Bible Review 20:1, February 2004

Peter: How a Flawed Disciple Became Jesus’ Successor on Earth

By Pheme Perkins

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.

For many Christians, especially Roman Catholics, Peter is associated mostly with Rome, the city where tradition tells us Peter died. Images of Peter abound in modern Rome. The Vatican Collections are filled with scenes from Peter’s life. In medieval and Renaissance paintings, he appears standing beside Paul, receiving the keys to the church, walking on water, denying knowledge of Jesus while the cock crows, and being crucified upside down. The magnificent 16th-century basilica of St. Peter’s, built by Michelangelo and Bramante, commemorates his death. A late, fourth-century tradition says Peter was executed in Rome by the emperor Nero and buried in a necropolis beside Nero’s hippodrome. Far below the altar of St. Peter’s lies a Roman necropolis (a virtual city of ancient tombs) that includes the traditional Tomb of Peter (see article).a

In Israel, we find yet another image of Peter: the fisherman who plied the waters of the Galilee. The Gospels tell us Peter lived in Capernaum, a prosperous harbor town on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee (see box). Modern tour guides eagerly point out a fifth-century octagonal church built over a first-century home. Because octagonal churches were typically built to commemorate the site of special events in Christian history, the house has come to be identified as “the House of Peter,” where Jesus stayed while in Capernaum (Matthew 8:14–16).b

The densest source of information about Peter, however, is the Bible—especially the recollections, oral traditions and the narrative imagination of those who wrote and revised the Gospels and Acts, from about 70 to 100 C.E.

In the Gospels, Peter is generally called Simon—the Greek form of Hebrew Shimon, his given name. Sometimes, however, he is referred to by the nickname Jesus gives him: Peter, meaning “rock,” because (according to Matthew 16:18) he is the rock on which Jesus will build his community.2 (For clarity’s sake, we will refer to him as Simon Peter or Peter unless in a quotation.)

The gospel portraits agree in broad details: Simon Peter and his brother Andrew may have been born in Bethsaida, on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee (John 1:44). They worked as fishermen out of Capernaum, on the western shore. In Mark, Jesus calls them while they are at work:

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of human beings.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him.

(Mark 1:16-18)

Simon Peter’s household, which included his wife and mother-in-law, became a base for Jesus and his disciples during Jesus’ preaching in that region. Simon Peter believed Jesus was the messiah. In Matthew 16:16, when Jesus asks, “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter responds: “You are the anointed one (messiah), the Son of the living God.” Typically named first in lists of the 12 apostles (for example, in Matthew 10:2), Simon Peter emerged as the spokesperson of Jesus’ closest disciples. He elicits instruction from Jesus about faith (Mark 11:20–23), paying the Temple tax (Matthew 17:24–27) and forgiveness (Matthew 18:21–22). Simon Peter is present during Jesus’ agonizing prayer in Gethsemane before his arrest, although he (along with James and John) falls asleep (Mark 14:37); when they wake up, Peter is the one Jesus addresses.

Perhaps the most striking characteristic of Simon Peter is his hesitance, his doubting, his failure of faith, displayed most dramatically in his dramatic denial of Christ. Simon Peter comes to recognize his own failing. When he hears the cock crow, he weeps bitterly (Mark 14:66–72; Matthew 26:69–75; Luke 22:54b–62; John 18:15–18, 25–27).3 Although readers might wonder how the man who repeatedly denied Jesus could become the leader of the disciples, Jesus makes clear that Simon Peter is his successor:

Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

(Matthew 16:19)

Each gospel has its own perspective on this basic tale of the flawed disciple who becomes a leader. Mark, the earliest gospel, written in about 70 C.E., highlights the shortcomings of all of Jesus’ disciples. Peter is no exception. When Jesus insists he must go to Jerusalem where he will suffer and be killed, Simon Peter takes Jesus aside and tells him not to go. Jesus responds angrily, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me” (Mark 8:31–33). At Gethsemane, Jesus harshly rebukes Simon Peter three times for sleeping rather than watching and praying with Jesus (Mark 14:32–42). The denial scene is the last in which Jesus speaks directly to Simon Peter. Jesus never tells Simon Peter outright that he will become leader of the Twelve. However, the angel at Jesus’ empty tomb hints that Simon Peter has begun to emerge as head of the group when he tells the women, “Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he [the resurrected Jesus] is going ahead of you to Galilee” (Mark 16:7). Peter has been singled out yet again. Mark may assume that his readers are familiar with the tradition, recorded by Paul (1 Corinthians 15:5, see below), that the risen Jesus first appeared to Peter.

Luke, in his gospel, softens Mark’s portraitc by omitting the reference to “Satan” (Luke 9:21–22) and by suggesting that overwhelming grief caused Simon Peter to fall asleep while Jesus was praying (Luke 22:39–36). When the cock crows in Luke, Jesus turns to Simon Peter and looks him in the eyes (Luke 22:61). This intimate gesture is what initiates Simon Peter’s tears of repentance (Luke 22:61–62). Further, Jesus promises that the infamous denial will not be the end of Simon Peter’s story. Rather, Jesus tells Simon Peter that he will repent and that he will then go on to “strengthen [his] brothers” (Luke 22:31–34)—that is, he will serve as leader of the apostles. Finally, at the crucifixion scene, the crowd includes not just female disciples (as in Mark) but men too, leaving open the possibility that Simon Peter was present.

Luke also wrote the Book of Acts, in which he paints Simon Peter as a bold, theologically astute preacher, who cannot be deterred by religious authorities, persecution or imprisonment. In Acts, Simon Peter’s powers include the supernatural. He makes a lame man walk and heals a paralyzed man (Acts 3:7, 9:34). When Herod Agrippa, persecutor of Christians, jails him, he is rescued by angels (Acts 12:3–19). Visions and signs of the Holy Spirit lead Simon Peter to preach to non-Jews (Acts 10:1–48, 11:1–18). For Luke, the transformation of an uneducated fisherman into Simon Peter, the “fisher of human beings,” can only be explained through the transforming activity of the Holy Spirit. Peter’s transformation serves as a model for the larger picture. In his gospel, Luke depicts Jesus as the bearer of God’s Holy Spirit. He sustains the incipient but wavering faith of his followers. Acts changes the perspective: Here, the Spirit makes Jesus’ followers bold witnesses for the gospel.

In Matthew, Simon Peter serves as an example of faith in Jesus for Christians whose faith is challenged. When Simon Peter’s faith falters as he walks toward Jesus on stormy seas, Jesus saves the apostle. “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” he asks (Matthew 14:28–31). For believers, the good news is that a person can still be a disciple even if he or she fails as dramatically as Simon Peter did. This would have been especially reassuring to early Christians facing persecution and death at the hands of the Roman elite.

Matthew also has Jesus provide Simon Peter with the “keys to heaven” and explains that Simon is called Peter (Rock), as an indication of Peter’s foundational role in the eschatological community that Jesus has called into being (Matthew 16:18). Jesus ensures Simon Peter’s ability to lead and teach the other disciples by giving him individual instruction on topics ranging from the payment of taxes (Matthew 17:24–27) to forgiveness (Matthew 18:21–35). In the latter case, Simon Peter approaches Jesus for advice: “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus replies, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times,” and offers a lengthy explanation why.

John’s gospel introduces some ambiguities into the portrayal of Simon Peter. In the other Gospels, Jesus himself approaches Simon Peter and Andrew and invites them with the words: “Follow me!” In John, Simon Peter’s brother Andrew is a disciple of John the Baptist and is responsible for introducing Simon Peter to Jesus. After John points out Jesus as the “Lamb of God,” Andrew goes to find his brother, telling him, “We have found the Messiah.” He then brings Simon Peter to Jesus (John 1:35–42). Is this a more plausible historical memory than the dramatic call story in which the brothers jump from fishing boat to discipleship (Mark 1:16–18; Luke 5:1–11; Matthew 4:18–22)?

In all the Gospels, when Jesus is arrested, one of the bystanders cuts off the ear of the high priest’s servant (Mark 14:47–50; Matthew 26:51–56; Luke 22:31–32; John 18:8b–11). Only John names the disciple: It is Simon Peter. In John’s denial story, it is a relative of the wounded high priest who challenges Simon Peter (John 18:26).4 So Simon Peter, who was willing to fight one minute, engages in cowardly evasions a few hours later. This shift provides the basis for Jesus’ statement in John 18:36 that he did not come to incite political rebellion.

John adds to the puzzle surrounding Simon Peter by introducing another figure, the unnamed Beloved Disciple, into the account of Jesus’ last days.d The Beloved Disciple provides a sharp contrast to Simon Peter: Unlike Simon Peter, he always gets it right. He recognizes that Jesus is risen at the empty tomb (John 20:8). He is there at the foot of the cross, ready to serve as a replacement son for Jesus’ mother (John 19:26–27). In places it almost seems that the author of John holds to a tradition in which the Beloved Disciple, and not Simon Peter, emerges as leader of Jesus’ followers. Yet, in John’s last chapter, the risen Jesus reappears to rehabilitate Simon Peter and entrust him with the care of Jesus’ flock. “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Jesus asks. “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you,” Simon Peter answers. To which Jesus responds, “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15–17).

Some have seen this as a rebuke—the risen Jesus comes back only to find Simon Peter fishing again, and has to remind him to take care of the sheep, to act as a leader. But John clearly has something else in mind. He presents readers with an extended image of Jesus as the ideal shepherd, willing to give his life for his sheep. Jesus tells his disciples, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:14–15). When Jesus tells Simon Peter, “Feed my sheep,” he thus invites Simon Peter to continue in his own path. Immediately after, Jesus predicts that Simon Peter, too, will die a martyr (John 21:19).

John 21 accomplishes in brief compass a shift that Luke pursued in Acts. Peter has been transformed from an uncertain, faltering disciple into the revered apostle and martyr. Where Luke attributed Peter’s new maturity to the Holy Spirit, John evokes Peter’s experience of the Risen Lord. Luke thus describes a series of changes in the early community during a period of reflection that was longer than the two weeks of resurrection appearances in the Fourth Gospel. Both agree that God’s grace was essential in making Peter the one around whom Jesus’ followers reassembled. Without such a focal point, the dynamic faith and hope that Jesus had evoked might not have survived the violence of the cross.

Matthew also feels the need to let readers know that Peter, whose flaws were so often a foil for Jesus during the ministry, became a very different person in the church that grew up after Easter. However, Matthew stays closer to the limits of Mark’s narrative sequence. Only the briefest notices of Jesus’ appearances to the women (Matthew 28:9–10) and the Eleven (Matthew 28:16–20) allow the reader to move beyond the flight and fear with which Mark ends (Mark 16:8a). So Matthew inserts into his narrative stories that point forward to Peter’s role in the later community. Peter is the “rock” on which later believers can support their faith (Matthew 16:18). He will be able to interpret and apply Jesus’ teaching for later Christians (Matthew 16:19, 18:21–22).

Why does Mark fail to provide readers any glimpse of Peter as revered apostle? Scholars continue to be sharply divided over what to make of the negative depiction of Jesus’ disciples in Mark’s gospel. Some assume that the disciples represent forms of Christian leadership that the evangelist opposes. Others, that the weak and frightened disciples are there to reassure a suffering church: If Peter and the others could come through weak faith, uncertainty, fear and even denial, then believers can do likewise.

Written in the late first century C.E., the Gospels are second-generation accounts of how Peter was remembered as leader and martyr.e The letters of Paul, though they follow the Gospels in the New Testament, were written earlier—in the 50s C.E. In Paul’s epistles we find our only firsthand image of Peter, created by someone who actually knew him.f

Paul refers to his interactions with Peter in his letter to the Galatians (Galatians 1:13–2:21) and in 1 Corinthians (1 Corinthians 1:12, 3:22, 9:5, 15:5).5

Throughout, Paul calls Peter Cephas, the Aramaic form of his nickname Rock, which Simon Peter apparently went by.

In Galatians, written in about 53 C.E., Paul describes his own conversion in the early 30s C.E. Immediately after “God revealed his Son” to him on the road to Damascus, Paul began to travel. After three years on the road, in about 35 C.E., Paul finally went to Jerusalem—“to visit Cephas” (Galatians 1:18). Paul stayed 15 days in Jerusalem and saw no “other apostle except James the Lord’s brother” (Galatians 1:19). Peter was apparently the most prominent disciple in these days, with James a close second.

Fourteen years later (in about 49 C.E.), Paul returned to Jerusalem to meet with “the acknowledged leaders” (Galatians 2:2). Paul identifies the three “pillars of the church” as James, Cephas and John—in that order—indicating not only that Peter is no longer the sole leader of Jesus’ followers but that James is beginning to emerge as head of the local church.g

The shift in power may have occurred because Peter was no longer resident in Jerusalem. According to Paul, Peter served as “apostle to the Jews” (Galatians 2:7), which may have involved considerable travel. The Book of Acts links Peter’s departure from Jerusalem with the persecutions by Herod Agrippa I (c. 43 C.E.). According to Acts 12:3–19, Herod Agrippa had executed another apostle named James (the son of Zebedee and brother of John) and had jailed Peter. An “angel of the Lord” appeared to Peter in prison and helped him escape. “Then he left [Jerusalem] and he went to another place” (Acts 12:17). We aren’t told where, although Paul mentions in passing that Peter came to stay in Antioch (Galatians 2:11). Further, the First Letter of Peter (which scholars generally agree was not written by Peter) greets Christians in provinces of Roman Asia Minor north and west of the Taurus mountains.6 Therefore it appears likely that Peter was preaching and founding communities there. We have no other strong evidence of where he may have been.7

While in Antioch, Peter came into direct conflict with Paul. The latter writes: “When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy” (Galatians 2:11–13).

Paul insisted that because they shared a common faith in Jesus, Jewish and Gentile followers should share one fellowship meal, even though Jewish followers were required to observe Jewish law and Gentiles were not. Peter seemed to agree; himself a Jew, he customarily shared the Christian meal with Gentiles—until some men sent from Jerusalem by James showed up. These Jerusalem Jewish believers or Jewish Christians, apparently refused to share food with Gentiles, who did not follow Jewish kosher rules. Out of hospitality for the visitors, Peter, Barnabas and other Antioch leaders held a “Jews only” meal celebration. Paul calls Peter a hypocrite for ignoring the theological principle of “one salvation, faith in Jesus,” agreed to at the Jerusalem meeting.

In 1 Corinthians, written after Galatians, in about 54 C.E., Paul has no bone to pick with Peter. Rather, he indicates why Peter played a leading role in the early community. A short formula of faith (1 Corinthians 15) that Paul gave new converts states that the resurrected Jesus first appeared “to Cephas, then to the Twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (1 Corinthians 15:5–8). Peter first, Paul last.h

The tradition that the resurrected Jesus had singled out Peter by appearing to him first may well have led to Peter’s elevation within the community. Luke, writing in about 85 C.E., refers to this tradition. After the Resurrection, the disciples cry out, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” (Luke 24:34). In Mark, the women and the tomb are told that Jesus is on his way to see the disciples—and Peter.

But variant images portray Peter as someone accustomed to group effort, not solo stardom. Luke acknowledges this in Acts. Even though Peter is the spokesperson, he is accompanied by others (John in Acts 3–5 and 8:14–25; Jewish believers at Cornelius’s house in Acts 10:45–46). He involves the community in important decisions including who should take Judas’s place as the Twelfth disciple and who should be in charge of distributing food to the poor (Acts 1:15–26; 6:1–6). Peter’s openness to non-Jewish believers, his conciliatory approach to Christian Jews associated with James in the Antioch episode, and his stepping out of the sole leadership of the Jerusalem church help paint a very different portrait of Peter. It is hardly a surprise when we think back to his origins. Life on that fishing boat had its lessons. It not only required physical strength, patience, resourcefulness and courage. It also demanded an ability to coordinate one’s effort with others. When 1 Peter 5:1–4 uses Peter’s voice to exhort later church leaders (shepherds), the author captures the communal dimension of Peter’s authority: “Now as an elder myself and a witness of the sufferings of Christ ... I exhort the elders among you to tend the flock of God.” We can also see that Peter’s “call” cannot be pinned down to a single event. His relationship with Jesus involved several turning points: A young man left his fishing along with his brother; one or more years later, he finds himself called back to the task by the risen Jesus; a Jerusalem ministry followed by a sudden departure and finally the martyr’s death. Jesus repeatedly called upon Peter to follow him. Peter will spend almost all his adult life “fishing for people” in the name of Jesus, whose teaching captured his heart when he was young. But he never forgot those lessons from the boat.