Paul, the valiant soldier for Christ and tireless missionary, finally arrived in Rome, a prisoner in chains delivered to his fate. Surely there would be a big finish to such an illustrious career? But no, the final chapter of Acts of the Apostles fizzles out, with its hero living in his own rented house, a Roman guard for company, and receiving all that came to him. Two whole years passed and the apostle preached the kingdom of God and the Lord Jesus without hindrance. End of.
Such an ending, whilst sufficient for the first edition of the story, clearly left later Christians frustrated. When and how had Paul died? Surely it was as a martyr? Had he not indicated in his letter to the Romans a desire to visit Spain? From that it was reasoned – by "tradition" of course – that Paul had been released from his house arrest and made another missionary journey, not just to
Spain but also to Crete and elsewhere. The apostle was then re-arrested, returned to Rome, imprisoned
a second time and then executed by Nero after the great fire!
This ridiculous itinerary made it possible for Paul to be associated with the "first persecution" of the Church and newly written "pastoral" epistles
(1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus.) could be presented as "authentic". Pious romances, scribbled between the 2nd and 4th centuries, such as Acts of Paul, the Apocalypse of Paul, the Martyrdom of Paul and the Acts of Paul and Thecla – provided additional fabulous nonsense, including Paul's beheading on the very same day as Peter!
Nothing in secular history confirms the fate of St Paul – but then nothing in secular history confirms even his existence. Even without the accretions of legend and Christian imagination, Paul's sojourn in Rome is a fabricated deceit.
"To Caesar you shall go"
One of the more famous tales concerning Paul is the "appeal to Caesar", an entitlement derived from his supposed "Roman citizenship". But what exactly were the charges brought against the apostle?
The nearest we get to a description of his offenses is Acts 24.5 where an attorney named Tertullus presented the case to the governor Marcus Felix on behalf of the Jewish high priest. Paul was accused of being "an agitator among Jews throughout the world and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes", in other words a political agitator. Paul defended himself against this charge by sidestepping and proclaiming his belief in the law, the prophets and the resurrection of the dead. Oddly, Felix did not adjudicate but merely adjourned the case until "Lysias the tribune comes down" (24.22) – an event that never happened and left Paul in prison in Caesarea for two years!
Where DID they get their ideas from?
" Appeal to Caesar"
As it happens, there WAS an appeal made to Caesar at this time – and it also involved king Agrippa.
During the procuratorship of Festus, Agrippa built a new dining room at his palace that gave him a view of the inner courts of the temple. The indignant priests responded by building a high wall to shield the temple from the gaze of Agrippa's palace.
Festus ordered the wall torn down but the Jewish High Priest Ismael was granted permission to appeal to Caesar. Together with Helkias the treasurer and ten other leading men he went off to Rome.
When the matter came before Nero, the caesar acceded to his wife Poppaea's influence (a "God-fearing" Jewish sympathizer) and agreed the wall could remain, though Ismael and Helkias were kept as hostages in Rome.
Perhaps inspired by this successful appeal to caesar, Josephus – after a shipwreck on the voyage – arrived in Puteoli in 64 AD. There he courted the friendship of Alityrus, a Jewish actor and a favourite of Nero.
Through Alityrus, Josephus gained an audience with the empress and obtained the release of some priests, friends of his, sent to Rome by Felix and held for at least four years.
"On a small and trifling occasion Felix had put into bonds certain priests of my acquaintance and sent to Rome to plead their cause before Caesar."
All very inspirational for a yarn about a Christian apostle!
(Josephus, Antiquities 20, Life 3; 16)
After those two years Porcius Festus replaced Felix as procurator and the new man invited the Jews to again present their charges. This time there were "many (unspecified) serious charges" (25.7). Festus, it seems, had been expecting political crimes and was dumbfounded by mere religious quibbles:
"When the accusers stood up, they did not charge him with any of the crimes that I was expecting. Instead they had certain points of disagreement with him about their own religion and about a certain Jesus, who had died, but whom Paul asserted to be alive ... I have nothing definite to write to our sovereign about him ... it seems to me unreasonable to send a prisoner without indicating the charges against him".
- Acts 25.18-27
Declining the offer from Festus of a trial before him in Jerusalem, Paul appeared to know what the author of Acts claimed to know, that the Jews intended to kill Paul "along the way" (Acts 25.3). Paul responded with his famous appeal to the emperor's tribunal. Several days later, Festus presented Paul before king Agrippa for a second opinion.
In what is the most ridiculous abuse of Roman judicial process, words placed into the mouth of king Agrippa declared: "This man might have been set at liberty, if he had not appealed to Caesar." (Acts 26.32) We are asked to believe that because Paul has uttered the magic words "I appeal to Caesar" that a process was in train that neither provincial governor nor king could stop – and even though there was no discernible crime to report!
Would the Romans really have committed a centurion and the cost and trouble of a sea voyage to Rome to a minor sectarian with whom they had no issue? Would Paul have been shipped off to Rome on "charges" which were religious infringements that meant nothing to the Romans?
The "appeal to Caesar" is pure invention, a plot device already anticipated by the very words of Jesus two years, and a few pages, earlier, after Paul's trial before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem:
"The following night the Lord stood by him and said, "Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome." – Acts 23.11.
In truth, not "Paul" but the author of Acts had a clear political and theological motive to move the story on towards a necessary climax in Rome. This would-be capital of the faith needed the legitimizing presence of the super apostle, however inconsequential his stay would be – in the event, another uneventful two-year prison term! In this artfully contrived fable, Paul, who wanted to go to Rome anyway, proclaimed his belief in the resurrection of the dead – and was rewarded with an escorted voyage to Rome, courtesy of the Roman state!
Now that was a miracle.
According to the fable, in short order, Paul was placed on board a ship. During the hazardous (and fantastical) voyage to Rome an angel appeared to Paul and repeated the words of Jesus: Paul "must" appear before Caesar.
"Just last night an angel of God, whose I am and whom I serve, stood beside me and said, 'Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar." – Acts 27.23,24
The apostle, supposedly, was shipwrecked on the way to Rome and had waited some three months before his onward passage to Italy. So until the ship actually landed on the Italian coast no one in Rome would have had any idea when, or even if, the renowned evangelist would arrive – and that assumes the evangelist was renowned.
And once Paul had made landfall in Italy, how would Christians in Rome – supposing for the moment they even existed – actually have known that Paul had arrived? "Word", of course, somehow had to go ahead ("He's coming, he's coming!") – but that's when problems with this wondrous tale really mount up.
Welcome to Puteoli
"Putting in at Syracuse, we stayed there three days. And from there we made a circuit and arrived at Rhegium. And after one day a south wind sprang up, and on the second day we came to Puteoli where we found some brothers who entreated us to stay seven days with them.
And so we came to Rome. " – Acts 28.12-14
The author of Acts writes that brethren in the port of Puteoli pleaded with Paul and his party to stay with them a week. The remarkably accommodating centurion Julius "escorting" Paul seems not to have raised any objection. Was the Roman really so relaxed about another unwarranted delay – they had after all, just spent three months on the island of Melite! The centurion's obligation was to deliver his prisoners to the authorities in Rome – and his pay would have been well in arrears!
And how on earth did Paul and his companions "find brethren" in the town of Puteoli? Outside of the Christian dreamscape, were Christians really so numerous or so easily identified? The nearby city of Pompeii shows absolutely no evidence of 1st century Christians (e.g.) and no church in Puteoli is attested before the 5th century.
How likely was it that the "brethren" of Puteoli would or could offer a week's accommodation not just to Paul, but also to the centurion Julius in whose custody Paul was being held, plus "certain other prisoners" (Acts 27.1), plus Paul's companion Aristarchus, and the ("we") author of Acts? And this tally takes no account of the original ship's complement of 276 that had sailed from Myra (Acts 27.37). Had they all, perhaps, decided to make a new life in Melite or Sicily?!
The author of Acts, in fact, had a good reason for "holding" Paul in Puteoli for a week: he wanted his hero of the faith to enter Rome in style and to applause, the Pauline equivalent of the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
Yet Puteoli was 170 miles from the capital.
News of Paul's approach had to reach the city well before Paul arrived or how else could the brethren of Rome had come out to meet him?
Arrival – and one week's stay in Puteoli?
Puteoli, Paul's port of arrival was 170 miles from Rome. This was about eight days march for the Roman army.
Civilians – and prisoners in chains – would have taken considerably longer.
Travellers on foot going north from the port of Puteoli could hope to reach the coastal town of Tarracina after four or five days, where they would have had a choice between a canal boat or a nineteen-mile section of the the Appian Way that was subject to flooding.
The canal, the Decennovium, drained the road and was fed by the Canata River just beyond a river harbour at Forum Appii. Making the rest of the journey on foot, news of Paul would have taken at least a week to reach Rome. Even if a horse rider had been despatched almost immediately from Puteoli to carry the good news post-haste to the capital three days would have passed before his arrival.
And what would his message have been?
"Paul will be spending a week in Puteoli! Then after six days travel he will reach Forum Appii. So in six or eight days time we should set off from Rome to be there to greet him, though slightly slower walkers should wait at Three Taverns" ?
The very notion is risible. But the logistics of Paul's "meet and greet" are even more problematic. The journey from Rome to Appii Forum (today's village of Borgo Faiti) was 55 miles – at least two days travel and most probably four.
• Are we really to believe that Paul enjoyed such a towering reputation among brethren in the capital that excitement and anticipation impelled them to make such a journey? What did they know of the man? Supposedly, he had just passed an uneventful two years in a jail in Caesarea. In reality, the admiring crowd was no more than a literary device to aggrandise the hero of Acts.
• With another two days or more to make the return trip, would slaves and freedmen – the natural clientele for primitive Christianity – really have gotten several days "leave" to go off to meet and greet an enigmatic holy man? Weren't there lots of those in Rome already?
• Even supposing these first Christians in Rome were independent Jewish artisans ("tent makers", perhaps?!) would they really have had the time to spare? Time would have been required for a group to be organised or individual brethren to be informed, and after all, Paul was imminently arriving in Rome anyway.
No wonder the author of Acts had the Christian grandee "tarry" seven days at Puteoli!. Several days at the very least were required for an adoring audience to be assembled.
The brethren from Rome come out to greet Paul – fifty-five miles from Rome?
" And so we came to Rome. The believers from there, when they heard of us, came as far as the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns to meet us. On seeing them, Paul thanked God and took courage." – Acts 28.15
The first staging post (mansio / mutatio) on the via Appia after leaving Rome (or the last in the other direction!) was Aricia, below the Alban Hills, at the 16th mile.
"Leaving imperial Rome, I took my way
To poor Aricia, where that night I lay."
Three Taverns was another day's journey (15 miles) and Forum Appii (Market of Appius) was a further 10 miles.
"Near Tarracina, as you go toward Rome, there is a canal which runs alongside the Appian Way, and is fed at numerous places by waters from the marshes and the rivers. People navigate the canal, preferably by night (so that if they embark in the evening they can disembark early in the morning and go the rest of their journey by the Way), but they also navigate it by day. The boat is towed by a mule." – Strabo, Geography, 5.3.6
Elated brethren, making the journey south from Rome to greet Paul at the 55th milestone, was a scenario born from theological purpose not historical reality. The imaginary scene sketched by the author of Acts – of respectful believers, determined at all costs to identify with the apostle on the road and accompany him on a triumphal entry into the capital of the world – was for the edification and delight of later generations.
What, after all, had Paul done for the Christians of Rome – sent them a letter several years earlier? With the undeniable fact that "persons unknown" had established the church in Rome, what was there really to make the man from Tarsus such a star attraction?
He was the salesman of "God's grace."
The oh so wonderful Epistle to the Romans
"To all that be in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints ... All the churches of Christ greet you." – Romans 1.7; 16.16
For some, the great theological treatise of the New Testament, a profound exposition of the doctrinal system of the Christian religion. To more grounded minds, a turgid, tedious and irrelevant discourse of vacuous nonsense: sin (fifty-seven mentions), faith (forty-four mentions), righteousness (thirty-six mentions) and grace (twenty-one mentions). Insomniacs and masochists might enjoy such delightful verbiage as:
" ... justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins."
– Romans 3.24-25
For this, did those early Christians renounce the racetrack and the amphitheatre!
Actually, real Romans nowhere get a mention in the Epistle to the Romans, though Jews and Greeks are referred to thirteen times. There is absolutely nothing of the gospel Jesus here, no Nazareth or virgin birth, no perambulating ministry with twelve disciples, no astounding miracles or sublime teachings. Were the cosmic events of just two decades earlier so trite and well-known that not a single word was merited? Remarkably, the closest "Romans" gets to a crucifixion is a metaphorical reference to "our old self crucified with him" (Romans 6.6). Given that Paul is supposedly writing to the first Christian converts in Rome, it is quite bizarre that "Paul" makes no reference to his own "road to Damascus" encounter with the risen Jesus, an event that supposedly changed his life. And why would existing "believers" in Rome be in need of such a didactic letter as Paul's Romans? Did they believe the wrong things?
On the face it, the document is identified as the Epistle to the Romans only because "Rome" is mentioned twice in the opening greeting (1.7 and 1.15) but even those mentions are absent in some early copies of the tract. In origin Romans was clearly a statement of theology – the first draft of which was probably penned by Marcion but redacted repeatedly by Catholics. That draft was adapted as an "epistle to the Romans" by the expedient of adding "Rome" into the opening salutation.
And the epistle is certainly no letter. At around 7000 words in the original Greek (9000 words in English) a hand-written copy would run to more than thirty sheets of papyrus, a preposterous endeavour for an "occasional letter". What gives the game away is the final chapter, arguably an authentic letter in its own right though over blown with name checks.
The common assertion is that Paul wrote Romans whilst in Corinth around the year 58 AD, in anticipation of his first visit to Rome. The reality is that Romans was never written by a single author nor at such an early date but is a pastiche of various strains of nuanced theology redacted over a considerable period of time during the 2nd century.
No such "letter" as Romans energised the mid-1st century Christians of Rome – even assuming they even existed.
A Cornucopia of Absurdities!
"And when we came to Rome, the centurion delivered the prisoners to the captain of the guard: but Paul was suffered to dwell by himself with a soldier that kept him." - Acts 28.16 KJV
"When we came into Rome, Paul was allowed to live by himself, with the soldier who was guarding him." – Acts 28.16 ESV
The notion that the centurion guarding Paul delivered his other prisoners to the praetorian prefect, though present in the King James text and its derivatives, is not found in the oldest and "best" Greek (Alexandrian) or Syriac manuscripts. Why were the words added? Perhaps to bring an element of "realism" and contrast to a story that is quite absurd.
Paul, we're told, was allowed to "live in his own hired dwelling" – an extraordinary indulgence of a prisoner ("Roman citizenship" not withstanding!) Where did Paul's companion Aristarchus and the writer of Acts stay, one wonders? In a city crowded and short of housing for those who flocked there from across the empire, how on earth did Paul ("in chains"!) find a dwelling so quickly and pay the rent for the next two years?
"Rental costs and the prospects for a prisoner renting being what they were, Paul probably occupied an economical third floor apartment in one of the thousands of tenement buildings in the capital. It is doubtful that he would have wanted or even been able to afford a street-level storefront from which business was usually conducted."
– B. Rapske, The Book of Acts and Paul in Roman Custody, 326
In fact, it soon becomes obvious that we are not speaking of a room in a grim tenement of the kind in which most of Rome's residents lived. Because apparently Paul received into his house "great numbers" (Acts 28.23), many of them pious Jews who would not happily enter cramped tenements, notorious for transients, crime and immorality!
Are we to imagine a modest villa? And if so, how was that paid for? The antique Christian archaeologist William Ramsay (still much loved by the godly, though he did most of his work in the 1880s) was obliged to conclude that the meandering apostle supported himself from "hereditary property"!
"Paul had considerable command of money. Imprisonment and a long lawsuit are expensive. Now it is clear that Paul … did not appear before the world as a penniless wanderer … Felix hoped a bribe from him and a rich Roman official did not look for a small gift … Paul was believed to be attended by two slaves to serve him … In Rome he was able to hire a lodging for himself and to live there, maintaining, of course, the soldier who guarded him … In appealing to the Emperor, Paul was choosing undoubtedly an expensive line of trial … Where, then, was the money procured? … There seems no alternative except that Paul's hereditary property was used in those four years … But, whatever be the precise facts, we must regard Paul as a man of wealth during these years."
– Ramsay, St Paul the Traveller, 310-312
One problem with Ramsay's guess of inherited wealth is how Paul was able to access that wealth. Did he wander the world with bags of gold stuffed in his breeches? Did he hold on to his money belt through beatings, imprisonments, shipwrecks, and escapades in remote corners of the empire? The only rational explanation is that the entire story is a fabrication, which the further absurdities of the yarn prove to be the case.
Paul's own hired house – both of them!
Neither of the two venues that claims to be the site of Paul's two-year house arrest was located in the Jewish area (the Trastevere).
SanPaolo alla Regola stands in what was once the "theatre district" and Santa Maria in Via Lata is sited close to the Saepta Julia – a voting chamber used for gladiatorial fights and gymnastics in the imperial era.
Santa Maria also claims that its crypt (in reality an ancient warehouse) was home to Peter, Luke and John!
Summoning (and warning) the Jews?!
"Three days later he called together the local leaders of the Jews. When they had assembled, he said to them, "Brothers, though I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our ancestors, yet I was arrested in Jerusalem and handed over to the Romans."
– Acts 28.17
After the short space of three days from his arrival at Rome, Paul had the effrontery to summon the Jewish leaders – and even more remarkable, three days later they dutifully assemble before him!
Who were the Jewish leaders that so readily accepted the summons from a renegade Jew from out of town? Rome had a sizable Jewish population in the mid-1st century so how exactly did Paul contact the leading men? Would they have even heard of the man from Tarsus? ("We have received no letters from Judea about you, and none of the brothers coming here has reported or spoken any evil about you." – Acts 28.21)
As if that wasn't absurdity enough, the Jews then agreed to return to Paul's house for a whole day's lecture from the heretic ("from morning until evening" – Acts 28.23).
"But we would like to hear from you what you think, for with regard to this sect we know that everywhere it is spoken against." – Acts 28.22
Yet if, in reality, the Christian sect were "everywhere" would Jewish leaders really have remained ignorant of its claims? Had "the Way" not had an energetic presence in the city for some twenty years (let's not forget the "Chrestus" riot during the reign of Claudius!)?
Would not the Jewish leadership years before have confronted the unnamed proselytisers who had brought the Christian heresy to the city? The rabbis surely did not need a lecture from Paul!
Paul's alleged encounter with the Jews of Rome is decidedly not kosher. But Acts assures us that such was the remarkable persuasive power of the apostle that after their one-day seminar some of the Jewish leaders "believed". Was the ancestral religion of the Jews so easily abandoned ? Another claim that is preposterous.
Interestingly enough, in enlightening the Jews the apostle made no reference at all to a human Jesus nor even referred to his own encounter with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. Instead, Paul "expounded on the law of Moses and the prophets". His Christ Jesus came from "revelation" and scriptural re-interpretation. "Paul" confirmed that the charges against him were religious: "It is for the sake of the hope of Israel that I am bound with this chain", he insisted (Acts 28.20). Jewish leaders would not have been impressed.
Acts claims Paul succeeded in sowing dissension among the Jews but "knew" the Gentiles would listen.
"Paul made one further statement: 'The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your ancestors through the prophet Isaiah, Go to this people and say, You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. For this people's heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes;
so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn –
and I would heal them.' Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen." – Acts 28.24-28
The Romans had absolutely no reason to waste a continuous guard on Paul for two-years – nor would they.
Happy days in Rome?
"And Paul dwelt two whole years in his own hired house, and received all that came in unto him. Preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ, with all confidence, no man forbidding him."
– Acts 28.30-31
Having followed his usual performance of first lecturing the obdurate Jews on the meaning of their own scriptures and then issuing them with an ultimatum, Paul moved on to the more receptive Gentiles. His "prisoner" status made scant difference to what he might have achieved if he had not been a "prisoner" in the first place!
Paul had claimed in his epistle to the Romans that his policy was not to work where the gospel had already been preached ("not where Christ was already named" - 15.20) and it seems that the faith of the Christians in Rome was so renown that it was already "proclaimed in all the world" (1.8). This was even before Paul wrote his epistle to them. The church in the capital had evidently existed for "many years" (15.23) before Paul showed up.
Paul's original intent had been "to pass through" Rome, enjoy the community of saints for a while, and then travel on to Spain:
"But now, since I no longer have any room for work in these regions, and since I have longed for many years to come to you, I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain, and to be sped on my journey there by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a little. At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem with aid for the saints ... When therefore I have completed this, and have delivered to them what has been raised, I shall go on by way of you to Spain." - Romans 15.23-28
"House arrest" had allowed the author of Acts to change Paul's policy without losing face. The much redacted Romans also has Paul write, "I am ready to preach the gospel to you who are in Rome also" – 1.15)!
Paul resumed his preaching mission in the capital and, "without hindrance", continued to do so in the comfort of his own home for two full years. Paul had thus fulfilled the Lord's command "to testify about me in Rome" even if he hadn't fulfilled the angel of God's command to "stand before Caesar."
The Christians in Rome?
In the mid-1st century there were as yet no gospels, so what on earth did these primordial believers believe?
It is argued by some that the very earliest Christians in Rome were among the "3000" who heard Peter's multilingual address at the first Pentecost in Jerusalem ("Devout Jews from every nation ... visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes ..." – Acts 2.5,10). The violent sound of "fiery Holy Spirit" had drawn a crowd together and Peter had reminded those assembled of Jesus's deeds of power, wonders, and signs ("done among you as you yourself know"). So the specious argument goes that Roman Jews, witnesses themselves of marvels and baptised by apostles, had returned to Rome with their heads ringing with Lord Christ Jesus.
Thus a Christian presence in Rome had self-generated from witnesses of miracles returning from Jerusalem. No charismatic apostolic founder figure had been required. By a similar logic, Christian communities could have been established everywhere else and the whole "apostolic mission" would have been undermined.
What we have here, in the "persons unknown" origin of the church in Rome, is implicitly (though certainly not explicitly!) an acknowledgement that Christian fraternities emerged from earlier enthusiasms that had preceded them – Judaism itself, and various cults blended in an ongoing syncretism.
Jews from Rome (perhaps freed slaves) may have visited Jerusalem for some particular festival and then returned to Rome "radicalised" by their experience. Rather than stand witness to miracle, and encounters with characters talking about miracles, the more rational probability is that they imbibed some strain of messianic expectation, nothing more.
And then ... a trip to Spain?
What happened to Paul subsequent to his two-years of home-based sermonising? History is silent but holy liars are ever active.
"Acts gives no hint of what happened at the close of the two whole years. Was Paul acquitted? Did the case go by default? Was he martyred under Nero? Or was his fate still undecided when Luke penned the verse? A case can be made out for all these conjectures." – E.J. Bicknell, A New Commentary on Holy Scripture, p377
The intention expressed in Romans that Paul, after a short period of fellowship and fund-raising in Rome, wanted to resume his missionary activity in Spain, provided the basis for the assertion that the Spanish escapade did in fact happen. The document that confirmed this was another "letter", forever known as "1 Clement" (or more formally as First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians) though in fact the letter is anonymous and Clement is nowhere mentioned. At either 13,000 or 16,000 words (depending on the choice of translation, the original Greek or later Latin) this preposterously lengthy "letter" (twice the size of Romans) stands service for many dubious claims of the church. With regard to the fate of Paul, the pertinent paragraph occurs in chapter 5:
" Paul by his example pointed out the prize of patient endurance. After that he had been seven times in bonds, had been driven into exile, had been stoned, had preached in the East and in the West, he won the noble renown which was the reward of his faith, having taught righteousness unto the whole world and having reached the farthest bounds of the West and when he had borne his testimony before the rulers, so he departed from the world and went unto the holy place, having been found a notable pattern of patient endurance." – 1 Clement 5 (Lightfoot translation)
Here is the vaguest possible reference to Spain ("farthest bounds of the West" - could that be Britain?) and the barest allusion to martyrdom. To make the "death and martyrdom" more evident, later copies of Clement read "suffered martyrdom under the prefects", though even this makes no reference to when, where or how Paul died.
There are obvious problems for the theory that Paul evangelised in Spain. One of them is that Spanish church gives the honour of "founder apostle" to James, the brother of John (Santiago!). Then again, there is no evidence of 1st century Christianity in Spain at all!
Did Paul simply die of old age, perhaps? His struggle seems to have been against jealousy, not a vicious Roman emperor. There is nothing here about death in Rome, Nero, or the burning of Christians.
Death becomes you - Acts of Paul
As we saw above, the first allusion to the death of Paul is to found in that a massive diatribe known as "1 Clement". But in fact, Eusebius, the 4th century church historian, made no reference to 1 Clement when establishing the supposed martyrdom of Paul (and Peter) although he discusses this so-called "epistle" at length.
Tropaeum of a Caesar
The first testimony that is quoted by Eusebius (Church History 2.25) dates from more than a hundred years later than Clement, from a certain Caius. This Caius (possibly a presbyter in Rome during the papacy of Zephyrinus, 199-217) is reported to have written "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."
In the Roman world, of course, trophies went with triumphs, and we have already seen Paul had a "triumphant entry" into Rome. But tropaea constructed by sectarians claiming to be persecuted is extremely unlikely. Were the Christians not supposedly hiding in the catacombs at the time of Paul's death?!
Of course these trophies would not long have existed anyway because later Christian basilicas were constructed on the sites where supposedly they had stood. But even extant trophies would prove nothing about when, where or how Paul died.
Eusebius next cited Dionysius, a late 2nd century bishop of Corinth, who made the startling claim that Peter and Paul had taught and died together in Rome :
"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." – H.E. 2.25
Detail, of course, is missing and the source is suspect. The so-called bishop of Corinth claims that his own church had been "planted" by both Peter and Paul, a joint enterprise unknown either to Paul or the author of Acts! If that was the testimony of Dionysius writing of his own church his word is valueless for the church of Rome.
Eusebius throws in his own bit of questionable evidence at this point, reporting that the names of Peter and Paul were "preserved in the cemeteries of that place even to the present day." But in the ancient world the names of thousands of fabulous entities were preserved, in burial grounds, public spaces, and popular shrines. That made none of them real. The only reality is that Peter and Paul had been "planted" in Rome.
The witness of Tacitus? NO!
It should be noted that, in substantiating the supposed "persecution of Nero," Eusebius does NOT cite the notorious passage 15.44 from the Annals of Tacitus so beloved by today's apologists!
This is especially telling because Eusebius, rather than cite the Roman historian (which he does nowhere in his history), chooses instead to recycle the vague assertion made by Tertullian, writing more than a century later than Tacitus, that Nero was the "first persecutor of the church". Nearly two centuries after the alleged persecution, Tertullian urged his readers to "examine your records" without indicating his actual source:
"Examine your records. You will there find that Nero was the first emperor who wreaked his fury on the blood of Christians, when our religion was just springing up in Rome. But we even glory in being first dedicated to destruction by such a monster. For whoever knows him can understand that it could only have been something of supreme excellence that called forth the condemnation of Nero." – Apology 5
Tertullian referred a second time to these "public records" but this time made clear his figurative use of the term:
" 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." – Scorpiace 15
"Speaking archives" have no more reality than "speaking stones". It is more than a tad suspicious that neither Tertullian in the 3rd century nor Eusebius in the 4th century quote the historical records directly, which points towards the redaction of the text of Tacitus at a date even later than the time of Eusebius.
Tertullian is most notable for his quip about throwing Christians to the lions ("What, all of them? to a single lion?") but he was also the first to say that Peter had been crucified: "Peter suffered a passion like his Lord's" (On the Prescription of Heretics, 36).
As for Paul, Tertullian reported that "Paul was crowned with the death of John" (that is a beheading, like John the Baptist). This contradicts the boast ascribed to Ignatius more than a century earlier, that the wannabe martyr "wanted to be found in the footsteps of Paul" and yet that meant being fed to the beasts! (Ignatius, Ephesians 12, Romans 1).
A fantasy itinerary for Paul – but then again, they are all fantasy!
In its wildest incarnation Paul's later career is even more dynamic than the earlier career recorded in Acts. It is all based on a ludicrous over-interpretation of just a few verses from the fake pastoral epistles. Having made the claim that Paul travelled to Spain and the west, it seems the pastoral epistles suggest that Paul also travelled back to the east!
One claim is that Paul left Rome for Spain and then returned to Ephesus. From here Paul visited the other churches of Greece and wrote his first letter to Timothy. This claim is squeezed from a single verse:
"As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies which promote speculations rather than the divine training that is in faith." – 1 Timothy 1.3
One problem with this bit of the new itinerary is that Timothy, according to Acts, was not with Paul when he left Ephesus!
From Greece, it has been asserted, Paul took ship to Crete and then again returned to Ephesus, where he wrote his letter to Titus. This is derived from: "When I send Artemas or Tychicus to you, do your best to come to me at Nicopolis, for I have decided to spend the winter there." (Titus 1.12).
With the epistle of Titus moving Paul to Nicopolis, Paul's arrest (at Nicopolis, or perhaps at Troas, where Paul left some belongings), and transport back to Rome, is extracted from just a couple verses of 2 Timothy:
"Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you for he is very useful in serving me. Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments." – 2 Timothy 4.11-13
"Luke alone" was supposedly with Paul in Rome in his final days. All that is required now is testimony that Paul died a martyr by decapitation. But "Luke" – the "great historian" – fails to say a word.
A second jail term and martyrdom ?!
Whether it was to Spain or somewhere else, Paul supposedly left Rome and returned to the city some years later. A chronology of this last period of Paul's life is even more problematic than earlier episodes, not least because all the claims are "traditions" woven around interpretations of epistles which themselves are inauthentic. Our only safe footstep is that if Paul existed and if he was transported to Rome as claimed by Acts, his first detention lasted until 62.
Did Paul, perhaps, return to Rome of his own volition or was he still being hounded by dastardly Jews? Was there no second dramatic voyage to Rome, involving, say, a shipwreck and snakebite miracle or something similar, worthy of the great apostle? How long was Paul's second prison term? Was there a new charge against him or was he simply caught up in the Neronian persecution, if such an event even occurred? Did he die in 64 or as late as 68? Why did "Luke" stop documenting his hero before these crucial episodes? According to the "traditions" about Luke himself, he lived to a ripe old age of 84.
Fabricating "tradition" – the Mamertine prison
Is it remotely creditable that the original Christians of Rome, who traipsed for days just to share with Paul his first entrance into the city, not only showed no such interest in his second arrival just a few years later, but also failed to record a single word about his imprisonment, his trial, his execution and his burial?
To all of these questions we have only the "imaginative" answers from a later age. Papal ambition and pious credulity supplied what history failed to provide. Thus a suitably grim prison was identified in which Peter and Paul "must" have spent their final days. With a few added artifacts, such as chains and graffiti, authenticity was confirmed and a "tradition" was born.
Thus it was that the first and oldest prison in Rome, the Tullianum, was retroactively drawn into the Christian fable. Located on the eastern slope of the Capitoline hill, close to the forum, the lower, subterranean level of the prison had originally been a water cistern. A spring (hence the name) rose through a hole in the floor and drained into the main sewer (Cloaca Maxima).
During the republican period this chamber became a holding cell for state prisoners, many held pending an inglorious display in a Roman triumph. Others simply died in this dark and damp dungeon, the only entry to which was a hole in the floor above (today there is an added flight of steps). The prisoners, often naked, were lowered or thrown into this hellhole.
Now try to imagine this … Paul writing his "2nd epistle to Timothy" from the Tullianum – and writing this!
"Do your best to get here before winter. Eubulus greets you, and so do Pudens, Linus, Claudia and all the brothers and sisters."
– 2 Timothy 4.21.
Quite a jolly group in the dungeon. And of course there must have been a friendly jailer at hand to deliver the precious epistle!
The Tullianum was integrated into the Christian dreamscape sometime between the 5th and 7th centuries, when it was added to the pilgrim trail and repurposed for Christian worship. By then it was known as the Mamertine.
Even the spring itself was given a role in the faux drama. It owed its existence, supposedly, not to an ancient aquifer but to a miracle of Peter, who used its waters to "baptise other prisoners". The "healing waters" would thereafter be a fillip to the burgeoning pilgrim trade.
Paul loses his head
"Patristic tradition has, by and large, placed the date of Paul's martyrdom in Nero's last regnal year, 68 A.D. This is, however, a late tradition with no seeming historical basis. The choice of this date is clearly theological ... Nero's fall from power and subsequent death being considered as divine punishment for his ordering the killing of the two Apostles Peter and Paul."
– Tajra, The Martyrdom of St. Paul, 31.
The "holding cell" at the Mamertine was not the only "holding cell" of the apostle Paul. Six miles to the south, at the church of St Paul at the Three Fountains, is another delight for the Christian pilgrim. The church (with its own holding cell!) marks the spot where supposedly the apostle had his head cut off. Pope Gregory I in the 7th century confirmed it so and coins from the reign of Nero were found here in the 19th century.
From the three points where Paul's head bounced three springs gushed forth. Apart from the assurance of the 4th century Acts of Peter and Paul, convincing evidence of this is provided by three languid fountains which show precisely where Paul's head touched the ground. Well, not any more. They were closed off in 1950 as a health hazard. But three close altars within the church mark where they were. Apparently.
Aside from this absurd nonsense, the question to ask is, Why traipse Paul six miles to cut off his head? The best apology that defenders of the faith can muster is to suggest that a too public execution might have "caused a stir."
Inmates of the Tullianum – Sejanas, the deposed praetorian prefect of Tiberius, for example – were killed on the spot, their corpses exposed on the Gemonium stairs or thrown into the forum.
So what was so appealing about about the area around Aquae Salviae? For one thing, the district was sacred to the ancient fertility goddess Dea Dia (one of the cults revised by Augustus) and the spring here had a venerable history long before Christianity claimed it as its own. By so doing, yet another bit of Rome's pagan heritage was expropriated by the cult of Christ.
Although risible, the story of Paul's "bouncing head" worked well enough during centuries of ignorance and gullibility and inspired some fine but misleading art.
Superb painting but no connection with reality
Beheading does not require the victim be tied to a stone pillar. In fact cutting against stone would damage the blade. Hence, chopping blocks were wooden. The artist here (19th century Enrique Simonet) skillfully avoids the problems.
Why have a pillar/block at all? Heads can be removed by the victim kneeling – as other artists recognise.
But of course a pillar provides a durable artefact to strengthen faith for centuries to come.
Bones with a life of their own
The body (and presumably head!) of Paul was collected by the Christian brethren after his execution and given a respectful burial. Such, at least, is the "tradition". Probe the "tradition" for details, however, and all is opaque. History is silent and "tradition" affords no agreement as to the origin of later veneration. It appears that "a Christian woman named Lucina" was associated with the burial of Paul in each of three centuries.
The church in Rome began burying its dead in catacombs during the pontificate of Zephyrinus (198-217), at a time when the church was acquiring land near Rome. Zephyrinus' administrator for the Christian catacomb was a thief and deacon (later pope), Callixtus (aka Callistus), who gave his own name to the cemetery on the Appian way. Here early popes had their tombs, so why not Peter and Paul? This was a period when rival Christian factions contended often violently with each other (and the first of the "Anti-Popes").
The problem was that a rival necropolis, also on the Appian way, also claimed to be the resting place for the apostles' bones. Apparently, the remains of Peter and Paul had been "hidden" in the catacombs of St Sebastian during the reign of Vespasian (69-79). But then a counter claim related that the relics of Peter and Paul had been moved to the catacombs of St Sebastian only in the 3rd century, in the time of emperor Valerian (253-260). Either way, the catacomb of St Sebastian acquired the aura of a cult site, and today has much holy graffiti on its walls to illustrate the centuries of veneration to Peter and Paul.
Without saying which of the competing graveyards actually had the holy bones, the Book of the Popes relates the story that the relics of Paul and Peter had remained "ad Catacumbas" until the time of Pope Cornelius (251-253), when Paul got shifted to a resting ground on the Via Ostiensis and Peter found himself on the Vatican hill.
" Cornelius, during his pontificate at the request of a certain matron,
Lucina, took up the bodies of the apostles, blessed Peter and Paul, from the catacombs by night ; first the body of the blessed Paul
was received by the blessed Lucina and laid in her own garden on the Via Ostiensis, near the place where he was beheaded ; the body of the blessed Peter was received
by the blessed Cornelius, the bishop, and laid near the place where
he was crucified, among the bodies of the holy bishops, in the shrine
of Apollo, on the Mons Aureus, in the Vatican, by the palace of
Nero, June 29." – Liber Pontificalis, XXII .
If the bones of Paul reached the Via Ostiensis only in the 3rd century, what then did the tropaeum "seen" by the 2nd century presbyter Caius and reported by Eusebius in the 4th century actually memorialise? Was it constructed as a "cella memoriae" soon after the death of Paul or only after the transfer of bones two hundred years later?
The massive church which stands on the spot is known as San Paolo fuori le Mura (St Paul Outside the Walls), and the walls in question are the Aurelian Walls built between 271-275. The original basilica here was built by Constantine, on a sepulchral area reputedly owned "by a Christian woman named Lucina" (transferred back from the 3rd century to the 1st century!) Not to waste a good yarn, it was also Lucina (now transferred forward into the 4th century!) who retrieved the body of St Sebastian from a sewer and buried it in the catacomb of Callixtus! Sebastian was also buried in the near by catacomb that bears his own name.
The cult site at St Sebastian, the tropaeum of Paul on the road to Ostia, and the tropaeum of Peter on the Vatican hill, may be burial places, temporary resting places for bones, meeting places of early believers, or simply monuments that celebrate bogus martyrdoms. It could be that the bones of Paul and Peter had been carefully tagged for over two hundred years before reaching their final destinations. Or it could be that an ambitious church constructed a place of veneration and pilgrimage for its gullible flock.
The many tombs of Paul
Apparently, a Christian saint can have many tombs – a miracle that proves they are all authentic!
The power of myth
"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! "
– Tertullian, Prescription 36 (c. 210 ?)
From beginning to end the life of the apostle St Paul is a fantasy, an evangelical adventure reminiscent of a Greek romance, comparable to the tales of Odysseus or Jason. Paul's success is peerless. Wherever the apostle goes a few words from the great man convinces pagans (and a handful of Jews) to convert on the spot to Christ – often along with their entire household. Lacing this remarkable tale of successful salvation is a heart-rending story of personal deprivation and suffering ("perils ... false brethren ... hunger and thirst ... cold and nakedness"). No fewer than eighteen times does Paul survive a fate which would have killed lesser men. Only when the indefatigable crusader reaches Rome does he achieve his goal, a death that brings life eternal with his lord. Even headless, the apostle works a final miracle, spraying his executioner with milk.
Not a word has any fidelity to historical truth. But having achieved a death in Rome the real miracle of Paul began, the miracle of imposing a Pauline landscape on a city that had honoured the gods of polytheism for a millennium. Over the coming centuries the resourceful mind of religious fraudsters responded with aplomb, creating a Pauline Rome to delight the faithful and instil faith in the doubtful.
Brian Rapske, The Book of Acts and Paul in Roman Custody (Eerdmans, 1994)
William Ramsay, St Paul the Traveller and the Roman Citizen (Hodder and Stoughton, 1898)
H. W. Tajra, The Martyrdom of St. Paul, Historical and Judicial Context, tradition, and Legends (Wipf & Stock, 1994)
John Macpherson, Was there a second imprisonment of Paul in Rome? (American Journal of Theology, 1900)
Jack Finegan, Light from the Ancient Past: The Archaeological Background of the Hebrew-Christian Religion (Princeton,1974,1963)
L. M. Jefferson, R. M. Jensen (Eds.), The Art of Empire: Christian Art in Its Imperial Context (Fortress, 2015)
Roald Dijkstra, The Apostles in Early Christian Art and Poetry (Brill, 2016)
Digital Augustan Rome
Appian Way 1
Appian Way 2
Appian Way 3
The Peutinger Map
William Smith, Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography (1854)
Le Plan de Rome
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by Kenneth Humphreys.
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