Dating Peter’s Death

26 Oct
from Google Images

from Google Images

Peter’s epistles speak of the persecution of his addressees (1Peter 1:6; 2:19-23; 4:13). Therefore, if Peter is the author of both First and Second Peter, then both epistles must have been written during a period of persecution of the Church, but not the persecution that took his own life. Early Christian records tell us that Peter died in Rome during the persecution begun there by Nero Caesar. This would place Peter’s death about 64 AD, during the persecution that erupted in Rome surrounding the fire that burnt that city for five days. Since Nero had committed suicide in July of 68 AD, Peter’s death must have certainly occurred before then, and the 64 AD date seems plausible, but there is more to consider.

Clement of Rome, traditionally the disciple of Paul (Philippians 4:3), is said to be the author of an ancient Christian manuscript that comes down to us as Clement I or the First Epistle of Clement, and was sent from Rome to the Corinthians (1Clement 1:2). Therein, he records the deaths of Peter and Paul. First he speaks of “sudden and repeated calamities and reverses that had befallen” Christians at Rome (1Clement 1:5), which may refer to the persecution of Christians surrounding the fire that burned that city. Thus, showing that the persecution was still going on at the time when Clement wrote his lengthy epistle to the Corinthian church.

Nero’s persecution of Christians represents a reversal of Roman attitude toward the faith. Up to that time believers may have been disliked or belittled by non-believers, but they were considered innocuous by the state. Christianity was not viewed as a political movement that threatened Rome. Even the persecution that erupted as a result of burning Rome was local. There was no empire-wide persecution of Christians prior to Diocletian’s persecution of the faith at the beginning of the fourth century AD.

In 1Clement 5:1-9 Clement records the deaths of the Apostles, Peter and Paul. Seeking to encourage the Corinthians to behave wisely rather than quarrel over matters roused by jealousy, Clement offered examples of faith, first from the Old Testament (1Clement 4), but then wrote about the deaths of Peter and Paul. He claimed that they were “the noble examples which belong to our generation” (1Clement 5:2). In other words Peter and Paul didn’t die 40 years prior to Clement’s writing this epistle. No, his epistle seems to have been written not long after their deaths.

Moreover, Clement offers a more definite timeframe for the deaths of Peter and Paul in Chapter 41:1-6. After noting the recent deaths of the apostles in 1Clement 5:1-9, Clement continues to encourage the believers at Corinth concerning orderly benevolent behavior. Notice:

1  Let each of you, brethren, in his own order give thanks unto God, maintaining a good conscience and not transgressing the appointed rule of his service, but acting with all seemliness.  2  Not in every place, brethren, are the continual daily sacrifices offered, or the freewill offerings, or the sin offerings and the trespass offerings, but in Jerusalem alone.  3  And even there the offering is not made in every place, but before the sanctuary in the court of the altar;  4 and this too through the high priest and the aforesaid ministers, after that the victim to be offered hath been inspected for blemishes.  5  They therefore who do anything contrary to the seemly ordinance of His will receive death as the penalty.  6  Ye see, brethren, in proportion as greater knowledge hath been vouchsafed unto us, so much the more are we exposed to danger. (1Clement 41:1-6 – emphasis mine).

Notice the present tense of the verbs concerning sacrifices at Jerusalem. In other words, the time of the writing of Clement’s letter seems to date itself to a period when the Temple yet stood and sacrifices were yet offered daily. Moreover, there is no mention of war between the Jews and Rome or calamities occurring at Jerusalem, implying that Clement wrote his epistle sometime before the outbreak of that war in 66 AD. In order to presume 1Clement was written near the end of the 1st century AD or the beginning of the 2nd, as is understood by modern critics, one needs to reject the present tense used here of the sacrifices done at the Temple in Jerusalem, and this is quite illegitimate, since the author does not need to have the Temple standing to make his case. He mentions the sacrifices going on in Jerusalem to support his argument, but they would support his argument just as well if they were conducted in the past. There really does not seem to be a legitimate reason to cast doubt on the early writing of 1Clement, except to plead the critic’s argument.

With the dating of 1Clement in the early 60s AD, showing the deaths of Peter and Paul occurring probably in 64 AD at the outbreak of Nero’s persecution of Roman Christians, the persecution that Peter mentions in 1Peter must have occurred earlier than the one that took his life, but more about this in future posts.

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Posted by on October 26, 2016 in Epistles of Peter


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