suffered martyrdom.
The New Testament speaks of Bartholomew only as a name in the list of the apostles. Nor does his name occur anywhere among the early apostolic fathers or Christian apologists. Eusebius says that a certain Pantenus in the second century, on his mission to India, found a Hebrew (Aramaic) Gospel of Matthew left there by the apostle Bartholomew. At the time India was a term that described the region of the Bosporus, so Bartholomew may have preached there. Indeed, the Armenians hold that the gospel came to their country by Bartholomew and Thaddaeus. Simon the Zealot, Andrew, and Matthias are also reported to have shared the Armenian mission. One legend holds that Bartholomew was flayed alive with sharp knives.
Thomas and Matthew
This is the order in which the Gospel of Matthew names the fourth pair of apostles. Eusebius tells us that when the apostles partitioned their different spheres, Thomas was allotted Parthia, an independent kingdom that stretched from the Indus to the Tigris and from the Persian Gulf to the Caspian Sea. The Parthians were a stubbornly independent race whom even the Romans respected, if not feared, and a steady tradition says that Thomas preached among them.
Another stream of tradition places Thomas in India, where the Malabar Christians today count him as their first evangelist and martyr. When Vasco de Gama and his Portuguese explor- ers arrived in India in 1500, they found the Christian church already flourishing. Legend says Thomas reached so many people that the Brahmins became jealous and thrust him through with a lance. His body was later brought to Edessa, where it lay in the memorial church that bore his name. Scholarly opinion holds that the Thomas who went to India was not the apos- tle but a different Thomas, a Nestorian missionary. The most likely truth is that the apostle Thomas labored in the vicinity of Edessa.
Matthew may have escaped martyrdom. The stories of his life differ; the legends are so fantastic as to have no solid basis in fact, and to complicate matters, legend and tradition confuse Matthew and Matthias (see Acts 1:26).
In the traditional assignment of spheres of labor, Matthew received Ethiopia. Yet he is also connected by various early writers with Persia, Parthia, and Macedonia.
Even the accounts of Matthew’s death vary. Clement of Alexandria said he died a natural death. One tradition says the Sanhedrin condemned him to death. Other accounts also make him a martyr. The truth is that we did not know clearly where the work of the gospel carried Matthew, nor can we know. We do know, however, that he wrote a Gospel and that he gave his life for the glory of Jesus Christ.
James, the Son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus
James, the son of Alphaeus, is the apostle about whom we know the least. He was a brother of Matthew, probably a Jewish nationalist of the most fiery type who, along with three other apostles, was a Zealot. The other three who made up this group were Thaddaeus, also called Lebbaeus, who was surnamed Judas the Zealot; Simon the Zealot; and Judas Iscariot. No solid tradition tells us of James’s work after the New Testament period or of his death. A nebulous tradition says that his body was sawed into pieces.
In Armenian tradition Thaddaeus is credited with having brought the gospel to Armenia. In another tradition he appears as a special messenger of Christ to Edessa, a city of the upper Mesopotamian valley. During Jesus’ lifetime, Abgaras, the ruler of the city, heard of the Master and professed faith in Him. Through a letter he besought the Master to come to Edessa. According to legend, Jesus sent word that He was unable to come but, after His suffering, would send a special emissary. The Lord sent Thaddaeus to Abgaras. It is a beautiful story.
Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot
Paired with Judas Iscariot in the list of the twelve was Simon the Canaanite or Zealot. Both of these men were of the party made up of persons altogether unreconciled to the presence of Romans in the holy land. They were militant in their devotion to the messianic hope. For one of them, Judas Iscariot, his political aspirations for Judah as the place of greatest importance took precedence over all else; finally, he betrayed his Master. The other, Simon the Zealot, gave Jesus a place far above political hopes. Old Armenian tradition places him as one of those who brought the gospel to Armenia.
Matthias, chosen to fill the place vacated by Judas, was the last of the apostles. Tradition says he preached the gospel in Judea and suffered martyrdom at the hands of the Jews, either by the lance or the ax.
Legends? Traditions unfounded on fact? Not at all. Even the stories almost too fantastic even for fiction share one great truth: these men loved Jesus enough to live for Him with courage, bearing their witness, and to die for Him with joy if they must, making their martyrdom a testimony. Either way, Christ was their Lord. Some were well known; others were little known. But all of them were faithful.
Source: Eugene Skelton, “The Apostles: What Happened to Them?” Biblical Illustrator, Winter 1976, 28-35