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Jacob Jordaens
Jacob Jordaens

This is not an article about the “historical Peter.”  The events of his life, as they “actually happened,” are unrecoverable.  What we have are traditions about Peter both within the New Testament and outside it, which make frequently contradictory claims about his activity and his teachings.  These memories of Peter are of the greatest importance for understanding the development of early Christian communities, which looked to him as an important source of authority and sometimes error, tracing his apostolic preaching from Jerusalem to Rome.

Was Peter the leader of the apostles? On what claims was his authority based?

In the Gospels, Peter is among the first disciples called by Jesus, and is the first to recognize him as the Messiah.  Along with James and John, the sons of Zebedee, he remains with Jesus as he prays in Gethsemane.  The same three apostles were earlier present at the Transfiguration, when Moses and Elijah appear alongside Jesus, whom God declares to be his son.  The author of 2 Peter appeals to this event as a source of authority, while the Apocalypse of Peter, a popular second-century work, features Peter on visionary tours of heaven and hell, led by Jesus.  According to these and other accounts, Peter seems to enjoy a certain priority and privilege among the disciples.

On the other hand, numerous early Christian traditions suggest Peter’s shortcomings.  Some episodes question his understanding: after confessing Jesus as Messiah, Peter refuses to accept his teacher’s eventual death in Jerusalem.  Others challenge his commitment: although Peter alone follows Jesus after his arrest, he denies him three times, thus breaking his earlier vow of fidelity.  Do these events compromise Peter’s authority?  Peter is not the first witness to the empty tomb, suggesting that others, such as Mary Magdalene, were considered more worthy.  Yet, for Paul, Peter was first to see the risen Christ, and the Gospel of Peter  features a unique, vivid depiction of Jesus emerging from the tomb.

Peter’s leadership status continued to be ambiguous in the decades following Jesus’ death.  In Acts, Peter plays a major role in the early spread of Christianity, beginning with his Pentecost sermon to a diverse group of Jews; alongside James, the brother of Jesus, he is a leader of the Christians in Jerusalem, who continued to follow Jewish law.  Paul, although Jewish like Peter, described himself as the apostle to the Gentiles, and actively opposed such observance by non-Jewish converts.  The two argued in Antioch over this question, which was resolved at a council in Jerusalem, according to Acts.  But some writings, such as the Homilies and Recognitions, attributed to Peter’s disciple Clement, describe an ongoing rift.  Peter’s disputes with other disciples, including Mary Magdalene over women’s authority in the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Thomas, suggest that debates within early Christianity could be waged through appeals to competing apostolic traditions; Peter’s authority, though widely regarded, was also contested.

Where did Peter preach? How did he die?

Peter encountered intense opposition to his message.  After the Pentecost experience, he clashed twice with the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, and was imprisoned by Herod Agrippa, after which Acts falls silent on his activity.  According to the second-century Acts of Peter, Peter moved from Judea and Samaria to Rome as part of his conflict with the Samaritan magician Simon Magus, whom he eventually defeated in a duel of miracles. 

First Peter, a letter most likely written by an impersonator, claims to be written from “Babylon,” which might be a codeword for the imperial capital.  The addressees are communities in Asia Minor, an area usually associated with Paul, perhaps implying that Peter was also active there; the letter makes significant use of Paul’s language and ideas.  Second Peter, another letter attributed to Peter, presented as a final testament, even advocates for the use of Pauline writings, interpreted correctly.  In fact, numerous traditions from the second century portray the two apostles in harmony, concordia apostolorum.

This union of Peter and Paul occurred most spectacularly in death, that is, in the memory of both apostles’ martyrdom in Rome under Nero.  Peter’s death, as recorded in the Latin Acts of Peter, reflects the ambiguities of his life.  Encouraged by his followers to leave the city, he suddenly encounters Jesus and asks, “Where are you going?” (Quo vadis?), only to learn that his Lord is going to be crucified in his place.  Shamed, Peter returns to accept martyrdom, requesting that he be crucified upside down, in imitation of Adam, who entered the world headlong, a symbol for skewed human perspective; he thus asserts his flawed human nature, as well as its correction and redemption through martyrdom.

  • Paul Dilley

    Paul Dilley is an assistant professor in the Departments of Religious Studies and Classics at the University of Iowa, specializing in the study of early Christianity and ancient Mediterranean religions.  He has published on apocryphal literature and apostolic traditions in Late Antiquity.