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A Peculiar Story of Peter’s Martyrdom

Now, in response to the question I started answering a few days ago, I discuss the earliest account we have of the martyrdom of Peter.   It is an odd account, and not widely known.  Here is what I say about it in my book Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene.


Peter as Martyr

The death of Peter by execution is already alluded to in the Gospel of John – which evidently, then, had been written after the event occurred.  As Jesus tells Peter after the resurrection:

When you were younger, you girded yourself and walked wherever your wanted; but when you grow old, you will reach out your hands and another will bind you, and lead you where you do not want to g. (21:18)

The author concludes this quotation by noting “He said this to signify the kind of death he would experience to glorify God.”

It is clear that Peter is being told that he will be executed (he won’t die of natural causes), and that this will be the death of a martyr (by it he will “glorify God”).  Some interpreters have thought that the reference is more specific than that: that the author is indicating that Peter will be crucified.  The argument is that the text speaks of the immobilization of the hands, which may refer to being nailed, or tied, to a cross.  Such an interpretation is possible, but it should be pointed out that the binding of the hands appears to occur before Peter is to be led off to be executed.  And so the passage may simply refer to a martyrdom (by any means) yet to come.

In any event, by the end of the first and into the second century it was widely known among Christians that …

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How Do We Know When the Gospels Were Written?
Who *Was* the First Bishop of Rome?



  1. Avatar
    Steefen  September 19, 2018

    Because the Beatitudes are not in Mark, Jesus did not say them–they were added later by Matthew and Luke? Or, how could Mark miss them?

    I thought Luke “corrected” earlier gospel accounts and therefore the gospel of Luke should be dated after the gospel of Matthew.. Did Luke set out to publish a better gospel and Luke should be dated after the gospel of Matthew?

  2. Avatar
    Pattylt  September 19, 2018

    The explanation of the head down crucifixion here sounds rather Gnostic. I can’t remember, is the Acts of Peter a Gnostic text? Is this explanation Gnostic sounding or is it just me?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 20, 2018

      No, nothing Gnostic about it, as it turns out. The temptation is to think that “strange” = “gnostic” — but there’s a lot of strange back there!

  3. Avatar
    Steefen  September 19, 2018

    Luke 19: 27 But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them–bring them here and kill them in front of me.'”

    isn’t the only problem we have with a peace-loving Jesus. Professor Gerhard Baudy of the University of Konstanz in Germany gives us the following.

    Nero was correct: the Christians DID burn down Rome and Tacitus downplays their responsibility: “not so much on the count of arson, as for hatred of the human race.”

    1) This is when renewal needed to take place when Sirius, the Dog Star, rose in the sky;
    2) Early Christianity was Apocalyptic

    …but the chaff he will burn with unquencahable fire.
    Matthew 13: 12

    So, with the full scale Jewish Revolt around the corner, we have the fire committed by Christians, then Apocalyptic Zealots attacking the Roman Legion at the beginning of the Jewish Revolt, then the Revolt itself.

    (Paul and Peter died in the fire?)

    I have come to ignite a fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!
    Jesus – Luke 12:49

    Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which is from God. The authorities that exist have been appointed by God.
    Consequently, the one who resists authority is opposing what God has set in place, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.
    ROMANS 13: 1-2; so, Paul knew about the attack and tried to talk down the Zealots in Rome.

    The Christians captured actually confessed their guilt of arson.

    Loeb Classical Library, Tacitus, Vol. V, Annals, Book 15, Section XLIV:
    The Christians were convicted “not so much on the count of arson, as for hatred of the human race.”

    So it is not so much Nero fiddled while Rome burned but the Christians said nothing when the Apocalyptic Zealots burned down Rome.

    (Every time there’s a tragedy, we sing Amazing Grace. Why can’t Nero, a trained musician use music during his tragedy?)

    Where do you disagree?

    (P.S.: I have a book which says where the Jews lived in Ancient Rome. I’d like to see if the arson included the areas where Jews lived.)

    • Bart
      Bart  September 20, 2018

      No, I don’t think Christians started the fire (either did Tacitus); and the reason they were easily scapegoated is because they were thought to hate everyone else, not becaues they were known to have started the fire.

      • Avatar
        Steefen  September 20, 2018

        62 – High Priest Ananus ordered the death of James, brother of Jesus

        July 64 Zealots burn Rome. Christians praised the Lord for the fulfillment of their eschatology of a fiery Apocalypse instead of as a crime and human tragedy and were judged to have a criminally inappropriate response to arson on a grand scale with loss of life and property on a grand scale that could only be interpreted as “hatred of mankind.”

        August-September 66 Menahem the Messiah, the scholar, captured the governor’s palace at Jerusalem, brought about the death of the high priest Ananias, laid siege to Roman fortifications, became the only leader of the Jewish Revolt, and was killed. (This is probably the person referred to in the book Jesus Outside of the New Testament, Letter of Mara Bar-Serapion, “and they killed their sophist king. … Nor did the wise king die for good, he lived on in the teaching which he had given.”

        October-November 66 Zealots attack Legion XII Fulminata

        = = =
        Tacitus says it was sinister to believe that the two fires were ordered by Nero. Those who believed this would say the Christians were scapegoats for the Christians. These rumors were not based on investigation but the conjecture that if a man can order the murder of his mother, he can order the arson of the city.

        “an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind.” So, Nero didn’t scapegoat the Christians, the first confessors made the claim after investigation.

        But here, the Christians were not scapegoats. They are guilty. In praise and rapture, some of the Christians did plead guilty likely because, 1) “You crucified Jesus and Jesus’ eschatology begins here;” and 2) “This is the fire of destruction God promised in Genesis and in the gospel.” The behavior of the Christians was so unreasonable that their inability to see the crime, the loss of life and property on a grand scale sympathetically, so much so that some of them pled guilty, was a remorseless, depraved indifference, a criminal mindset greater than the arsonists who weren’t Christians.

        • Avatar
          Steefen  September 20, 2018

          Tacitus says it was sinister to believe that the two fires were ordered by Nero. Those who believed this would say the Christians were scapegoats for the Christians.

          should be:

          Those who believed this would say the Christians were scapegoats for Nero.

  4. Avatar
    fishician  September 19, 2018

    The Acts of Peter traces man’s sin back to Adam, as does Paul (Rom. 5 and 1 Cor. 15) and 1 Timothy, although that passage really blames Eve more than Adam. But I find it interesting that the Old Testament virtually ignores the story of Adam and Eve. Was this emphasis on Adam and Eve being to blame for our problems a Christian invention, or did the Jews of the first century already have this concept? (Perhaps it developed relatively late in Jewish thinking?)

    • Bart
      Bart  September 20, 2018

      It’s a great question, and I don’t know the answer. I do know that the idea of a “Fall” bringing “sin” into the world is largely Christian, but beyond that, I’m afraid I don’t know.

  5. Avatar
    saavoss  September 19, 2018

    So is St. Peter buried beneath the Basilica in Rome? I’ve heard several legends regarding where he was buried (outside of Rome). Is there any historical evidence for a particular burial site for Peter?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 20, 2018

      No, these are just later legends. We have no clue where he was buried.

    • Lev
      Lev  September 20, 2018

      Hey Saavoss,

      Eusebius wrote the following over the burial of Peter (Church History, book 2, ch 25):

      “5. Thus publicly announcing himself as the first among God’s chief enemies, he was led on to the slaughter of the apostles. It is, therefore, recorded that Paul was beheaded in Rome itself, and that Peter likewise was crucified under Nero. This account of Peter and Paul is substantiated by the fact that their names are preserved in the cemeteries of that place even to the present day.

      6. It is confirmed likewise by Caius, a member of the Church, who arose under Zephyrinus, bishop of Rome. He, in a published disputation with Proclus, the leader of the Phrygian heresy, speaks as follows concerning the places where the sacred corpses of the aforesaid apostles are laid:

      7. But I can show the trophies of the apostles. For if you will go to the Vatican or to the Ostian way, you will find the trophies of those who laid the foundations of this church.”

      Caius arose under Zephyrinus, who was Pope 198-217, so Christians living around 150 years after the death of Peter and Paul were able to view their remains at the Vatican or the Ostian Way.

      The Vatican believes they still have the remains: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/nov/24/vatican-st-peters-bones-display-pope-francis

      Anthropologists who have studied the bones concluded they belonged to a man, between 60 and 70 years of age, about 5 feet 7 inches tall and of robust constitution.

  6. Avatar
    mkahn1977  September 19, 2018

    If this book is not canon how did the story become so embedded in memory?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 20, 2018

      Mainly because of modern novels and, especially, Hollywood. (“Quo Vadis”)

  7. Avatar
    Meiguoji  September 19, 2018

    Bart- it seems to me that Jesus was an observant Jew who followed the teachings of Hillel (who taught the spirit of the law) versus Shammai (legalist who taught the letter of the law). Aside from the miracles and resurrection which can never be proven, how was Jesus so unique?He seems to me to be a Jew from the Hillel school who wanted to bring the news of G-d’s love to those who could not study Torah or afford to go to Temple. He was deeply in tune with the signs of the times and and could see how the world (as he and others) knew it–a small place compared to the world we know, could end given all of the turmoil with Rome vying to become an empire. Is the story of Jesus more complex than that in your view?

    Please advise and Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 20, 2018

      I’d say there was little that was completely unique about Jesus, except for the fact that his followers came to insist he was raised from the dead. But that’s a huge difference from all the other apocaylyptic Jewish teachers/prophets of his day.

      • Avatar
        Meiguoji  September 20, 2018

        BART, besides John the Baptist, who were other apocalyptic prophets, teachers in the times of Jesus?

        • Bart
          Bart  September 21, 2018

          Yes, the Jewish historian Josephus mentions several, e.g. one named Theudas, another called “the Egyptian,” and yet another called — this is interesting! — Jesus, son of Ananias (from about 40 years after Jesus of Nazareth)

  8. Avatar
    forthfading  September 19, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I was lucky enough to attend the debate you had with Dr. Licona last February at Kennesaw State University. You stated that Peter’s martyrdom is far from certain, but you would say it probably happened based on the sources (I hope this is what you said and I am not putting words in your mouth). Do you still think this way?


  9. Avatar
    WLFobe  September 20, 2018

    Where did the tradition of Jesus’ preaching of chastity come from? There is practically nothing about it in the Gospels, but by the time of the Acts of Peter and the Acts of Thomas it seems to be commonly accepted that it was what was preached.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 21, 2018

      That will require an entire blog post (or more): I’lll add it to my list!

  10. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  September 20, 2018

    A couple of things about Peter’s crucifixion. If Peter was crucified as a criminal under Roman Law, would the Romans really care what Peter thought about how he didn’t want to be crucified like Jesus and then acquiesce to his wishes? In other words I don’t see Roman authority caring or accommodating a criminal. Also, in crucifixion you die from asphyxiation because you can’t breathe standing while nailed to a cross. But wouldn’t being crucified upside down defeat the purpose of crucifixion? I guess being upside down where all the blood flows to your head may cause death eventually but it doesn’t sound like the torture regular crucifixion was.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 21, 2018

      No, they wouldn’t have gived a damny about his wishes! Romans were in the habit of putting crucified victims in weird contortions as part of their sick entertainment; but I don’t know of upside down crucifixions. We have so few descriptions of *any* crucifixions that it makes it hard to know if it’s plausible.

      • Avatar
        Boaz  September 22, 2018

        Sorry for a question of an enthusiastic amateur historian beginner. I understand it is agreed Peter was likely martyred somewhere. But is there any reliable or trustworthy evidence he has ever been to Rome and why and what he did there? Again sorry for the question, thanks for answer.

        • Bart
          Bart  September 23, 2018

          There are later traditions and legends, and it’s usually thought with that consistent of a record, it probably has a historical basis. But that could be wrong!

          • Avatar
            Boaz  September 24, 2018

            1. What does not fit to me is it is not mentioned (I believe) in the book of acts. I know it does not reflect historical reality but still – if the author of the book of act had known he would have certainly mentioned that ( because why not?).
            2. I also think Paul in his letter to Romans did not use Peter’s name even if he used many others so I assume Peter was not there at least at the time of the letter writing and based on what I said above I also assume the author of books of acts was not aware of his visit to Rome either.
            3. I guess the acts of Peter cannot be considered reliable at all. I am not certain about Eusebius in this matter and not experienced with other sources (I am still just a beginner).

            From your books I understand he could not be the first Bishop of the Roman churche simply because the institution of Bishop (pope) did not exist in Rome in Peter’s lifetime, but I have my serious personal doubts he ever was to Rome at all. But I might be wrong.

          • Bart
            Bart  September 24, 2018

            Acts was reluctant to mention the deaths of the chief apostles probably because that would have compromised his thesis, that there is *nothing* that could stop these missionaries of Jesus.

  11. Alemin
    Alemin  September 21, 2018

    If they believed that Adam came into the world headfirst, are they suggesting that he was born and had parents? Or just that God formed him headfirst somehow? Who would Adam’s parents?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 23, 2018

      Ha! Good point. I don’t know what they were imagining!

    • Robert
      Robert  September 23, 2018

      The very best image of the Birth of Man from the primordial mud of Mother Earth has to be this scene from Raising Arizona (head first, followed by breach):


  12. Avatar
    luigi  September 24, 2018

    Is there any solid evidence for Peter’s burial place to have been on the site of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, eg as per http://www.culturaltravelguide.com/real-tomb-saint-peter-under-saint-peters-basilica?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 24, 2018

      Not in my judgment (or in the judgment of most anyone who doesn’t have a theological stake in the matter.

      • Avatar
        Boaz  September 24, 2018

        In this respect I cannot stop thinking how Peter communicated with potential converts during his missionary travels. Based on your books (I have not read anything else recently – becoming Ehrman’s addict) I understand he was an uneducated man, probably illiterate, speaking only Aramaic ( please correct me if I am wrong). Did he have a translator or did he preach only to aramaic speaking Jews? If yes, were there many outside of Israel? I moved to the UK 10 years ago from the Czech Republic and must confirm a language barier is not any fun at all. Was it different at that time?

        • Bart
          Bart  September 25, 2018

          I wish we knew! But yes, there would have been a language barrier, and if he didn’t have a translator then I don’t know *how* it happened.

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