39. Prison Epistles: End

Course: New Testament Survey - Acts to Revelation

Lecture: Prison Epistles: End


Let’s look now at what happens at the end of Paul. Tradition tells us that after a period of at least two years, (Acts ends with Paul being imprisoned in Rome for two years), he was released from his imprisonment, and he ultimately went and held a mission in Spain, that he was then later re-arrested, and a second time imprisoned in Rome, and this time he is martyred. That’s the tradition. What does the New Testament say? It says nothing. Why doesn’t Luke tell us what happened? If Luke wrote his gospel in about AD 5, and Acts was written after that, he knew what happened to Paul. Why doesn’t he tell us at the end of Acts what really happened?

One view is that all this dating is wrong, and that when Luke wrote his Book of Acts, he wrote it up to the exact minute. In other words, Paul was in Rome, he’d been there two years, and he signed off and finished at that time. The letter is over. And he can’t write any more because he doesn’t know what’s going to happen. Everything else is future, but he’s brought us right up to date. The biggest problem with that is the dating of the gospels. Tradition has Mark being written after Peter’s death, and if Luke used Mark, it has to be after that, and so Luke could’ve added more.

Some have suggested that the Book of Acts was written after Paul’s martyrdom, and that Luke had planned to write a third work. Luke, Acts, and Acts Part 2, in which he recalls Paul’s release from imprisonment, his going to Spain, his mission there, his other mission work when he returns to Crete and places like that, and then his ultimate martyrdom. This would have been a part of Luke’s hypothetical 3d work, according to this theory. But there’s nothing that we have that proves or deals with that at all.

Others suggest that at AD 63, after those two years, Paul was beheaded, and that Luke didn’t want to end his Book of Acts in such a negative way. Who wants to read that a great hero of Christendom was in Rome for two years at his own expense, and then had his head cut off? That’s not a good way of ending the book. So he didn’t want to end it negatively.

My own understanding of the Book of Acts is that it’s not a biography of Paul, any more than it’s a biography of Peter. Remember how, in the early chapters of Acts, we read of Peter at Pentecost, and Peter going to the Temple and healing a man, and Peter bringing the message of the gospel to Cornelius? Well, why does all of the sudden Peter drop out of the picture? He comes up in Acts 15 again, but it’s essentially just a small reference to that. Well, what’s the purpose of the Book of Acts? The purpose of the Book of Acts is Acts 1:8, “Jesus tells his followers, ‘And you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and Judea, [and Peter’s very important in the bringing of the gospel to Jerusalem (Pentecost), Judea (the other stories there)], Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’” Well, after the story of the gospel being spread to Jerusalem and Judea, where Peter is central, and then Samaria, now you have the gospel being spread to the ends of the earth, which is where Paul’s part of the story comes in. But what happened to Peter after that? We don’t know; Luke doesn’t tell us. Why doesn’t Luke tell us? Couldn’t he tell us more? He could’ve told us more, but he’s not interested in it, because it doesn’t fit into the theme of the Book of Acts, Acts 1:8. He’s done his job, you can forget about him.

But Paul is God’s messenger now to bring the gospel to the ends of the earth. He will bring the gospel before kings and emperors, and the Book of Acts ends with the gospel being spread in Rome and that the emperor is hearing it. So, to me, that fulfills the purpose of Luke, and so he ends the Book of Acts at that point. He doesn’t need any more. The gospel’s being spread to the ends of the earth and the emperor is hearing it as well. So, I think Acts ends where it does, despite the fact that Luke could’ve written more -- there was no need to. He had fulfilled his purpose in Acts 1:8. It would’ve been nice to have a little footnote. It’s a bit like watching a Super Bowl game at a crucial point in the game when the power goes off. Acts kind of leaves us that way, but it may be because we’re interested in Paul, whereas Luke is interested in the spread of the gospel to the ends of the earth. And that’s been done. So I think Luke could’ve told us more, he simply does not.

Well then, where do we get information about what happened to Paul? There are four sources which provide us some sort of information. The first is 1 Clement 5:7. 1 Clement is a work written around 96 AD. Clement was the leader of the church in Rome. 1 Clement was written by him to the church in Corinth. In 1 Clement 5:7, Clement writes, “After reaching the confines (the limits) of the west, and having given testimony before rulers, Paul passed from the world.” When you think from the perspective of the writer here, if he was writing from Jerusalem, you might consider Rome to be the confines of the west. It’s not likely, but you could. But if you’re writing from Rome, this would not be true; the confines of the west would more likely be Spain. So, 1 Clement 5:7 seems to be referring to Paul having been released, having a mission to Spain, and then upon his return being martyred. And of course Romans 15:28 expresses Paul’s desire to the Roman church that he go to Spain, and be helped by the church on his way.

The Muratorian Canon is a scrap of manuscript dating from about 180-200 AD, discovered by a man named Muratorian. It dates at the end of the second century, and in the Muratorian Canon, lines 36-38, he writes, “Luke includes one by one the things which were done in his own presence, as he shows plainly by omitting the Passion of Peter, and also Paul’s departure, when he was setting out from the city for Spain.” So that it’s well-known tradition here that Luke does not refer to this, but the writer here explains that Luke only wanted to refer to those things of which he was an eye-witness, and so he doesn’t refer to Paul’s or Peter’s martyrdom, or Paul having been released from Rome and going to Spain. But the Muratorian Canon refers to a Spain mission. And you can’t fit that in anywhere in Acts; it would have to be after Acts, after the imprisonment.

Eusebius, the great church historian, writes around 400. But he has amassed all of this information as he writes. And in his work Ecclesiastical History, 2.22.2 [Volume 2, Book 22, Chapter 2], “Tradition has it that after defending himself, the apostle was again set on the ministry of preaching, and coming a second time to the same city, suffered martyrdom under Nero.” So according to Eusebius’s research, Paul was released, and came back a second time to Rome, where he suffered martyrdom under Nero. That’s the third argument. It’s as late as 400, but Eusebius is a very good church historian, and gathered all sorts of information, and that’s what he’s referring to. So we have 1 Clement, the Muratorian Canon, and Eusebius.

The fourth argument as to what happened to Paul is bundled into the Pastoral Epistles, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. There is no time in what we have in Acts for the things that Paul mentions in 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus to take place. If this material comes from Paul, or if there are genuine fragments in these letters that come from Paul, that can only be explained by his having been released from imprisonment. He’d have had to be released so that those letters could be written. One of the arguments against Pauline authorship is that he was martyred in 63 AD, so he couldn’t have written those letters. And one of the supports then for his not having been released is that these letters are not Pauline, but are pseudonymous letters. So that’s the main evidence. For tradition, we have 1 Clement, the Muratorian Canon, Eusebius, and then the Pastoral Epistles.

There are a lot of people who are critical scholars who are very uneasy in arguing that 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus are completely pseudonymous, fictional accounts. There are too many references in it to Paul. And one of the leaders who argued against Pauline authorship in the 20’s and 30’s did a heavy statistical analysis, and said “However, they contain genuine fragments from Pauline letters.” He could not escape the fact that when you read them (and we’ll look at this in the coming lessons), there are statements found in these letters that sure look like Paul writing them. I mean, “I have fought the good fight”; “I have kept the faith”; “Bring with you the cloak and the manuscripts I left, Timothy”. Timothy was asked to bring these incidentals along with him – if the guy writing was just a fictional writer, he’s really great at writing historical narrative in a way that no one for 1900 years knew how to do because he writes and incorporates so much material here.

So, it seems that if there are genuine fragments there, Paul had to be released from his first Roman imprisonment and as tradition says, was martyred under Nero along with Peter, although Peter would have been crucified; Paul would have been beheaded since he was a Roman citizen and would not have had to endure the shame that non-citizens had to in their capital punishment.