The Martyrdom of Paul and of Peter (Eusebius)

When reading the New Testament it is clear that right from the start there were very fierce opponents of the gospel. Not nearly everyone was a fan of the Christian message or the Christian church. For just one example, we learn about Stephen’s martyrdom in Acts 7.

Certainly other Christians were persecuted as well, although we don’t always have all the details of the stories. In fact, we might even wonder: what ever happened to the apostles? Although it’s not found in Scripture, there is a somewhat firm reason to believe that both Peter and Paul were martyred during Nero’s reign. One resource that talks about this is a work of Eusebius of Caesarea (d. 339). Although bishop Eusebius wasn’t a premier theologian, he did write an early church history account called “Ecclesiastical History” (History Ecclesiastica) which is quite helpful in various ways. Here’s what he wrote about the deaths of Paul and Peter (I’ve edited it very slightly for readability):

When the government of Nero was now firmly established, he began to plunge into unholy pursuits, and armed himself even against the religion of the God of the universe.

To describe the greatness of Nero’s depravity does not lie within the plan of the present work. As there are many indeed that have recorded his history in most accurate narratives, every one may at his pleasure learn from them the coarseness of the man’s extraordinary madness, under the influence of which, after he had accomplished the destruction of so many myriads without any reason, he ran into such blood-guiltiness that he did not spare even his nearest relatives and dearest friends, but destroyed his mother and his brothers and his wife, with very many others of his own family, as he would private and public enemies, with various kinds of deaths.

But with all these things this particular in the catalogue of Nero’s crimes was still wanting, that he was the first of the emperors who showed himself an enemy of the divine religion.

The Roman Tertullian is likewise a witness of this. He writes as follows: “Examine your records. There you will find that Nero was the first that persecuted this doctrine, particularly then when after subduing all the east, he exercised his cruelty against all at Rome. We glory in having such a man the leader in our punishment. For whoever knows him can understand that nothing was condemned by Nero unless it was something of great excellence.”

Thus publicly announcing himself as the first among God’s chief enemies, he was led on to the slaughter of the apostles. It is, therefore, recorded that Paul was beheaded in Rome itself, and that Peter likewise was crucified under Nero. This account of Peter and Paul is substantiated by the fact that their names are preserved in the cemeteries of that place even to the present day.

It is confirmed likewise by Caius, a member of the Church, who arose under Zephyrinus, bishop of Rome. He, in a published disputation with Proclus, the leader of the Phrygian heresy, speaks as follows concerning the places where the sacred corpses of the aforesaid apostles are laid:

“But I can show the trophies of the apostles. For if you will go to the vatican hill or to the Ostian way, you will find the trophies of those who laid the foundations of this church.”

And that they both suffered martyrdom at the same time is stated by Dionysius, bishop of Corinth, in his epistle to the Romans, in the following words: “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.” I have quoted these things in order that the truth of the history might be still more confirmed.

 Eusebius of Caesaria, “The Church History of Eusebius,” in Eusebius: Church History, Life of Constantine the Great, and Oration in Praise of Constantine, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Arthur Cushman McGiffert, vol. 1, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1890), 128–130.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015