Whatever Happened to Paul of Tarsus? It Isn’t What you Think

Dec 25 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Just as we all know that Peter died in Rome, crucified upside down to the amusement of the Roman mob (he didn’t), everyone knows that Paul died in Nero’s persecution. Or do we? In point of fact, it is by no means certain Nero persecuted any Christians at all, which makes Paul’s death at his hands highly problematic.

Do we have no account of Paul’s eventual fate from our canonical sources? In Acts 28:11 Paul arrives in Rome and is put under guard but allowed to live by himself (28:16). Three days later we find him calling upon the Jewish leaders of the city and addressing them in his own defense.  The Jewish leaders, in turn, claim to have received no letters from Palestine regarding Paul, despite the passage of two or three years since his arrest. This in itself is highly unlikely. We know the Jewish community in Rome was in close and regular contact with Judaea; they were certainly quick to send not only letters but emissaries to Rome to protest imperial governance of the province!

Letter writing was hardly the sole property of the fledgling Christian community; Pagans and Jews alike were proliferate in this regard. In any event, Paul is asked for his views because the Jews say “we know people everywhere are talking against this ‘sect'” (28:22). Some, we are told, were convinced by his presentation, others were not. It was certainly not a resounding success for the self-proclaimed apostle. What are we left with? “For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. Boldly and without hindrance he preached thekingdomofGodand taught about the Lord Jesus Christ” (28:30-31). Nowhere are we told how Paul met his end.

It seems remarkable that the author of the Acts of the Apostles, written decades after Paul’s lifetime should know nothing about Paul’s fate. This, we are supposed to believe, was one of the most important spokesmen for Christianity in its entire history and we have not a word about how he died, or even when. For all we know from the historical record – or rather, the absence of any historical record – Paul might just as well have contacted a disease and died, or have died in his sleep, or met with some accident. People – even famous people (witness Alexander the Great) – died of unexpected fevers all the time and lingered only days before succumbing.

What is clear is that in the earliest record of the “church” Paul simply disappears from view, just as does his old nemesis Peter. If we go by the canonical sources, we cannot assert, as so many Christians do, that Paul died a martyr for his faith. And of course, as apologists are quick to remind us, only the canonical sources can be trusted. Anything later than the first century is suspect. This argument is employed regularly against the veracity of such later gospels as those of Judas and Thomas.

So what is striking is that we have no writings from Paul’s two-plus years in the city of Rome. How is it that this most prolific of apostles left no written record of his time there? His Epistle to the Romans was written before this period, while he was in Corinth c. 57-58 before his arrest in Caesarea. At that point, by his own admission, he had never set foot in the city.  We are supposed to believe that Ignatius was able to write many letters while under arrest and on his way to martyrdom in Rome. Of these, we have letters to the Ephesians, to the Magnesians, to the Trallians, to the Romans, to the Philadelphians, the Smyrneans, and even to Polycarp.[1]

But from Paul the letter writer we have nothing, and he was living in near luxury in a house all to himself with but a single guard to mind him, apparently free to teach the Gospel to all and sundry. This seems most remarkable. 2 Timothy, cited by Eusebius as a letter written by Paul during his Roman captivity is one of three epistles “widely regarded by scholars as non-Pauline.”[2] So there were no letters from Judaea about Paul and not from Paul to Judaea or to anywhere else. This is remarkable, to say the least.

According to Eusebius, writing some three centuries later, Paul was martyred in Rome. But then Eusebius also tells a great many other tales, including a truly laughable one about Tiberius recommending the Senate deify Jesus on the report of Pilate, and that Paul and Seneca, Nero’s tutor, exchanged admiring letters; more, that Seneca greatly admired Paul’s wisdom. It turns out that Eusebius is relying upon this forged letter to Timothy for proof that Paul had been re-arrested and executed by Nero. In the letter, Paul is in prison and awaiting his end (4:6-8). But if the letter is a forgery, how are we supposed to trust that this is a record of how Paul met his end? The letter, whatever apologists may wish, cannot be genuine. Paul refers to Timothy as a third-generation Christian (1:5) but how can this be? Christianity had not been around long enough to have seen Timothy trained in the scriptures from his childhood (3:15) and still old enough to have accompanied Paul on his missionary travels in Asia Minor (3:10-11) since Paul’s missionary journeys account for barely more than ten years. Timothy would have had to have been a precocious youth indeed.

More important are the stylistic differences in this letter when compared to Paul’s genuine correspondence. As Bart Ehrman points out, “we do find an inordinate number of non-Pauline words, most of which do occur in later Christian writings.” What does this mean? Ehrman says that of 848 different words in the Pastoral Epistles (of which 2 Timothy is one) 306 do not occur anywhere else in the Pauline corpus, including the Deutero-Pauline letters. “This means that over one-third of the vocabulary is not Pauline. Strikingly, over two-thirds of these non-Pauline words are used by Christian authors of the second century.” Words are also used differently, for instance, “righteousness,” which meant “having a right standing before God” now means “being a moral individual” (Titus 1:8) and the term faith, “which for Paul refers to a trusting acceptance of the death of Christ for salvation, now refers to the body of teaching that makes up the Christian religion (e.g. Titus 1:13).”[3]

So we must dismiss the evidence of our sole surviving letter from Paul’s captivity.  What then are we left with? Eusebius claims (EH 2.25) that “It is recorded that in his (Nero’s) reign Paul was beheaded in Rome itself” and refers us to spurious tombs said to belong to Peter and Paul. Eusebius offers no other evidence of this beyond his word, which as we have seen, is hardly dependable. And of course, Eusebius is writing from beyond the magic second century barrier established by apologists for dependability of witnesses. The highly touted tomb found in 2006 and said to be Paul’s proves nothing of the sort. Pope Benedict XVI (famous for his truth trumps tolerance philosophy) claims that because radiocarbon dating shows it to be from the first or second century that it must be Paul’s. How does a second century date prove it to be Paul’s when he is said to have died under Nero in the 60s of the first century? The presence of a few bone fragments and incense is far less convincing than an open sarcophagus and proof of decapitation.

We can turn to Clement of Rome, writing c. 96 CE and so much earlier, as we did in the case of Peter, but Clement is unhelpful. First speaking of Peter and Paul, Clement says that “both men struggled in the contest even to death” but this hardly indicates martyrdom, merely a continuation of service to the Gospel until the day they died. He tells us that Paul, in contradiction to Eusebius’ account, traveled “to the furthest limits of the west” which can (and often is) taken to meanSpain. The full passage reads as follows:

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.[4]

This could be taken to mean that Paul simply died of almost any conceivable cause. It suggests nothing of martyrdom. If anything, one should draw the conclusion that Paul wore himself out and died of exhaustion. Given the nature of travel in those days, a not improbable end, as his shipwreck off Maltaall too vividly suggests. And as has been pointed out by Michael Grant, this mention of “the limits of the west” is likely only a conclusion drawn by Clement from Paul’s own words in Romans that Spain was a country he hoped eventually to visit after Rome itself (15:28).[5]

In the end and despite the paucity of evidence, Michael Grant accepts that Paul was killed in Rome, but suggests that Jewish Christians might have been the prosecutors and that Acts for the purpose of preserving its image of Christian harmony, avoids mentioning the fact.[6] This is a tenuous conclusion at best, since we have no good evidence for Paul’s ever having been in Rome. The account we have is from Acts, which has been shown to be unreliable, and it is not multiply attested. The Acts of Paul which relate the manner of Paul’s beheading (milk spurted from his neck in place of blood) date from a century after Clement and are legendary in character and so unhelpful in our quest.[7]

Against the conclusion that Paul was executed, and Grant’s suggestion that the mention of this contraindicated Luke’s purpose in Acts, Lindsey Pherigo  suggests instead that part of the problem is the assumption by scholars that only two possible outcomes exist: execution and acquittal. But Pherigo, fixing upon Clement’s remarks in 5:6 argues for a third possibility: exile. Exile, Pherigo says, “is not recorded in Acts or mentioned in the Pauline letters” and finds it difficult to date this event to Paul’s career before Rome. Even allowing for the many gaps in our knowledge of Paul’s life, this is a not improbable solution to the problem of his eventual fate. Going further, Pherigo argues that in place of Paul’s silence after the decision in Rome, the epistle known as 2 Corinthians (specifically 10-13) represents a post-exile communication. [8]

Certainly the letter is problematic. Many scholars do not accept that it is a single letter but a pastiche of several written at different times and places and put together by a later editor, as Ehrman says, “with scissors and paste.” Ehrman also notes the change that takes place at 10 and which continues until the end, in that from chapters 1-9 Paul is “on very good terms with his congregation” but from 10 on “everything seems to change. No longer is Paul joyful in this congregation that has returned to him. Now he is bitter and incensed that they have come to question his authority and to badmouth his person.” Ehrman’s conclusions differ from Pherigos; he would place 1-9 after 10-13. In short, the editor reversed the chronological order of two separate letters.[9] These are tantalizing possibilities for which we have no concrete answers.

Did Paul die? Was he executed? Was he acquitted and freed to go on his way, perhaps to travel to Spain or Britain as legend suggests? The consensus seems to be that he died a martyr, but though this seems the most convenient and desired conclusion for a religion based on persecution, it is hardly the only possibility. It is an inference based on the lack of other evidence. As Pherigo asked fifty years ago, “But is this a matter of fact? or even of probability?”[10] Since we are reduced to inferences and without explicit reference to his death, one inference might seem as plausible as another. We might well consider the possibility then that one of the priests Josephus traveled to Rome to aid (via the empress Poppea) while in his mid-20s, an operation described in his Vita, was Paul himself.[11] In that case, there is perhaps a fourth possibility above and beyond even Pherigo’s three. We have now expanded our horizons to four possible outcomes: 1) Execution, 2) Acquittal, 3) Exile, 4) Rescue by Josephus.

In the absence of proof, one seems as likely as another. One fruit of our exercise, even if we have failed to arrive at an answer, is the knowledge that if there is one prefacing remark all students of history should early on become wary of it is “there are only two possibilities…” for there are never only two possibilities. To assert that is to create an artificial environment that automatically precludes options the author does not want considered, and also to create an increased likelihood for the probability of his own pet theory.

When all is said and done, we can only agree with Grant that, “Acts terminates…abruptly and unsatisfactorily with the picture of Paul” – without agreeing with his conclusions as to why. In the end, Paul’s fate, like Peter’s, must remain a mystery. The single most important figure in Christianity beyond Jesus himself disappears from the pages of history without as much as a trace.

Look now at the direction the Christian Right wishes to take us. Look at the mad scrambling of Republican candidates in Iowa, falling over one another to pander to the wishes of these extremists, and look what it is all based upon. What we are left with is a religion that claims to be the only true religion on the entire planet but which was so careless of its early history that it lost all trace not only of the New Testament’s authorship but the fate of its central characters – not only Paul and Peter but Jesus, about whose end the gospels tell competing stories. If Christian fundamentalists want us to accept their stories hook, line, and sinker and a law code based upon them, I think we have a right to expect more than this. If their holy book was merchandise we had purchased in the store, we would be returning it as defective, a puzzle with pieces missing and a blind insistence that the picture is “this” despite all the gaps that could make it something else entirely.

Caveat emptor. Let the buyer beware.





[1] For these letters of Ignatius, see Bart D. Ehrman, ed. and translator, The Apostolic Fathers (London: Harvard University Press, 2003),  201-322.

[2] Bart Ehrman, The New Testament, 385.

[3] Ehrman, The New Testament, 389.

[4] 1 Clement, 5, Ehrman’s translation, in The Apostolic Fathers (London: Oxford University Press, 2003),1:43.

[5] The Acts of Peter and Paul as well as the Muratorian fragment refers to Paul traveling toSpain but these are both late and unreliable witnesses.

[6] Michael Grant, Saint Paul, 187. Ehrman also accepts the “fact” of Paul’s martyrdom in Rome (Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene, 173), as does Chilton, (Rabbi Paul, 252), who says “Rome responded to Christianity’s first intellectual and most influential thinker by beheading him.”

[7] Suggestions made by some Christians that Paul’s farewell to the Ephesians (Acts20:25, 38) indicates his coming martyrdom should be dismissed. Saying you will never return to a city hardly indicates knowledge that you are soon to be executed.

[8] Lindsey P. Pherigo, “Paul’s Life after the Close of Acts” JBL 70 (1951), 278-279.

[9] Bart Ehrman, The New Testament, 327-328. For Pherigo’s hypothesis see Lindsey P. Pherigo, “Paul and the Corinthian Church,” JBL 68 (1949), 341-350. Pherigo argues that as 2 Cor 8 speaks of the great collection undertaken for the poor of Jerusalem and “is in the form of an accompanying note of reference sent along with Titus” then 2 Cor 12 “looks back at precisely the same situation, and is defending the integrity of Paul and Titus in the collection of this fund” (p. 327).

[10] Lindsey P. Pherigo, “Paul’s Life after the Close of Acts” JBL 70 (1951), 283. Pherigo believes (284) that Paul was released from prison and “labored a few years longer.”

[11] Josephus, Vita 13-16.

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