The Argument from Martyrdom: A Response to Rabbi Tovia Singer

Rabbi Tovia Singer is an orthodox Jewish rabbi and the founder and director of Outreach Judaism. He is widely known for his counter-missionary polemics and his criticism of the New Testament presentation of Jesus as the Hebrew Messiah (see his two volume set, Let’s Get Biblical: Why doesn’t Judaism accept the Christian Messiah? [1]). In a video published this week, provocatively titled “Why Would Paul Willingly Die for His Belief? Another Church Lie!”, Rabbi Singer makes a number of bizarre claims. One such statement is that “the notion that Paul was beheaded by Rome is complete nonsense. It’s an invention of the church, and it’s mentioned nowhere in the Christian Bible.” Singer notes further that “the book of Acts — which is devoted to Paul — ends with Paul being freed from prison.” Singer gives a date for Acts, which he claims is very conservative, of 85 A.D., and remarks at how surprising it is that the author of Acts did not think it worthy of mention that Paul had suffered a violent death at the hands of the emperor Nero. There is so much wrong with this argument that one barely knows where to begin. First, a date of 85 A.D. for Acts is hardly “very conservative.” Indeed, the most common scholarly view as to the dating of Acts places it between 70 and 85 A.D., with a date in the 60’s A.D. being perhaps the second most popular. Second, the most popular argument for dating Acts to the early 60’s is precisely because Acts ends on a cliffhanger, with Paul being placed under house arrest, and makes no mention of his trial or execution. This, according to many scholars, is strong grounds on which to date Acts prior to Paul’s death. This argument is admittedly not conclusive. For example, Craig Keener (who inclines towards a date in the 80’s) notes [2],

An argument from the abrupt ending in Acts need not mean that Luke knew no more about Paul, any more than Mark’s abrupt ending (Mark 16:8) means that Mark knew no more about Jesus’s resurrection appearances (cf. 1 Cor 15:5–8). Some ancient writers criticized historians who ended their accounts prematurely, but these very criticisms confirm that the practice was known. No less renowned a historian than Thucydides, who lived to see the conclusion of the twenty-seven-year Peloponnesian War, ends his account of the war five years before its conclusion. Valerius Maximus ends his work abruptly with no genuine conclusion (Val. Max. 9.15.ext. 2). Herodian ends his history suddenly at the accession of Gordian III (Hist. 8.8.8), but he does not leave off at this point simply because he is writing then; what he writes he would not have dared write until after Gordian’s fall. Second Maccabees, though written after 1 Maccabees, both starts and ends at a period earlier than 1 Maccabees (and ends on a happy note); clearly, it did not bring events up to its author’s day. 

For this reason, one should be cautious about placing too much weight on this argument, since it is an argument from silence, though I would argue that it is a stronger argument from silence than many of its cousins. Luke spends an entire eight chapters discussing Paul’s legal challenges — and his ending, as it stands, leaves these challenges unresolved. As Jonathan Bernier explains, “Either Acts was completed ca. 62, when the Acts narrative ends with Paul in Rome, or Luke’s aims in these last chapters remain opaque.” [3] There is, furthermore, other evidence that is suggestive of a pre-70 date for Acts. These include the sparing use of the noun Χριστιανόι; the use of μάρτυς in the literal sense of “witness” rather than in the modern sense of “martyr”; the use of “Simon” (Σίμων) for Peter; and the comparatively primitive use of the term ἐκκλησία. Though these arguments are also not entirely conclusive, they do cumulatively point to an earlier rather than a later date. Given that a pre-70 date of Acts is at least plausible (if not probable), Singer’s argument against Paul having died as a martyr collapses. Even if we humor Singer and suppose a date of 85 A.D., however, the plethora of counter-examples cited by Keener above significantly undermine his argument.

Singer claims that “This stuff is all made up. It’s not in the New Testament.” Singer complains that neither Peter’s nor Paul’s death is spoken of in the New Testament. But why should we limit ourselves to the New Testament? The earliest reference to Paul’s martyrdom is Clement of Rome’s epistle to the Corinthian church (known as 1 Clement, composed most likely around 96 A.D.). According to 1 Clement 5, “Paul also obtained the reward of patient endurance, after being seven times thrown into captivity, compelled to flee, and stoned. After preaching both in the east and west, he gained the illustrious reputation due to his faith, having taught righteousness to the whole world, and come to the extreme limit of the west, and suffered martyrdom under the prefects. Thus was he removed from the world, and went into the holy place, having proved himself a striking example of patience.” [4] Ignatius of Antioch, writing at the beginning of the second century, also writes in Ephesians, “Ye are initiated into the mysteries of the Gospel with Paul, the holy, the martyred, the deservedly most happy, at whose feet may I be found, when I shall attain to God; who in all his Epistles makes mention of you in Christ Jesus.” [5]  Clement also makes reference to the martyrdom of Peter: “Peter, through unrighteous envy, endured not one or two, but numerous labors; and when he had at length suffered martyrdom, departed to the place of glory due to him,” (1 Clement 5). [6]

Clement and Ignatius were both very probably connected personally with the apostles. Indeed, Irenaeus says of Clement, “This man, as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes. Nor was he alone [in this], for there were many still remaining who had received instructions from the apostles,” (Against Heresies 3.3.3). [7] It is quite plausible that the Clement mentioned by Paul in Philippians 4:3 is this same Clement, since Paul was at this time in Rome (where Clement would later become bishop). Ignatius, by virtue of being a companion of Polycarp — who was instructed by the apostles according to Irenaeus (Against Heresies 3.3.4) — was also very plausibly in a position to know of Paul’s fate. Clement and Ignatius are certainly much closer up to the facts than we are today.

Singer is also not quite correct that the New Testament has nothing to say about Peter’s and Paul’s martyrdom. In the case of Peter, John 21:18-19 tells us the words of Jesus to Peter following Jesus’ resurrection: “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.)” Given the authorial explanation “This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God” is strongly indicative of martyrdom. If the scholarly consensus is correct (as seems plausible to me) that John’s gospel was composed between 90 and 95 A.D., then it seems likely that the readers of John are intended to recognize this prophecy as having been fulfilled in Peter’s martyrdom. There is another brief reference in 2 Peter 1:14-15: “…since I know that the putting off of my body will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ made clear to me. And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things.” If Peter wrote this letter, it certainly looks like he was in prison awaiting his execution. If one maintains that Peter did not write this epistle, it may nonetheless be viewed as an early testimony to Peter’s martyrdom. Paul also appears to be anticipating his impending martyrdom in 2 Timothy 4:6-8: “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.” I will not reprise here the numerous evidences that the pastoral epistles were composed by Paul, but I take this to be very firmly established (as I discuss in detail here).

Tovia Singer maintains that the claim of Paul and Peter having been martyred is a Roman Catholic tradition and that Protestants are being inconsistent in giving lip service to Sola Scriptura and yet utilizing church tradition when convenient. This, however, is a gross misunderstanding of Sola Scriptura. The reformed doctrine of Sola Scriptura asserts that the Scriptures are the sole rule of faith. This does not deny that other historical sources may be of historical value in illuminating and clarifying Scripture, or in, as in the present case, supplying additional information about church history.

Singer concludes his video with the most bizarre argument of all. He claims that Christians frequently assert that the persecution and suffering of the Jewish people across the ages demonstrates God’s judgment against them for rejecting Jesus. I have never, in all my twenty-seven years of being a Christian, encountered this argument, nor is it a sound one. Singer charges Christians with employing double standards. He asks, “Why is it that the death and suffering of Christian followers of Jesus demonstrates the truthfulness of the cause, but the death and suffering of Jews at the hands of Christians…demonstrates the wrongfulness of Judaism. I rest my case.” This is to fundamentally misunderstand the argument under review. The argument emphatically is not that the willingness of Christians — even early Christians — to die for their belief proves the veracity of their religion. Rather, it is specifically the willingness to die of those who were purportedly eyewitnesses of Jesus’ resurrection that provides evidence confirming their sincerity — since multi-party conspiracies, when life or liberty are at stake, invariably break down. This in itself would not necessarily justify belief in the resurrection, since the willingness of anyone to die for a belief or cause only demonstrates their probable sincerity. For this reason, such argumentation must be coupled with additional evidence to show that those individuals were not plausibly honestly mistaken in their belief. What makes the comparison to Jewish martyrs disanalogous is that these Christian martyrs were in a unique position to know whether what they were saying is true or not, since they claimed to have been witnesses to the event itself (rather than it being handed down to them through tradition).

It is also worth noting that the argument does not rest particularly upon the contention that the apostles were martyred for their faith per se. Of the original eleven disciples, I am confident in the martyrdom of Peter and James the son of Zebedee, but we know little if anything about what became of the other nine. Outside of the twelve, I am confident about the martyrdom of Paul and James the brother of Jesus. What we can say, however, with tremendous confidence, is that persecution against Christians seems to go back quite early, since the earliest church endured persecution by the Jews first, according to the book of Acts as well as Paul’s own testimony. Paul testifies that he himself persecuted the early Christians, imprisoning them and putting them to death (1 Cor 15:9; Gal 1:23; Phil 3:6). Paul also gives us his own eyewitness testimony of persecution by Jews against himself following his conversion (2 Cor 11:16-33; 2 Tim 3:10-11). The book of Acts itself speaks of the intense persecution endured by the early Christians, including the martyrdom of James the son of Zebedee (Acts 12:2), the imprisonment of Peter (Acts 12:3-5), the beating of Peter and John (Acts 5:40), and the many sufferings of the apostle Paul for the name of Christ. What we can therefore say with confidence is that, as William Paley puts it so eloquently, the “apostles passed their lives in labors, dangers, and sufferings, voluntarily undergone in attestation of the accounts which they delivered, and solely in consequence of their belief of those accounts; and that they also submitted, from the same motives, to new rules of conduct.” [8] Since this fact is more probable on the hypothesis that the apostles were sincere than on the falsehood of that hypothesis, it may be taken as evidence confirming the sincerity of the apostles in their proclamation to have encountered the risen Christ. This more modest expression of the argument is more defensible than the claim that all of the disciples, save for John the son of Zebedee, died as martyrs, and it is assuredly evidence that favors the contention that the apostles sincerely believed that they had had an encounter with the risen Christ — a premise that is epistemically relevant to the case for Jesus’ resurrection.

In summary, Tovia Singer is very much mistaken in his assessment that the martyrdoms of Peter & Paul is a later church invention, and seems to be ill-acquainted with Christian argument from martyrdom, and what it purports to establish.


1. Tovia Singer, Let’s Get Biblical! Why Doesn’t Judaism Accept the Christian Messiah? Volume 1 (RMBN Publishers, 2014).

2. Craig S. Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary & 2: Introduction and 1:1–14:28, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012–2013), 385.

3. Jonathan Bernier, Rethinking the Dates of the New Testament: The Evidence for Early Composition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic: A Division of Baker Publishing Group, 2022), 62.

4. Clement of Rome, “The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 6.

5. Ignatius of Antioch, “The Epistle of Ignatius to the Ephesians,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 55.

6. Clement of Rome, “The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 6.

7. Irenaeus of Lyons, “Irenæus against Heresies,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 416.

8. William Paley, A View of the Evidences of Christianity: Volume 1, Reissue Edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 15.

1 thought on “The Argument from Martyrdom: A Response to Rabbi Tovia Singer”

  1. Daniel Ethan Popoca-Logue

    Singer seems like more and more of a complete joke with each new argument of his that I come across.

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