Although the Bible does not tell us how the apostle Peter died, there is tradition that tells us that Peter likely died by crucifixion during the reign of Nero in about AD 64.
When considering the martyrs, it is perhaps more edifying to know why they died rather than how. They died to follow their Lord in His path of suffering, anticipating being joined with Him in everlasting life.
But the question of how biblical figures met their deaths is intriguing. Considering their examples of faith, followers of Christ realize that the stories of the martyrs can strengthen their own faith in the face of persecution. Exploring the Apostle Peter’s death reveals a strong tradition that he was killed by crucifixion in Rome during the reign of Nero in approximately A.D. 64.
Various early accounts confirm that Peter died a martyr’s death in Rome during Nero’s reign. Nero had blamed the Great Fire in Rome of A.D. 64 on Christians and many were subsequently put to death. The “Martyrdom of Peter” is an account of his death included in the Acts of Peter, an apocryphal writing dating to the second half of the second century. Because of its wide distribution apart from the Acts of Peter, the Martyrdom may have originally been a separate document that was written earlier. It tells the story that Peter was fleeing danger in Rome when Jesus appeared to him. Encouraged by Jesus to face his death, he returned to be crucified, requesting to be crucified upside down since he was unworthy of a death like his Lord’s.
This account was accepted and is mentioned in other early writings such as Tertullian’s (end of the second century) and Origen’s (early third century). The presence of the account in Jerome’s writings (early fifth century) shows that the account had been widely accepted as true.
Peter’s death stands as a testimony to faith and courage. He glorified God in both his life and death, encouraging Christ’s followers to “stand firm” in the grace of God (I Peter 5:12).
While the Bible tells much about Peter’s life, it does not tell how he died. It does record his narrow escape from an early martyr’s death just after James was beheaded by Herod, most likely Herod Agrippa (A.D. 37-44):
About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword, and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also (Acts 12:1-3a).
Chapter 12 of Acts goes on to tell of Peter’s miraculous escape and flight from Jerusalem.
Another hint about his death is recorded at the end of the Gospel of John. Just as Jesus had warned Peter ahead of time that he would deny Him, Jesus also prophesied about Peter’s future in a conversation that took place after Jesus’ resurrection:
Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go. (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, ‘Follow me’” (John 21:18-19 ESV).
John’s parenthetical note connects the prophecy to Peter’s death. John is thought to have been written as late as A.D. 90, so he would have known the story of Peter’s death. The stretching out of the hands likely refers to death by crucifixion.
Other biblical hints place Peter in Rome and allude to his pending death. The epistle of I Peter ends with a greeting from “she who is at Babylon” (I Peter 5:13); Babylon is used as a code word or pseudonym for Rome, so this verse is considered a greeting from the church in Rome, placing Peter there. In II Peter, he hints that his time of death is near. He explains that it is important for him to remind them of certain things “since I know that the putting off of my body will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ made clear to me” (II Peter 1:14).