" Christians bandy this argument about so much that many will no doubt think it strange that anyone would question that the apostles died as martyrs, but the truth is that the evidence of widespread martyrdom in the early church is very weak. The claim assumes the historical accuracy of the New Testament, which makes some scattered references to persecutions of early Christians (Acts 8:1; 11:19; 13:50; 2 Thess. 1:4), but if the accuracy of the New Testament is to be assumed, then it would be pointless to debate any of the major apologetic claims, because the New Testament does claim that Jesus was born of a virgin, that he worked many miracles, that he was resurrected from the dead, that he ascended into heaven, etc. Outside of the New Testament, however, evidence of wholesale persecutions of early Christians is primarily a tradition that has been foisted on an unsuspecting Christian public. In his debate with Celsum, Origen, as late as A. D. 240-250, said that the number of Christian martyrs was "few" and "easily numbered":
For in order to remind others, that by seeing a few engaged in a struggle for their religion, they also might be better fitted to despise death, some, on special occasions, and these individuals who can be easily numbered, have endured death for the sake of Christianity (Contra Celsum, Book 3, Chapter 8, emphasis added).
In The Search for the Twelve Apostles, Dr. William Steuart McBirnie examined the maze of traditions about the fate of the apostles, and although he seemed to retain his belief that the apostles were real historical characters who had suffered persecution and often martyrdom, he admitted that the traditions were sometimes so inconsistent and contradictory that it cannot now be determined how all of the apostles died. He referred to Tertullian's claim that the apostle John was tortured and "boiled in oil but was delivered miraculously," and then admitted that "(t)his story does not seem to have much foundation in historical fact," even though tradition says that the Church of San Giovanni "has been built on the spot in Rome" in honor of the apostle's escape (Tyndale House, 1977, pp. 116-117). McBirnie concluded that the best traditional evidence indicates that John died in Ephesus of old age. If this is so, John would not have been an example of an apostle who died for what he knew was right.
McBirnie had no better luck in trying to determine the fate of other apostles. He found Matthew to be an especially confusing case. Various traditions had Matthew preaching in places as far flung as Ethiopia, Persia, Parthia, Isidore, and Macedonia (p. 176). The traditions relate preposterous accounts of attempts that were made to kill him, which he, like John, miraculously escaped from. In one tradition, a jealous king tried to have Matthew burned alive, but the flames flew out, took the form of a dragon, and curled around the king. McBirnie concluded that "(t)here are too many stories of Matthew's death to be certain just where he died" (p. 182), but even though he had earlier cited Heracleon and Clement of Alexandria (The Miscellanies, 4, 9), who had both said that Matthew died a natural death (pp. 175-176), McBirnie would not give up so easily on his desire to find martyred apostles. "It is perhaps possible that Matthew was martyred in Egypt upon his return from Ethiopia in Africa," he said, "but this conclusion is not certain" (p. 182, emphasis added).
Uncertainty was what McBirnie seemed to find everywhere in his research. He found traditions that said Bartholomew was "flayed alive and crucified in agony" in India after banishing a demon from the idol of a king (p. 135). He found other traditions that said Bartholomew was martyred in Armenia. To reconcile the conflicting traditions, he cited Edgar Goodspeed, who had suggested that "India" was a "term very loosely used by the ancients" (p. 133).
McBirnie's search for the fate of the other apostles uncovered traditions that were just as inconsistent and uncertain as those noted above. He claimed that his research took him three times to the island of Patmos (where John allegedly wrote Revelation) and to the locations of the seven churches of Asia cited in Revelation (p.7). He traveled to Germany, Rome, Greece, Lebanon, and "almost every Middle Eastern country." The other locations he visited and libraries and archives he claimed to have used are too numerous to list here, but the results of his research were as noted above, i. e., too much inconsistency and contradiction to determine with certainty how and where the apostles died. "