Three Possibilities


The New Testament tells us nothing about what happened to Paul after the two years of house arrest recorded in the last verses of Acts. There are basically three possibilities. Without treating any of these as historical fact, we will for each give both the main evidence supporting it and the main evidence favoring doubt.


Further ministry

One strong tradition still favored by many Bible students is that when Paul came to trial in Rome after house arrest, the authorities found him innocent of all charges and released him. As a result, he enjoyed another period of fruitful ministry. Probably the most common view is that he devoted himself to revisiting churches already established, although another popular view is that he did pioneer evangelism in the Western Empire, even fulfilling his ambition to go as far as Spain. In support of this theory, they offer three arguments. The first points to ancient sources. The last two depend on inferences drawn from the Book of Acts.

  1. Clement, bishop of the Roman church at the close of the first century, wrote in his epistle to the Corinthian church, "After that he [Paul] had been seven times in bonds, had been driven into exile, had been stoned, had preached in the East and in the West, he won the noble renown which was the reward of his faith, having taught righteousness unto the whole world and having reached the farthest bounds of the West; and when he had borne his testimony before the rulers, so he departed from the world" (1 Clement 5).

    The Muratorian Canon, a brief Christian document dating from the end of the second century, says, "Moreover the Acts of all the Apostles are included in one book. Luke addressed them to the most excellent Theophilus, because the several events took place when he was present; and he makes this plain by the omission of the passion of Peter and of the journey of Paul when he left Rome for Spain."

    Eusebius, who wrote his monumental history of the Christian church in about 324 AD, gave this summary of events at the close of Paul's life, "Thus after he had made his defense [mentioned in 2 Tim. 4:16] it is said that the apostle was sent again upon the ministry of preaching, and that upon coming to the same city a second time he suffered martyrdom. . . . But these things have been adduced by us to show that Paul’s martyrdom did not take place at the time of that Roman sojourn which Luke records. It is probable indeed that as Nero was more disposed to mildness in the beginning, Paul’s defense of his doctrine was more easily received; but that when he had advanced to the commission of lawless deeds of daring, he made the apostles as well as others the subjects of his attacks" (Church History 2.22).

    By the end of the fourth century, Paul's release after initial imprisonment in Rome had become accepted as fact. Chrysostom wrote, "St. Paul after his residence in Rome departed to Spain" (Homily on 2 Tim. 4:20), and Jerome affirmed, "Paul was dismissed by Nero,that the gospel of Christ might be preached also in the West" (Lives 5).

  2. Paul's statement earlier in his career that God wanted him to evangelize Spain (Rom. 15:24) may be counted as truthful Scripture only if he eventually fulfilled God's plan.

  3. The Pastoral Epistles cannot be fitted into Paul's travels before reaching Rome.

Against these arguments supporting the theory that Paul had a season of ministry after two years of imprisonment in Rome, we can raise the following objections.

  1. None of the early sources claiming his release surpasses doubt.

    1. The earliest text of Clement, from the fifth century, is illegible in many passages. The next comes from 1056. The first and last statements within the quoted portion may well be authentic. "After that he [Paul] had been seven times in bonds, had been driven into exile, had been stoned, had preached in the East and in the West, he won the noble renown which was the reward of his faith . . . ; and when he had borne his testimony before the rulers, so he departed from the world." But in the reference to East and West, the author may only be dividing the empire into Greek and Roman, and the term "exile" may be his way of describing Paul's departure from Judea in bonds after the rulers of his own people rejected him, consigning him to a distant Roman prison. The middle statement, "having taught righteousness unto the whole world and having reached the farthest bounds of the West," may, however, be the work of a late copyist who sought to clarify the preceding statement by bringing it more into line with popular legend. To resolve the matter would require new examination of the earliest text.

    2. The Muratorian Canon contains numerous errors, at least some based on unreliable tradition. It lists Paul's epistles to local churches in the presumed order they were written, giving Colossians as the fourth, Galatians as the fifth, Thessalonians (presumably a reference to both First and Second) as the sixth, and Ephesians as the second. In fact, Thessalonians was probably second after Galatians, and Ephesians and Colossians were probably last. Along with Jude and two epistles of John, the Canon represents the Wisdom of Solomon as "accepted in the Catholic Church"—that is, as canonical, although Protestants now relegate it to the Jewish Apocrypha—and alleges that it was "written by the friends of Solomon in his honor." But this book of wise sayings is clearly an intertestamental work, probably deriving from the Jewish community in Alexandria during the first or second century BC. The Canon then categorizes two more works as writings "we receive"—in other words, as canonical also. The first is the Book of Revelation. The second is the Apocalypse of Peter, a second-century work full of strange fantasies concerning the joys of heaven and the punishments of hell. Yet the Canon admits that some churches refuse to use it in public services. One writing that the Canon recommends only for private reading is the Shepherd of Hermas, which it claims, perhaps in an effort to downgrade its value, had been written "very recently," when Pius was Bishop of Rome. Reliable tradition places Pius in this position during approximately the years AD 140 to 154. Yet the Shepherd speaks of Clement as a living church leader (Vision 2.4). On the assumption that this Clement was the prominent bishop of Rome near the end of the first century, many modern scholars favor dating the Shepherd during the same period.

    3. As primary justification for crediting Paul with a later ministry, Eusebius cites Second Timothy (2 Tim. 4:16–17). According to his interpretation, "delivered out of the mouth of the lion" means that Nero acquitted Paul of all charges, and "that all the Gentiles might hear" means that God delivered Paul for the purpose of carrying the gospel to regions as yet unreached, such as Spain. Eusebius therefore relies on a doubtful reading of Scripture rather than on any actual record.

  2. Going to Spain after visiting Rome was indeed God's plan for Paul, but whether he gained this objective was always contingent on his obedience along the way.  We have argued at length that his disregard of the Lord's clear direction to stay out of Jerusalem may have disqualified him from a season of fruitful ministry near the Western bounds of the empire.  Nevertheless, the church still possessed his declaration of intent to reach Spain (Rom. 15:24), and this, rather than true memory, may have spawned the tradition that he actually went there.

  3. Also in this commentary we have shown that the Pastoral Epistles fit naturally into the sequence of events recorded in Acts: First Timothy into Paul's travels after leaving Ephesus, Titus into Paul's early days in Jerusalem before his arrest, and Second Timothy into the period of Paul's house arrest in Rome. Attempts to place First Timothy after AD 62, as many scholars do, simply disregard its many allusions to Timothy's pronounced youthfulness (1 Tim. 1:18; 4:8, 12–15; 5:1–2). By the early 60s, Timothy would have been in his early or middle thirties if Paul took him as an associate when he was about twenty (see Appendix 1). He was still young enough to be warned against youthful lusts (2 Tim. 2:22), but not so young that many people might view him as too immature and inexperienced for a position of leadership.

  4. Against the theory that Paul had a season of ministry after two years of imprisonment in Rome, we can raise a further objection. On two occasions near the end of Paul's journeys, the Lord intervened to save his life, then revealed to Paul either by His own mouth or a messenger's mouth why he had been spared. The Lord said to Paul after his hearing before the Sanhedrin: "Be of good cheer, Paul: for as thou hast testified of me in Jerusalem, so must thou bear witness also at Rome" (Acts 23:11). When Paul and all his fellow travelers on a ship to Rome seemed near to drowning, an angel assured him, "Fear not, Paul; thou must be brought before Caesar: and, lo, God hath given thee all them that sail with thee" (Acts 27:24). Both messages underscored one unfulfilled purpose in Paul's life—to witness for Christ in Rome. The implication was that once the purpose was fulfilled, miraculous deliverances would no longer be necessary. The time would have arrived when God could take home his worn and weary servant.

Execution

If Paul came to trial at the end of his two years under house arrest, one possible outcome is that Nero or the Roman court acting on his behalf condemned Paul to die immediately. A longstanding tradition in the church is that he finally met his death when he was beheaded by Roman authorities. The oldest specimen of this tradition appears in the Acts of Paul, an apocryphal work dating from the late second century AD. Although superficially reverent, it is badly tarnished by many foolish impossibilities. Yet we concede the likelihood that Paul did go to his death at a chopping block, because, as a Roman citizen, he was exempt from modes of execution that were crueler and more of a public spectacle.

Still, neither in Scripture nor in other early writings do we find any grounds for supposing that he died right after his two years of imprisonment.


Further imprisonment

Perhaps the true outcome of Paul's trial before Caesar was a jail sentence, sending him to confinement not in a private house, but in a secure prison, even a dungeon. Perhaps only after more time passed did Nero take a harsher view of Paul, condemning him to die. Nero's descent to violent persecution of the church occurred in AD 65, when he found Christians a convenient scapegoat for popular fury at the burning of Rome, an atrocity for which he himself was to blame.

Critical clues as to Paul's future when he wrote Second Timothy appear in his closing words: "At my first answer [defense] no man stood with me, but all men forsook me: I pray God that it may not be laid to their charge. Notwithstanding the Lord stood with me, and strengthened me; that by me the preaching might be fully known, and that all the Gentiles might hear: and I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion" (2 Tim. 4:16–17).

The metaphor speaking of his deliverance from a lion's mouth favors two conclusions.

  1. His judge was Nero, certainly the epitome of a merciless predator. Although Nero may not have normally taken an interest in a case such as Paul's, the devil would not have overlooked a chance to put his favorite puppet before the apostle, confronting him with a vicious face and an ugly roar that expressed the devil's own hatred for the man of God.
  2. The issue at his first defense was whether he was truly a Roman citizen. That established, he was exempt from being thrown to the lions.

Also at the end of Second Timothy, Paul tells his son in the faith that his life has come to the point of climax: "For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing" (2 Tim. 4:6–8). This gloomy assessment of his case shows that at his first defense, the attitude of the court left no doubt in Paul's mind as to his future. At his final defense he would be pronounced guilty, and afterward, either sooner or later, he would be executed.

On balance, further clues in Second Timothy suggest that in the immediate future, he expected no worse than imprisonment. He says, "The cloke that I left at Troas with Carpus, when thou comest, bring with thee, and the books, but especially the parchments" (2 Tim. 4:13), and "Do thy diligence to come before winter" (2 TIm. 4:21). Both requests seem to arise from expectation that at least through the coming winter, he will remain in prison. The first anticipates cold surroundings, perhaps even a dungeon. The second points to isolation, for he will need something to do, and the best provision for a man like Paul will be manuscripts to read or revise.


Delving Deeper


The cloak at Troas

In the view of many scholars, Paul's request for the cloak establishes that Second Timothy could not have been written during Paul's initial imprisonment in Rome. At the time of his house arrest in the imperial capital, well more than two years had passed since he journeyed through Troas on his way to Jerusalem (Acts 20:5–6). But the request seems to imply that he had visited Troas recently. So, these scholars conclude that the epistle must have been written during a second imprisonment, shortly after he toured churches which he had established many years earlier.

But here is another example of scholarly failure to reckon with the complexity of real life. Have you never recovered property years after you left it somewhere? When Paul went through Troas, he was expecting to stay in Jerusalem only a short time before he returned to Macedonia (Acts 19:21). Troas was along the return route. Thus he decided that everything useless in Jerusalem should be left behind in Troas. To friends there he entrusted two encumbrances in particular: his heavy cloak, worthless in warm Judea, and his manuscripts, which he would be too busy to read. Later, when imprisoned in Caesarea, he still had no need for the cloak, and though deprived of his own trove of writings, he had plenty of other manuscripts to read and revise. Only after some time in Rome did he have an awakening desire for his belongings still in Troas.

If Paul was sentenced to prison at his last trial, we have no information bearing on how long he remained there, though we can accept as virtual certainty that he did not survive Nero's mad onslaught against the church in AD 65. Yet, in all fairness, we must finish this discussion by admitting that like all competing theories, the theory that Paul endured prolonged imprisonment after his trial lacks a foundation in persuasive evidence. As many scholars have agreed, Paul's fate after the close of events recorded in Acts is best summarized by a big question mark.