How Did the Apostle Paul Die?


Paul is a central figure in the New Testament and the early Christian church. A former persecutor of Jesus Christ’s followers, Paul became a believer after encountering the risen Lord. As a result, he wrote 13 of the 27 New Testament books and was one of the early church’s first missionaries. Paul’s extraordinary life also makes people wonder how he died.

The Bible doesn’t record the Apostle Paul’s death. However, historical and literary sources from the early church agree that he was beheaded in Rome under the reign of Nero during the emperor’s most intense persecution of Christians between 64-68 A.D. Other details are difficult to confirm.

What does the book of Acts say about Paul’s last years of life? In what way is its narrative of the Apostle incomplete? What does the best historical evidence say about the last days of Paul’s life? What does legend say happened after Paul’s beheading? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.

Apostle Paul
How does the book of Acts end its account of Paul? See below

The Last Days of the Paul: Examining the Evidence

The book of Acts ends abruptly, as does its narrative of Paul’s life and ministry. The last passage of the book (28:17-30) explains that Paul spent two years under house arrest in Rome when a date was set for him to appear before the authorities.

However, Acts ends before the hearing occurs. Scholars don’t know for sure why the book ends this way. Some speculate that the answer to the question has to do with the circumstances of its author, Luke, but no one knows for sure. Nevertheless, this break in the story leads many Bible readers and historians to wonder what happened next.

Paul is acquitted and rearrested

After examining the allusions made in Paul’s letters and early (non-biblical) Christian writings, many historians believe it’s probable that Paul was acquitted at the hearing mentioned in the last chapter of Acts and then intended to travel to Spain to preach the gospel.

The book of Romans reveals that traveling from Rome to Spain was his intention: “I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain, and to be helped on my journey there by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a while” (Rom. 15:24, ESV).

Two early church fathers, Eusebius (260-339 A.D.) and Jerome (342-420 A.D.) believed a tradition that said after Paul’s acquittal in Rome, he was rearrested, imprisoned, and perhaps tortured. Some scholars believe 2 Timothy 4:16-18 describes this imprisonment.

“At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth” (v. 16-17).

Despite his trying circumstances, Paul’s faith was strong: “The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen” (v. 18).

Paul is beheaded according to church tradition

The tradition also reveals how Paul died. One scholar summarizes the account this way:

“There was no acquittal this time; he was convicted and beheaded with the sword at the third milestone on the Ostian Way, at a place called Acque Salviae, and buried on the site covered by the basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls — a probably authentic location. These last proceedings against him may well have been an incident in Nero’s proceedings against Christians about 65 A.D.” [1]

Saul Paul
Does Clement of Rome mention Paul’s death? See below

Paul’s Death in Early Christian Literature

Clement of Rome (35-99 A.D.) was a first-century Christian, a leader in the early church, and a contemporary of Paul. Some historians believe that he was also a companion of Peter.

A letter Clement wrote to the Christians at Corinth, commonly called “1 Clement,” which isn’t included in the New Testament, survives to this day. Some believe that he alludes to Paul’s death in the letter.

1 Clement 6:1 reads, “To these men, who walked in holiness, there was gathered a great multitude of the elect, who, having suffered, through envy, many insults and tortures, became a most excellent example among us.”

Historians believe the phrase “these men” probably refers to all ears of God’s people, including Old Testament believers. Yet, given the context of the passage and other references to the apostles in the letter (e.g., 5:3, 42:1-2, 44:1, 47:4), it likely implies Peter, Paul, and other early Christian leaders, too.

Scholars date 1 Clement to around 70 A.D., which means Clement wrote it within a decade of Paul’s death.

Assessing the tradition

In his classic book, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, F.F. Bruce weighs the evidence: “That [1 Clement 6:1] is a reference to the persecution of Christians in Rome under Nero is hardly to be doubted.”

If the verse is taken at face value, Bruce says, “it would imply that Peter and Paul had suffered martyrdom before the persecution which followed the great fire, and so far as Paul is concerned, that he was executed on conviction some time after the end of two years house arrest in Rome.”

He concludes: “The most that can safely be said is that Clement bears witness to Paul’s death at Rome under Nero.” [2]

Esteemed Christian historian Kenneth Scott Latourette agrees. He writes that Paul stayed “at least two years in Rome, presumably still technically as a prisoner, but with considerable freedom to receive visitors and to present to them the Christian message.”

Latourette concludes, “Then the curtain falls and assured information fails. The fact of eventual martyrdom in Rome seems to be well established.” [3]

Christian crosses
Do some accounts of Paul’s death include legend? See below

A Legend Surrounding Paul’s Beheading

Modern scholars and historians question certain accounts of the apostles’ deaths because myth and legend are evident in the written records. Separating fact from fiction is challenging and leads to dismissing details that may be factual because the document as a whole is unreliable.

An example of a legend regarding Paul’s death is that after he died, his severed head bounced on the ground multiple times, which caused fountains of water to spring from the ground.

Author mary Sharp summarizes the legend this way: “It is believed that [Paul] was martyred outside the Ostian Gate on the same day that St. Peter was crucified, and that when his head was struck off it bounced three times on the ground and at each place a fountain of water sprang up, the first hot, the second warm and third cold.”

She continues, “He was originally buried on the Via Ostian where the basilica of St. Paul-outside-the-Walls now stands. When the Christian tombs were threatened with desecration in the Valerian persecution, it is said that the bodies of SS Paul and Peter were taken, on 29th June 258, to a place called Ad Catacumbas on the Appian Way.”

Sharp concludes, “If this was so, the body of St. Paul was later returned to its original place, but his head, along with that of St. Peter, was taken to the basilica of St. John Lateran.” [4]

References:
[1] Dictionary of Paul and His Letters. p. 687.
[2] Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free by F.F. Bruce. p. 448.
[3] A History of Christianity: Beginnings to 1500 by Kenneth Scott Latourette. Vol. 1. p. 74.
[4] A Traveler’s Guide to the Saints of Europe by Mary Sharp. p. 173.

Daniel Isaiah Joseph

Daniel's seminary degree is in Exegetical Theology. He was a pastor for 10 years. As a professor, he has taught Bible and theology courses at two Christian universities. Please see the About page for details.

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