The son of Jonah (Matt. 16.17) or John (John 1.42); originally he was known as Simon (or Simeon, Acts 15.12). According to the Gospels, Jesus gave him the name Peter, the Greek translation of an Aramaic word “Cepha(s)” meaning “stone, rock” (Mark 3.16; Matt. 16.18; John 1.42). He and his brother Andrew were fishermen (Mark 1.16) of the poorer class, since apparently they did not own a boat. He was among the first disciples whom Jesus called (Mark 1.17; John 1.40–42). Married (Mark 1.29–31), his wife later traveled with him on some of his missionary journeys (1 Cor. 9.5).

An apostle and one of the twelve (Mark 3.14–19), he was prominent among them, belonging to a small inner group (Mark 5.37; 9.2; 13.3; 14.33). He often acted as their spokesperson (Mark 8.29; 11.21; 14.29), especially in acknowledging Jesus as the Messiah, though he did not understand Jesus would have to suffer (Mark 8.27–33). On several other occasions he is presented in a poor light (Matt. 14.28–31; Mark 9.5–6; 14.29–31), particularly in the gospel of Mark and especially in his denial of Jesus (Mark 14.66–72). We should, however, remember that the purpose of the Gospels is to inform us about Jesus, not to give a biography of Peter. Peter's failures serve to highlight Jesus' courage and compassion.

After the resurrection, Peter was the first male disciple to see the risen Jesus (Luke 24.34; 1 Cor. 15.5), and he quickly took a leading position in the young church (Acts 1–12, 15; Gal. 1.18–19; 2.1–10). According to Luke, he preached (Acts 2.14–36; 3.12–26; etc.), healed the sick (Acts 3.1–10; 9.32–42), went as envoy from Jerusalem to oversee the work of other missionaries (Acts 8.14–25), and suffered for his faith (Acts 4.13–22; 5.17–41; 12.1–11). Guided by a vision, he was the first to preach to and convert gentiles (Acts 10.1–11.18), and he supported Paul on this matter in the council of Acts 15. Paul's own account of Peter's position in the controversy differs somewhat; in Galatians we are told that on a visit to Antioch, Peter refused to have full fellowship with gentile Christians (Gal. 2.11–14). At either the council of Acts 15 or another (Gal. 2.1–10), Paul was allotted the gentiles as his missionary concern and Peter the Jews. After this Peter disappears from the New Testament story. James, the brother of Jesus, apparently became the sole leader of the Jerusalem church, and Peter went traveling (1 Cor. 9.5). He may have visited Corinth and/or the areas mentioned in 1 Peter 1.1 and came to Rome shortly before his death. Extrabiblical tradition says that he was martyred when Nero persecuted the Christians there (64 CE). Yet later tradition claims that St. Peter's in Rome was built over his burial place.

The meaning of Jesus' words to Peter in Matthew 16.17–19 have been disputed. Is the rock Peter himself, his confession, or Peter as confessor? Is the power of the keys that of ecclesiastical discipline or of admitting to the church through preaching? Is binding and loosing the determination of what is correct and orthodox or the power to excommunicate? Is this power restricted to Peter alone or given to the whole church (Matt. 18.18)? Were the words of 16.17–19 spoken by the incarnate Jesus, the risen Jesus (cf. John 21.15–19), or did they come into being later to represent the position Peter actually attained?

Two of the writings of the New Testament are attributed to him (see Peter, The Letters of). Early tradition associates him with the gospel of Mark. Some later apocryphal writings were written in his name, a gospel of Peter and at least two apocalypses. There was also an Acts of Peter. Their appearance indicates his importance for the second‐century church. In the first century, there was a group that strongly supported him (1 Cor. 1.12; 3.22; 9.5).

Ernest Best