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|This is an opinion article from a user of WikiChristian.|
By Calvin Park, December 2003,
Peter the Apostle has been looked to throughout church history as a model. The Roman Catholic church has claimed St. Peter as the first Bishop of Rome, thereby lending legitimacy to the modern day papacy. Peter is widely considered to have been among the "inner circle" of Jesus' disciples (ex. Mark 5.12).
He is the central figure in much of the first twelve chapters of the Acts of the Apostles. Two epistles bear his name and some scholars argue that he was the source material that allowed Mark to write his Gospel. Many apocryphal books deal with his preaching and deeds, and church tradition has a well developed story of his martyrdom.
But, amidst all of this the question must be raised, who was Peter? This man that is held in such high regard by some and who has captured the imagination of no few, who is he? There are two basic sources that a person may look to for information in this regard. First, the Bible itself has a wealth of information regarding Peter. Second, church history, tradition, and even apocryphal writings may shed some amount of light on the life of Peter, most notably his later life and ministry.
To begin one must examine Peter's early life before the fateful day when he was introduced to the Messiah. It is true that the Bible is somewhat silent on the issue of Peter's early life. Indeed the Gospels mention very little of Jesus' own early life, and even less of the lives of his disciples. No specific date is available for the birth of Peter. One may assume that since he was running a fishing business when he met Jesus that he was "in his early thirties, born, like Jesus, some time before the turn of the century," (Thiede). Regardless of when he was born his original name was Simon or Symeon (Cullmann). If his name was Symeon which is "used of Peter...only in Acts 15.14 and II Peter 1.1" (Cullman), then it is clear that his parents named him with a Hebrew name. It has been supposed the Simon was merely a transliteration of the Hebrew name Symeon, however, a strong case can be made for Simon being Hellenistic because it was already attested to in Aristophanes' plays (Cullman).
According to the Gospel of John, Peter was from the city of Bethsaida (1.44). He was also the son of a certain Jonah, or perhaps John (Cullmann). Bethsaida was raised to the status of city by Phillip the Tetrarch, he was a Hellenizer who furthered Graeco-Roman culture throughout his area of influence (Thiede). It may then have been quite likely that Peter was acquainted well with Hellenistic culture and the Greek language. It may also be safely assumed that Peter had some knowledge of both Aramaic and Hebrew, as well. It is also likely that he had received the standard education that any Jewish male might have in the first century which consisted of education in reading, writing and, of course, memorization of the Torah (Thiede). It may also be possible that Peter had some connection to the Zealots (Cullmann). The Johannine account gives some reason to believe that before his introduction to Jesus he may have been among the disciples of John the Baptist (Cullmann, John 1.35-42). Finally it must also be mentioned that several passages explain that Peter had a wife (Mark 1.30; 1 Cor. 9.5).
Synthesizing the accounts of Jesus' first meeting with Peter is the first task in discussing his life as a disciple of Jesus.. Mark 1.16 and Matthew 4.18, feature Peter and Andrew as the first of Jesus' disciples whom he calls "on the shores of the Sea of Galilee," (Thiede). John 1.35-42 also seems to indicate that Peter was among the first disciples, however not everyone agrees that Peter was among the disciples of John (Thiede 22). Regardless, it would appear that Peter was one of the first, if not the first, of the disciples who were called by Jesus. Even Encyclopedia Britannica agrees with this, saying that Peter was called by Jesus "at the beginning of his ministry." If the Johannine account is favored, Jesus bestows the title "Cephas," (meaning "Rock", Gk. Petros) on Peter at their first meeting with the words, "So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas," (John 1.42b). On the other hand the first occurrence of the name in the Gospel of Mark, which may have been compiled from source material given to John Mark by Peter himself, is in a list of the disciples (Mark 3.16). The account recorded in the Gospel of Matthew has Jesus bestowing the name on Peter after the latter confesses, "You are the Christ, the son of the living God," (Matthew 16.16-17). It is possible to harmonize these variations if one is "determined to do so," (Cullmann). However, the wiser use of ones time may be to rest on one of two conclusions. The first possible conclusion is that Jesus spoke about the giving of the name at various times throughout his ministry and that the writers are simply including a sampling of those different times. The second possible conclusion is that the exact memory of the moment "Jesus gave Peter the title had been lost," (Cullmann).
Life during Jesus' Ministry
The Gospel of Matthew portrays Peter's great statement regarding the divinity of Jesus in the context of a question asked by Jesus. A discussion takes place between Jesus and his disciples near the city of Caesarea Philippi; this discussion begins with Jesus asking the question, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is" (Matt 16.13). The disciples proceed to explain the various opinions that the people have in the next verse before Jesus interjects with, "But who do you say that I am" (Matt 16.15). It is at this point that Peter is singled out in Matthew's Gospel as he replies, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matt 16.16). This is of great interest to the student of Peter's life. Here, for the first time recorded in the Gospels, the flamboyant Peter deftly proclaims that Jesus is the Christ, the son of God. Jesus appears pleased with this statement and blesses Peter in the following verse.
It quickly becomes clear that Peter's idea of a Messiah did not include the idea of a suffering servant because a scant six verses later Peter takes Jesus aside and begins rebuking him for the idea that Jesus would die. Here Jesus rebukes Peter, calling him an adversary and saying that his mind is set on the things of man and not on the things of God (Matt 16.22-23). This is typical of Peter's interaction with Christ. He will take a great step of faith or make a great proclamation only to not quite get the full impact of what he just did or said. This is not something that Peter should be harshly judged on, rather it shows his own faith journey and humanity.
Similarly Peter shows his faith a few chapters earlier in the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus' walking on the water is recorded in Mark 6.45-52, John 6.16-21, and Matthew 14.22-33. However, only in Matthew is Peter's role mentioned. In this narrative Jesus comes to the disciples, who are in a boat fighting against the wind and waves, walking on the water. At first the disciples are terrified by this sight and cry out in fear that it is a ghost. Once Jesus assures them that it is him, and not a ghost, Peter asks Jesus to command him to join him on the water. Jesus responds with the simple word, "come," (Matt 14.29). Peter obeyed, got out of the boat, "walked on the water and came to Jesus," (Matt 14.29). This is, perhaps, more than can be said for the other disciples who remained in the boat. Peter, in this passage, takes part in an event that he surely remembered for the rest of his life. It is important to remember at this point that Peter did not lack faith, he merely lacked enough faith to successfully stay on top of the water. As the story goes Peter saw the wind and became afraid, only then did he begin to sink. Still though, he cries out to Jesus for help which his lord readily gives with the gentle rebuke, "O you of little faith, why did you doubt" (Matt 14.31). So, at this point in his life Peter is revealed to be a man of faith, albeit only a little faith.
These two examples serve as a brief synopsis of Peter's life during the earthly ministry of Christ. Constantly it is Peter who is singled out as the disciple of action. It is he who walks on water, he who proclaims Jesus as the son of the living God, he who proposes that tents be pitched for Jesus, Moses and Elijah (Matt 17.2-4), it is he who cuts off Malchus' ear (John 18.10). Throughout the Gospels Peter acts. Most often these actions are undertaken on Peter's part with a lack of full understanding regarding what Jesus is doing. Nevertheless Peter does act, and it is he who receives the command to feed Jesus' sheep (John 21.15-17). Interestingly, Peter receives this command after jumping out of a boat to get to Jesus and then hauling 153 large fish ashore in a net single handedly, or so the text would seem to indicate (John 21.1-14). These examples show that it takes no stretch of the imagination to say that Peter was a man of action throughout his associate with Jesus.
After the Resurrection: The early church
At this point a certain amount of tension might be expected. If one has read the Gospel accounts in their entirety there is no doubt that although Peter was a man of action, his action often goes in the wrong direction. Jesus constantly rebukes Peter, sometimes harshly (Matt 16.22-23) and sometimes gently (Matt 14.31). Yet in the beginning chapters of Acts this same disciple, the one who has been rebuked the most by Christ, even if because he acted the most in his presence, is again set forth as the principle speaker and action-taker of the Twelve, now reduced to eleven. It is this reduction that sets forth Peter as the action-taker within the first chapter of Acts. Peter "makes out a good case for the choice of an unblemished successor to Judas" (Thiede). It is Peter who sets out the requirements for Judas' replacement (Thiede), and it may even have been Peter who decided on the use of the lot to decide between the two possible replacements (Thiede). So as the book that will outline the earliest history of the church begins Peter is again in the spotlight. Still taking action, and maturing along the way. Undoubtedly, the author of Acts portrays Peter as an extremely important figure of the early Christian community.
Perhaps the greatest show of Peter's maturity in the book of Acts is his vision in Joppa and subsequent conversion of the gentile Cornelius. This narrative takes place near the end of Peter's recorded ministry in Acts, but it reveals much light on how Peter had grown over the years since the night when he denied his Lord. In the vision that Peter has, recorded in Acts 10.16, a voice commands him to eat unclean animals. Peter refuses in his classic manner by proclaiming that he has "never eaten anything unholy and unclean" (Acts 10.14). Yet verse seventeen is the first real light that is shed upon Peter's growth and maturity. In this verse Peter is greatly perplexed at the vision, and verse nineteen elaborates this point by saying that Peter was reflecting on the vision. He was thinking! At some point Peter had gone from an action-taker who did not think, or at the least thought only briefly and often came to wrong conclusions, to an action-taker (as can be seen in the fact that he does go and preach to Cornelius) who thought through things.
Peter's reflection is interrupted by the men Cornelius has sent, or more accurately, his reflection is interrupted by the Spirit telling him that men are looking for him and that he should accompany them (Acts 10.19-20). This narrative proceeds with Peter traveling to Cornelius' house and speaking the Gospel to all who were there (Acts 10.34-43). The narrative ends with the new converts speaking in tongues and being baptized (Acts 10.44-48). Some discount the miracles, and indeed the entire Cornelius narrative as nothing more than an attempt by the writer of the book of Acts to include Peter in a more favorable light towards the gentiles (Grant). However, with the presupposition that Acts is an accurate historical source, one may see how Peter has come to the right conclusion this time. In Acts 10.28 Peter explains that God has shown him that no man should be called unclean. This is undoubtedly an important revelation for Peter. Of great importance to the modern reader, it shows that Peter has truly thought things through. In the time period between Christ's death and Peter's vision the apostle has gained understanding. Perhaps we see in Peter, more than any of the other disciples, a man who has grown through his relationship with Jesus.
The narrative of Acts shifts from a focus on Peter to a focus on Paul half way through chapter twelve when the author reports that after escaping imprisonment and almost certain death Peter "left and went to another place" (Acts 12.17). This is the last appearance of Peter in the book of Acts save for a brief speech during the Jerusalem Council mentioned in chapter fifteen. This then nearly exhausts the information contained within the New Testament Canon regarding Peter. It is true that he is mentioned by Paul in both Galatians and 1 Corinthians, but chronologically speaking Peter is largely out of the picture aside from the aforementioned appearance at the Apostolic Council (Grant). It is now necessary to turn to Church history, tradition, and various apocryphal writings for an understanding of the later years of Peter's life.
Peter's leaving for "another place" (Acts 12.17) can possibly be dated to AD 41 or 42, this dating would also satisfy an apocryphal command of Jesus that the Apostles should remain centered in Jerusalem for twelve years (Acts of Peter 2.5). It is possible that after departing from Jerusalem Peter visited Antioch, as well as several towns in Asia Minor that are later mentioned in 1 Peter. He may have visited Corinth, which would explain the reference that Paul makes to a "Cephas group" within that church ( 1 Cor. 1.12,14; 9.5). It is important however to keep in mind that all of Paul's "references to Cephas in Galatians and 1 Corinthians are...distant and somewhat guarded" (Michaels).
Invariably any discussion of Peter's later missionary activity, indeed any discussion of his whereabouts and activities after Acts 15 must eventually come to a discussion of his alleged stay in Rome. Some have purposed that Peter had two stays in Rome, the first of which began in the winter of AD 42 and was interrupted when Peter returned to Jerusalem after Herod Agrippa's death (Thiede). The question of whether or not Peter ever even went to Rome has been questioned off and on for that past 800 years, beginning with the Waldensians (Cullmann). The Biblical record remains silent regarding this issue (Custer), the only arguments that may be made from the book of Romans on the issue are arguments from silence (Cullmann), such as the fact that "Peter was not one" (Custer) of the persons listed by Paul at the end of Romans. The only other possible reference to Peter in Rome in the New Testament is found in 1 Peter 5.13 where the writer sends greetings from the saints in "Babylon." Some scholars have taken Babylon to be a "cryptic name for Rome" (Cullmann). If this is the case then it makes at least some argument for Peter having stayed in Rome, though a single reference is far from conclusive. As has already been postulated one must move outside the realm of Scripture for an answer to the question of Peter's stay in Rome, and indeed for an explanation of Peter's martyrdom in general.
At least one scholar has commented that all the "earliest extant sources which comment on Peter's death agree that it happened in Rome" (Thiede). These earliest sources include Dionysius of Corinth dated to sometime between AD 166 and 174. However Dionysius contradicts Paul's statement in Romans that he has not yet visited Rome (Rom. 1.9-10). This has caused some scholars to be dubious as to the accuracy of the remainder of what he has to say. Even with obvious objections being raised as to the historicity of Peter's stay in Rome "there is a large measure of agreement that Peter did go to Rome" (Grant). Assuming that this large measure of scholarship is correct, and that Peter did indeed stay in Rome there are certain other traditions regarding his stay. There is one strong tradition that he lived with Aquila and Priscilla during his time in the Imperial Capital (Grant). There is also a tradition that says Peter lived with Senator Pudens during this period. The apocryphal Acts of Peter attribute Peter's confrontation with Simon Magus to several locations finally ending in Rome. The final, and perhaps most important tradition regarding Peter in Rome is his martyrdom.
The Acts of Peter record a legend in which Peter flees Rome when Nero began his persecution in AD 64. The legend says that Jesus appeared to him and asked him where he was going, Peter needed no more words and immediately turned around and headed back to the city (Grant 152). However there is an earlier, and far more respected text which may shed light on Peter's martyrdom; that text is the First Epistle of Clement (Cullmann). The epistle is commonly held to have been composed during AD 96 (Cullmann). The information on Peter is found in a section of the letter where Clement is making an argument that is vaguely reminiscent of Epistle to the Hebrews 12 and 13 where the author of that letter speaks of attested exemplars. In this section Peter is listed as one who bore many torments and afterwards went to a "place of glory" (1 Clem. 5.4-5). Nevertheless this text does not give a particular location for Peter's death. It is an unsatisfactory response to say that the place could not have been Rome because Clement knew nothing of Peter's martyrdom except what he mentioned. It is much more likely that Clement assumed "that it [the place of Peter's death] was known; moreover, he is not giving a report about martyrs but an example of the results of envy and strife" (Cullmann). "Constantine the Great was so convinced of the fact" (Grant) that Peter had died and been buried in Rome that he built St. Peter's Basilica over the site where tradition held Peter had been buried in the early 4th century. There had, apparently, been a shrine where the basilica was built since the late second century (Grant).
If it can be safely assumed that Peter died in Rome circa AD 65 (Reicke) than the final question that must be answered is the means of his death. Tradition has long held that Peter was crucified, like Jesus himself. One scholar has said, "those who mention the manner of his death are unanimous are this point" (Thiede). Those who look for Canonical evidence sometimes point to the Gospel of John when it says, "'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.) " (John 21.18-19a) as proof that Peter would die by crucification. The Acts of Peter tells the story of his martyrdom and adds that he refused to be crucified right-side up, but demanded to be crucified upside down so as not to compete with Jesus. Although this tradition does come from the Acts of Peter it should not be immediately dismissed since it is mentioned by Origen and may have been "in line with the desire for novelty among the Roman henchmen" (Thiede). The vast majority of literary sources point to Peter having been martyred in Rome at some point during the reign of Emperor Nero (Cullmann). However, even with this evidence the means of Peter's death cannot be confirmed unequivocally (Grant).
Peter's life has been examined, from his humble beginnings in a back water province of the Roman Empire, to his meeting with the Son of the Living God, to his death, presumably, in the capital of the greatest of the ancient empires. Throughout his life Peter proved to be a man of faith; he stepped out on a wind-tossed sea to be with his Lord. He was often quick to act and slow to think in his early years, showing him to be a man of action. He had no qualms about cutting off the ear of someone who came to take his Lord away from him. Yet, many years later, it can be seen that Peter had matured a great deal and that, although he remained a man of both faith and action, he had brought these into at least some type of balance. Perhaps it is this human struggle and maturity, this humanity, that makes Peter one of the most interesting Biblical characters to study.
- Peter by Oscar Cullman
- A Witness to Christ by Stewart Custer
- Saint Peter: A Biography by Michael Grant
- The Anchor Bible: The Epistles of James, Peter and Jude by Bo Reicke
- Simon Peter: From Galilee to Rome by Carsten P. Thiede
Return to Apostle Peter