Before the cock crows, Peter thrice denies Jesus: “I do not know the man!” he swears as Jesus is being arrested (Matthew 26:70, 72, 74). Nevertheless, Jesus, with the simple command, “Feed my sheep” (John 21:17), commissions Peter to lead the Twelve. In lists of the apostles, Peter’s name is invariably first. In art, he stands beside Paul—the two founders of the church.
How did this flawed disciple emerge as Jesus’ successor on earth? Did the historical Peter really fulfill this role? Was he successful? Can we ever know?
New Testament scholar John P. Meier has suggested that we moderns have no immediate access to Jesus or Peter or other individuals of ancient history.1 We cannot produce the kind of profile that 21st- century biography demands. What we do have, however, are images of these figures—whether secondhand reports recorded in the New Testament, or Renaissance paintings, or archaeological sites possibly associated with the individual. As we examine these textual, visual and archaeological images, a sharper, more complete image of the first-century figure begins to emerge.