Peter is remembered by Christians as a saint; the fisherman who became the right-hand man of Jesus himself, the leader of the early church and a father of the faith.
Of all the disciples that Jesus chose we know most about Peter. He is one of the most carefully described characters in the New Testament, and yet the picture we have is a composite from various authors at various times and there are still many things the Bible does not tell us.
The Bible tells us that Peter was a fisherman by trade and that he lived in the village of Capernaum on the shores of Lake Galilee. Early in three of the gospel accounts there is a story of Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law, which clearly implies Peter had his own house and that it accommodated his extended family. All these details are historically plausible but recent archaeology has been able to support them with hard evidence.
Excavations in Capernaum have uncovered the remains of a synagogue and several houses, one of which could be the very house of Peter himself. The original structure is a series of rooms around a central courtyard, easily big enough for a large family. Scholars agree they may never know for certain if it is the home of the apostle but it is clear that the site was venerated very early on by Christian believers. The evidence shows that the family home became a public meeting place and several shrines were subsequently built on the site. Today a Catholic church stands over the ruins.
However, the house is not the only significant find in the area. In 1985 after several years of drought, the water level of Lake Galilee had dropped and one day two walkers saw a very distinctive shape in the mud. Archaeologists uncovered the remains of a boat, amazingly preserved since its use on the lake before the 1st century. The boat was partly made of expensive, imported wood and was so big that it would have needed at least 12 people to handle it. For the first time archaeologists had a precise idea of the type of boat Peter owned; the one that transported Jesus and his disciples.
Whatever Peter’s life was like before, it was turned upside down by Jesus. The story goes that Jesus called Peter to follow him and Peter did not hesitate; he left everything and embarked on an incredible journey of discovery. In fact one could say that Jesus altered his very identity, for it was Jesus that changed his name from Simon to Peter. This was a hugely significant nickname, for in every language other than English Peter means ‘The Rock’. Jesus appointed Peter as the rock on which he would build his church but the character revealed in the gospels seems far from stable, so did Jesus really know what he was doing?
On another occasion Jesus asks his disciples who they think he is, Peter is the one who says “You are the Messiah”. In Matthew’s account Jesus commends Peter’s observation; it seems the penny has finally dropped! But just moments later Peter receives Jesus’ sharpest rebuke “Get behind me Satan!” because he tries to dissuade Jesus from the path of suffering and death. Peter shows he does not fully understand the nature of Jesus’ Messiahship. Throughout the gospel narratives Peter seems so near and yet so far from understanding Jesus’ message and yet he is consistently portrayed not only as one of the chosen 12 but as one of Jesus’ most intimate group of three or four.
Peter is the spokesperson for the disciples but frequently says the wrong thing at important moments. He is constantly asking questions and is not afraid to argue with Jesus. He is rash, impetuous and even foolish at times but he is never slow to pledge his absolute loyalty to his master. However, he was not to know how much this would be tested.
Earlier that same evening Jesus had predicted that Peter would deny him three times before the cock crowed. Peter was adamant that he would remain loyal. Now, as Jesus faced a sham of a trial, Peter stood in the shadows of the High Priest’s courtyard and three different strangers recognised Peter and accused him of being one of Jesus’ companions. Each time Peter denied it vehemently and just then, a cock crowed.
The cockerel became a defining symbol throughout centuries of Christian art and this episode became one of the most famous of Peter’s story. Scholars believe that Peter would have reached hero status by the time the gospels were written and history has a tendency to write about its heroes in a good light. The fact that Peter’s denial remained so foundational to the narratives underlines the authenticity of the whole story.
The gospels say that in the following days an incredible event took place. Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to his followers. The accounts differ as to what happened in those days but from the earliest sources Peter is listed as the first male witness to the resurrection. Whatever the precise nature of his encounter with the resurrected Jesus, the result was that Peter was transformed from a scared and dejected failure into the leader Jesus had predicted at the outset.
A Christian leader
The opening chapters of the Acts of the Apostles show Peter working miracles, preaching boldly in the streets and in the temple and standing up fearlessly to those who had condemned Jesus just days before. The number of believers grows enormously and it is Peter who leads them with authority and wisdom as chief of the apostles.
From such unpromising beginnings it now seemed that Peter had indeed become the rock of the church but in actual fact his leadership was soon contested. Midway through Luke’s account in the Acts of the Apostles it is clear that the man known as James the brother of Jesus, and not Peter, is leader in Jerusalem; a fact that is often overlooked by readers of the Bible. How or why Peter is superseded we are not told but scholars suggest James had a greater religious pedigree that gave him a better standing with the Temple authorities. Or perhaps, if James really was a relation of Jesus, it was only natural for him to succeed his brother. Whatever the reason, it is clear that Peter defers to James’ authority.
Yet the power struggle was not just two-way; Paul was taking the message all over the Mediterranean and setting up churches wherever he went. It is clear that on one occasion Paul and Peter had a major disagreement and Paul calls Peter a hypocrite for siding with James. Peter seems to be caught between two extremes with sympathy for both; James believed that anyone who became a Christian must subscribe to the Jewish customs; Paul believed that no obstacles should be placed in the way of non-Jewish converts. It was an issue that could have split the fledgling church, perhaps it was Peter’s stance that held the movement together.
Peter’s later life
Considering Peter’s prominence in the Acts of the Apostles, it is remarkable that he completely disappears from the narrative halfway through. So what happened to Peter, where did he go and where did he die? There are a few clues from Paul’s letters that he did travel and, interestingly, he did so with his wife. This has led some scholars to suggest that Peter ministered as part of a husband and wife team and that the role of women has been deliberately diminished over history. However, the details of Peter’s later life cannot be found in the Bible: one must look elsewhere.
Peter is mentioned in many of these ancient texts and they provide a great deal of support for the long-held tradition that Peter went to Rome. The Acts of Peter is a document that is first mentioned by the early church historians and from these clues scholars can establish that it was in circulation by the end of the 2nd century. It depicts Peter entering Rome after Paul had left and rescuing the church from the influence of one Simon the Magician. Simon is mentioned briefly in the New Testament and is almost certainly a historical character. In this account he is portrayed as Peter’s arch-enemy. The two embark on an amazing miracle contest that culminates with Simon flying unaided through the air – but at the prayer of Peter, Simon is dropped and crashes to the ground, breaking his leg. Simon is defeated and the people turn back to Christianity.
Some believe this literature is merely pious fiction but others believe there is a skeleton of truth that is further support to the traditions of Peter in Rome. It is certainly plausible that Peter went to Rome; after all, it was the capital of the greatest empire the world had ever seen, so if the message took root there it would reach every corner of the known world.