A Biography of Saint Peter (Cpark)

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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.

Early Life

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

After the Resurrection: The early church

Later life

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 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).

Conclusions

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.


Sources

  • Peter by Oscar Cullman
  • 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 bu Carsten P. Thiede
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