Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Paul is Dead

In what chapter of the Book of Acts is Paul’s death recorded? None.

Though Paul is the primary human protagonist in the second half of the book of Acts (Acts 13-28), his death is not recorded. At the book’s conclusion, Paul is awaiting trial in Rome (Acts 28:16, 30). The only apostle whose death is documented in Acts is James (Acts 12:2).

The consensus among scholars is that Paul was indeed dead at the time Acts was written. Though the Bible and history are silent regarding Paul’s death, church history indicates that he was martyred in Rome during Nero’s reign around 64 CE. His death is commemorated at Tre Fontane Abbey. Early church historian Eusebius of Caesarea (263-339) references Paul’s martyrdom twice (Historia Ecclesiastica 2.21, 2.25). He claims that Paul successfully defended himself before Nero in Rome (correlating to his incarceration in Acts 28) and was released only to be imprisoned again and ultimately beheaded. While Peter is crucified upside down, Paul is decapitated, the standard form of capitol punishment for Roman citizens (Acts 22:28). Eusebius sites Caius of Rome as his source and was likely also influenced by the non-canonical Acts of Paul, which he lists among spurious works. The Acts of Paul also depicts the famed apostle being decollated (Acts of Paul XIV).

Some have dated Acts at 62 CE because Paul’s death is absent [e.g. Norman Geisler (b. 1932), Donald Guthrie (1915-1992)]. Eusebius, himself, believed that the book was published prior to the apostles’ martyrdom (Historia Ecclesiastica 2.22). Most scholars, however, assert that Acts was written at the earliest in 80 CE, long after the death of Paul. Hans Conzelmann (1915-1989) concludes, “The farewell speech in Miletus [Acts 20:25-38] leaves no doubt as to how this came about: Paul was executed. But Luke did not wish to tell about that. The purpose of the book has been fully achieved; therefore we ought to reject all hypotheses which understand the book as incomplete or which declare the ending to be accidental.” 1

Joseph Fitzmyer (b. 1920) notes emphatically, “Homer’s Iliad is not seen to be incomplete because it does not describe Achilles’ death!” .”2

If Paul was dead at the time of the writing of Acts, why is his death omitted? Why leave the reader in doubt as to a hero’s fate?

The book of Acts is not a biography of Paul, but rather a documentation of the Holy Spirit’s involvement in the world. Acts is the last narrative book in the canon and details the history of the early church. The book’s conclusion is open-ended, leaving the reader to continue the story.

How are you carrying out the Holy Spirit’s work in the world?

1Hans Conzelmann, Acts of the Apostles: A Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles (Hermeneia: a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible). (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987) 227-228.

2Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles: a new translation with introduction and commentary. The Anchor Bible v. 31. (New York: Doubleday, 1998) 791-792.

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