Was the apostle Paul executed by being boiled in hot oil?

Q. Is there any historical evidence that Apostle Paul was boiled in hot oil?

The Bible doesn’t tell us about the means or circumstances of Paul’s death. But it does preserve this statement in his second letter to Timothy: “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near.” Most interpreters understand this to mean that Paul expected to be executed for his faith at the conclusion of his trial in Rome under emperor Nero in the AD 60s.

Some traditional accounts provide further details. The Acts of Paul, an apocryphal work written around the middle of the second century, says that Nero condemned him to death by beheading. A lively legend makes this detail seem accurate: One ancient story about why a certain location in Rome is called the “Three Fountains” is that when Paul was beheaded, his head bounced on the ground three times and a fountain sprang up from each spot. Though the story is fanciful, it would probably never have gotten into circulation if it were known that Paul had been executed some other way, and so it suggests that Paul indeed was beheaded. We can have greater confidence in the work of Eusebius, a very careful researcher, who wrote early in the fourth century in his Ecclesiastical History, “It is … recorded that Paul was beheaded in Rome itself … during Nero’s reign.”

There is a tradition that associates a different apostle with boiling in oil, however. Likely around the end of the second century, Tertullian wrote in The Prescription of Heretics that the apostle John was thrown into a cauldron of boiling oil in the Colosseum, but he suffered no ill effects from what would otherwise have been a gruesome method of execution, and so his sentence was commuted to banishment. We cannot corroborate Tertullian’s report. But it does show, along with the accounts of the sufferings and executions of the other apostles, that the first followers of Jesus stayed loyal to him right to the death, even if this meant enduring the worst tortures that the Romans might inflict.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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