(ca. 5–64 C.E.) the most prominent disciple of Jesus of Nazareth, who became the leader of Jesus' followers after the latter's crucifixion in 30 C.E. “Peter” the Greek word petros, “stone,” translates the Aramaic nickname “Cephas,” kēpha', given him by Jesus (Mk 3:16; Mt 16:16; Jn 1:42). His given name was Simon (Simeon; see Acts 15:14); his father's was either John (Jn 1:42) or Jonah (Mt 16:16). His brother, Andrew, also joined the core group of twelve disciples assembled by Jesus (Mk 1:16–17). They had been fishermen living in Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee. Peter's home served as a base for Jesus' activities in the region (Mk 1:29–34; 9:33). One tradition has Jesus call Simon and his brother away from their fishing nets to follow him (Mk 1:16–17; Lk 5:1–11). An alternate story reported that Andrew had been a disciple of John the Baptist in Judea. Encountering Jesus of Nazareth in those circles, Andrew became his follower and brought Peter to Jesus (Jn 1:35–42). This tradition places the brothers in a different fishing town, Bethsaida (Jn 1:44).

Peter does not appear in ancient sources outside the New Testament and later Christian writers. The two archaeological sites connected with the apostle provide no independent first-century evidence. Excavators at Capernaum identified the remains of a first-century house that had been successively converted to a public, house-church building (fourth century C.E.) and then an octagonal church in the fifth century as the “house of Peter.” No positive evidence identifies its first-century occupants. According to tradition first mentioned in 1 Clement 5.4 (ca. 90 C.E.), Peter was martyred in Rome. Excavations of the traditional burial site under the Vatican revealed a small edicula (shrine) dating to the mid-second century. But no remains from the cemetery are identified as the apostle's.

Paul provides first-hand testimony about Peter. He regularly uses the Aramaic form of his name, “Cephas.” Peter was the first disciple to encounter the risen Christ (1 Cor 15:5a). When Paul travels to Jerusalem some three years after his own conversion, he spends two weeks with Peter (Gal 1:18). Clearly Peter is the most prominent of Jesus' followers in Jerusalem by 36–38 C.E. Even if Peter and the others initially returned to Galilee after Jesus' execution as some resurrection stories suggest (Mk 16:7; Mt 28:16–20; Jn 21:1–14), the new community is established in Jerusalem. However Paul mentions meeting a brother of Jesus, James (Gal 1:19b), also an early witness to the risen Jesus (1 Cor 15:7). At this early period, Peter is not the sole authority in Christian circles. Fourteen years later, when a delegation from Antioch in Syria including Barnabas and Paul meets leaders in Jerusalem (ca. 49 C.E.) to discuss the extent to which Gentile converts are bound to adopt Jewish practices, there are three “pillars” in Jerusalem. Two had been among the twelve disciples of Jesus, namely, Peter and John, the son of Zebedee; the third was James, the brother of the Lord (Gal 2:9).

As Paul retells the events, Peter and the others will engage in a mission to Jews comparable to the efforts of Paul and Barnabas among non-Jews (Gal 2:8–10). Non-Jews are not required to adopt a Jewish way of life. The Antioch church comprised both Jewish and non-Jewish believers. Paul mentions a clash with Peter there sometime after the Jerusalem meeting (Gal 2:11–14). That meeting had not addressed the questions of table-fellowship that might arise in such a mixed community. Paul alleges that persons associated with James caused problems by their refusal to eat with the uncircumcised Gentiles. Peter's pragmatic solution was to have Jewish Christians withdraw from fellowship with non-Jews for the sake of these visitors. Paul treats this move as a hypocritical denial of the gospel that salvation comes to both Jew and non-Jew through the death and resurrection of Jesus, not through Torah observance. However Peter's accommodation seems to have carried the day in Antioch. The episode suggests that Peter had shifted his base of operations from Jerusalem to Antioch ca. 50 C.E. Acts 12:6–19 concludes that persecution forced that transition.

Paul mentions Peter's apostolic efforts in 1 Corinthians (ca. 53–54 C.E.; 1 Cor 1:12; 3:22). One learns that Peter was accompanied by his wife (1 Cor 9:5) and depended upon the churches in which he preached for support as Jesus had commanded (1 Cor 9:14; cp. Mk 6:8–10). Though Peter is mentioned along with Paul and Apollos, who had preached in Corinth, most scholars do not think he had visited Corinth or baptized any members of that church. So their familiarity with Peter may be limited to his reputation in Christian circles generally. Paul does not mention Peter in the long list of persons in the greetings that conclude his letter to the Romans written from Corinth ca. 56–57 C.E. Consequently it appears that Peter had not arrived in Rome by the later 50s.

Though some scholars have questioned the historical reliability of the tradition that Peter was martyred in Rome, most accept its veracity. How he came to be there and whether his death was connected with Nero's execution of numbers of Christians after the great fire remains unclear. By the early second century C.E. Christians assumed that Peter had spent some time teaching in the city. Papias infers that the gospel of Mark was composed on the basis of stories the aging apostle had told to Christians in Rome (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. II 15). The fourth century church historian Eusebius asserts that Peter had arrived during the reign of Claudius (41–54 C.E.). In the late first century a presbyter in Rome composed a Pauline-style letter using Peter's name to encourage persecuted Christians in the cities of Asia Minor. By the early second century, another author composed a brief letter in Peter's name to reassure believers that Christ would return in glory despite the decades since the death and resurrection of Jesus. An important piece of evidence in support of this belief was Peter's vision of the earthly Jesus transfigured (2 Pet 1:17–19; cf. Mk 9:2–8).

Peter in the Gospels

The canonical gospels provide a consistent picture of the apostle as he was remembered in the last decades of the first century C.E. Matthew and Luke have revised Mark's depiction and added material of their own. John knows some version of Mark, a tale of the miraculous catch of fish comparable to Luke 5 (Jn 21:1–14) and a distinctive tradition linking Peter's brother, Andrew, to the circles around John the Baptist. Since Peter and his brother are fishing with the round circular nets cast out from the shore (Mk 1:16–18), they are closer to the economic bottom of the working poor than James and John, whose father, Zebedee, has a boat and hired servants (Mk 1:19–20). The boat in the miraculous catch stories may belong to a fishing cooperative. Lacking both education in Israel's scriptures and socioeconomic status, Peter appears an unlikely prospect to lead a new religious movement (Acts 3:6; 4:13).

As the primary spokesperson for the group of twelve surrounding Jesus, Peter exhibits loyalty (Mk 10:28; 14:29; Jn 18:10) and insight into Jesus' divine mission (Mk 8:27–30; Jn 6:66–69) along with confusion (Mk 9:5–6) and a refusal to accept Jesus' words about his impending death and resurrection. Mark has Jesus reply with a sharp verbal slap, “Get behind me Satan” (Mk 8:33). Because Peter had boasted that he would follow Jesus even to death, Jesus chides him for sleeping rather than keeping a prayerful vigil in Gethsemane (Mk 14:37–38). Most scholars agree that the shocking conclusion to this narrative thread, Peter's threefold denial that he knows Jesus in the High Priest's courtyard while Jesus is being condemned (Mk 14:66–71), must be anchored in stories Peter told about himself.

All of the evangelists offset this betrayal scene with reminders that it is not the last word about Peter. Jesus anticipates Peter's collapse as well as the flight of his other disciples (Mk 14:27–31). But when the appearances of the risen Lord draw his shattered followers back together with the mission to proclaim that news to the world, Peter will play the central role (Mk 16:7; Lk 22:31–34). The epilogue to John's gospel includes a striking scene in which Peter reverses the denial with a threefold protestation of his love for Jesus and is entrusted with the care of Jesus' flock (Jn 21:15–17). The enigmatic saying about Peter's fate in John 21:18b, “… when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go,” is interpreted by the narrator as a prediction of Peter's martyrdom (v. 19a).

Establishing Peter's future position as shepherd of Jesus' sheep and revered martyr clashes with the local traditions in the gospel of John. Those churches revere a figure known only by his epithet, “the Beloved Disciple” (Jn 21:20–24). Apparently from Jerusalem or Judea, the Beloved Disciple repeatedly upstages Peter. He is closest to Jesus at the Last Supper (Jn 13:23). Peter makes a characteristic protest against Jesus acting like a lowly slave in washing the feet. When rebuked, Peter's request for a full bath is equally misguided (Jn 13:4–11). Since the Beloved Disciple secures Peter's entry into the High Priest's house (18:15) and is entrusted with Jesus' mother at the foot of the cross (19:27), Peter's denials appear cowardly in John's gospel. Similar juxtaposition between the Beloved Disciple and Peter occur in two of the Easter stories. The Beloved Disciple arrives at the tomb first but waits for Peter to enter (Jn 20:3–10). The evangelist credits the Beloved Disciple with an immediate faith in the risen Jesus (20:8; 21:7) but defers understanding by Peter and other disciples.

Matthew's special material includes episodes during the life of Jesus that point forward to Peter's later role in the community. The story of Jesus walking on water to rescue his storm-tossed disciples adapted from Mark 6:45–52 has been supplemented with Peter's own attempt to do so. When fear takes over, Jesus has to rescue Peter (Mt 14:22–33). This scene is depicted in the baptistry at Dura Europos. Matthew expands Peter's confession that Jesus is Messiah with several sayings about Peter. God revealed the truth that Jesus is Messiah to him. The substitution of a nickname “Rock” (Cephas, Peter) for his given name, Simon, points to Peter as the indestructible foundation of Jesus' church. Peter will have the authority to make judgments about Jesus' teaching that will stand up in heaven (Mt 16:17–19). Two episodes provide instructions for that task. First Peter asks Jesus whether or not they are to pay the annual “Temple tax” required of Jews. Jesus replies that although his followers are not obligated to do so, he will pay to avoid offending the authorities (Mt 17:24–27). Later Peter hopes to clarify the extent of forgiveness. Jesus replies that there are no limits to Christian forgiveness, just as there are no limits to God's (Mt 18:21–35).

Peter in the Acts of the Apostles

Luke has shaped the image that Christians have of Peter's role in the early church. He followed his gospel with a second volume recounting the deeds of the apostles, especially Peter and Paul. The prophecy of Jesus at the Last Supper, “I have prayed for you. . . and when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Lk 22:32), is fulfilled dramatically. Peter organizes practical matters in the life of the church, replacing Judas Iscariot (Acts 1:15–26), receiving the donations that will provide for the poor (Acts 4:32—5:11), and resolving conflicts between Aramaic- and Greek-speaking believers by creating a new “office” of deacons to assist with the latter (6:1–6). Peter can use Jesus' name to perform miracles (Acts 3:1–19; 5:12–16; 8:19–24; 9:32–43). The Holy Spirit has transformed the brash, uncertain, and fearful character in the gospels. Peter accepts imprisonment and boldly stands up to the assembled Sanhedrin (Acts 4:1–22; 5:17–42; 12:1–19).

Luke composes a series of powerful speeches for Peter that summarize the Christian message of salvation (Acts 2:14–36; 3:11–26; 10:32–43). In the early stories of Peter's witnessing in Jerusalem and Samaria, John accompanies the apostle but plays no role in the episodes. Luke may have used that motif to underline the unity of the apostles in these developments. Paul indicates that Peter, John, and James, the brother of the Lord, were the authorities in Jerusalem ca. 49–50 C.E. Paul's account of events in Galatians suggests that including Gentiles in the Christian mission began in Antioch. Peter's efforts were directed toward fellow Jews. Acts 10–11 tells a different story. A series of visions orchestrate Peter's visit to the house of a centurion, Cornelius, who revered Israel's God. Consequently conversion of Gentiles begins with Peter in Caesarea. Peter subsequently defends this development as God's will before critics in Jerusalem. The Cornelius story may push back to Peter's Jerusalem career the openness to non-Jewish believers that the apostle later experienced in Antioch (Gal 2:11–14). Luke softens the conflict between the Antioch missionaries and Jerusalem authorities over the inclusion of non-Jews. Jesus commanded his disciples to spread the gospel from Jerusalem to the whole world. The process begins when pilgrims from the known world, East and West, hear Peter's words in their own languages (Acts 2:5–13). It ends with Paul under house arrest in Rome, the empire's capital, still preaching the gospel (Acts 28:28–31).

This coordination of the two apostles, Peter and Paul, finds its way into Christian liturgy and art. Following the tradition that they were martyred at the same time in Rome, the Feast of Peter and Paul is celebrated on 29 June, followed by a commemoration of the first martyrs of Rome on 30 June. Peter and Paul flank the enthroned Christ in the apse of St. Prudenziana in Rome (ca. 390 C.E.). The two apostles often appear on either side of Jesus in carvings on Christian sarcophagi. Even though Paul had not accompanied Jesus during his lifetime, he and Peter flank the Christ entering Jerusalem on a sarcophagus from the late fourth century C.E. (Museo Naxionale delle Terme, Rome). A mid-fourth century sarcophagus from Spain has Peter and Paul standing trial before Nero (Museo Arqueologico Nacional Madrid). Modern churches often continue to have stained glass windows representing the two apostles on either side of the sanctuary with representations of Christ on the ceiling above or in glass behind the altar. Thus the faithful see the apostles as twin pillars of the faith.

Peter's Martyrdom

The carving of Peter on the south porch of Chartres cathedral has Peter carrying both the keys symbolic of his teaching authority and the cross indicating the manner of his death. Along with the walking on water, the miraculous catch, and the denial of Jesus, the upside down crucifixion of Peter is a motif familiar to most Christians. Representations of the apostle upside down in the cross are a staple in medieval illustration (e.g. Benedictional of S. Aethelwold, ms. Add. 49598 fol. 95 vo. in the British Library; c.980), yet it does not appear in the New Testament or early second century sources. Eusebius (ca. 260–339 C.E.) refers to Peter as having been crucified “head down at his own request” (Hist. Eccl. III 1, 2). He does not allude to the elaborate description of Peter's initial flight from Rome, meeting Jesus on the road out of the city, and the dramatic execution including Peter's speech about the cross as he hangs upside down, which is found in the apocryphal Acts of Peter, chapters 30–41 (ca. 190 C.E.). The Acts of Peter follow a narrative line typical of such apocrypha. The apostle incurs the wrath of elite males by converting their women to a life of celibacy. In a further twist, Nero, angry that he did not have the opportunity to participate in Peter's execution, begins to persecute Christians until an ominous dream frightens him. A Latin martyrdom account attributed to Linus, Peter's successor as bishop of Rome (according to Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 6.6), expanded the martyrdom story represented by Acts of Peter in the fourth to sixth centuries.

Eusebius mentions other details of the legends surrounding the apostle. The contests between the Samaritan magician Simon (Acts 8:9–24) and Peter that make up much of the Acts of Peter represent God's providential reason for bringing the apostle to Rome. Peter brings the true light of the gospel from East to West, stamping out the false teaching of Simon along with his pretensions to godlike powers (Hist. Eccl.2.13–15). Popular stories in the Peter versus Simon contests appear in early Christian art. Peter causes a dog to speak, restores smoked herring to life, and drives out a demon that smashes Caesar's statue to pieces. Frescoes in old St. Peter's represented Simon crashing after boasting that he would fly over the city.

Other legends incorporated Peter's wife as a martyr. Since Peter encourages her as she is led away, “glad that her call had come and that she was returning home,” she must have preceded him (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 3.30 citing Clement of Alexandria, Strom 7.11, 63). Eusebius also alleges to have examined colored portraits of Peter and Paul as well as Christ, though he provides no details but suggests the pictures are a carryover from pagan custom in honoring saviors (Hist. Eccl. 7.18). Though there is not description of Peter in the Acts of Peter, the thirteenth century church historian Nicephorus Callistus distills the image from his reading of apocryphal works about Peter: moderate stature; pale yellow face; woolly, thick hair and beard; bloodshot, dark eyes; raised eyebrows; and a long, flat nose. The artistic conventions used to represent Peter in early Christian art followed those employed for philosophic teachers generally.

Gospel of Peter

Eusebius reports that on visiting a church in Rhossus, the bishop of Antioch, Serapion (ca. 190–211 C.E.), was shown a “Gospel of Peter” in use there. Upon returning to Antioch, Serapion learned that it depicted a Jesus who only appeared to suffer. Since it could be said to promote the views of Docetist heretics, Serapion withdrew his approval for its use (Hist. Eccl. 6.12). A codex that included the passion narrative of Gos. Pet. was found in a monk's grave in Egypt (eighth to ninth centuries C.E.). Because the scribe begins in mid-sentence at the trial of Jesus and ends in mid-sentence by the Sea of Galilee, introducing a version of the resurrection tradition in John 21:1–14, one cannot tell if Gos. Pet. was limited to the passion story or included an account of Jesus' ministry. Scholars occasionally identify other early gospel fragments (e.g., P. Oxy. 2949) as taken from Gos. Pet., but unless a manuscript is found that provides a complete text, such claims are mere speculation. The most dramatic elements in Gos. Pet. have been crafted to support the empty-tomb resurrection traditions. Both Jewish and Roman authorities witness Jesus emerging from the tomb, a giant figure between two angels, followed by a cross. A heavenly voice asks if Jesus had preached to the dead. The cross replies “yes” (Gos. Pet. 8.23—10.41; cp. Mt 27:62–66; 28:11–15). Peter does not appear until the final lines, “I, Simon Peter and my brother Andrew took our nets and went to sea” (14.60).

Peter and Authentic Teaching

The suspicion of a heretical, docetic Christology in Gos. Pet. cannot be confirmed from what remains. However, several Gnostic writings from the late second or third century present Peter as the guardian of a hidden teaching that contradicts the beliefs of orthodox Christians. A standard pattern in these writings distinguishes Jesus' public teaching from what the risen Jesus taught favored disciples. The Apocryphon of James singles out Peter and James for such instruction. They also witness part of Jesus' ascent into the heavens. In that work James guards the Gnostic teaching for future generations. The Acts of Peter and the Twelve Apostles employs Peter's voice as that of the narrator. It presents a fanciful tale in which the apostles meet Jesus disguised as a pearl seller, who instructs Peter on the ascetic renunciation required to reach his city (Acts Peter 12 5,11—6,15). When they track the stranger down, he reveals his divine identity and sends them out with the medicine to heal those poor in body and spirit (9,17—11,23). In other examples from this collection of Coptic manuscripts found at Nag Hammadi, Jesus teaches a docetic interpretation of the passion. He is a “stranger to these sufferings” and instructs him to convey this teaching to others (Apocalypse of Peter 81,3—84,14; Letter of Peter to Philip 139,9—140,1). Peter's teaching will be opposed by those false teachers who claim the authority of bishops and deacons (Apoc. Pet. 78,31—79,31). The Letter of Peter to Philip evokes the opening chapters of the Acts of the Apostles as Peter is the one who reassembles the apostles for a final vision of the risen Jesus in Jerusalem, the coming of the Holy Spirit upon them, and Jesus' blessing as they go out to preach this teaching.

In these examples, proponents of heterodox forms of Christian faith acknowledge the role that Peter plays as the guardian of true teaching. They co-opt his authority on behalf of their own views. Other texts have Peter represent the resistance to esoteric teaching. In Gospel of Thomas (Log. 114) Peter attempts to have Jesus exclude Mary Magdalene from the circle of disciples because of her gender. Jesus affirms that “I will. . . make her male so that she may become a living spirit like you males.” In the Gospel of Mary, Andrew and Peter become incensed at the fact that Jesus had given Mary Magdalene a private revelation about the soul not given to his male followers. Levi chides Peter, “… if the Savior made her worthy, who are you to reject her? … That is why he loved her more than us” (Gos. Mary 10,1—19,5).

Though Christian art has represented Peter and Paul as twin guardians of Jesus' teaching, some Jewish Christian traditions tell a different story. For example, the Pseudo-Clementines, a series of third and fourth century writings alleged to preserve the life and teaching of Clement of Rome (bishop ca. 91–100 C.E.), pit Peter against the false teachings of the apostle Paul. Paul is presented under the guise of the arch-heretic Simon Magus. An opening letter to James requests that he convey Peter's teachings only to those who are properly prepared. It complains that some have presented Peter's teaching as though it agreed with “a lawless and absurd doctrine of the man who is my enemy. . . as if I taught the dissolution of the Law and although I was of this opinion, did not express it openly” (Kerygmata Petrou 1.2,3—4). Peter's authority as an eyewitness of the Lord should overrule the visions of Paul (17.13,1—19,6). The situation being addressed by this polemic against Pauline tradition is not clear. Some scholars think that it was sparked by Marcion's Pauline teaching. Both Irenaeus and Tertullian incorporate arguments for the authority of Peter over Paul and the unity of apostolic teaching in refuting Marcion (Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 3.13; Tertullian, Adv. Marc. 5.5.3).

Peter and the Primacy of Rome's Bishop

Christians in second century Rome were not united under a single, monarchic bishop; instead, they gathered in separate house churches with diverse theological and ritual traditions. Paul had appealed for mutual hospitality between Jewish and non-Jewish believers in the late 50s C.E. (Rom 14:1—15:21). By the mid-second century teachers like Justin Martyr, Marcion, and the Valentinian gnostic Ptolemy each had his own circle of students. Some scholars point to the modest monuments erected over the burial places of both Peter and Paul as further evidence for a divided community. Despite their numbers, Christians did not have the wealth to secure the sites or construct impressive memorials.

In most of the examples from the second and third century, Peter's teaching and leadership occur in concert with the other disciples or with Paul, also evidence for the unity of apostolic teaching (Tertullian, Praescrip. 36.3). Lists of bishops in the city were recast to provide a single line of authoritative teachers who transmitted the apostle's teaching (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 3.13; 4.22; Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 3.3,3—4; Epiphanius, Panarion 27.6). A popular legend had Peter obtaining water to baptize his guards by striking the rock wall of his prison. Artistic representations of this story present the apostle as another Moses. The opening of the Kerygmata Petrou associates Peter's teaching authority with Moses. James is to transmit the teaching to those who are worthy, just as Moses gave authority to the seventy elders. Once again Peter's role as authoritative teacher is diffused in the larger community. There is no sense in which Peter's role passes on to a single successor, as though the Roman bishop could unilaterally determine faith and practice for all churches. Historical developments and theological controversies would enhance the authority of the Roman bishop in subsequent centuries, culminating in the Roman Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility promulgated by Vatican Council I (1870): “The Roman pontiff when he speaks ex cathedra … as pastor and teacher of all Christians, and in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, defines a doctrine … that is to be held by the universal church, through the divine assistance promised him in St. Peter, exercises that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed to endow his church” (D.S. 3074).

Although many Christians belong to churches that are not in communion with the Roman See, Peter remains a model of pastoral care and sound teaching in the larger Christian community. Prior to the Protestant Reformation exegetes ordinarily understood the “foundation stone” of Matthew 16:18 to be Peter's faithfulness to Jesus (cf. Mt 7:26–27), not an ecclesiastical office (Origen, c. Cel. 6.77; Tertullian, Pud. 21). The Roman bishop Stephanus (254–257 C.E.) applied that text to the bishop of Rome in the ongoing debate over the power to forgive sin (Cyprian, Ep. 75.17).

[See also 1 Peter; 2 Peter; Acts of the Apostles; Capernaum; Galilee, Sea of; James; John, Gospel of; John, Son of Zebedee; Luke, Gospel of; Mark, Gospel of; Matthew, Gospel of; and Paul.]


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Pheme Perkins