Nature of Conflict
Paul, originally introduced in the Acts of the Apostles by the Hebrew name Saul, was a Jewish man from Tarsus. He was a Pharisee, a member of the Jewish religious elite, and, by his own admission, a zealous persecutor of the early Christian church (Philippians 3:5-6). He is traditionally credited with writing thirteen books of the New Testament, although there is some debate concerning the authorship of some of them. His letters do not provide much information about his biography, so most of the information about his career is taken from the Acts of the Apostles, a text that has itself been subject to scrutiny by scholars. According to Acts, he approved of and was present at the stoning of the first Christian martyr, Stephen (Acts 8:1). Soon after, he was traveling to Damascus to imprison any Christians he found there, when he was dazzled by a bright light from heaven. He heard the voice of Jesus saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” and was struck blind for three days, until the Christian Ananias laid hands on him and he was healed. From that point forward, Saul/Paul was a stalwart Christian and became the most influential leader of the early Christian church (Acts 9:1-19). Paul preached extensively among the Gentiles and helped expand the Church into Asia Minor, Greece, and Italy. Near the end of his ministry, Paul was arrested by the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, who appealed to the secular authorities for his punishment. However, these authorities had difficulty finding any reason to actually prosecute Paul, so he eventually found himself at the highest court in the empire: Rome. At the end of the Acts of the Apostles, he was being held under house arrest—but still preaching—in Rome.
By the time Paul came to Rome, Nero was emperor. Nero is notorious for his persecution of the Christians, which, according to these accounts, was instigated by his disapproval of Paul. However, according to the Roman historian Tacitus, he persecuted the Christians as scapegoats for the fire that ravaged part of Rome in 64 CE (Ann. 15.44). Whatever the reason, this was the first persecution of the early Christians by the state.
The accounts of the martyrdom of Paul can be grouped into two main narratives: one centered solely around Paul, and the other addressing the joint martyrdoms of Peter and Paul. There is variation within both of these narratives, but two general storylines emerge.
In all of the Paul-only accounts, Paul is preaching very successfully in Rome and attracts the attention of the Emperor Nero. In the Martyrdom of the Holy Apostle Paul in Rome, the Martyrdom of the Blessed Apostle Paul, and the History of the Holy Apostle My Lord Paul, this is because many members of Nero’s household are converted and declare Jesus Christ their eternal king. In the Passion of Saint Paul, Nero becomes aware of Paul because he is told that the apostle is inciting rebellion. When arrest, questioning, or the persecution of all the Christians in the city do not deter Paul from preaching or from declaring Christ as Lord, Nero orders Paul to be executed by decapitation with the sword. In the Martyrdom of the Holy Apostle Paul in Rome, the Passion of Saint Paul, and the Martyrdom of the Blessed Apostle Paul, Paul then declares to Nero that he would appear to him after his execution to prove that he is alive in Christ. After hearing the things that Paul preaches, some of Nero’s soldiers ask Paul to teach them about Jesus in return for his freedom. However, Paul declares that he is not a deserter and refuses to be freed, but tells them where to meet Titus and Luke, who would tell them the Gospel fully. When it comes time for his execution, Paul prays to God and preaches to the crowd before becoming silent and offering his neck for the sword. When the executioner cuts off his head, milk flows from the wound. That night Paul appears to Nero, as he had declared he would, and warns Nero that evil would befall him because of his persecution of the Christians. In his fear, Nero releases the Christians he had imprisoned. Paul also appears to the Roman guards to whom he had spoken before his death, and they are converted and praise God. In the Syriac History of the Holy Apostle My Lord Paul, Paul is decapitated at the same place where Peter had been martyred. The Christian bishop buries Paul’s body with Peter’s, and in the place of Peter and Paul’s martyrdoms, where their blood flows together, two trees grow up and many miracles are performed at that location.
The joint narratives of the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul include a slightly different story. Generally, such as in the accounts Passion of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, Acts of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, and The Passion of the Apostles Peter and Paul, Peter and Paul come to be together in Rome, preaching among the people and gaining the attention of members of Nero’s household. With all the commotion that this causes, Simon the Sorcerer begins speaking out against Peter, such that the city becomes divided over the debate between the two. This reaches the ears of Nero, who has Simon, Peter, and Paul brought before him to resolve the issue. The three, particularly Simon and Peter, debate extensively, answering Nero’s questions and each claiming the other is false. (Simon, in fact, claims to be the Son of God, and Nero is inclined to believe him.) Nero asks Paul to respond, as he has been silent for a while, and Paul strongly denounces Simon, warning Nero that following the sorcerer would lead to his destruction. He describes to Nero all he (Paul) has been preaching, and Peter affirms what he says. Simon continues to argue with them, attempting to undermine their authority. Their arguments greatly frustrate and distress Nero, for he does not know what to believe. To solve the issue once and for all, Simon requests that Nero build a tall tower so that he can demonstrate his power and divine authority through a flight to heaven. Nero does as Simon suggests. As Simon is preparing for his demonstration, Paul gets on his knees to pray. When Simon begins to fly, Paul urges Peter to do what needs to be done, and Peter rebukes the demons that are holding Simon aloft. Simon falls to his death. Upset at Simon’s demise and distrustful of Peter and Paul, Nero arrests them and decides to behead Paul and crucify Peter. After Paul is decapitated, Peter is crucified.
In some versions of both the Paul-only and Paul-and-Peter narratives, there is a brief anecdote about a pious woman (who is identified by various different names) who gives Paul her scarf to cover his eyes or soak up his blood during his execution. The accounts vary, but they agree that the scarf is returned to the woman and is associated with miraculous occurrences.
Paul could easily be considered one of the most influential Christians in the early Church. He was an widely traveled evangelist and a prolific writer; Paul wrote or is credited with texts that have become foundational for Christian theology and doctrine. Because he is such an important Christian figure, the story of his martyrdom holds much significance.
The joint narratives of the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul, as well the conclusion of the History of the Holy Apostle My Lord Paul, are very important in their treatment of the relationship between Peter and Paul. As central leaders of the early Church, they sometimes found themselves with conflicting perspectives, primarily concerning the manner in which Gentile converts would be integrated into the Jewish-based new Christian Church. These martyrdom accounts show the harmony between Peter and Paul, often pointing out their agreement and affirmations of the other. In some cases, it seems that Peter, who is considered by the Catholic Church to be the first Bishop of Rome and through whom the papal line of succession flows, is placed slightly above Paul, such as when Peter faces Simon the Sorcerer head-on and Paul supports him through prayer.
The joint narratives also support the primacy of Roman Christian authority, for Rome could claim the martyrdoms of both of the most prominent leaders of the early Church. Martyrdom narratives were—and are—used as signs of legitimacy and religious authority. This is significant in particular when Rome has sought to establish its authority as one of the leading voices, if not the leading voice, within Christianity.
Paul is the patron saint of writers, missionaries, Gentile Christians, and tent makers, as well as other similar occupations and groups. He is the patron saint of a multitude of cities around the world.
Eastman, David L., trans. The Ancient Martyrdom Accounts of Peter and Paul. Atlanta: SBL Press, 2015. Print.
Eastman, David. L. Paul the Martyr: The Cult of the Apostle in the Latin West. Atlanta: SBL Press, 2011. Print.
McBirnie, William Steuart. "Paul." The Search for the Twelve Apostles. Wheaton: Tyndale, 1974. 280-93. Print.
McDowell, Sean. "The Martyrdom of Paul." The Fate of the Apostles: Examining the Martyrdom Accounts of the Closest Followers of Jesus. New York: Routledge, 2016. 93-114. Print.
"Nero Persecutes the Christians, 64 A.D." EyeWitness to History. N.p., 2000. Web. 13 Apr. 2016.
"St. Paul." Catholic Online. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Apr. 2016.