Thursday, March 22, 2012

Early Sources On The Death Of The Apostles (Part 4)

(Previous parts in this series: part 1, part 2, part 3.)

Paul And Peter

There's a lot of overlap in the material on Paul and Peter, so I'm addressing them together.

In 2 Timothy, Paul is in prison (1:8, 2:9), apparently in Rome. The Roman setting is suggested by 1:16-17 and the Latin names mentioned in 4:21, especially Linus, the name of an early Roman bishop. Later, extra-Biblical sources place Paul's imprisonment in that city as well. Based on information elsewhere in the New Testament and in some extra-Biblical sources, it seems that 2 Timothy was written sometime in the 60s, around the time of the Neronian persecution. Paul is expecting to die in the near future (4:6-8). He had been largely abandoned by his associates (1:15, 4:10, 4:16).

The implication seems to be that he was expecting to soon be executed by the Roman government, in the context of the persecution of Christians in Rome under Nero. That scenario would explain why Paul was imprisoned, was in Rome, was expecting to die soon, and had been largely abandoned. Apparently, many individuals who previously were willing to associate with him no longer wanted to do so once his circumstances seemed to be headed toward a death sentence. They decided that it was too dangerous to associate with somebody who was in such disfavor with the Roman government.

It could be argued that Paul wasn't anticipating execution, but instead knew that he would die soon of natural causes. Maybe he had received a revelation from God to that effect. Or maybe he realized that his body was in the final stages of breaking down.

But an impending execution by the Romans is a better explanation of the evidence. Are we to believe that it was just a coincidence that he was in prison at the time, that he was in Rome at a time when Christians were being singled out for execution there on a large scale, and that he was recently abandoned by his associates? All of these things that point to a death sentence just happened to occur around the time when Paul was going to die by natural causes? That's not the most natural reading of the evidence. And should we assume a Divine revelation from God, regarding an upcoming death by natural causes, even though the text doesn't refer to one? Knowing that you're going to die soon by government execution is more common, and it doesn't require us to read some sort of Divine intervention into a text that doesn't suggest it. The two best explanations of 2 Timothy seem to be that Paul was awaiting an execution by the Romans or was awaiting a death by natural causes that he anticipated because of his declining health. The former makes better sense of the totality of the evidence outlined above. And, as we'll see, it's an explanation corroborated by multiple contemporaries of the apostles, including one who apparently had known Paul.

But since one of those later sources also discusses the death of Peter, I first want to address the New Testament evidence pertaining to the end of Peter's life. (Since I'm about to discuss John 21, and some people deny that the chapter was part of the original gospel, I'll cite a resource on that subject for those who are interested. See the arguments for the originality of John 21 in Craig Keener, The Gospel Of John: A Commentary, Vol. 2 [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003], 1219-1222. If the chapter was a later addition, it could be an early source, even a first-century source. It could be by the same author or written by somebody else with apostolic approval. Denying the chapter's inclusion in the original gospel, if that denial isn't accompanied by another argument, doesn't do much to undermine the significance of John 21 in this context.) In John 21:18, Jesus tells Peter that he'll be led away against his will when he's old and that his hands will be stretched out. John explains, in verse 19, that Jesus was referring to a manner of death by which Peter would glorify God. It seems that a martyrdom by crucifixion is being described.

Crucifixion would involve what Jesus describes in verse 18. And the imagery is especially suggestive of crucifixion in the context of early Christianity, since Jesus was crucified as such a central event of the religion, He told His followers to take up their cross and follow Him, etc. Crucifixion was a prominent theme in early Christianity. The language of stretching hands was used in reference to crucifixion in other early Christian literature. For example: The Epistle Of Barnabas, 12; Justin Martyr, Dialogue With Trypho, 90-91. And later Christian sources tell us that Peter was crucified.

John's comment that Peter will glorify God in his death suggests that Peter remained faithful throughout his execution. He didn't renounce Christ.

If John's gospel was written in the late first century, as seems likely, then John 21:19 is looking back on Peter's martyrdom as a past event. Jesus anticipated it, and John commented on it after its occurrence. Since John had such a high position in the church (Galatians 2:9) and seems to have had a close relationship with Peter (Mark 5:37, 9:2, John 13:23-24, 20:2-3, 21:20, Acts 3:1-4:23, 8:14-25, Galatians 2:9), he was in a good position to know what happened to Peter at the time of his death. He's a highly credible source on that subject.

Late in the first century, Clement of Rome wrote:

"By reason of jealousy and envy the greatest and most righteous pillars of the Church were persecuted, and contended even unto death. Let us set before our eyes the good Apostles. There was Peter who by reason of unrighteous jealousy endured not one but many labors, and thus having borne his testimony went to his appointed place of glory. By reason of jealousy and strife 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." (First Clement, 5)

Clement tells us that Peter and Paul were persecuted "unto death". Earlier in the document, in section 4, he had referred to how Joseph, in his trials described in Genesis, was persecuted "unto death". Thus, the phrase can refer to being brought near to death without dying. But the involvement of death seems to be a more natural way to interpret the phrase. In the case of Joseph, we know that he wasn't martyred, so we take the phrase in a less natural sense. But there's no reason to interpret it that way with regard to Peter and Paul.

Clement mentions bearing "testimony before the rulers" as Paul's last action before going to Heaven. That would make sense if he died by means of an execution ordered by the state. If Paul died of natural causes, for example, it seems unlikely that Clement would coincidentally mention testifying before rulers just before mentioning Paul's entrance into Heaven, giving a misleading impression that Paul had been martyred. Most likely, the concept of martyrdom is what Clement meant to convey.

Why does he mention Peter and Paul's entrance into Heaven (Peter "went to his appointed place of glory"; Paul "departed from the world and went unto the holy place")? Probably because their persecution involved being put to death. In section 6, where he discusses Christian women who apparently were raped before being murdered, he mentions their entrance into Heaven. The suffering at the end of the martyr's life is contrasted to the joy that immediately follows. Heaven is especially relevant to cases of persecution involving martyrdom, so Clement mentions Heaven when discussing some of those accounts. Going to Heaven isn't mentioned in any of the cases Clement cites in sections 4-6 that didn't involve martyrdom. He doesn't mention Heaven in every example involving a martyr, but mentioning Heaven does seem to be one indication among others that martyrdom is in view.

It's also worth noting that Clement tells us that Paul was "found a notable pattern of patient endurance" when he entered Heaven. The implication is that Paul endured his execution without renouncing Christ.

Writing shortly after Clement, Ignatius refers to Paul's martyrdom:

"Ye are the high-road of those that are on their way to die unto God. Ye are associates in the mysteries with Paul, who was sanctified, who obtained a good report, who is worthy of all felicitation; in whose foot-steps I would fain be found treading, when I shall attain unto God; who in every letter maketh mention of you in Christ Jesus." (Letter To The Ephesians, 12)

I've chosen J.B. Lightfoot's translation, which is more ambiguous than others, in order to demonstrate that Paul's martyrdom seems to follow even from a more ambiguous rendering. However, below I'll be citing other translations that make my point more explicitly.

Ignatius is addressing "those that are on their way to die unto God". He then mentions Paul. He wants to follow in Paul's footsteps when he "attains unto God", which is a reference to his death as a martyr and entrance into Heaven (see, for example, sections 4-5 in his letter to the Romans). Most likely, the reason why he starts off with the plural "those" ("those that are on their way to die unto God") is that he has at least one other person in mind who was in contact with the Ephesians on his way to martyrdom. Given that he then names Paul and refers to how Paul was aware of the Ephesians ("in every letter maketh mention of you"), he probably had Paul in mind as one of those who was in contact with the Ephesians on his way to martyrdom.

Why would the Ephesians be referred to as "the high-road of those that are on their way to die unto God"? Michael Holmes explains:

"Ephesus was on the route by which prisoners from the East would be taken to Rome; Ignatius seems to suggest that their [the Ephesian Christians'] spiritual position corresponds to their geographical location." (The Apostolic Fathers [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2005], n. 17 on 145)

We can't tell to just what extent Ignatius is paralleling his relationship to the Ephesians with Paul's relationship to them. But even if that parallel is a vague one, Ignatius draws a close parallel between his manner of death and Paul's. He wants to walk in Paul's footsteps by dying as a faithful martyr.

The edition of Ignatius produced by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe uses the phrase "Paul, the holy, the martyred" in this passage. Allen Brent translates Ignatius' comments similarly:

"You are on the passing of the ways for those slaughtered to attain God, fellow-initiates with Paul who has been sanctified, who has been martyred." (Ignatius Of Antioch [New York, New York: T & T Clark International, 2009], 72)

In another letter, Ignatius refers to his martyrdom as being "poured out as a drink offering to God" (Letter To The Romans, 2), which echoes 2 Timothy 4:6. That he used Paul's language in 2 Timothy to describe his own martyrdom is further evidence that Paul's language was associated with martyrdom at that time and that Paul would have been viewed as a martyr by somebody like Ignatius.

No comments:

Post a Comment