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Do We Know How Paul Died?

In response to a question about what we know about the deaths of the apostles yesterday (short answer: almost nothing!) I talked about the hints about Peter’s death in the NT, and the later legend about it in the apocryphal Acts of Peter.  Today I can talk about what we know about the legends about the martyrdom of Paul, from the equally apocryphal Acts of Paul.  Here is what I say about it in my book Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene.



The Martyrdom of Paul

We do not have any contemporary accounts of Paul’s death, although traditions from several decades afterwards indicate that he was martyred.   The earliest reference comes in the letter from the church of Rome to the church of Corinth known as 1 Clement, written around 95 CE, some thirty years after Paul’s death.  This anonymous author refers to the “pillars” of the Christian faith who were persecuted for their faith, “even to death.”  He refers especially to the apostles Peter and Paul.  About Paul, he states:

Because of jealousy and strife Paul pointed the way to the prize for endurance.  Seven times he bore chains; he was sent into exile and stoned; he served as a herald in both the East and the West; and he received the noble reputation for his faith.  He taught righteousness to the whole world, and came to the limits of the West, bearing his witness before the rulers.  And so he was set free from this world and transported up to the holy place, having become the greatest example of endurance.

It appears that …

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Once More: The Interesting Text Called the Didache
The Legend of Peter’s Martyrdom



  1. Avatar
    Nichrob  February 26, 2018

    A good title for a future book: “Dead Prophets that Never Return”, or “Dead Messiahs that Never Return”.

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    ardeare  February 26, 2018

    The emperors of Rome had an interesting way of choosing successors. If his own son wasn’t pure evil, he would adopt a son who showed all the early signs of a psychopathic torturer and killer and appoint him.

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    forthfading  February 26, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    If you had to lean one way more than the other…..was Paul martyred?

    Thanks, forthfading

  4. Avatar
    fishician  February 26, 2018

    Acts concludes with Paul living peacefully in Rome, and it doesn’t seem like the Romans had any compelling reason to execute him. Do you think he was just caught up in a general persecution later, or maybe he really did tick somebody off? (Or, impossible to know?) Also, on the other extreme, are there legends of John’s longevity, based on John 21:22, 23?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 27, 2018

      I don’t really know. And yes, the Acts of John from the second century have him living to ripe old age.

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    Tony  February 26, 2018

    We know nothing about any of the apostles deaths, because the early church decided they must all have died martyr’s deaths. The author of 1 Clement knew that Paul planned to go Spain (Rom 15:24) and decided he died there – without giving any details. Luke – Acts, written in the early second century, knows nothing about Paul’s death. For all we know Paul died in his sleep or chocked on an olive.

    The same with Peter. Paul lists the Roman leadership in Romans 16 and they are pagan god-fearers who knew Paul and followed his religion. Not surprisingly there is no mention of Peter, nor is there any reason why Peter would end up in Rome. Paul once more spells out his mystery religions’ gospel in Romans 16:25-27:

    “Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.”

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    godspell  February 26, 2018

    Not long before my confirmation ceremony, I read a biography of Paul, which was basically historical fiction, along the same lines as what Irving Stone used to write. It’s not a religious book, there are no miracles described, but of necessity the author is writing very speculatively, about Paul’s conflicts with Peter, about his travels, how he was influenced by the Mystery Cults, and of course his death by decapitation, because what writer’s going to pass that up?

    This was where I first learned there was a tradition that Paul was a Roman citizen, and the author made use of that–when arrested, Paul claims the right of a formal trial, more to give him a chance to express his beliefs further than because he thinks it will save him. He is depicted as someone of great strength and courage, and on the block, he shoults “REPENT!” before the ax falls.

    I learned later that there is some question about whether Paul had Roman citizenship, but it might explain why he survived so long, and was able to travel so extensively throughout the empire.

    I chose Paul as my confirmation name, and I’ve had some qualms about that since, but you don’t get a do-over.

    Bart, are you by any chance familiar with Eugene O’Neill’s play, “Lazarus Laughed”? The premise is that after Jesus raises him from the dead, Lazarus becomes a prophet in his own right, and tries to convert Caligula. It doesn’t go well there either. Not considered one of O’Neill’s better plays, but I rather liked it.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 27, 2018

      Nope, don’t know it!

    • Avatar
      Jim Cherry  March 1, 2018

      Since Paul says he was originally a Pharisee, could he also have been a Roman citizen? Could Jews be Roman citizens?

      • Avatar
        godspell  March 16, 2018

        Most people under the authority of Rome were not citizens. Who was a citizen varied, from place to place, and the rules changed over time, sometimes expanding citizenship, sometimes narrowing it. (Sounds familiar).

        Jews could become citizens, at certain points in time, if they met certain requirements–it may not have been an equal state of citizenship to a citizen born in Rome itself, but membership had its privileges, as they say. It probably didn’t come with any kind of vote for the Roman Senate, but that wasn’t so terribly relevant by the time of Paul, since Rome was no longer a Republic, and it’s not as if they held an Empire-wide vote for a body that deliberated in Rome (that was by then entirely subordinate to the Emperor).

        To be any kind of citizen was to enjoy more legal protections. It would be something that more prosperous influential people (such as Pharisees) might seek for the advantages it conferred, and tried to pass on to their children.

        To this day, Americans argue about who is a citizen or not. And we have a written Constitution!

        We have some evidence Paul was a citizen, but it’s not an indisputable fact that he was. I tend to think he was, because I can’t think of a reason why they’d make it up. But that still leaves a lot of questions unanswered.

  7. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  February 27, 2018

    Interesting. I know you tend to accept as historical that Peter was put to death for being a Christian, but from my initial impression of Candida Moss’s The Myth of Persecution, martyrdom quickly developed as a rhetorical tool for the early church. Christians were known to be proclaiming the truth because they were being killed by the enemies of God. Have you found anything to suggest the earliest stories of martyrdom grew from an assumption that no other death would be fitting for a follower of Jesus, especially an apostle, as opposed to actual reports by witnesses?

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    anthonygale  February 27, 2018

    This reminds me of something I find peculiar. I went to Catholic school and was taught how the apostles were martyred. They said Peter was crucified upside down, Andrew was crucified in an X and Paul was beheaded. I forget the rest, but they had stories about the others and said John is the only one who wasn’t martyred. They taught it (seemingly to me) as if it was canon yet it comes from outside of the canon. I find it peculiar that the books were rejected yet certain traditions from them were kept. Do you have ideas as to why that is? I suppose it isn’t surprising that people would want to “know what happened” to the apostles and accepted stories about there deaths. But is there anything along the lines of church fathers talking about the traditions or other evidence to suggest the traditions were wide spread?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 1, 2018

      THese ideas come from the later legends we have, for all three of these apostles. Since they didn’t contradict anything found in the books that became scripture, people had no trouble believing them and passing them along.

    • Avatar
      godspell  March 16, 2018

      St. Dismas (supposedly one of the two thieves crucified next to Jesus, the penitent one, whose name and history were later invented in the apocryphal gospel of Nicodemus) was depicted as being crucified with his arms tied over the top of the crosspiece of his cross. It looks very uncomfortable, even by the standards of crucifixion.

      A lot of this should be considered more symbolic than anything else–a form of heraldic iconography. This way, you see somebody on a cross, and you know who it is. Otherwise, you’d just assume it was Jesus.

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    seahawk41  February 28, 2018

    I have a question: Is there evidence that Paul knew how to write, as opposed to dictating letters to someone else? I recall back when I took a couple of Bible classes at an evangelical college, people tried to explain the letters generally though to be not by Paul as having been written for him by someone else. This was especially argued for Ephesians and Colossians. What is your take on Paul’s literacy or lack thereof?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 1, 2018

      He appears to have dictated his letters. But given his general level of education, he could almost certainly write. And in several of his letters he indicates that he writes the final lines (see the end of Galatians) so his readers will know it’s really by him.

    • Avatar
      jamal12  April 2, 2018

      @seahawk41 i also read that he studied under Gamaliel so he must have known how to write.

      • Bart
        Bart  April 3, 2018

        That’s what the book of Acts says, but I don’t think it’s historically reliable.

  10. Alemin
    Alemin  March 1, 2018

    Bart, do you know if there are any legends in Spain about a visit from Paul? That is, not whether or not there are apocryphal works that say he made it to Spain, but do any Spanish people have traditions about a visit from Paul?

    (I’ve heard that in India some people believe Thomas ministered there, but I’m not sure if they’re getting that from their actual traditions, or from something like the Acts of Thomas.)

    • Bart
      Bart  March 2, 2018

      I don’t know. The traditions of India ultimately go back to stories such as those found in the Acts of Thomas, if not from the Acts of Thomas itself.

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    jamal12  March 31, 2018

    I read somewhere or saw a documentary or a lecture by someone where it mentioned that just like Josephus who was a Jew but became a turncoat for the Romans to get favours, same thing happened with Paul. According what it said was that in those days it was not easy for a Jew to just go in and out of Palestine. The Roman leaders hated the Jews and would not let them enter and go out so easily and watched them.You had to have certain favours and as far as i know Paul became a turncoat and that was how he has such easy access to go and preach when and where he wanted and it mentioned that he went to Spain and came back to Palestine. Another thing it mentioned was that was why Paul killed the real followers of Jesus such as James the just and so on he was a persecutor of Jesus followers. Even after he beat James the Just to death he was not tried and sentenced straight away.

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    Jgapologist  June 10, 2018

    Bart, is there any evidence of the Apostles recanting their faith?

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