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How Did Simon Peter Die?
I traveled recently to Edinburgh, Scotland. The university where I teach, Houston Baptist University, is looking into the possibility of establishing a study-abroad agreement with the University of Edinburgh, and I was there to help make that connection. While there, I attended some lectures on Simon Peter sponsored by the Center for the Study of Christian Origins (CSCO). Founded by Professor Larry Hurtado (now retired) in the late 1990s, the center is today ably run by Dr. Helen Bond. I heard a number of good papers on the apostle Peter; though he is the best known of Jesus’ “twelve,” he is often neglected by Protestants (Protestants tend to favor Paul).
One paper in particular stood out. It was given by (retired) Professor Timothy D. Barnes. He is a world class historian who is known for being a bit feisty. He began his lecture recognizing full well that he was about to ruffle a few feathers.
Many Christian scholars have thought that Simon Peter died in Rome by crucifixion. There are a variety of early Christian reports that seem to indicate this (Tertullian, Praescr. Haer. 36.3; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3.1.2). In one tradition, Peter asks to be crucified upside-down because he is not worthy to be crucified in the same manner as Jesus, his Lord (Martyrdom of Peter 8.3-4).
Professor Barnes, however, reads the evidence differently. He takes his cue from John 21.18-19. Here is how these verses are translated in the New American Standard:
Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to gird yourself, and walk wherever you wished; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will gird you, and bring you where you do not wish to go. Now this He said, signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when He had spoken this, He said to him, “Follow Me!” (Joh 21:18-19 NAS)
The problem with this translation, Barnes says, has to do with the Greek word translated “gird yourself.” It is typically taken to refer to tying a belt around your waist and hitching up your outer garment for travel, work or possibly battle. Barnes argues that the Greek verb actually means “dress yourself.” A number of modern translations agree (English Standard Version, New Living Translation). Here is how the NLT renders the verses:
“I tell you the truth, when you were young, you were able to do as you liked; you dressed yourself and went wherever you wanted to go. But when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and others will dress you and take you where you don’t want to go.” Jesus said this to let him know by what kind of death he would glorify God. Then Jesus told him, “Follow me.” (Joh 21:18-19 NLT)
Notice. This saying of Jesus let’s Peter (and John’s readers) in on the way in which Peter was going to die. When Peter is old, he will stretch out his hands, someone else will dress him, and take him where he would rather not go. Some have taken this as an image of crucifixion. John goes on to say that this refers to the kind of death he would die and thereby glorify God. A careful reader will recall that earlier in John’s Gospel, the crucifixion of Jesus is his hour of glory. Some have taken these verses as a reminder that Peter had been crucified (The Fourth Gospel was probably written 25-30 years following Peter’s execution).
For Barnes the problem with the crucifixion of Peter theory is this. Men were always crucified stark naked. You would not be dressed for it; you would be undressed (Artemidorus, Oneirocritica 2.53). You may recall how the soldiers divided Jesus’ garments as he suffered on the cross. Jesus may typically be depicted with a loin cloth around his waist, but that is a matter of piety and modesty not history. Jesus hung on the cross stark naked. If Peter had been crucified, he would have been stripped as well. But according to Barnes, he was not.
So how did Simon Peter die? From John’s Gospel Barnes directs our attention to Tacitus (Annals 15.44.4) and the madness of Nero. After Rome went up in flames in AD 64, Nero wanted to make an example of the Christians whom he thought were a despicable lot. He knew the public was already against them so it was convenient to make them the scapegoats. Nero, who was always a bit of a showman, wanted a spectacle; he rounded up the Christians who lived in what was left of the city and slaughtered them. Here is how Tacitus describes it:
And, as they perished, mockeries were added, so that, covered in the hides of wild beasts, they expired from mutilation by dogs, or were burned fixed to crosses for use as nocturnal illumination on the dwindling of daylight (Barnes’ modification of the translation by A. J. Woodman).
Barnes thinks his case is “rock solid” (a phrase he used with me over dinner after his lecture). Peter, who was present in Rome at the time, was apprehended with the rest of the Christians. He was bound by authorities and dressed in a tunic dipped in a flammable substance. He was taken and fixed to a mock cross near the banks of the Tiber River, his hands extended, and then he was set on fire. If Barnes is correct, Peter died in the persecutions that followed Rome’s burning in AD 64 by burning not by crucifixion. Crucifixion was a slow, agonizing death by asphyxiation that took up to three days in some cases. Peter’s death would have come much more quickly but the sight everyone would remember would be his charred body, formed like a cross, smoldering by the Tiber.
Barnes makes a compelling case; it is historically plausible if not likely. Still it is always difficult to move from the general to the particular. While it is true generally that many Christians died during Nero’s persecution in this way, it is not “rock solid” (with apologies to the apostle) that a particular person named Simon Peter died on that day in that way. More evidence is needed. There is no physical evidence you consider as you might have with a modern crime scene investigation. Still, Barnes has a good bit to teach us.
On this occasion, the Romans wanted to mock their enemies. You can almost hear one of them thinking: “These despicable people love their crosses. Let’s see how much they love them after they’ve been burned to death on them.” It wasn’t enough to put these poor souls to death; they increased the humiliation—as the Romans would have seen it—by wrapping the martyrs in animals skins or fixing them to crosses.
But what the Romans failed to recognize was that the cross had already become a fixture in early Christian devotion. The crucifixion of Jesus was central to their confession. Rather than being a place of disgrace and death; it had become a symbol of honor and life. It is no wonder that later generations of believers continued to imagine that Peter died with his arms stretched wide, embracing the world.