The death of the Apostle Paul

How, where and when did the Apostle Paul die?
The short answer is, we are not really sure. Although the Paul remains a very significant figure, we actually don’t know a great deal about his life. Texts books (with a greater or lesser sense of certainty) will inform us that Paul was born in the town of Tarsus (now in modern Turkey) sometime around 5 C.E.. However, this is purely conjecture. Paul doesn’t ever mention his birthplace or make any reference to Tarsus! On the other hand, Luke, who features Paul heavily in his Acts of the Apostle mentions Tarsus three times (9:11, 21:39 and 22:3) and records Paul as stating to his opponents in 22:3 that he is “a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia”. Luke is the main source for biographical details of Paul. It is he, not Paul, who tells us of Paul’s status as a Roman citizen (and he may have good reason for emphasising this, but that must be the topic for a different post). However, unfortunately, he is silent on the matter of Paul’s death.

‘The Apostle Paul’ (1410-20) Andrei Rublev

Paul’s writings naturally do not give us any information concerning his death, although they do demonstrate to us that he was fully aware of the cost of following Jesus (beatings and imprisonment) and that clearly he was ready to pay the ultimate price. Writing to the Philippians (1:21-24), his acceptance and preparedness concerning his death is openly expressed. This was accentuated in some of the later letters that are attributed to him. For example, in 2 Timothy the author of the letter hints at Paul’s final fate:

 

As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. 7I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.

2 Timothy 4 (NRSV)

This rather oblique reference in 2 Timothy reflects the tradition of Paul’s martyrdom that circulated early Christianity. The idea of Paul’s death as a martyr is entirely plausible. His writings are filled with references regarding the persecutions he suffered and indicate that he was prepared to suffer more. Although we need to be a little cautious with Luke’s account of Paul’s life, this theme of suffering for Christ, alongside his clashes with the Roman authorities, also appear to be a hallmark of the Lukan Paul.

Paul’s final days and Luke’s silence

In his letter to the Christians in Rome,  Paul expressed his longstanding desire to visit them:

10asking that by God’s will I may somehow at last succeed in coming to you [the church in Rome]. 11 For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— 12or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. 13I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as I have among the rest of the Gentiles.

Romans 1 (NRSV) emphasis added

Paul’s Roman ambitions is fleshed out by Luke. Luke concludes the Acts of the Apostles with a brief description of Paul having arrived in Rome and describes a relatively short but apparently successful mission there:

 30 He lived there for two whole years at his own expense and welcomed all who came to him, 31 proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.

Acts 28 (NRSV)

In the light of the volatility experienced by Rome at this time, Luke’s words seem to be surprisingly sanguine. This is the Rome that is experiencing the convulsions of Neronian rule; it was volatile, suspicious and frequently violent. Even before this period, the Roman writer Suetonius describes how the Emperor Claudius issued a decree to expel all the Jews who were someway associated with a figure called Chrestus (very possibly Christ):

 Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.

Suetonius The Lives of the Twelve Caesars: Claudius.25

In fact, this expulsion is the reason given by Luke for the presence of Aquilla and Priscilla in Corinth (Acts 18:2).

It should be noted that we do need to be a little cautious at this point. Another Roman historian, Cassius Dio, makes no mention of Chrestus and suggests that the Jews were in fact not expelled, but only forbidden to hold meetings:

As for the Jews, who had again increased so greatly that by reason of their multitude it would have been hard without raising a tumult to bar them from the city [Rome], he [Claudius] did not drive them out, but ordered them, while continuing their traditional mode of life, not to hold meetings.

Cassius Dio Roman History 60.6.6-7 

Image unattributed. https://www.ifcasocal.org/resources/paul-the-apostle/

Even so, tensions at this time – particularly those in which the Jewish people (and by association non-Jewish followers of Jesus) were concerned – appeared to be heightening. Things were set to get a lot worse with the ascension of Nero in 54 CE. Attempts to date specific periods in Paul’s life are notoriously difficult. Nevertheless we can be fairly certain that this was the time when Paul’s ministry was flourishing and (possibly) when he was writing 1 Corinthians. In 64 CE, under an increasingly unstable Nero, the city of Rome was engulfed in a great fire that burned for six days. The Roman historians vary in their accounts concerning its cause, but one, Tacitus, records that in order to deflect accusations away from himself, Nero placed the blame on the Christians:

 Therefore, to scotch the rumour, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, [27] whom the crowd styled Christians. [28] Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus.

Tacitus Annals 15:44.26-27

This, therefore is the backdrop to Luke’s rather rosy description of Paul’s (final?) ministry in Rome.

Nevertheless, the inclusion of those words ‘he lived there for two whole years’ ( Ἐνέμεινεν δὲ διετίαν ὅλην) is rather tantalising and suggests a conscious attempt to indicate a relatively short, fixed amount of time. What happened to Paul after those two years? Luke is silent.

Traditions around Paul’s death

It is at this point we are dependent on accounts and traditions recorded by later Christian writers. The one unifying factor is that they all agree that Paul was martyred – quite possibly during the Neronian persecution that followed the great fire of Rome.

‘The Beheading of St. Paul’ by Simon de Vos (1603-1676). Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Simon_de_Vos_-_The_Beheading_of_St._Paul.png

Although short on details relating to Paul’s actual death, the first century 1 Clement (thought to have been written around 96/97 CE) states:

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. Thus was he removed from the world, and went into the holy place, having proved himself a striking example of patience.

I Clement 5.5-7

A few decades later much more detailed accounts begin to emerge. The apocryphal 2nd Century Acts of Paul gives this rather colourful account of Paul’s execution following his (unwitting) part in the death of Nero’s cup-bearer, Patroclus:

Then Paul stood with his face to the east and lifted up his hands unto 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 (speculator) 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 marveled and glorified God which had given such glory unto Paul: and they went and told Caesar what was done.

Acts of Paul 11.5

A much more restrained reference comes from one of the early Church fathers, Clement of Alexandria, in the collection of his writings, Stromata. However, it also helps to securely locate it to the time of Nero:

For the teaching of our Lord [Jesus] at His advent, beginning with Augustus and Tiberius, was completed in the middle of the times of Tiberius. And that of the apostles, embracing the ministry of Paul, ends with Nero.

Stromata. 7.17 (106.3)

Decollatio S. Pauli. Cathedral of Monreale (no other information available)

Although lacking the embellishments that can be found in the Acts of Paul, the late second/early third century theologian and apologist Tertullian nevertheless provides a lively and characteristically pugnacious account of his martrydom in his Scorpiace:

That Peter is struck, that Stephen is overwhelmed by stones, Acts 7:59 that James is slain as is a victim at the altar, that Paul is beheaded has been written in their own blood. And if a heretic wishes his confidence to rest upon a public record, the archives of the empire will speak, as would the stones of Jerusalem. We read the lives of the Cæsars: At Rome Nero was the first who stained with blood the rising faith. Then is Peter girt by another, John 21:18 when he is made fast to the cross. Then does Paul obtain a birth suited to Roman citizenship, when in Rome he springs to life again ennobled by martyrdom.

Scorpiace 15

‘Beheading of Saint’ by Paul Enrique Simonet (1887)

The Spanish question

Not all traditions relating to Paul’s death locate it within Rome. As we have noted, Luke appears to know that (and draw attention to) the length of Paul’s stay in Rome; just two years. This has given rise to an alternative view that has Paul leaving Rome (after a successful ministry) and going to Spain. We can find some clues which help to support this view.

We know from Paul’s own writing (Romans 15:24 and 28) that he planned to go to Spain and that he suggested to his readers that when he did so he could stop off in Rome (a bit like a modern day ‘stop-over’). We have also seen in the letter of 1 Clement (cited above) that it was believed that Paul had visited the “extreme limit of the west”, which could be a reference to Spain.

The second century Muratorian Canon (or Fragment), whilst endorsing Luke’s writing, notes that there are some important omissions, one of which was,

…the journey of Paul, who from the city [Rome] proceeded to Spain.

Muratorian Canon lines 38-39

This does not imply that Paul was not martyred. In fact, as early as the early third century, Hippolytus (of Rome) would make a reference to Spain whilst also retaining the Neronian martyrdom. He writes:

And Paul entered into the apostleship a year after the assumption of Christ; and beginning at Jerusalem, he advanced as far as Illyricum, and Italy, and Spain, preaching the Gospel for five-and-thirty years. And in the time of Nero he was beheaded at Rome, and was buried there.

Ante-Nicene Fathers 5.255

This tradition of Paul visiting Spain and then returning to Rome also appears in the much later (early fifth century) writings of John Chrysostom:

Two years then [Paul] passed bound, in Rome; then he was set free; then, having gone into Spain, he saw Jews also in like manner; and then he returned to Rome, where he was slain by Nero.

Homilies on the Epistle to the Hebrews NPNF 1.14.364.

Engraving from Richard Gilmour (1904) Bible History: Containing the Most Remarkable Events of the Old and New Testaments, with a Compendium of Church History (New York, NEW YORK (NY): Benziger Brothers, 1904) 24. Image: https://etc.usf.edu/clipart/188000/188074/188074-paul-is-beheaded-at-rome-by-the.htm

Why Luke’s silence?

Over the years there have been proposed a number of possible reasons to explain why Luke did not include an account of Paul’s death in his Acts of the Apostles.

  1. Luke was simply unaware of Paul’s death or that he was still alive at the time of writing.
  2. Luke was embarrassed by the lack of support of to Paul in Rome by his fellow Christians – this might be hinted at in 1 Clement 5:5-7 and 2 Tim 4:16
  3. Luke could have assumed that his readers were already aware of Paul’s death and including it would have unnecessarily deflected attention away from his main theological aim (Acts 1:8) – to show how the gospel message was conveyed from Jerusalem to the Rome (and ‘the ends of the earth’).
  4. The death of two key figures, Jesus and Paul (three including Peter), at the hand of the Roman authorities created significant problems for the early Church. Drawing attention to Paul’s death could have been not only embarrassing, but seriously undermined Luke’s pro-Roman apologetics.
  5. The parallels that Luke draws between the ministry of Jesus and that of Paul (and Peter) meant that he needed to be cautious lest readers drew parallels between their deaths.
  6. Luke planned a third volume which would begin with Paul’s death (as Acts began with Jesus’ ascension).
  7. Luke used the abrupt ending of Mark’s Gospel as a literary model for Acts.

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