Encyclopedia of The Bible – Simon Peter
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Simon Peter

PETER, SIMON (Σίμων Πέτρος). The man who figures generally as the leader of the twelve disciples in the NT usually bears the name Peter (Πέτρος, G4377). This name was given to him by Jesus (Mark 3:16; Luke 6:14; John 1:42). His earlier name was Simon (Σίμων, G4981), a common name among Greeks and Jews. Occasionally in the gospels the two names are used together (Matt 16:16; Luke 5:8; John 1:40; 6:8, 68; 13:6, 9, 24, 36; 18:10, 15, 25; 20:2, 6; 21:2f., 7, 11, 15). Sometimes the use of both names is indicated (Matt 4:18; 10:2; Acts 10:5, 18, 32; 11:13). Twice, the more exact Sem. form Symeon (Συμέων, שִׁמְעﯴן, H9058) is used (Acts 15:14; 2 Pet 1:1). The Aram. equivalent of Peter is Cephas (Κηφᾶς, G3064, =—כֵּיפָא “rock”), as indicated in John 1:42. All the other occurrences of Cephas in the NT are in the Pauline letters (1 Cor 1:12; 3:22; 9:5; 15:5; Gal 1:18; 2:9, 11, 14). Only in Galatians 2:7 and 8 does Paul use the name Peter. A study of the various contexts of these passages, however, strongly indicates that Paul was referring to the same person by these two names.

Peter’s father’s name was Jonah (̓Ιωνᾶς, G2731) according to Matthew 16:17. According to John 1:42 and 21:15-17, his name was John (̓Ιωάννης, G2722; following the better MSS; a variant reading in each case has Jonah). The father was a fisherman by trade, as were his sons Peter and Andrew. They were from the city of Bethsaida (John 1:44), but later, when they met Jesus they were residing in Capernaum (Mark 1:21, 29). It is possible that they were partners in the fishing business with James and John, sons of Zebedee (Luke 5:10). Peter was married (Mark 1:30; cf. 1 Cor 9:5).

Andrew, Peter’s brother, was a disciple and follower of John the Baptist (John 1:35, 40), but who became a follower of Jesus after John’s testimony, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” (1:36, 37). Andrew, in turn, located his brother Peter and said, “We have found the Messiah” (1:41). When Jesus saw Peter, he said, “So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas” (1:42). Later, when Jesus chose the Twelve, Mark and Luke indicate that He gave to Simon the name Peter (Mark 3:16; Luke 6:14; cf. Matt 10:2). John has given the Aram. equivalent (see above). How long Peter and Andrew remained with Jesus at this time is not known. At the beginning of Jesus’ Galilean ministry (at least six to nine months after the first call), they, with the sons of Zebedee, were recalled by Jesus by the Sea of Galilee where they were casting their nets into the sea (Matt 4:18-20; Mark 1:16-18). Luke reports (5:1-11) this recall of Peter in connection with a fishing episode in which, under the instruction of Jesus, Peter and his companions caught a huge number of fish. In response Peter confessed, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). From that time on Peter and the others apparently were constant companions of Jesus (Matt 19:27; Mark 10:28; Luke 18:28; cf. John 6:68).

Peter held the position of leadership in the circle of the Twelve. He is listed first in the four lists of the twelve disciples in the NT (Matt 10:2; Mark 3:16; Luke 6:14-16; Acts 1:13). In the gospels he is the most frequently mentioned of the Twelve. Petrine episodes are found in material common to all four gospels (e.g., his denials, Matt 26:69-75; Mark 14:66-72; Luke 22:56-62; John 18:25-27); in material common to the synoptics, e.g., the Transfiguration (Matt 17:1-9; Mark 9:2-10; Luke 9:28-36); in material common to Matthew and Mark (e.g., garden of Gethsemane, Matt 26:37-40; Mark 14:33-38); in Matthew alone (e.g., attempted walking on water, 14:28-31); in Mark alone (e.g., question regarding the withered fig tree, 11:21); in Luke alone (e.g., question about a parable, 12:41); in John alone (e.g., restoration after denials, 21:15-23). Of interest is the absence of Petrine episodes found only in material common to Matthew and Luke (the source identified as “Q”). This wide distribution of Petrine materials in the sources of the four gospels reflects the prominence that Peter had in the early traditions.

Peter was one of the inner circle of the three or four intimate apostles of Jesus (see below). He was often the spokesman for the Twelve (Matt 15:15; 16:16; Mark 8:29; Luke 9:20; Matt 18:21; 19:27; Mark 10:28; and Luke 18:28; 12:41). That the collectors of the Temple tax approached Peter is indicative of his leadership role (Matt 17:24). This role of Peter is not as prominent in John’s gospel as in the synoptics. In John’s gospel he was given an emphasis second to that of “the beloved disciple.”

Peter owned a house in Capernaum. There Jesus healed his mother-in-law (Mark 1:29-31; Luke 4:38, 39). Luke places the incident at the beginning of Jesus’ Galilean ministry; Matthew places the event some time later (Matt 8:14, 15).

There are four occasions recorded in the gospels in which the inner circle of the disciples are alone with Jesus. The inner circle included Peter and James and John (sons of Zebedee); on one occasion Andrew also was included (Mark 13:3). When Jesus raised the daughter of Jairus, He took Peter, James, and John into the room (Mark 5:37; Luke 8:51). These three witnessed the Transfiguration of Jesus (Matt 17:1-9; Mark 9:2-10; Luke 9:28-36). At this time Peter functioned as the spokesman (Mark and Luke adding the wry observation that Peter did not know what he was saying). During the eschatological discourse, Mark reports that the question of the time of the end was put by Peter, James, John, and Andrew (13:3). During His agonizing experience in Gethsemane, Jesus took Peter, James, and John with Him into the garden (Matt 26:37; Mark 14:33; note that Luke omits this detail from the episode). Later, Jesus upbraided Peter for sleeping (Matt 26:40; Mark 14:37).

Perhaps the most familiar (and most controversial) episode involving Peter is his confession at Caesarea Philippi regarding Jesus (Matt 16:13-20; Mark 8:27-30; Luke 9:18-21). The three synoptics report the confession of Peter with slight variations of wording (Matt 16:16; Mark 8:29; Luke 9:20), but only Matthew reports Jesus’ benediction on Peter (16:17-19). The nature of this episode and the similarity in content with the saying of Jesus in John 20:22f. have led some commentators to suggest that this was actually a post-Easter event but reported by Matthew as a pre-Easter event (e.g., Oscar Cullmann, Peter: Disciple—Apostle—Martyr [1953], p. 183). Others argue that this episode is a creation of the Early Church (e.g., Bultmann). A case for the authenticity of the passage has been presented by K. L. Schmidt (TWNT III, pp. 502-539). The passage must be analyzed in the structure and framework of Matthew’s gospel and his emphasis on the Church (he is the only gospel writer to use the term). For Matthew the Church is the continuation of the OT people of God. This benediction of Jesus regarding Peter and the Church was highly significant for Matthew with his ecclesiastical concern to teach and guide those who believe in Jesus Christ.

The crux interpretationis is the statement in Matthew 16:18—“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” What does “rock” mean? Some, to avoid too much primacy of Peter, suggest that “rock” refers to Peter’s confession rather than to Peter himself. It is highly possible that an interesting play on words is lost in the translation from Aram. into Gr. and Eng. In Aram., the same word would have been used for “Peter” and “rock” (כֵּיפָא), and the identification would have been much more direct than in Gr. (where both words are from the same root) or in Eng. (where they are two different words). Such plays on words are common in Sem. languages, and apparently Jesus actually meant that Peter is the rock upon which He would build His Church. Peter’s vital role in the Early Church as shown in Acts substantiates this interpretation.

Peter appears as a man of contrasts, esp. in the gospels. He was not always stable and reliable as his name implies. Following his splendid confession at Caesarea Philippi, he objected violently to Jesus’ predictions regarding His passion. This prompted Jesus’ strong rebuke—“Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men” (Matt 16:23; Mark 8:33)—a striking contrast to the benediction of Jesus in Matthew 16:17. Peter had not yet fully understood the Messianic role of Jesus—his messiah was still a Jewish national and political leader who could not suffer defeat in death.

Another demonstration of this erratic trait in Peter was his attempted walking on the water, reported only by Matthew (14:28-31). He began with a bold declaration of faith, but the swelling waves frightened him. Rescuing him, Jesus rebuked him, “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matt 14:31). On the mountain when Jesus was glorified in the presence of Peter, James, and John, Peter alone responded (Matt 17:4; Mark 9:5; Luke 9:33) but Mark and Luke add that Peter actually did not know what he was saying.

In the foot-washing episode in the Upper Room, Peter protested and Jesus again had to correct Peter’s perspective (John 13:4-11). Later, Peter initiated the inquiry into the identification of the betrayer (John 13:21-30). According to Matthew and Mark, all the disciples were sorrowful and asked the question, expecting a negative answer: “Lord, it is not I, is it?” (Matt 26:22; Mark 14:19). Similarly, on the way to the Mount of Olives, according to Matthew and Mark (Luke and John place this episode in the Upper Room), Peter protested strongly against Jesus’ statement that all His followers were going to abandon Him, and Peter pledged his loyalty to the utmost. Jesus countered with the somber prediction of Peter’s denials (Matt 26:30-35; Mark 14:26-31; Luke 22:31-34; John 13:36-38). Later that evening, the prediction of Jesus came true—Peter denied any association with “the Galilean” (Matt 26:69-75; Mark 14:66-72; Luke 22:54-62; John 18:25-27). Even prior to the denials, while in the garden of Gethsemane, Peter with James and John failed Jesus in this critical hour by falling asleep; however, according to Matthew and Mark, Peter was singled out for a rebuke (Matt 26:40; Mark 14:37) (in Matt the address is to Peter but the verb is in the second person—seemingly an allusion to his role as leader and spokesman of the group). Shortly thereafter, Peter displayed a flash of bravery, although misguided, when he cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant (all four gospels report the episode, but only John identifies the attacker—Matt 26:52-54; Mark 14:47; Luke 22:49-51; John 18:10, 11). Jesus’ response was a mild rebuke of Peter.

The most tragic scene in the gospels involving Peter is when he denied his Lord, reported by all four gospel writers (Matt 26:69-75; Mark 14:66-72; Luke 22:54-62; John 18:25-27). Although the accounts vary concerning the questioners and conversations, all four report three distinct and emphatic denials by Peter. Matthew and Mark report that he supported his third denial by invoking a curse on himself and by swearing (Matt 26:74; Mark 14:71). The crowing of the cock abruptly brought Peter to his senses. The confident boasts of Peter earlier that night were meaningless when he faced danger and harm by being associated with Jesus in that crucial hour.

Most significant perhaps is Peter’s encounter with his Master in the courtyard of the house of Caiaphas when, after the denials, “the Lord turned and looked at Peter”—a detail only in Luke (22:61). That weekend must have been a period of remorse, soul-searching, and introspection for Peter; he bitterly regretted his cowardice that night, and it is not surprising that he had a significant place in the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. Paul indicates that the risen Jesus first appeared to Peter (1 Cor 15:5). The “young man” at the tomb instructed the women to report to the “disciples and Peter” (Mark 16:7). Although the gospels do not directly record such an appearance to Peter, the disciples did report to the men of Emmaus that Jesus had appeared to Peter (Luke 24:34). John reports the episode in which “the other disciple” and Peter ran to the tomb (John 20:2-10). Peter was out-distanced in the race, but again he displayed a measure of daring by entering the tomb first. Later at the Sea of Tiberias, Jesus appeared to seven disciples, including Peter. After testing him with questions, Jesus fully restored him with the words, “Follow me” (John 21:19, 22).

The Apostle Peter displayed vital leadership in the early history of the Church as recorded in the first half of the Acts of the Apostles. Shortly after the ascension, he presided over the appointment of a replacement for Judas Iscariot (Acts 1:15-26). Peter boldly addressed the crowds on Pentecost Sunday, and his sermon was instrumental in the conversion of about three thousand (Acts 2). This sermon reveals that Peter was well versed in the OT Scriptures (also evident in his epistles). He saw clearly the link between the OT prophetic utterances and types and Jesus of Nazareth. He recognized the emerging Church of Jesus Christ as the continuation of the OT people of God, a continuity substantiated through the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Early Church.

After Pentecost, Peter miraculously healed a lame man at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple (Acts 3:1-10). Peter preached another sermon (3:11-26), which led to his and John’s arrest (4:1-4). The next morning Peter spoke impressively in court (4:5-22). Peter was the spokesman in the episode involving Ananias and Sapphira (5:1-11). Peter and John went to Samaria after Philip’s initial work of evangelism there (8:14-24). Here Peter forcefully rebuked Simon. Later, Peter performed miracles of healing in Lydda (healing of Aeneas, 9:32-34) and in Joppa (raising of Dorcas, 9:36-43).

Peter, however, still retained the limited perspective of Judaism. Although he rightly saw the continuity between the OT and the new “Way,” he was hampered by a Jewish particularism that made it difficult or virtually impossible for him to admit Gentiles. Peter and the others continued to follow the strictures of Judaism—evident in Peter’s and John’s observance of the hour of prayer in the Temple (Acts 3:1), in the believers’ attending the Temple regularly (2:46), and in their teaching and preaching in the Temple (5:42). Possibly this was the deeper cause of the problems that arose between the Hellenists and Hebrews (6:1-6), that the problem of benevolence was merely the immediate occasion for the dispute. The appointment of the seven (6:5) led to a development in a segment of the Early Church, represented by the Hellenists, that became the motivating force behind the missionary movement in the Early Church. This led to a new perspective regarding the Church and the OT and a more significant distinction from Judaism. The Hellenists rightly made the Church aware of the implications of the mission mandate of Christ in Acts 1:8b “...and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.” It is significant that right after the stoning of Stephen, the Jerusalem church was dispersed by persecutions, but the apostles remained in Jerusalem (8:1). Also, it was the initial work of Philip (one of the seven appointed leaders of the Hel. branch of the Church) that brought Peter and John to Samaria (8:14).

That the Pentecost experience had not made Peter fully aware of this mission perspective of the Church is evident from his vision at Joppa (ch. 10). Through removing the distinction between clean and unclean, the Lord told Peter that the distinction between Jew and Gentile was likewise obliterated. This was a hard lesson for Peter because in Antioch, some years later, he limited himself to the Jewish fellowship. For this, Peter received a sharp rebuke from Paul (Gal 2:11-14). According to the preferred chronology, this occurred after the Jerusalem council of Acts 15—making this a more serious lapse on the part of Peter.

Following the conversion and baptism of Cornelius at Caesarea, Peter returned to Jerusalem, there to answer the criticism of the “circumcision party” who objected to his ministry to the Gentiles (Acts 11:1-18).

In an outburst of persecution, Herod killed James (the brother of John; 12:1, 2) and imprisoned Peter (12:3-5). That night Peter was miraculously freed by an angel (12:6-11). After reporting to the believers who were gathered at the house of Mary in fervent prayer for his deliverance, he departed “and went to another place” (12:12-17). The identity of the place is not given, and the movements of Peter from here on cannot be established with certainty. Apparently he ceased to be the head of the Jerusalem church, and James “the Just” assumed the leadership (15:13-21; 21:18). Peter appears once more in Acts, at the Jerusalem council (ch. 15). At this council he defended the mission to the Gentiles (15:7-11) and undoubtedly was instrumental in bringing the disputants to an agreeable compromise.

Paul in his epistle to the Galatians presents an interesting perspective regarding his relationship to Peter and the Gentile mission. Paul reports that three years after his conversion he visited Cephas (Peter) in Jerusalem for fifteen days (Gal 1:18; cf. Acts 9:26-28). “After fourteen years,” Paul visited Jerusalem again (Gal 2:1)—it seems preferable to identify this visit with the Jerusalem council in Acts 15. Paul identifies as pillars of the church James, Cephas (Peter), and John (Gal 2:9). Furthermore, Paul differentiates between a mission to the circumcised (Peter’s) and a mission to the Gentiles, i.e., uncircumcised (Paul’s and Barnabas’, 2:8-10). Subsequently, Paul confronted Peter at Antioch (2:11-14) over this same issue (see above).

The First Epistle of Peter is addressed to believers in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia—provinces in Asia Minor between the Taurus Mountains and the Black Sea. It is likely that Peter ministered in this area. It is noteworthy that Paul at the beginning of his second missionary journey was not allowed by the Spirit to go into this territory (Acts 16:7, 8). This is in keeping with his policy of not working in an area where others had been or were working. Possibly Peter was in this part of Asia Minor at the time of Paul’s first or second missionary journey.

Another hint of Peter’s activity may be found in the existence of a Petrine party at Corinth (1 Cor 1:12), which suggests that Peter might have been there. In view of Paul’s policy of noninterference, it seems that Peter may have been at Corinth after Paul’s departure near the end of his second missionary journey, but before he wrote 1 Corinthians from Ephesus during his third missionary journey.

The NT does not indicate that Peter went to Rome. A Petrine residence in Rome, however, is well attested in early Christian lit. The earliest reference is in a letter (known as 1 Clement) written by Clement, bishop of Rome (c. a.d. 88-97) to the Corinthians. He cites the suffering and martyrdom of Peter and Paul, obviously during the persecutions of Christians by Nero, as the finest examples “among us” to be emulated. About a.d. 200, Tertullian mentions the deaths of Peter and Paul as occurring in Rome under Nero. Also from the early part of the 3rd cent. is the apocryphal Acts of Peter containing the moving episode when Peter, upon leaving Rome, met Jesus and asked Him “Domine, quo vadis?” Eusebius (Church History 2:25), citing earlier authorities, indicates that Peter and Paul were martyrs during the Neronic persecutions in Rome. This tradition was not localized in Rome alone, but was apparently widespread throughout the Church.

The time of Peter’s arrival in Rome can be indirectly established from other data in the NT. It is doubtful that he was a victim of the Expulsion Edict of Claudius (a.d. 41-54), since it is unlikely that Peter reached Rome prior to the edict. When Paul wrote the epistle to the Romans (c. a.d. 55), the edict had been relaxed, for Priscilla and Aquila (evacuees from the edict according to Acts 18:2) were then back in Rome (Rom 16:3). Peter prob. was not in Rome at this time, since no greetings are sent to him in the epistle. Furthermore, in view of Paul’s policy referred to above, it is unlikely that Peter had been in Rome prior to Paul’s correspondence with the Roman Christian community. It is possible that Peter reached Rome during the middle 50s.

Two of Peter’s companions in Rome were Silvanus (Silas) and Mark. Silvanus was Peter’s amanuensis when he wrote 1 Peter (1 Pet 5:12)—possibly in the late 50s or early 60s. There is a well-established tradition that through this association with Peter Mark compiled his gospel. Papias, quoted by Eusebius (Church History 3. 39. 15), refers to Mark as the interpreter (ἑρμενυτής) of Peter. Similarly, Irenaeus describes Mark as the disciple and interpreter of Peter (Eusebius, Church History 5. 8. 2). The Second Epistle of Peter (whose Petrine authorship is disputed) was written shortly before the martyrdom of the author—in a.d. 64 if the author is Peter (see below).

Apparently Peter was a victim of the violent anger that Nero vented upon the Christians in a.d. 64. Although Eusebius dates the death of Peter and Paul in the fourteenth year of Nero (a.d. 67-68), he also places the Neronic persecutions in the fourteenth year (which from other sources can be definitely dated in a.d. 64). In John 21:18, Jesus spoke about Peter’s last days as follows: “...when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.” The author of the fourth gospel added the comment that this was a reference to Peter’s death (John 21:19). The Acts of Peter and Eusebius (Church History 3:1), citing Origen, report that Peter insisted on being crucified head-downward.

The location of the tomb of Peter and the identification of his bones have been extensively debated in the 20th cent. Some scope of the lit. on the subject can be derived from A. de Marco’s full annotated bibliography entitled, The Tomb of St. Peter (1964). Discussions regarding the location of the tomb of Peter have centered around St. Peter’s Church and the catacombs of St. Sebastian on the Via Appia. The existence of graffiti with invocations to Peter and Paul in the Sebastian catacombs has suggested to some that the remains of Peter (and Paul) resided here for a time—transferred to these catacombs for safe-keeping during the fierce persecution of Valerian in a.d. 258. This “translation theory” is not without serious difficulties and thus far has not been confirmed by archeological research. For others, Eusebius’ citation (Church History 2.35) of Caius’ (a resident of Rome about a.d. 199-217) reference to the “trophies of the Apostles” located in the Vatican and on the Ostian Way indicates that the graves of Peter and Paul were in these places around a.d. 200 and presumably earlier (e.g., Jack Finegan, Light From the Ancient Past [1959], pp. 380-384).

Among the ossuary inscrs. from the Franciscan chapel (Dominus Flevit) on the Mount of Olives, P. B. Bagatti (Liber Annuus 3 [1953], p. 162) published one that he read as “Simon Barjonah” (שׁמעון בר יוהנה). Some concluded from this that Peter was buried on the Mount of Olives and therefore never went to Rome. Such a conclusion, however, is hardly warranted from this ossuary text, because the text itself is uncertain. J. T. Milik, although granting the possibility of the above reading for the patronymic, suggests another reading: Zena (זינה) (Gil Scavi del “Dominus Flevit,” Part I [1958], p. 83). The ossuary fragment is in the museum of the Church of the Flagellation on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem. An examination of the charcoal inscr. on the fragment in 1964 showed that the reading cannot be established with certainty. In addition, the names Simon and Jonah are common Sem. names—i.e., frequently in Josephus, inscrs., and other ossuaries (ibid., p. 77). Elsewhere Milik has published five ossuaries in three Jewish tombs with the name Simon (Liber Annuus 7 [1957, pp. 241-271]). This ossuary text hardly negates the evidence for a Petrine residence and martyrdom in Rome.

On 26 June 1968, Pope Paul VI announced that the bones of Peter had been positively identified by Margherita Garducci, who claims to have located the bones that were originally in a marble chest found in “Wall G” under St. Peter’s Church in the Vatican. According to Garducci, the bones were removed secretly from the chest before the authorized excavators opened it in 1943. Grydon F. Snyder has discussed a number of serious and damaging objections to Garducci’s theory (BA 32 [1969], pp. 2-24). Furthermore, since St. Peter’s was developed as a Christian burial ground, precise identification of certain bones as Peter’s is very precarious, if not impossible.

In conclusion, it can hardly be disputed that Peter spent the latter part of his life at Rome, that he died a martyr’s death and that he was seemingly buried there, prob. in the vicinity of the Vatican. Further precision regarding these details can hardly be derived from the existing evidence and data, but will have to await some distinct new discovery.

A full comprehensive study of the literary, liturgical, and archeological evidence regarding the life and work of the Apostle Peter can be found in Oscar Cullmann’s Peter: Disciple—Apostle—Martyr (1953).

A study of the life and character of Simon Peter reveals noble traits. His enthusiasm and boldness are worthy of emulation. He was extremely devoted and committed to Christ. He also illustrates, however, the danger of misdirected and superficial enthusiasm. Some of the sharpest rebukes in the NT were directed at him. His positive traits are inspiring and challenging; his negative traits are a warning. Enthusiasm and devotion must be tempered by a balanced and informed perspective. Peter could be overconfident in his enthusiasm, at times bordering on arrogance (as in the Upper Room; nonetheless he stands as a stellar example of bold allegiance and glowing achievements in the proclamation of the Gospel.