Can we trust Eusebius' evaluation of extra-biblical documents?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

Question: How do we know how Jesus' disciples died? The reason I ask is this. I had an atheist tell me that the Christian claim that Jesus' disciples all gave their lives for their belief in the resurrected Christ comes from the writings of Eusebius who lived nearly 300 years after Christ and is likely, not true. Is this claim true? If so, what does that do to our belief in the resurrection?

Answer: I am grateful for your question since it gives me an opportunity to talk about what is or what is not God’s word. Also, we shall address the relative importance of people like Eusebius, the early church fathers and the ecclesiastical/historical documents from their era.

In the entire history of the world, there are only two categories of documents: Scripture and other documents. Before Jesus came, Scripture was limited to the 39 books of the Old Testament, but at the end of the apostolic period, it grew by the 27 books that we call the New Testament, and together they form the Bible. We call these 66 books the biblical canon — canon meaning “measuring stick.” And this is critical. Only these books have been measured and have proved themselves to be authoritative, that is, representative of the very documents that were penned by God's agents who wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The process was protected by God himself, so we have in our hands the very writings that God wants us to have! No documents outside of the Bible have this same guarantee of truth.

A quick look at Eusebius’ dates (~260-340 AD) tells us that nothing that he wrote falls under God’s explicit protection, because he wrote beyond the apostolic period. This does not mean that everything he wrote was untrue. In fact, we know that to be quite the opposite. All this means is that he (and all others except the biblical writers) could indeed make mistakes in their documents — and they often did! The principal is this: Eusebius wrote about truly biblical characters in an extra-biblical frame, and nothing extra-biblical qualifies for the protection of biblical inerrancy.

As to your question, since the resurrection is true as attested by the Scripture, then Eusebius’ rightness or wrongness about the apostle’s deaths is a non-issue. Therefore, an atheist’s observation (which may or may not be true in itself, by the way) about an extra-biblical document must be considered logically as “the fruit of the poisonous tree” since his assertion grows out of a non-admissible item. In this case, Eusebius is not “admissible” as a necessarily true person. Therefore, your atheist’s assertion should not even be considered. But even if we were to ignore this technical point, we would find his assertion to be non-tenable.

As to the apostles’ deaths, we only know for sure about Judas Iscariot and John’s brother James. Theirs were the only apostolic deaths to be mentioned in Scripture.

“And throwing down the pieces of silver into the temple, [Judas] departed, and he went and hanged himself.” (Matthew 27:5, ESV)

“About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword,” (Acts 12:1–2, ESV)

We also know for sure about the disciple, Stephen, whom we consider to be the first martyr of the Church.

“And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.”
(Acts 7:59–60, ESV)

Because these three accounts are in the Bible, we can consider them as true as the God who protects them. All the other accounts of the apostle’s deaths come from secular sources. These may or may not be true. What is critical for your question is that God is on the hook for the veracity of the three deaths mentioned in Scripture, but he is under no obligation to protect secular writings.

I take exception to your friend’s dismissal of Eusebius. He was a very important figure in the process of open academic discussion, which has “protected” Scripture on its passage to the printing press. I am not saying that all scholars have always loved and supported the Scripture — far from it! But even their attacks “protect” Scripture from being seen as a mere piece of propaganda, an isolated collection which was contrived and is thereby phony. Eusebius was indeed a friend of God’s and a friend of the Scripture. He was a man for his time — very near the Christ (~260 years), very near the early documents and very near other scholars.

Additionally, he was energetic toward the task of collecting the works of other people, and he was one of the most erudite men that we know of in his period. We can tell by his many writings that he read broadly and voraciously, and he was enabled thereby to make some connections that no one else could. My guess is that Eusebius could slap your atheist around (so to speak) if he were present to defend himself.

People like Eusebius and the early church fathers did not speak for God in the same way that the biblical authors did. That was not their job. Theirs was to assemble every possible document, to read, to analyze, to comment — and even to disagree! That is the academic process. All that notwithstanding, God’s word is as true today as when it was penned, but the process of discussion will (and should) continue until Christ returns — even though the process is fractious. So, when you hear an atheist wail over his non-god, it is good to remember that God had the first say. After all, he spoke the world into existence (Genesis 1:3). And he’ll have the last say because every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Philippians 2:11).

For more information about the traditions surrounding the apostles’ deaths, click here.

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