Christians have often wondered what happened to the Apostle Paul. Tradition has it that he was beheaded during the reign of the Emperor Nero between 64 and 68 A.D. But is this tradition reliable?
In this post we assess the early evidence for what happened to Paul.
1.) Paul in the New Testament
We have in the New Testament thirteen letters of the Apostle Paul. Down the centuries many, including Jerome and Augustine at the end of the fourth century, have believed that the anonymous Letter to the Hebrews was also written by Paul.
In addition, approximately half of the Acts of the Apostles is devoted to tracing the conversion and the subsequent missionary activities of Paul.
“The New Testament does not record anything about Paul’s death, and we are left to subsequent authorities to fill in the details.”
His letters in the New Testament cover a period from around A.D. 50 to just before his death, and in the very later of these we see him anticipating his departure from this life as an imminent event.
Notwithstanding, the New Testament does not record anything about Paul’s death, and we are left to subsequent authorities to fill in the details. Let us now assess their evidence.
2.) Clement of Rome (c. 97 A.D.)
“Clement of Rome was the bishop (or overseer) of the church in Rome towards the end of the first century A.D. He was known to the Apostle Paul, and is actually mentioned in the pages of Scripture.”
Clement of Rome was the bishop (or overseer) of the church in Rome towards the end of the first century A.D. He was known to the Apostle Paul, and is actually mentioned in the pages of Scripture.
We have one letter from him, known as 1 Clement, addressed to the church at Corinth and whose purpose is to urge an end to a schism which has occurred in that church. To this letter we may assign a date around A.D. 97, and therefore it may well be the earliest Christian writing we have outside the New Testament itself.
Clement’s letter gives us what I believe to be our earliest and most reliable confirmation of the deaths of both Peter and Paul as martyrs. In chapter 5 of 1 Clement he says,
But not to dwell upon ancient examples, let us come to the most recent spiritual heroes. Let us take the noble examples furnished in our own generation. Through envy and jealousy the greatest and most righteous pillars [of the church] have been persecuted and put to death. Let us set before our eyes the illustrious apostles. Peter, through unrighteous envy, endured not one or two, but numerous labours; and when he had at length suffered martyrdom, departed to the place of glory due to him. Owing to envy, 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.
Clement does not here give us any details of how Peter and Paul were martyred — presumably the details were well known to his readers — but does confirm for us that they were martyred. In Paul’s case he even gives the date: “under the prefects.”
“Clement does not here give us any details of how Peter and Paul were martyred — presumably the details were well known to his readers — but does confirm for us that they were martyred.”
This phrase has been variously interpreted, but the likeliest explanation is that Clement is referring to the prefects Tigellinus and Sabinus during the last year of the reign of Nero (A.D. 68).
This letter is no fanciful hagiography, intended to exalt the status of the Apostles Peter and Paul in the eyes of believers. It is a plain exhortation from one church (Rome) to another (Corinth) urging an end to a particular crisis. It is therefore certain that what Clement writes here is genuine.
3.) Ignatius of Antioch (died probably A.D. 107)
We have in our possession seven genuine letters of Ignatius, the bishop of the church at Antioch in the early part of the second century. Ignatius was himself martyred: condemned as a Christian and was taken in chains to Rome, he died facing wild beasts in the arena, probably in A.D. 107. It is likely he knew the Apostle John personally, and may have been converted by him.
In his Letter to the Ephesians, Ignatius, like Clement, mentions the martyrdom of Paul:—
I know both who I am, and to whom I write. I am a condemned man; you have been the objects of mercy. I am subject to danger; you are established in safety. You are the persons through whom those pass that are cut off for the sake of God. You 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 letters makes mention of you in Christ Jesus.
Ignatius, Letter to the Ephesians, chapter XII
“You are initiated into the mysteries of the gospel with Paul, the holy, the martyred, the deservedly most happy!”
Ignatius, Letter to the Ephesians
Again, it hardly needs to be said that — if we accept that this letter is genuine — Ignatius gives us a reliable testimony to the martyrdom of Paul. If he were making things up, his readers in Ephesus could easily have refuted him!
Since Ignatius died probably in A.D. 107 — at the latest, in A.D. 116 — that is, only ten or twenty years after 1 Clement; and since he wrote his seven letters during his journey to Rome from Antioch, we may also cautiously regard this as an independent attestation of Paul’s martyrdom. His witness therefore adds further weight to the earlier testimony of Clement.
4.) Dionysius of Corinth (c. 171 A.D.)
We have in our possession fragments of a letter from Dionysius, bishop of Corinth, to the church at Rome, dated around A.D. 171. These fragments are preserved in the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius.
In Fragment #3 of this letter he writes to the church at Rome:—
Therefore you also have by such admonition joined in close union the churches that were planted by Peter and Paul, that of the Romans and that of the Corinthians: for both of them went to our Corinth, and taught us in the same way as they taught you when they went to Italy; and having taught you, they suffered martyrdom at the same time.
Dionysius here furnishes us with a number of interesting details:—
That both Peter and Paul were martyred having taught the church at Rome.
They were apparently martyred soon after having taught at Rome (i.e., at Rome?).
They were both martyred “at the same time.”
“None of these witnesses have yet informed us how Paul was martyred; indeed their silence on the subject actually strengthens the credibility of the tradition that he was martyred.”
This tradition about Peter is, of course, the basis of the claim of the Roman church to be in direct apostolic succession to St. Peter himself.
However we interpret exactly Dionysius’ statement above — for example, what interval constitutes “at the same time”? — a number of things are clear:
By 171 A.D. it was a well-established tradition that both Peter and Paul were martyred, and — seemingly — at Rome.
At the very least, Dionysius’ statement may at least be relied upon as accurately representing this tradition. For if he were inventing then he could easily have been refuted, either by the Roman or the Corinthian church, or by others.
None of these witnesses have yet informed us how Paul was martyred; indeed their silence on the subject actually strengthens the credibility of the tradition that he was martyred: since it was a well-known fact, there was no need for them to elaborate on the details.
However, we now come to a work of a quite different character.
5.) The Acts of Paul (c. 160 A.D.)
The Acts of Paul is an apocryphal work written around A.D. 160. It is the first surviving text to make the claim that Paul was beheaded under the Emperor Nero:—
Then Paul stood with his face to the east and lifted up his hands to heaven and prayed a long time, and in his prayer he conversed in the Hebrew tongue with the fathers, and then stretched forth his neck without speaking. And when the executioner struck off his head, milk spurted upon the cloak of the soldier. And the soldier and all that were there present when they saw it marvelled and glorified God which had given such glory to Paul: and they went and told Caesar what was done.
And when he heard it, while he marvelled long and was in perplexity, Paul came about the ninth hour, when many philosophers and the centurion were standing with Caesar [= the Emperor Nero], and stood before them all and said: “Caesar, behold, I, Paul, the soldier of God, am not dead, but live in my God. But to you shall many evils befall and great punishment, you wretched man, because you have shed unjustly the blood of the righteous, not many days from now.” And having so said Paul departed from him. But Nero hearing it and being greatly troubled commanded the prisoners to be set free, and Patroclus also and Barsabas and them that were with him.
“And when the executioner struck off his head, milk spurted upon the cloak of the soldier. And the soldier and all that were there present when they saw it marvelled and glorified God.”
The Acts of Paul
That we are dealing here with a fanciful text, whose aim is both to exalt Paul and to allay curiosity about the manner of his death, will be immediately apparent from the above excerpt.
At core, this account of Paul’s martyrdom may, or may not, represent a genuine tradition about the manner of his death. At any rate it seems greatly embellished.
It is worth noting that the theologian Tertullian (c. 145—220 A.D.) informs us that the Acts of Paul was composed by a presbyter of Asia, who was convicted of imposture and degraded from his office. If what Tertullian says is correct, we ought all the more to treat the above account with suspicion.
6.) Tertullian (c. 145—220 A.D.)
Notwithstanding the above, the North African theologian Tertullian informs us in his Prescription Against Heretics (c. 200 A.D.):—
Since, moreover, you are close upon Italy, you have Rome, from which there comes even into our own hands the very authority [of apostles themselves]. How happy is its church, on which apostles poured forth all their doctrine along with their blood! — where Peter endures a passion like his Lord’s! — where Paul wins his crown in a death like John’s!
Tertullian, On Prescription Against Heretics, ch. XXXVI
“How happy is its church [Rome]… where Paul wins his crown in a death like John’s!”
Tertullian, On Prescription Against Heretics
According to this excerpt, Paul won the crown of glory by enduring “a death like John’s,” i.e., John the Baptist, who was beheaded.
Whether Tertullian is following a reliable tradition here when he speaks of Peter and Paul, or he is merely following the information given in the Acts of Paul (in spite of his statements against its authenticity), is not clear.
We have here sampled the earliest evidence regarding the death of Paul.
From this evidence I think it is possible to draw some conclusions, and some non-conclusions:—
Paul was certainly martyred — Clement, Ignatius and Dionysius all say so.
Given a date for 1 Clement of around A.D. 97, and for Ignatius’ letters at around A.D. 107, the reign of the Emperor Nero (A.D. 54—68) seems as likely a date as any for the death of Paul.
It seems reasonable to accept that Paul was martyred in Rome, given the testimony of Dionysius and the fact that his death is spoken of by Clement of Rome.
Paul may have been killed by beheading, though this seems far from certain. Our best witness for this is Tertullian, but he may simply be relying on the fanciful Acts of Paul.
* * *
Paul himself wrote,
Yes, and I will rejoice, 19for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, 20as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honoured in my body, whether by life or by death. 21For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. Philippians 1:18b-21
Paul was willing to suffer, to give himself up to death, if only Jesus Christ might be proclaimed.
“Paul did this because he knew that in Jesus was the most important message ever delivered to mankind: the offer of eternal life and forgiveness of sins by God himself.”
His martyrdom requires us to ask ourselves, “Why would Paul do this?” After all, wouldn’t we all rather live a comfortable, secure life? As a Roman citizen, Paul certainly could have had a good chance at doing exactly that.
But instead he poured out his life to proclaim Jesus.
Paul did this because he knew that in Jesus was the most important message ever delivered to mankind: the offer of eternal life and forgiveness of sins by God himself. Paul looked at a perishing world, and knew that he had the message that was able to save those who believed it.
Today we have the New Testament in many, many English translations. You can buy a New Testament in modern English for less than a tenner. Why not pick one up today and read one of the Gospels, and find out about the Jesus whom Paul went to his death proclaiming?
Note etimasthe.com is something I do outside of full-time employment. Consequently I generally only post new material on here once or twice a week.
The Ante-Nicene Fathers (10 vols.). T&T Clark, Edinburgh; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, reprinted 1996 (henceforth referred to as ANF). Vol. X. Introductory Note to the First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, p.227. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf09.xii.ii.html. Note, in the online version Vol. X is referred to as Vol. IX.
 This being to distinguish it from the ‘letter’ known as 2 Clement, which in fact is a sermon and which is now generally regarded as not being the work of Clement but of somebody around the middle of the second century. See ANF Vol. X, Introductory Notice to the Second Epistle of Clement, p.249. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf09.xii.v.html
 Of each of these seven letters there exists in Greek a shorter and a longer version. See ANF Vol. I, pp.49-96, where these versions are printed side by side. Although there is some difference of opinion as to which versions are the genuine ones, scholarly opinion has generally favoured the shorter versions. See ibid., pp.46-48. I agree with this view, and therefore will refer here only to the shorter versions of these letters.
ANF Vol. I. The Epistle of Ignatius to the Ephesians (Shorter Version), ch. XII, pp.54-55. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.v.ii.xii.html. Note: In this and subsequent quotations from ANF, I have slightly adapted the language to make it easier for the modern reader.
Graham is an evangelical Christian believer living in Sussex, UK. He is passionate about helping people to understand what the Bible really says, and about explaining what the Christians of the early centuries believed and taught.