The traditional view is that Paul was beheaded in Rome during the reign of Nero AD 64-67. In my recent book The Fate of the Apostles, I make the case that the apostles were all willing to suffer and die for their faith. While the evidence for individual apostles varies, there is very good historical reason to believe that Paul died as a martyr in the mid to late 60s.

While Scripture does not specifically mention Paul’s martyrdom, there are hints in both the book of Acts and 2 Timothy 4:6-8 that Paul knew his death was imminent.[1]Extra biblically, there is evidence from 1 Clement 5:5-7 (c. AD 95-96) where the writer describes Paul as suffering tremendously for his faith and then being “set free from this world and transported up to the holy place, having become the greatest example of endurance.” While details regarding the manner of his fate are lacking, the immediate context strongly implies that Clement was setting up Paul as an example of martyrdom. Other early evidences for the martyrdom of Paul can be found in Ignatius (Letter to the Ephesians 12:2), Polycarp (Letter to the Philippians 9:1-2), Dionysius of Corinth (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.25.4), Irenaeus (Against Heresies 3.1.1), The Acts of Paul, and Tertullian (Scorpiace 15:5-6).

The early, consistent, and unanimous testimony is that Paul died as a martyr. But what about the claim he was beheaded? Can this part of the traditional account be trusted?

Was Paul Beheaded?

The first reference to Paul’s death by beheading is found in the Acts of Paul, specifically in The Martyrdom of Paul. A few years later, at the turn of the second century, Tertullian became the first church father to state that Nero had Paul beheaded in Rome.[2] And then in the early fourth century, Eusebius confirms this tradition.[3]

In the account in the Acts of Paul, Nero sends a decree that all Christians are to be put to death. Nero commanded that prisoners be burned, but orders Paul beheaded according to Roman law. Wilhelm Schneemelcher finds this depiction not quite logical since beheading was a less severe penalty.[4] However, this ignores that the text emphasizes the beheading as according to Roman law, which would require a different mode of execution for a Roman citizen such as Paul.

In this narrative, milk comes out of Paul’s neck when he is decapitated. This may seem like legendary material added to provide theological significance, but there is a known medical condition in which a milk-type fluid emits from the neck. The account may be legendary (as is the baptizing of a lion in the same document), but not necessarily so.

Romans had a variety of methods of execution.[5] In terms of beheading, Romans practiced decollation, which involved the use of a sword rather than decapitation with an axe.[6] It was a common form of execution. King Herod had John the Baptist beheaded (Mark 6:27). James, the brother of John, was “killed with the sword” under Herod Agrippa (Acts 12:2). The book of Revelation reports the beheading of those who gave testimony for Jesus and refused to worship the beast (Rev 20:4). Eusebius reports that Caesar “beheaded all who seemed to possess Roman citizenship and sent the rest to the beasts.”[7] Eusebius later notes that after proclaiming his faith Apollonius was beheaded according to Roman law.[8] The sword, a symbol of power, brought fear into the hearts of people. Even Paul recognized governing authorities do not bear the sword in vain (Rom. 13:4).

Given (1) there is no alternative claim of how Paul met his fate, (2) beheading was a common form of execution, and (3) it fits with what else is known about Paul (e.g., his citizenship), it is more probable than not that Paul was beheaded. This cannot be held with the same degree of confidence as his martyrdom, but we have no good reason to doubt that the earliest accounts contain a tradition that dates back to his actual mode of death.

You can find the original version of this article on Sean McDowell's blog.

[1] See The Fate of the Apostles, 97-103.

[2]Tertullian, Scorpiace 15:4; The Prescription Against Heretics 36.

[3]Eusebius Ecclesiastical History 2.25.

[4]Wilhelm Schneemelcher, ed., New Testament Apocrypha, ed. and trans. R. McL. Wilson (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2003), 2:231.

[5]Tacitus, Annals 15.44:2-5.

[6]Suetonius, Nero 49; Tacitus Annals 2.32; and John S. Pobee, Persecution and Martyrdom in the Theology of Paul, Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series, ed. Bruce D. Chilton (Sheffield, England: JSOT, 1985), 5.

[7]Eusebius Ecclesiastical History 5.2.

[8]Eusebius Ecclesiastical History 5.21.