Fact vs Fiction: Who was the Apostle Peter?

No character in the New Testament is described in such life-like colors, with all his virtues and faults, nor most magnified and misrepresented in history, than Peter.

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Excerpt from Philip Schaff’s History of the Christian Church, Vol. 1, Ch. 04, § 026.

The Peter of History

No character in the New Testament is brought us in such life-like colors, with all his virtues and faults, as that of Peter. He was frank and transparent, and always gave himself as he was, without any reserve.

We may distinguish three stages in his development. In the Gospels, the human nature of Simon appears most prominent, the Acts unfold the divine mission of Peter in the founding of the church, with a temporary relapse at Antioch (recorded by Paul); in his Epistles we see the complete triumph of divine grace. He was the strongest and the weakest of the Twelve. He had all the excellences and all the defects of a sanguine temperament. He was kind-hearted, quick, ardent, hopeful, impulsive, changeable, and apt to run from one extreme to another. He received from Christ the highest praise and the severest censure. He was the first to confess him as the Messiah of God, for which he received his new name of Peter, in prophetic anticipation of his commanding position in church history; but he was also the first to dissuade him from entering the path of the cross to the crown, for which he brought upon himself the rebuke, “Get thee behind me, Satan.” The rock of the church had become a rock of offence and a stumbling-block. He protested, in presumptive modesty, when Christ would wash his feet; and then, suddenly changing his mind, he wished not his feet only, but his hands and head to be washed. He cut off the ear of Malchus in carnal zeal for his Master; and in a few minutes afterwards he forsook him and fled. He solemnly promised to be faithful to Christ, though all should forsake him; and yet in the same night he betrayed him thrice. He was the first to cast off the Jewish prejudices against the unclean heathen and to fraternize with the Gentile converts at Caesarea and at Antioch; and he was the first to withdraw from them in cowardly fear at the narrow-minded Judaizers from Jerusalem, for which inconsistency he had to submit to a humiliating rebuke of Paul.

But Peter was as quick in returning to his right position as in turning away from it. He most sincerely loved the Lord from the start and had no rest nor peace till he found forgiveness. With all his weakness he was a noble, generous soul, and of the greatest service in the church. God overruled his very sins and inconsistencies for his humiliation and spiritual progress. And in his Epistles we find the mature result of the work of purification, a spirit most humble, meek, gentle, tender, loving, and lovely. Almost every word and incident in the gospel history connected with Peter left its impress upon his Epistles in the way of humble or thankful reminiscence and allusion. His new name, “Rock,” appears simply as a “stone” among other living stones in the temple of God, built upon Christ, “the chief corner-stone.” His charge to his fellow-presbyters is the same which Christ gave to him after the resurrection, that they should be faithful “shepherds of the flock” under Christ, the chief “shepherd and bishop of their souls” (1 Peter 5:2; 1 Peter 2:25; comp. John 21:15-17). The record of his denial of Christ is as prominent in all the four Gospels, as Paul’s persecution of the church is in the Acts, and it is most prominent — as it would seem under his own direction — in the Gospel of his pupil and “interpreter” Mark, which alone mentions the two cock-crows, thus doubling the guilt of the denial, and which records Christ’s words of censure (“Satan”), but omits Christ’s praise (“Rock”). Peter made as little effort to conceal his great sin, as Paul. It served as a thorn in his flesh, and the remembrance kept him near the cross; while his recovery from the fall was a standing proof of the power and mercy of Christ and a perpetual call to gratitude. To the Christian Church the double story of Peter’s denial and recovery has been ever since an unfailing source of warning and comfort. Having turned again to his Lord, who prayed for him that his personal faith fail not, he is still strengthening the brethren.

As to his official position in the church in the church, Peter stood from the beginning at the head of the Jewish apostles, not in a partisan sense, but in a large-hearted spirit of moderation and comprehension. He never was a narrow, contracted, exclusive sectarian. After the vision at Joppa and the conversion of Cornelius he promptly changed his inherited view of the necessity of circumcision, and openly professed the change at Jerusalem, proclaiming the broad principle “that God is no respecter of persons,  but in every nation he that feareth him and worketh righteousness is acceptable to him;” and “that Jews and Gentiles alike are saved only hrough the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 10:34-35; 15:11). He continued to be the head of the Jewish Christian church at large, and Paul himself represents him as the first among the three “pillar”-apostles of the circumcision (Gal. 2:8-9; comp. Gal. 1:18; 1 Cor. 15:5). But he stood mediating between James, who represented the right wing of conservatism, and Paul, who commanded the left wing of the apostolic army. And this is precisely the position which Peter occupies in his Epistles, which reproduce to a great extent the teaching of both Paul and James, and have therefore the character of a doctrinal Irenicum; as the Acts are a historical Irenicum, without violation of truth or fact.

The Peter of Fiction

No character of the Bible, we may say, no personage in all history, has been so much magnified, misrepresented and misused for doctrinal and hierarchical ends as the plain fisherman of Galilee who stands a the head of the apostolic college. Among the women of the Bible the Virgin Mary has undergone a similar transformation for purposes of devotion, and raised to the dignity of the queen of heaven. Peter as the Vicar of Christ, and Mary as the mother of Christ, have in this idealized shape become and are still the ruling powers in the polity and worship of the largest branch of Christendom.

In both cases the work of fiction began among the Judaizing  heretical sects of the second and third centuries, but was modified and carried forward by the Catholic, especially the Roman church, in the third and fourth centuries.

1. The Peter of the Ebionite fiction. The historical basis is Peter’s encounter with Simon Magus in Samaria (Acts 8:9-25), Paul’s rebuke of Peter at Antioch (Gal. 2:11-14), and the intense distrust and dislike of the Judaizing party to Paul. These three undoubted facts, together with a singular confusion of Simon Magus with an old Sabine deity, Semo Sancus, in Rome, furnished the material and prompted the motive to religious tendency — novels written about and after the middle of the second century by ingenious semi-Gnostic Ebionites, either anonymously or under the fictitious name of Clement of Rome, the reputed successor of Peter. In these productions Simon Peter appears as the great apostle of truth in conflict with Simon Magus, the pseudo-apostle of falsehood, the father of all heresies, and the Samaritan possessed by a demon; and Peter follows him step by step from Caesarea Stratonis to Tyre, Sidon, Berytus, Antioch, and Rome, and before the tribunal of Nero, disputing  with him, and refuting his errors, until at last the impostor, in the daring act of mocking Christ’s ascension to heaven, meets a miserable end.

In the pseudo-Clementine Homilies the name of Simon represents among other heresies also the free gospel of Paul, who is assailed as a false apostle and hated rebel against the authority of the Mosaic law. The same charges which the Judaizers brought against Paul, are here brought by Peter against Simon Magus, especially the assertion that one may be saved by grace alone. His boasted vision of Christ by which he professed to have been converted, is traced to a deceptive vision of the devil. The very words of Paul against Peter at Antioch, that he was “self-condemned” (Gal. 2:11), are quoted as an accusation against God. In one word, Simon Magus is, in part at least, a malignant Judaizing caricature of the apostle of the Gentiles.

2. The Peter of the Papacy. The orthodox version of the Peter-legend, as we find it partly in patristic notices of Irenaeus, Origen, Tertullian, and Eusebius, partly in apocryphal productions, retains the general story of conflict of Peter with Simon Magus in Antioch and Rome, but extracts from it its anti-Pauline poison, associates Paul at the end of his life with Peter as the joint, though secondary, founder of the Roman church, and honors both with the martyr’s crown in the Neronian persecution on the same day (the 29th of June), and in the same year or a year apart, but in different localities and in a different manner. Peter was crucified like his Master (though head-downwards), either on the hill of Janiculum (where the church S. Pietro in Montorio stands), or more probably on the Vatican hill (the scene of the Neronian circus and persecution); Paul, being a Roman citizen, was beheaded on the Ostian way at the Three Fountains (Tre Fontane), outside of the city. They even walked together a part of the Appian way to the place of execution. Caius (or Gaius), a Roman presbyter at the close of the second century, pointed to their monuments or trophies on the Vatican, and in the via Ostia. The solemn burial of the remains of Peter in the catacombs of San sebastiano, and of Paul on the Via Ostia, took place June 29, 258, according to the Kalendarium of the Roman church from the time of Liberius. A hundred years later the remains of Peter were permanently transferred to the Basilica of St. Peter on the Vatican, those of St. Paul to the Basilica of St. Paul (San Paolo fuori le mura) outside of the Porta Ostiensis (now Porta San Paolo).

The tradition of a twenty-five years’ episcopate in Rome  (preceded by a seven years’ episocopate in Antioch) cannot be traced beyond the fourth century (Jerome), and arose, as already remarked, from chronological miscalculations in connection with the questionable statement by Justin Martyr concerning the arrival of Simon Magus in Rome under the reign of Claudius (41-54). The “Catalogus Liberianus,” the oldest list of popes (supposed to have been written before 366), extends the pontificate of Peter to 25 years, 1 month, 9 days, and puts his death on June 29, 65 (during the consulate of Nerva and Vestinus), which would date his arrival in Rome back to A.D. 40. Eusebius, in his Greek Chronicle as far as it is preserved, does not fix the number of years, but says, in his Church History, that Peter came to Rome in the reign of Claudius to preach against the pestilential errors of Simon Magus. The Armenian translation of his Chronicle mentions “twenty” years; Jerome, in his translation or paraphrase rather, “twenty-five” years, assuming, without warrant, that Peter left Jerusalem for Antioch and Rome in the second year of Claudius (42; but Acts 12:17 would rather point to the year 44), and died in the fourteenth year or last year of Nero (68). Among modern Roman Catholic historians there is no agreement as to the year of Peter’s martyrdom: Baronius puts it in 69; Pagi and Alban Butler in 65; Möhler, Gams, and Alzog indefinitely between 66 and 68. In all these cases it must be assumed that Neronian persecution was continued or renewed  after 64, of which we have no historical evidence. It must also be assumed  that Peter was conspicuously absent from his flock during most of the time, to superintend the churches in Asia Minor and in Syria, to preside at the Council of Jerusalem, to meet with Paul in Antioch, to travel about with his wife, and that he made very little impression there till 58, and even till 63, when Paul, writing to and from Rome, still entirely ignores him. Thus a chronological error is made to overrule stubborn facts. The famous saying that “no pope shall see the (twenty-five) years of Peter,” which hitherto almost the force of law, has been falsified by the thirty-two years’ reign of the first infallible pope, Pius IX., who ruled from 1846 to 1878.

Note: On the Claims of the Papacy

On this tradition and on the indisputable preëminence of Peter in the Gospels and the Acts, especially the wordso f Christ to him after the great confession (Matthew 16:18), is built the colossal fabric of the papacy with all its amazing pretensions to be the legitimate succession of a permanent primacy of honor and supremacy of jurisdiction in the church of Christ, and — since 1870 — with the additional claim of papal infallibility in all official utterances, doctrinal or moral. The validity of this claim requires three premises:

  • The presence of Peter in Rome.

This may be admitted as an historical fact, and I for my part cannot believe it possible that such a rock-firm and world-wide structure as the papacy could rest on the sand of mere fraud and error. It is the underlying fact which gives to fiction its vitality, and error is dangerous in proportion to the amount of truth which it embodies. But the fact of Peter’s presence in Rome, whether of one year or twenty-five, cannot be of such fundamental importance as the papacy assumes it to be: otherwise it would have certainly have some allusion to it in the New Testament. Moreover, if Peter was in Rome, so was Paul, and shared with him on equal terms the apostolic supervision of the Roman congregation, as is very evident from his Epistle to the Romans.

  • The transferability of Peter’s preëminence on a successor.

This is derived by inference from the words of Christ: “Thou art Rock, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” This passage, recorded only by Matthew, is the exegetical rock of Romanism, and more frequently quoted by popes and papists than any other passage of the Scriptures. But admitting the obvious reference of petra to Peter, the significance of this prophetic name evidently refers to the peculiar mission of Peter in laying  the foundation of the church once and for all time to come. He fulfilled  it on the day of Pentecost and in the conversion of Cornelius; and in this pioneer work Peter can have no successor any more than St. Paul in the conversion of the Gentiles, and John in the consolidation of the two branches of the apostolic church.

  • The actual transfer of this prerogative of Peter — not upon the bishops of Jerusalem, or Antioch, where he undoubtedly resided — but upon the bishop of Rome, where he cannot be proven to have been from the New Testament.

Of such a transfer history knows absolutely nothing. Clement, bishop of Rome, who first, about A.D. 95, makes mention of Peter’s martyrdom, and Ignatius of Antioch, who a few years later alludes to Peter and Paul as exhorting the Romans, have not a word to say about the transfer. The very chronology and succession of the first popes is uncertain. If the claims of the papacy cannot be proven from what we know of the historical Peter, there are, on the other hand, several undoubted facts in the real history of Peter which bear heavily upon those claims, namely:

  1. That Peter was married, Matthew 8:14, took his wife with him on his missionary tours, 1 Cor. 9:5, and, according to a possible interpretation of the “coëlect” (sister), mentions her in 1 Peter 5:13. Patristic tradition ascribes to him children, or at least a daughter (Petronilla). His wife is said to have suffered martyrdom in Rome before him. What right have the popes, in view of this example, to forbid clerical marriage? We pass by the equally striking contrast between the poverty of Peter, who had no silver or gold (Acts 3:6) and the gorgeous display of the triple-crowned papacy in the middle ages and down to the recent collapse of the temporal power.
  2. That in the Council at Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-11), Peter appears simply as the first speaker and debater, not as president and judge (James presided), and assumes no special prerogative, least of all an infallibility of judgment. According to the Vatican theory the whole question of circumcision ought to have been submitted to Peter rather than to a Council, and the decision ought to have gone out from him rather than from “the apostles and elders, brethren” (or “the elder brethren,” Acts 15:23).
  3. That Peter was openly rebuked for inconsistency by a younger apostle at Antioch (Gal. 2:11-14). Peter’s conduct on that occasion is irreconcilable with his infallibility as to discipline; Paul’s conduct is irreconcilable with Peter’s alleged supremacy; and the whole scene, though perfectly plain, is so inconvenient to Roman and Romanizing views, that it has been variously distorted by patristic and Jesuit commentators, even into a theatrical farce gotten up by the apostles for the more effectual refutation of the Judaizers!
  4. That, while the greatest of popes, from Leo I down to Leo XIII, never cease to speak of their authority over all the bishops and all the churches, Peter, in his speeches in the Acts, never does so. And his Epistles, far from assuming any superiority over his “fellow-elders” and over “the clergy” (by which he means the Christian people), breathe the spirit of the sincerest humility and contain a prophetic warning against the besetting sins of the papacy, filthy avarice and lordly ambition (1 Peter 5:1-3). Love of money and love of power are twin-sisters, and either of them is “a root of all evil.”

It is certainly very significant that the weaknesses even more than the virtues of the natural Peter — his boldness and presumption, his dread of the cross, his love for secular glory, his carnal zeal, his use of the sword, his sleepiness in Gethsemane — are faithfully reproduced in the history of the papacy; while the addresses and epistles of the converted and inspired Peter contain the most emphatic protest against the hierarchical pretensions and worldly vices of the papacy, and enjoin truly evangelical principles — the general priesthood and royalty of believers, apostolic poverty before the rich temple, obedience to God rather than man, yet with proper regard for the civil authorities, honorable marriage, condemnation of mental reservation in Ananias and Sapphira, and of simony in Simon Magus, liberal appreciation of heathen piety in Cornelius, opposition to the yoke of legal bondage, salvation in no other name but that of Jesus Christ.

1 comments on “Fact vs Fiction: Who was the Apostle Peter?”

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