For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand2nd Timothy 4:6
Uninspired Church History rests on biographical material, historic accounts, correspondence and traditions passed down among the people of God for generations. Where the earliest accounts of Christianity are concerned, we are dependent upon the rather sparse historical records in addition to the information gleaned through tradition. While we must be careful about traditional stories, where they lack true historic basis, some of these accounts are so widespread that they cannot be ignored, especially when they fit the narrative, which is proven to genuine. This is particularly true of the death of the Apostle Paul. A combination of biblical data and the traditional accounts enables us to piece together the story of his martyrdom.
Paul was one of the great heroes of early Christendom. He was a man uniquely raised up by God for carrying the gospel to the world of the 1st Century. He was a true 1st Century man, a citizen of the world. Raised in the Jewish community in Tarsus, Syria, he benefited from the privilege of Roman citizenship. A tent maker by trade, he was also a zealous Jew, a Pharisee who sat at the feet of one of the great rabbis, Gamaliel. As a student of the Hebrew scriptures, as a Jew and a Roman, as one proficient in Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic and probably Latin there was no-one better qualified to take the gospel to the masses. His conversion from being a strident persecutor of the new sect to being a follower of Jesus was one of the great turning points of history, second only to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. As a linguist, an academic, an author, a debater and a philosopher Paul could have been one of the greatest secular men of his age. He set all of that to the one side for something infinitely greater, the unsearchable riches of Christ.
For the best part of two decades he took the gospel to the Gentiles, establishing communities of Christians across the Empire. Eventually he made the trip to Rome, in the early 60’s AD at the expense of Nero, as a prisoner, where he stayed for two years, according to Luke. In all likelihood he was released from his house arrest, enabling him to continue gospel work for a time.
Our last Biblical sight of the great man is in a person cell, alone, facing winter without so much as a coat, writing to Timothy, his son in the faith. Facing a cruel death with resignation and without regret Paul charged the second generation Christian leader to “Preach the Word”; a charge that reverberates to every generation.
With Nero’s persecution in 64AD being so widespread, it is impossible that the acknowledged leader of the Gentile Christians would not have been spared. The universal tradition within the early Church dates his death in 65AD. As a Roman he would not have been crucified, burned to death or thrown to the wolves. Nevertheless we shudder to think of his beheading at the point of a Roman sword. On the Ostian Way, in a green place called in the Latin ‘Aquae Salviae’ or water saviour, probably because a well marked the location, Paul met a violent end to a life well lived for the Christ he adored. He finished his course, he ran his race, he fought a good fight.
Henceforth there is laid up for me
a crown which cannot fade;
The righteous Judge at that great day
shall place it on my head.
Scottish Metrical Paraphrase