Ask most Christians how Peter the Disciple died, and they will tell you he was crucified upside down during Nero’s reign, some time in the early 60’s C.E. Ask where they get that information from, and most will have no idea beyond “tradition.” It is curious they reject writings about Jesus generated after 125 C.E. as being “too late;” but accept a tale developed long after that when it comes to the myth of Peter’s martyrdom.
Let’s trace the legend development surrounding Peter’s death.
The last Gospel written (according to most scholars) was John. You may see dates ranging from 60 C.E. to 125 C.E., but most put it around 90-100 C.E. According to John 21:18, Jesus said to Peter: "Most assuredly, I say to you, when you were younger, you girded yourself and walked where you wished; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish.” The author followed up in vs 19, stating, “This He [Jesus] spoke, signifying by what death he [Peter] would glorify God....”
At the time of the writing, the author knows Peter is dead. This doesn’t help us much for three reasons: 1) because the broad range of John’s dating, it does not narrow down when Peter died, 2) because chapter 21 is likely to be incorporated from another writing (Note that John ends quite nicely at the end of Chapter 20, and Chapter 21 seems to be an appendage from another tale*) giving us even less reliability as to dating and 3) because the language is circumspect. This description could fit a variety of deaths, even natural death.
*Perhaps the Gospel of Peter.
Our second clue comes from 2 Peter 1:13 –15 where Peter talks of his imminent death. For those who hold Peter did not write this epistle (such as myself), this indicates it was written after he died. Of course, for those who hold it was written by Peter, they would claim this was written shortly before he expired. Regardless, this letter gives us no clues as to when or where it was written, nor any details regarding Peter’s death.
Our third clue comes from 1 Clement 5:4 which states, “Peter, through unjust envy, endured not one or two but many labors, and at last, having delivered his testimony, departed unto the place of glory due to him.” The author is giving a list of noble examples from his generation, the first of which is Peter. “Delivering his testimony” is also translated
“having suffered martyrdom.”
Again, no details as to when, where, how or why are given. 1 Clement is traditionally dated around 95 C.E.
That’s it. Three documents, dated around 100 C.E. (+/- 10 years or so), all in agreement Peter is dead, none telling any details beyond that brute fact. To find the legend, we must journey along in time.
But first a minor digression for two important documents: The Martyrdom of Polycarp and Acts of Paul.
The Second Century saw numerous Christian writings, as well as the church grow into an established organization. Polycarp was a leader (the Bishop of Smyrna [a city on the coast in modern-day Turkey]) who was martyred around 150 C.E, as described in the Martydom of Polycarp.
According to this writing, Polycarp sees a vision where he prophecies his own death by fire. The leaders capture him and after allowing a two-hour prayer, take him into custody. They threaten Polycarp, cajoling him to recant Christianity. He does not, providing eloquent responses. They attempt to burn him alive, but the fire did not harm him, instead it gave off a pleasant fragrance, like spice. Failing this, an executioner stabbed Polycarp with a dagger, upon which a dove flew out of wound, and so much blood poured out it extinguished the fire!
The Christians preserved Polycarp’s bones.
While not a terribly remarkable book, one thing it DID do was set the standard regarding martyrdom. No longer were the brief descriptions of John or 1 Clement satisfactory. Just as Hollywood demands greater stunts, larger actors and more poignant speeches—martyrdoms now required all the trappings of Polycarp…and more.
In the latter part of the Second Century (150 – 200 C.E.), an unknown author penned the Acts of Paul. (Tertullian says it is a forgery from a priest.) The book covers events regarding a woman named Thecla and her interactions with Paul. For our purposes, we will focus on the attempted executions.
The first attempt indicates Thecla was sentenced to death by fire. However, when attempted the fire did not burn her (sound like Polycarp?), and a rain appeared, putting out the fire. Now Thecla gets in trouble again, because some fellow lusted after her, and she refuses his advances in order to protect her chastity. (This is a reoccurring theme throughout Acts of Paul how sex is bad, but men were continually lusting after women. This will come up later.)
This time they tried to kill her with beasts. When they set a lioness upon her, the lioness refused to kill her, but rather licked Thecla’s feet. The next occasion of Thecla’s attempted execution by beasts, the same event occurred. Perhaps the same lioness. This time, the leaders fired off a bear, too, but the lioness killed the bear. Then they let fly a lion; but the lioness killed the lion too. The government (not giving up) sent beast after beast, to no avail. Eventually Thecla got bored so she jumped into a tank of water and seals (with freaking laser beams!**). Instead of being killed by seals, a flash of light killed all the seals, leaving Thecla untouched. (Luckily a wall of fire appeared, preventing the crowd from seeing her naked.)
**O.K. no laser beams
One more try is made with bulls tearing her apart, but this also fails. They give up and she lives to a very old age (90.)
Now Acts of Paul takes up Paul’s story. It recounts the tale of leaders setting a lion upon Paul, but the lion refused to kill him, instead lying down at his feet. (Like Thecla’s story.) Other beasts were sent at Paul, and the lion protected him. (Sound familiar?)
Eventually Paul confronts Nero himself, and gives an eloquent speech. Nero orders Paul beheaded. Paul gives another speech, willingly stretches out his head, and is beheaded. Miraculously, milk spurts out. Paul makes two (2) post-death appearances. One to Nero, who is so bothered by it, he frees all the Christians in captivity. Another to the two Centurions, who are converted to Christianity.
In the latter Second Century, we see these glorified martyrdom stories.
Time to return back to Peter, specifically the Acts of Peter written 150 – 200 C.E. Most of what we have in the book revolves around Peter’s confrontation with Simon the Magician. We have various long-winded speeches, a talking dog, a resurrected herring, statute miraculously destroyed by kicking, statute miraculously restored by water, and a contest over who can resurrect the dead. All your typical Second Century wonder-working tales.
Eventually the tale moves to Rome, where Peter convinces four of Agrippa’s concubines to stop having sex with Agrippa***. (Told you sex would come back up.) This causes Agrippa grief. Then Peter convinces Albinus’s (Presumably Procurator of Judea) wife to stop having sex with him.
***You may be thinking this is King Herod Agrippa from Acts of the Apostles, however the timing is wrong, as King Agrippa died in 44 C.E.
Peter then convinced many other women to leave their husbands, to live in a state of chastity to worship God. Understandably—there was trouble! Albinus’ wife warns Peter to flee Rome, but as Peter is fleeing he sees a vision of Jesus.
Peter: Where you going, Jesus?
Jesus: I am going to Rome to be crucified.
Jesus: Yep, again.
Peter: Let me go in your place.
So Peter returns to his doom. Agrippa condemns him to be crucified, and Peter asks to be crucified upside down. Peter says he will tell them why, once they do it. Obligingly, the Romans crucify him upside down, and Peter goes into a long litany—basically saying because the first human was born with his head downward, and Peter was a human, it is appropriate that he be crucified in the same position.
Peter dies, and gives two (2) post-death appearances, one to Nero. When Nero learned Peter is killed by Agrippa, Nero is mad (and doesn’t speak to Agrippa for a long time) because Nero wanted to kill Peter. Instead Nero takes his anger out on the other Christians, Peter appears and tells him to stop, so Nero does. (Why does this sound so familiar?)
As a postscript, Tertullian, writing in the beginning of the Third Century (200 – 222 C.E.) proclaims the Acts of Paul as being a forgery, yet indicates Paul is beheaded and Peter was crucified in The Prescription of Heretics. It is unclear where Tertullian obtained the information about Paul, other than a document he claimed was a forgery. It would seem he accepted, at least, the claims of both Acts of Paul and Acts of Peter surrounding their deaths, even knowing at least Acts of Paul was completely made up!
The next time someone tells you, “The Disciples wouldn’t die for a lie” you can reply, “All I know is that Peter died because he was convincing wives not to have sex with their husbands which made the husbands mad, so he ran away; but then he ran into Jesus who was on His way to be crucified again in Rome, so Peter offered to take His place, insisting on being crucified upside down because that is how Cain was born.”