How did Peter die?

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QUESTION: How did the apostle Peter die? When was Peter's death? Did he die in Rome just like Paul?

ANSWER: Scripture is silent regarding the exact time, the precise manner, or specific location of the Apostle Peter's death. Only one Biblical verse hints at the possible circumstances of his demise. Most of what is stated regarding the end of his life is based on tradition and speculation. The belief of many Biblical commentaries, and Christians in general, is that Peter died through crucifixion, upside-down, in Rome.

"Among many other saints, the blessed apostle Peter was condemned to death, and crucified, as some do write, at Rome; albeit some others, and not without cause, do doubt thereof" (Foxe's Book of Martyrs)

"The time and manner of the apostle's martyrdom are less certain. According to the early writers, he suffered at or about the same time with Paul, and in the Neronian persecution, A.D. 67, 68. All agree that he was crucified. Origen says that Peter felt himself to be unworthy to be put to death in the same manner as his Master, and was therefore, at his own request, crucified with his head downward" (Smith's Bible Dictionary, article entitled "Peter")

"(his) residence and death in Rome are established beyond contention as historical facts by a series of distinct testimonies extending from the end of the first to the end of the second centuries . . ." (1913 Catholic Encyclopedia article)

The "distinct testimonies" referred to by the Catholic Church include the writings of Clement of Rome, Bishop Ignatius of Antioch, Tertullian, Eusebius and others.

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What does the Bible tell us?

Jesus, shortly after his resurrection, told Peter he would die as a martyr.

18. "Truly, truly I say to you (Peter), since you were young, you have dressed yourself and walked wherever you have desired; but when you are old, you shall stretch out your hands, and another shall dress you and bring you where you do not desire to go." 19. Now He said this to signify by what death he would glorify God . . . (John 21:18 - 19, HBFV throughout)

Peter acknowledged Jesus' prophecy regarding his death in the last epistle he wrote around 65 to 66 A.D. (2Peter 1:14).

The above scripture suggests, but does not clearly state, that Peter would die through crucifixion. The phrase "stretch out your hands" does not necessarily mean his death was by a cross. The phrase could also mean that the apostle would have his outstretched arms bound, requiring someone else dress him before he is led, as a prisoner, to be executed.

Even if we assume that Peter was crucified, note that John 21 says NOTHING regarding it occurring upside-down. It also does not state he would die in Rome.

"It is said that at his own (Peter's) desire he was crucified head downward, feeling himself unworthy to resemble his Master in his death. It should be observed, however, that the tradition that he visited Rome IS ONLY TRADITION AND NOTHING MORE . . ." (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, article on Simon Peter)

Martyrdom of St. Peter by Michelangelo
Martyrdom of St. Peter (detail)
Michelangelo, 1546 - 50

When was he in Rome?

Some religious people and groups believe Peter met his end in Rome since he resided in and preached there during the final part of his life. Scripture, however, offers evidence that IF he spent time in the city it was for a brief period.

Paul wrote the book of Romans in the winter of 57 A.D. The book does not mention Peter at all, which would be an incredible oversight if he had lived in and evangelized the city before the epistle was written. More importantly, the apostle told believers in Rome his policy was to evangelize in places where NO ONE had previously carried out such efforts.

20. And indeed, I have aspired to preach the gospel of Christ where the name of Christ WAS NOT KNOWN (like Rome), so that I might not build on another's foundation (which would be the case if Peter had already evangelized the city, Romans 15:20, see also 2Corinthians 10:15 - 16).

It is almost certain that Peter had not lived in or preached in Rome prior to 57 A.D.

Paul, at the end of his fourth missionary journey, lived in Rome from 61 to 63 A.D. During his time in the city, he wrote the books of Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. Again, he makes no mention of Peter, which would be a glaring omission if he were also a prisoner in Rome. Although this is not conclusive proof, it suggests Simon did not preach or live in the city before 63 A.D.

Some believe that Peter wrote his first epistle from Rome (written between 64 and 65 A.D.). This belief is based on the argument that he used symbolic language to refer to the eternal city and not to the literal city of Babylon.

13. The church in Babylon, chosen together with you, greets you . . . (1Peter 5:13)

Part of the argument in rejecting Peter's referral to the literal city is the belief that there would be no reason for him to go there. In-depth research, however, shows he had EVERY reason to visit the actual city of Babylon!

"Josephus and Jesus Christ did not consider the ten tribes to be 'lost' at all, but rather living in known geographical locations. It is significant that the Apostle Peter wrote the book of 1Peter from the city of Babylon . . . Since Babylon was a city of the Parthian Empire at that time, it indicates that Peter had heeded Jesus Christ's instructions by traveling to territory ruled by the ten tribes" (Lost Ten Tribes of Israel FOUND!, pages 310 - 311).

Parthians were among the many Jews in Jerusalem, on the Day of Pentecost in 30 A.D., who heard the gospel preached by the disciples (Acts 2:9). More than thirty years later, there were still Jews in Babylon who needed to hear the truth about the Messiah!

Peter, when he wrote his last Biblical book between 65 and 66 A.D., does not refer to living in Rome at the time. Since tradition states he likely was martyred around 67 or 68 A.D., all the above suggests that any time he spent in the city would have been relatively brief.

Conclusion

How did the apostle die? We are on safe Biblical ground in stating he perished as a martyr. It is also highly likely that if he was in Rome before his death it was not for an extended period. Tradition states that he died under Emperor Nero in or just before 68 A.D. It is unclear whether he was killed through crucifixion, and only certain traditions state that he perished while upside-down. It is entirely possible his end did not happen in Rome via a cross but through another method in another location.

Additional Study Materials
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Map showing events in Early Church
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Death of Apostle Peter