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Peter the Apostle


PETER THE APOSTLE (d. 64? ce) was one of the twelve apostles of Jesus and, according to Roman Catholic tradition, the first pope. The earliest sources of information about Peter are such that it is not possible to draw an altogether clear distinction between those elements in the image of Peter that are derived from his role in the church prior to his death and those that derive from the Peter of later Christian remembrance and tradition. None of the surviving sources is primarily interested in Peter. Only a few, Galatians and 1 Corinthians, were written while Peter was still alive and by someone who certainly knew him. Those sources that give a more circumstantial account of Peter were written some years, often some decades, after his death. They incorporate the story of Peter into the story of Jesus and of the early church in such a way as to raise questions about the historicity of some of the details. Are accounts of Peter's prominent role among the apostles an accurate recollection of the way things actually happened, or are they a retrojection into the time of Jesus' ministry of the role that Peter would later play in the early church? No one denies that there is a substratum of fact or event behind the New Testament descriptions of Peter, but there is considerable disagreement about what that substratum is. These problems are neither so complex nor so heavy with consequences as the problems connected with "the historical Jesus," but they are similar in type.

The Apostle

Symeon or Simon (Hebrew and Greek names, respectively) was, with his brother Andrew, a fisherman at the Sea of Galilee when they were both called to follow Jesus of Nazareth. They may have been the first called, and were to be among the closest of Jesus' followers. Simon was also called Kepha (or Kephas), which is Aramaic for "rock," the Greek form of which is Petra or Petros, whence the name Peter. According to both Mark 3:16 and John 4:42, it was Jesus who gave Simon this additional name, but the fact that the two accounts are quite different has led some to suggest that the name may have been given only subsequently, in view of his work in the early church, and then retrojected into the time of Jesus' ministry.

Various New Testament sources present Peter as playing a special role among the disciples during Jesus' lifetime. He is named first among the disciples (Mk. 3:16 and parallels, Acts 1:13). He is often presented as speaking on their behalf (Mk. 8:29, 10:28, 11:21, 16:7, and their parallels). Along with James and John, he is one of an inner circle among the disciples (Mk. 5:37, 9:2ff., 14:33, and their parallels).

In different ways Matthew, Luke, and John all relate that Jesus entrusted to Peter some special role in the community that Jesus was to leave behind. He is the rock on which the church is to be built (Mt. 16:18). Jesus prays for him that, after having been tested himself, he may strengthen his brethren (Lk. 22:31). Jesus takes him aside and specially commissions him to feed his lambs and his sheep (Jn. 21:1517). Here again there is disagreement as to whether these narratives report events that actually took place or are efforts to legitimate Peter's later role in the early church by anchoring it in the actions of Jesus. A middle position is, of course, possible: that Jesus did entrust some special responsibility to Peter, and that this was later elaborated on by the evangelists.

Peter is also the disciple whose failures are most fully described in the New Testament. When he objects to Jesus' prediction of his own suffering and death, Jesus calls him Satan (Mt. 16:23, Mk. 8:33). When Jesus' final sufferings have already begun, Peter publicly denies any association with him (Mk. 14:6672 and parallels). In addition, he is described, not unsympathetically, as being impetuous (Jn. 21:7).

Several different strands of New Testament tradition testify that Peter was the first of the apostles to see Jesus after he was raised from the dead. Many judge 1 Corinthians 15:5 to be part of a traditional confessional formula. If this is correct, then well before the mid-fifties of the first century it was part of Christian tradition that Jesus appeared first to Kephas. In the Lucan account it is the women who first see the risen Jesus, but then Peter is the first of the apostles to see him after the women, and his seeing is clearly more important than theirs (Lk. 24:134). In John, Peter is the first to enter the empty tomb. Mary Magdalene is the first to see Jesus, and only subsequently a group of the apostles (all but Thomas) are together when they first see Jesus (Jn. 20:125).

Throughout the early chapters of Acts (chaps. 112), Peter plays the leading role in the formation and expansion of the church. He is the leading preacher and wonder-worker (2:1436; 3:110, 1126; 9:3243). He is the first to extend the Christian mission to the Gentiles (10:111, 18).

To judge from Paul's letter to the Galatians, Peter was the most important figure in the church at Jerusalem in the late thirties (Gal. 1:18). According to the same source he was still one of the pillars of that church in the late forties but now is mentioned between James and John (2:9). It is in this same letter that Paul speaks of Peter as being raised up to preach to the Jews as he, Paul, had been sent to the gentiles (2:78). Paul provides no detailed information about Peter's work as apostle to the Jews, but the fact that he speaks of him in this way suggests that it must have been fairly extensive, and not confined merely to his work in the church at Jerusalem. It is known that Peter was in Antioch (Gal. 2:1114), and it seems likely that he was in Corinth as well (1 Cor. 1:12). The fact that somewhat later in the first century the pseudonymous 1 Peter is addressed to Christians in Pontus, Galatia, Asia, and Bithynia (1 Pt. 1:1) suggests that these regions were associated with Peter's ministry. Also, the fact that the letter is ostensibly sent from Rome (referred to in 1 Peter 5:13 as "Babylon") suggests that a Roman activity of Peter was also a tradition at this time.

In the disputes over the obligation of gentile Christians to conform to Jewish law, Peter probably adopted a position somewhere between that of Paul and Paul's opponents. In theory he seems to have sided with Paul, but his practice apparently was not always consistent with his ideas (Gal. 2:1114).

Peter's activity at Rome would later be of great importance in Christian tradition, and so has attracted considerable attention. There is no evidence linking him with Rome in the documents written during his lifetime, but the tradition that he preached at Rome is widely attested in the late first and second centuries. Because at this time the matter had not yet become important in church politics, there seems to be no good reason to question this early tradition. Equally early is the tradition of Peter's martyrdom (Jn. 21:1819) and of his martyrdom in Rome (1 Clement 5). Archaeological investigation has not settled the question of Peter's burial place, but it has shown that by the middle of the second century Roman Christians honored a particular place as the location of Peter's burial.

Peter in Christian Tradition

Peter remained prominent in a variety of Christian traditions in the second and third centuries. Several writings were ascribed to him, either directly or indirectly, and in several others he played a leading role. Early in the second century it was asserted that the gospel according to Mark was a compendium of Peter's teaching, a view that would be generally accepted in later orthodoxy. A Gospel of Peter, of heretical cast according to the bishop of Antioch, was in use in Syria in the second half of the century. The Kerygma of Peter, a work with some similarities to the writing of the second-century Christian apologists, may have been written before midcentury. An Apocalypse of Peter dates from about the same time, and The Acts of Peter from not much later. The gnostic library from Nag Hammadi likewise contains several works in which Peter is featured: another Apocalypse of Peter, an Acts of Peter and the Twelve Apostles, and a Letter of Peter to Philip. These works probably date from the third century. None of these writings reveals much that is likely to be historically reliable about Peter, but taken together they indicate the importance accorded to Peter in the polymorphous Christianity of this period.

Another work, the Kerugmata Petrou, has been reconstructed by some scholars as among the earliest sources of the later pseudo-Clementine literature. (Some scholars deny that such a document ever existed.) This reconstructed document, of a strikingly Jewish-Christian character, describes a Peter who, along with James, takes the lead in defending Christianity against such perverters of the truth as Simon Magus and Paul of Tarsus.

It was within what would subsequently be identified as orthodox Christianity that the figure of Peter has exercised its most widespread and long-lasting influence. Within this orthodox tradition his influence has been especially important in the West. Peter has been seen as the archetypal Christian, as the prototype of episcopal church order, and as the first pope. The last has been the most influentialbut also the most controvertedpart of the Petrine tradition.

As early as the late first century the tradition arose that Peter (along with Paul) had made special provision for the leadership in the Roman church after their departure or death (see the authentic first letter of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians, chaps. 42 and 44). In the course of the subsequent controversy over gnosticism, the issue of the apostolic foundations of the church became very important. The same writers who stressed the apostolic authorship of the books of the New Testament also laid great stress on the apostolic foundations of particular churches. The church at Rome, because of the role allegedly played there by Peter and Paul, was singled out and came to see itself as the apostolic church par excellence (see Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.3.13). Gradually this tradition of the Petrine origin of the Roman church (Paul gradually fades from the picture) is combined with the New Testament image of Peter as the first and even the leader of the apostles. On this basis, the Roman church is seen as the first and even the leader among the churches. At first, original succession ideas (in Irenaeus, for example) emphasized that the bishop was successor to the apostle-founder of the particular church as preacher of the apostolic gospel. By the late fourth century (some would say earlier), the claim is made that the bishop of Rome succeeds as well to Peter's apostolic primacy. It is on this basis that Rome claims authority over the entire church.

These views seem to have developed first within the Roman church itself and to have spread from there only slowly throughout the West. The Christian East had a different tradition and never fully accepted the Roman interpretation of Petrine authority. Traditionally the East too recognized a Petrine primacy within the New Testament and a kind of Roman primacy within the church universal. The nature of this latter primacy has been the subject of much dispute, and the East has fairly consistently refused to see it as involving a Roman authority over other churches, or at least over the churches of the East.

Other images of Peter have also flourished over the centuries. Peter as the keeper of the keys to the kingdom of heaven has played an important role in Christian art and folklore, taking its point of departure from the same New Testament text, Matthew 16:18, that has been so important in sustaining the image of Peter as the first pope. Similarly, the many images of Peter to be found in the New TestamentPeter as shepherd, as fisher of men, as confessor of true faith against false teaching, as weak and impetuoushave all been reflected at various times and places within the Christian tradition.

See Also



The classic modern study of Peter from a conservative Protestant perspective is Oscar Cullman's Peter, Disciple, Apostle, Martyr: A Historical and Theological Study, 2d edition. (Philadelphia, 1953). Cullman gives a generally conservative reading of the New Testament texts, but he rejects the idea of successors to Peter. Less negative on this latter point is Rudolf Pesch's Simon-Petrus: Geschichte und geschichtliche Bedeutung des ersten Jungers Jesu Christi (Stuttgart, 1980). A very useful survey of the roles of Peter in the New Testament and of the methodological problems involved is given by Raymond Brown and others in Peter in the New Testament (Minneapolis, 1973). Eastern Christian perspectives on Peter are presented by John Meyendorff and others in Peter in the New Testament (Minneapolis, 1973). Eastern Christian perspectives on Peter are presented by John Meyendorff and others in the Primacy of Peter (London, 1963). See especially Meyendorff's contribution, "St. Peter in Byzantine Theology, " pp. 729.

On the matter of the archeological evidence for Peter at Rome, see Daniel W. O'Conner's Peter in Rome: The Literacy, Liturgical and Archeological Evidence (New York, 1969) and more briefly his "Peter in Rome: A Review and Position," in Christianity, Judism, and Other Graeco-Roman Cults, edited by Jacob Neusner (Leiden, 1975), pt. 2, pp. 146160. For bibliographical information, see the section "Petrus" in the bibliography in Archivum Historiae Pontificae (Rome, 1968).

James F. McCue (1987)

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