On Traditions Surrounding the Martyrdoms of Peter and Paul

It is quite likely, if you are a Christian, that you have heard some reference to traditions that exist concerning the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul. It usually goes something along the lines of “Peter was crucified upside-down because he did not feel worthy to be crucified in the same manner as his Lord” and that “Paul was beheaded because he was a Roman citizen.” Usually we are told they both died in Rome. Have you ever stopped and wondered where these traditions come from? Is this just word of mouth that has been passed on down through the centuries? 

Well not really, but to some extent, yes, at least as far as the common recounting goes. Many of us have heard of these traditions orally and passed them on orally ourselves, but we likely don’t recognize where they came from originally. So in the spirit of understanding the origin of these traditions, let us look to the source in our earliest Christian writings and whether this common understanding of “church tradition” is accurate.

Clement of Rome (or the Church at Rome)

The first source we will consider is the letter known as 1 Clement, often dated to around AD 95. The letter is presumed to have been written by Clement of Rome, but no name is actually attached to the letter. Rather than being sent as a personal letter, it is actually sent as a letter from the church in Rome to the church at Corinth. Regarding Peter and Paul, we find this testimony:

But to pass from the examples of ancient times, let us come to those champions who lived nearest to our time. Let us consider the noble examples that belong to our own generation. Because of jealousy and envy the greatest and most righteous pillars were persecuted and fought to the death. Let us set before our eyes the good apostles. There was Peter, who because of unrighteous jealousy endured not one or two but many trials, and thus having given his testimony went to his appointed place of glory. Because of jealousy and strife Paul showed the way to the prize for patient endurance. After he had been seven times in chains, had been driven into exile, had been stoned, and had preached in the east and in the west, he won the genuine glory for his faith, having taught righteousness to the whole world and having reached the farthest limits of the west. Finally, when he had given his testimony to the rulers, he thus departed from the world and went to the holy place, having become an outstanding example of patient endurance.[1]

Clement provides us with no details regarding the place or date of Peter and Paul’s martyrdoms, just simply that they sealed their testimony with their deaths, though it almost assuredly has the persecution of Nero in view. For further detail, we must look to other sources. 

Ignatius of Antioch

Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch, wrote seven letters while on the road to his own martyrdom at Rome, six to churches and one to his friend, Polycarp somewhere between 108-117 (historians debate the exact date). His reference to Paul’s martyrdom is not explicit, but it is certainly implied:

You [the church at Ephesus] are the highway of those who are being killed for God’s sake; you are fellow initiates of Paul, who was sanctified, who was approved, who is deservedly blessed—may I be found in his footsteps when I reach God!—who in every letter remembers you in Christ Jesus.[2]

Here we see a close linkage of Ephesus being the “highway of those who are being killed for God’s sake” and of Paul. Ignatius, who is on the road to martyrdom, hopes to walk in Paul’s footsteps, also a reasonably clear allusion to Paul’s death.

The Muratorian Fragment

This fragment, dated to probably mid second century, is more well known as likely the earliest extant canon list for the New Testament, but there is also nestled in it a reference to the martyrdom of Peter:

Moreover, the acts of all the apostles were written in one book. For ‘most excellent Theophilus’ Luke compiled the individual events that took place in his presence — as he plainly shows by omitting the martyrdom of Peter as well as the departure of Paul from the city [of Rome] when he journeyed to Spain.[3]

The fragment makes reference to the fact that Luke was unaware of Peter’s death in Rome to indicate that Luke wrote before Peter’s death. This also preserves testimony that Paul was released from Rome and traveled further west and preached further prior to his death under Nero.

Tertullian

Tertullian (c. 155- c. 240) was one of the early Christian apologists, whose most well known contribution to the Christian faith was his coining of the term “Trinity.” In his dispute with heretics during the early third century, he links Rome with Peter and Paul’s deaths:

Since you are able to cross to Asia, you get Ephesus. 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! Where Paul wins his crown in a death like John’s where the Apostle John was first plunged, unhurt, into boiling oil, and thence remitted to his island-exile![4]

We here have the earliest testimony to Peter’s crucifixion, notwithstanding the allusion to it in John 21:18-19. Of note, we also here have our source for the supposition that John escaped boiling oil unharmed. The next citation is more specific:

Now, then, the epistles of the apostles also are well known. And do we, (you say), in all respects guileless souls and doves merely, love to go astray? I should think from eagerness to live. But let it be so, that meaning departs from their epistles. And yet, that the apostles endured such sufferings, we know:  the teaching is clear. This only I perceive in running through the Acts.  I am not at all on the search.  The prisons there, and the bonds, and the scourges, and the big stones, and the swords, and the onsets by the Jews, and the assemblies of the heathen, and the indictments by tribunes, and the hearing of causes by kings, and the judgment-seats of proconsuls and the name of Cæsar, do not need an interpreter. That Peter is struck, that Stephen is overwhelmed by stones, that James is slain as is a victim at the altar, that Paul is beheaded has been written in their own blood. And if a heretic wishes his confidence to rest upon a public record, the archives of the empire will speak, as would the stones of Jerusalem. We read the lives of the Cæsars: At Rome Nero was the first who stained with blood the rising faith. Then is Peter girt by another, when he is made fast to the cross. Then does Paul obtain a birth suited to Roman citizenship, when in Rome he springs to life again ennobled by martyrdom.[5]

These testimonies by Tertullian, written probably in the first few years of the third century, form the earliest extant writings that reference the manners of Peter and Paul’s deaths: Peter was crucified, Paul was beheaded.

Eusebius’s Church History

Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260 – c. 340) wrote the first history of the Christian church in the early fourth century. In his Church History, he recounts the history of the church and preserves the writings of many early Christians that would otherwise be lost. At several points, Eusebius refers to the deaths of Peter and Paul. First for consideration:

In his second epistle to Timothy, moreover, he indicates that Luke was with him when he wrote, but at his first defense not even he. Whence it is probable that Luke wrote the Acts of the Apostles at that time, continuing his history down to the period when he was with Paul.But these things have been adduced by us to show that Paul’s martyrdom did not take place at the time of that Roman sojourn which Luke records. It is probable indeed that as Nero was more disposed to mildness in the beginning, Paul’s defense of his doctrine was more easily received; but that when he had advanced to the commission of lawless deeds of daring, he made the apostles as well as others the subjects of his attacks.[6]

Eusebius here indicates the time where Paul did not die, namely during the time of his first imprisonment. That Peter and Paul’s deaths are both linked to Nero make it all the more probable that Paul experienced a time of release after his first period of arrest in Rome. 

Thus publicly announcing himself [Nero] 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. 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: “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.” And that they both suffered martyrdom at the same time is stated by Dionysius, bishop of Corinth, in his epistle to the Romans, in the following words: “You have thus by such an admonition bound together the planting of Peter and of Paul at Rome and Corinth. For both of them planted and likewise taught us in our Corinth. And they taught together in like manner in Italy, and suffered martyrdom at the same time.” I have quoted these things in order that the truth of the history might be still more confirmed.[7]

The location and timing of Peter and Paul’s deaths are placed in Rome and under Nero, to around AD 64. Eusebius preserves the words of Dionysius, who indicates that they both died in this persecution (the reference to “at the same time” does not necessarily need to indicate the same day). Eusebius also writes further on:

Peter appears to have preached in Pontus, Galatia, Bithynia, Cappadocia, and Asia to the Jews of the dispersion. And at last, having come to Rome, he was crucified head-downwards; for he had requested that he might suffer in this way. What do we need to say concerning Paul, who preached the Gospel of Christ from Jerusalem to Illyricum, and afterwards suffered martyrdom in Rome under Nero? These facts are related by Origen in the third volume of his Commentary on Genesis.[8]

Eusebius here passes on what he preserved from Origen (c. 184 – c. 253), though what is original to Origen and where Eusebius’s commentary begins and ends is unclear. This statement from Origen has not been preserved on its own, with our only knowledge coming from this citation here in Eusebius. Since no prior church fathers made any mention of Peter being crucified upside-down, the actual veracity would appear more doubtful. We do, however, again see that both Peter and Paul’s deaths under Nero are affirmed. 

And since we have mentioned this subject it is not improper to subjoin another account which is given by the same author and which is worth reading. In the seventh book of his [Clement of Alexandria’s] Stromata he writes as follows: “They say, accordingly, that when the blessed Peter saw his own wife led out to die, he rejoiced because of her summons and her return home, and called to her very encouragingly and comfortingly, addressing her by name, and saying, ‘Oh thou, remember the Lord.’ Such was the marriage of the blessed, and their perfect disposition toward those dearest to them.” This account being in keeping with the subject in hand, I have related here in its proper place.[9]

I draw attention to this account, simply to show one further layer in the tradition that may be less familiar. Clement of Alexandria is the only known writer to provide this account, so its veracity is unknown.

The Acts of Peter

The Acts of Peter is an apocryphal work, written probably in the late second century, that was not accepted as authentic by the church. It is possible that this work had some connection to Gnosticism, as some similar themes are found in it. This source contains the narrative regarding Peter being crucified upside-down: 

Blind these eyes of yours, close these ears of yours, put away your doings that are seen; and ye shall perceive that which concerneth Christ, and the whole mystery of your salvation: and let thus much be said unto you that hear, as if it had not been spoken. But now it is time for thee, Peter, to deliver up thy body unto them that take it. Receive it then, ye unto whom it belongeth. I beseech you the executioners, crucify me thus, with the head downward and not otherwise: and the reason wherefore, I will tell unto them that hear.[10]

The account of Peter being crucified upside-down in all probability predates Origen, making this the earliest extant source for the tradition. The veracity of whether Peter was crucified upside-down does not need to be rejected out of hand simply because it was an apocryphal work, but it is worth noting that these types of writings often filled in additional details that they would have been incapable of knowing.

Conclusions

So what are we to make of the commonly cited “tradition” regarding the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul? Let us walk through the elements, from the most to least likely:

First, that Peter and Paul were martyred is about as near of a certainty as you can have. There is absolute unanimity that they died for their faith, with Peter’s death even being foreshadowed in the New Testament.

Second, Peter and Paul almost assuredly both died in Rome under Nero. While Clement does not address the manner or timing, given when the letter was written, the time of persecution can only be that of Nero in AD 64, for the next great persecution was that of Domitian from 89-96, which is far too late. Clement indicates further that they were also joined by “a vast multitude of the elect who suffered many torments and tortures,” which points toward this being a heavy persecution, with Nero’s being the only one that fits the profile. All writers who mention a location for Peter and Paul place them in Rome, so we may conclude there is not much doubt as to timing or location of death.

Third, the manner of death for both apostles is less certain, but entirely possible. It seems reasonably likely that Peter was actually crucified, though whether he was crucified upside-down is quite possibly legendary, as those types of traditions begin to appear later and may have their roots in apocryphal texts. That Paul was beheaded as a Roman citizen is also reasonable. As a Roman citizen, Paul would not have been subjected to crucifixion. Cicero wrote that “It is a crime to bind a Roman citizen; to scourge him is a wickedness; to put him to death is almost parricide. What shall I say of crucifying him? So guilty an action cannot by any possibility be adequately expressed by any name bad enough for it.”[11] Eusebius also records, as regards persecution and martyrdom of Christians, that Caesar “beheaded those who appeared to possess Roman citizenship, but he sent the others to the wild beasts.”[12] So as a Roman citizen, Paul would not have been crucified, but instead given a less severe execution, such as that of beheading.

All told, the tradition that we have likely heard orally has been generally well passed down to us. I would suggest, however, that we be careful about recounting details such as “Peter did not consider himself worthy,” as the apocryphal account in the Acts of Peter actually makes no such claim; that detail is rather a later interpretation of the tradition, not a part of it. So, when we talk about these church traditions, know that we can say with near certainty, based upon our sources, that Peter and Paul both suffered martyrdom in Rome under Nero, and that it is quite reasonable that Peter was crucified (possibly upside-down) and that Paul was beheaded, though these latter points are ultimately uncertain.


[1] 1 Clement 5.

[2] Letter to the Ephesians 12.2.

[3] Muratorian Fragment 34-39.

[4] Prescription Against Heretics 36.

[5] Scorpiace 15.

[6] Church History 2.22.6-8.

[7] Church History 2.25.5-8.

[8] Church History 3.1.2.

[9] Church History 3.30.2.

[10] Acts of Peter 37.

[11] Against Verres 2.5.170.

[12] Church History 5.2.47.

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