The Martyrdom of Apostle Paul

Approximately 30 years after the death and resurrection of Christ and following the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD, an open and systematic persecution against Christians was commenced by Nero under the pretext that Christians set the fire.

This was the first official and systematic effort against Christians by the Romans, and it resulted in many executions and entertainment-type deaths of believers. Apostle Peter is believed to have been executed by crucifixion immediately in the aftermath of the Rome fire.

Christianity was no longer an entity under the umbrella of Judaism, and to be openly Christian was essentially a death mark. Paul states that “At my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them.” 2 Timothy 4:16

Apostle Paul is believed to have been martyred in this first wave of Roman persecution around age 66, but his death is not as well documented in early writings as Peter’s. One thing seems certain: Paul was not crucified because he was a Roman citizen, and his “death-row” process was prolonged compared to those of Jewish descend. He probably spend most of 64-68 A. D.  in prison and/or house arrest with one or two releases in that time period.

Third century church historian Eusebius wrote:

“After defending himself the Apostle was again set on the ministry of preaching… coming a second time to the same city [Paul] suffered martyrdom under Nero. During this imprisonment he wrote the second Epistle to Timothy.” (Eccl Hist. 2.22.2)

The Bible tells us that Paul was expecting martyrdom:

“For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time for my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith.” (2 Tim. 4: 6-7)

Martyrology commentary says:

“Dionysius, bishop of Corinth (A. D. 170), says that Peter and Paul went to Italy and taught there together, and suffered martyrdom about the same time. This, like most of the statements relating to the death of St. Paul, is mixed up with the tradition…” (Smith’s Bible Dictionary)

“The tradition is, for now Paul fails us, that Paul, as a Roman citizen, was beheaded on the Ostian Road just outside of Rome. Nero died June, 68 A.D., so that Paul was executed before that date, perhaps in the late spring of that year (or 67). Perhaps Luke and Timothy were with him. It is fitting, as Findlay suggests, to let Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 4:6-8 serve for his own epitaph. He was ready to go to be with Jesus, as he had long wished to be (Philippians 1:23)” (The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, First Edition, article “Paul the Apostle”)

To be a Christian in the first 3 centuries in the extensive Roman Empire was a reason to be killed just like it is today in many places in Africa and Asia.

These martyrs will sure have a special place in heaven.

The Martyrdom of Apostle Peter

There is considerable evidence, biblical and extra-biblical, that apostle Peter was martyred for his Christian faith.

Jesus told Peter regarding his death in John 21:18-19:

“18 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.” 19 (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.)”

This is one of the passages in the Bible which demonstrates that martyrdom for faith in God is an act of glorification of God.  If this brief conversation at the end of John’s gospel was the only one referencing Peter’s martyrdom, we would still be believe in the martyrdom of Peter because it is found in the Bible.

But there are also a number of non-canonical and historical accounts which mention Peter’s execution.

Peter was approximately 65 years old when he died in Rome, probably in 64 AD, possibly during the Neronian persecution in the months that followed the Great Fire of Rome.

Clement of Rome (d. 101 AD) who was likely ordained pastor (bishop/pope) by Peter wrote in his Letter to the Corinthians:

“Let us take the noble examples of our own generation. Through jealousy and envy the greatest and most just pillars of the Church were persecuted, and came even unto death… Peter, through unjust envy, endured not one or two but many labours, and at last, having delivered his testimony, departed unto the place of glory due to him.

Christian writer Tertullian (160–c. 225 AD) wrote:

“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

Origen (185 – 254 AD) wrote in Eusebius, Church History III.1:

“Peter was crucified at Rome with his head downwards, as he himself had desired to suffer.”

According to this account, Peter did not deem himself worthy to die in the same manner as his Savior, but willingly endured an upside down crucifixion.

How did Peter end up in Rome during Nero’s persecution?

Apocryphal writings and church tradition say that Peter saw Jesus in a vision and Peter inquired “where are you going, Master?” to which Jesus answered “I am going to Rome to be crucified, again.”  Tradition says this is when Peter made the decision to go back to Rome and accept martyrdom.

We will look at the martyrdom and persecution of other apostles in upcoming posts.

to be continued…