A personal passion of mine is finding the yahrzeit (anniversary of death) dates for important figures in the Messianic movement, particularly those in the Apostolic Era.
If you look at a Jewish website such as Chabad.org, or a Twitter feed such as “Today’s Yahrzeits,” you find that almost every day there is a remembrance of a rebbe or sage who died on that day. It is one of the ways that Judaism connects with the heroes of the past and honors those who have paved the way for where they are today. I think we need to be doing the same thing in Messianic Judaism.
This is easier said than done, particularly with the characters of the New Testament. While early church literature often records the manner in which the apostles and others died, they rarely record a date. In turn, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that a death date for the Apostle Paul has been preserved in the Syriac Church tradition.
The source is called “The Book of the Bee.” It was compiled in the twelfth century by Solomon, the Bishop of Bassora, and preserves a lot of very Semitic-sounding material, which may indeed go back to the early Jewish believers. In chapter 48 there is a discussion of the teachings of the apostles and the place of their deaths. Here is the section on Paul:
Paul of Tarsus was a Pharisee by sect, of the tribe of [Benjamin]. When he had been baptized by Ananias, he wrought many miracles, and taught great cities, and bore and suffered dangers not a few for the name of Messiah. Afterwards he went to Peter at Rome. When they divided the world between them, and the heathen fell to Paul’s lot, and the Jewish nation to Peter, and they had turned many to the truth of Messiah, Nero commanded that they should both die a cruel death. Then Simon asked to be crucified head downwards, that he might kiss that part of the cross where the heels of his Master had been. As they were going forth to be slain, they gave the laying on of hands of the priesthood to their disciples, Peter to Mark, and Paul to Luke.
The text continues with a remarkable tale about the burial:
When Peter had been crucified, and Paul slain, together with many of those who had become their disciples, Mark and Luke went forth by night, and brought their bodies into the city. Now Paul’s head was lost among the slain, and could not be found. Sometime after, when a shepherd was passing by the spot where the slain were buried, he found Paul’s head, and took it upon the top of his staff, and laid it by his sheep-fold. At night he saw a fire blazing over it, and he went in (to the city) and informed the holy bishop Xystus (Sixtus) and the clergy of the church; and they all recognized that it was Paul’s head. Xystus said to them, “Let us watch and pray the whole night, and let us bring out the body and lay the head at its feet; and if it joins again to its neck, it will be certain that it is Paul’s.” And when they had done so, the whole body was restored, and the head was joined to its neck as if the vertebrae had never been severed; and those who saw it were amazed and glorified God.
This miracle story is strikingly similar to some of the legends we find about the sages in rabbinic literature. The text then closes with a very Bible-like account of the years of the Apostle Paul’s life:
From his call to the end of his life was thirty-five years; he went about in every place for thirty-one years; for two years he was in prison at Caesarea, and for two years at Rome. He was martyred in the thirty-sixth year after the Passion of our Master, and was laid with great honor in the magnificent royal catacombs in Rome. They celebrate every year the day of his commemoration on the twenty-ninth of the month of Tammuz.
It is also remarkable that not only has an actual date for his death been preserved but it is a Hebrew date. Whether it is the actual date Paul died or not, for me it does not matter so much. I’m always looking for an opportunity to remember the Master Yeshua and his apostles more and more, so on Tammuz 29, I will be remembering the man who was designated the “Apostle to the Gentiles.” This year (2020) Tammuz 29 falls on Tuesday, July 21. May his memory serve as a blessing!