Simon Peter

A. Burt Horsley, “Simon Peter,” in Peter and the Popes (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1989), 5–28.

Simon, son of Jonas or John, nicknamed Cephas or a rock (Greek Petros) by Jesus, was born into a fisherman’s family in the Galilean fishing town of Bethsaida a few years before the birth of Jesus during the reign of Augustus Caesar. He grew up in a time of turmoil when vast political and religious movements were stirring among his people.

We do not know the extent of his education, but it probably was typical for the time, consisting mainly of informal training in the home and some formal instruction in the synagogue where he was taught as a boy to memorize some portions of scripture and the law together with certain prayers and meditations.

By the time he was a young man, he had learned the fishing trade and had entered into a business partnership with his brother Andrew on the Sea of Galilee. After his marriage, he made his home in the nearby city of Capernaum, where in later years the Savior would share his hospitality for some time while making his headquarters in that area.

He had made the acquaintance of some men, also fishermen, who were members of a family involved in the founding of a new religious group. James and John, sons of Zebedee and Salome, had joined the popular Baptist movement of John, son of Zachariah and Elizabeth. Jesus, Son of Mary, who is identified by some as Salome’s sister, [1] would subsequently be baptized and become the leader of a movement with such power for good in the lives of men that it would thereafter be identified with the title of Christ, which Peter bestowed upon Jesus in his moment of truth, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:15–16).

For many, Peter represents each one of us, the Christian as a whole person, both believer and doubter, faithful and unfaithful.

After the death of John the Baptist, Peter was one of those who accepted Jesus as the new leader of the composite movement. A careful reading of the scripture reveals that John had explicitly referred to Jesus as the Savior whose coming he had anticipated and for whom he had prepared the way. Andrew, Peter’s brother, was present when John said, “This is he of whom I said, After me cometh a man which is preferred before me . . .” (John 1:30). Andrew was also one of two, who, after listening to Jesus speak, followed him home and spent part of the day talking with him before he departed from Jesus and went in search of the others.

“He first findeth his own brother Simon, and saith unto him, We have found the Messias, which is, being interpreted, the Christ. And he brought him to Jesus. And when Jesus beheld him, he said, Thou art Simon the son of Jonah: thou shalt be called Cephas [Peter] which is by interpretation, A stone” (John 1:41–42).

After this meeting with Jesus, Peter and Andrew returned to their nets and the call of the fishing business for the time being. But, Jesus had seen the potential in Peter. He had recognized the man that was to be.

Some time later, as Jesus continued his ministry in Galilee, he sought Peter out on a day when the fishing had been poor and Peter and his business partners had decided to use the remainder of the day repairing nets. Jesus’ admonition to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19), has become classic, but less often remembered is Peter’s confession as he abandoned his former way of life, “. . . I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). There is here, an indication of soul searching on his part and an admission to himself of an insufficiency of character—leaving him some distance to go before he can change from catching perch and bass to becoming “a fisher of men.” But he seized upon the opportunity as a possible fulfillment of hope and salvation. Someday he would see in Jesus, the Light and the Way, the healer of the halt and the lame, the shepherd, and the nearest, simplest and only way to God.

Raymond Brown, in portraying Peter as a confessor and guardian of the Christian faith, admits that:

this high view of Peter’s function does not, however, eliminate the dark side in the image of the Apostle, the image of Peter the weak and the sinful man. In the New Testament trajectory he can be portrayed as being reproached by Paul (Gal. 2:1 Iff.), as misunderstanding Jesus’words and intentions (e.g., Mark 9:5–6; John 13:6–11; 18:10- 11), as being rebuked by Jesus as “Satan” (Mark 8:33; Matthew 16:23). In the Passion Narrative he can be singled out as the one who denied the Lord (Mark 14:66–72 and parallels). But his very tears at the end of this scene show that, while being portrayed as a weak, sinful man, Peter is seen as a truly repentant sinner. Thus, even as Simon once denied Jesus, he has been rehabilitated—a rehabilitation doubtlessly to be connected with the appearance of the risen Jesus to him [as hinted in John 21:15–17] (Brown, etal., 166).

During the ensuing months of discipleship and apostolic commission, before the crucifixion of the Lord, Peter’s moodiness, pessimism, stubbornness, lapse of faith, even despair, came to the surface along with a general lack of polish. When Jesus wished to encourage or praise him, He called him Peter; but when He reminded his friend that he was slipping back to his old ways, He called him Simon.

On one occasion Peter had merited both praise and rebuke from the Lord. He had referred to Jesus as the Messiah and then offended with his expression of contempt for Jesus’ premonition of death as part of the fulfillment of his messiahship. A few days later, Peter saw Jesus clothed in a celestial glory on the mount of transfiguration; and, while commenting, “Master, it is good for us to be here,” had heard, “. . . a voice out of the cloud, saying, This is my beloved Son: hear him” (Mark 9:5, 7).

Despite these purging, chastening experiences designed to fit him for the yoke of presidency yet to be placed upon him, the fisherman, during all the Savior’s ministry (including the ordeal of the trials and the trauma of the crucifixion) had not yet achieved the unfaltering, resolute character imperative in such a leader. That Peter’s full conversion and transformation came slowly, painfully, was apparent in his question as to the number of times sufficient to forgive an offending brother. “Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:21–22). But, the event in his life destined to leave the bitterest memory of all was yet ahead.

He often acted hastily, and thoughtlessly. Yet, when chided and admonished, he became moody with a slight tendency toward withdrawal and reserve (Mark 8:31–33).

There were times when Peter seemed to be alive with a desire to learn, recognizing his own poverty of mind and spirit, in abject humility, submitting himself to be taught. Nevertheless, when sufficiently provoked, he could react with an almost spontaneous assertion of force, as was evidenced at the time of Jesus’ arrest (John 18:10). He might react unpredictably, showing forth either the gentle side of his nature or the impetuous, headstrong, unpolished facet. He would lie when his own security was threatened despite having declared only a few hours previously that he would go with the Lord “both into prison, and to death” (Luke 22:33). James E. Talmage says, “Peter went so far in the course of falsehood upon which he had entered as to curse and swear that he did not know Jesus” (Talmage, Jesus the Christ 631).

It is not unlikely that in the years to come when he had occasion to look back on those days of tortuous growth and change, there would be some bitter memories intermingled with the joyous ones: his sinking beneath the waves while of little faith; his resisting Jesus’ offer to wash his feet when his refusal would have deprived him of one of the greatest privileges of all time, would be events to be remembered (Matthew 14:28–31, John 13:8).

Centuries of foreign domination had stirred resentment in the hearts of Palestinians which periodically crystallized into varying forms of revolt, including militant defiance and demonstration. That Peter had not actively identified with groups such as the Zealots in no way rules out a strong nationalistic concern on his part. His apparent misunderstanding of the Savior’s true messianic mission would indicate that along with other disciples he, initially, may have entertained notions of political, social and economic emancipation.

No doubt he had chafed under the subtle or deliberate pretention to cultural and intellectual superiority on the part of many Romans. Nevertheless, he probably accepted the Lord’s suggestion to “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s,” albeit without any show of servility (Matthew 22:21).

On Peter and his household was conferred the singular blessing of hosting Jesus during his stay in Capernaum. After spending part of a Sabbath day with the Savior preaching in the synagogue, Peter returned home with his guest to find his wife’s mother sick with the fever. Peter and his family “besought him for her” (Luke 4:38), requesting a blessing of the Savior in her behalf. “And he came and took her by the hand, and lifted her up; and immediately the fever left her, and she ministered unto them” (Mark 1:31).

During the ensuing days of the early Galilean ministry, Peter accompanied Jesus as “he preached in their synagogues throughout all Galilee . . .” (Mark 1:39). On one occasion, after returning to Peter’s home, Jesus asked the Apostles who had accompanied him, “What was it that ye disputed among yourselves by the way? But they held their peace: for by the way they had disputed among themselves, who should be the greatest” (Mark 9:33–34).

Jesus used the moment to teach a great principle which Peter may have learned better than his brethren, since it appears that they continued to quibble about the same matter throughout the rest of the ministry. Holding a little child in his arms, the Lord emphasized the value of humility and teachability, trying to impress upon the big fisherman that, “If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). The words of Jesus were not yet entirely clear to Peter, but a small beginning had been made in his transformation—a transformation that would have to be at least partly completed in a few months’ time.

Those few months passed all too quickly. At Passover time, Peter was assigned with John to go to Jerusalem ahead of the others to make arrangements for the use of a guest chamber wherein they could eat the passover meal together in private. Jesus had in mind an upper room of a house belonging to a woman convert, thought by some to have been the mother of John Mark, who would one day be the traveling secretary to Peter and subsequently the author of one of the gospels (Acts 12:12). “And they went, and found as he had said unto them: and they made ready the passover” (Luke 22:13). In the evening, the other Apostles came secretly with the Lord and assembled in the upper room.

At passover time there had again been some misunderstanding among the Twelve, as Luke says that even at the passover table “there was also a strife among them, which of them should be accounted the greatest” (Luke 22:24). Peter must have been indignant over this display of petty politics and somewhat embarrassed too. His closest friends, the Lord’s own first cousins, James and John, were the most contentious about the matter. In fact, their mother, Salome, Mary’s sister, had arranged to make a special appeal to Jesus in their behalf (Matthew 20:20–21).

Peter tried to make it clear to his beloved teacher that he needed no reward for his loyalty, that he would remain true come what may The Lord perceived the struggle going on within this great spirit: many confusing things had been crowded into the last few days, straining his understanding. Now he was grasping for straws of faith and needed more assurance from the Savior. “And the Lord said, Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren” (Luke 22:31–32). That faith was not yet great enough to sustain him wholly through the trials ahead, when as Jesus predicted, “the cock shall not crow this day, before that thou shalt thrice deny that thou knowest me” (Luke 22:34).

Jesus rose from the table and, after wrapping a towel about himself, proceeded to wash the feet of these men who had stayed with him. They had not understood his mission, neither did they realize for which cause he had come into the world. But, he loved them enough to try once more to teach the lesson of humility. In reply to Peter’s protest, “Thou shalt never wash my feet,” he answered, “If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me” (John 13:8). Peter, humbled, listened to the admonition:

If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you. Verily, verily I say unto you; The servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him (John 13:14–16).

This tensive drama was heightened in that hour by the announcement of the betrayal. And, in the hours ahead, Peter, by his actions, would leave unanswered the age old question, why does a man who knows what is good do that which is evil? He would allow the weakness of the flesh to subdue the willingness of the spirit by failing to watch with Jesus one hour, by rising up in a gesture of violence in the garden, and by denying it three times when accused of being an associate of the Nazarene.

In Peter’s tragic moment, Jesus might well have voiced David’s lament, “Yea, mine own familiar friend, in whom I trusted, which did eat of my bread, hath lifted up his heel against me” (Ps. 41:9). Instead, he simply glanced at Peter. It was enough. “And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said unto him, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. And Peter went out, and wept bitterly” (Luke 22:61–62).

With bitter tears Peter purged away much of the old Simon and prepared himself for the rebirth of the new. Those same tears partly washed away a past strewn with doubt and misunderstanding, and after they were spent, the picture of a kingdom worth dying for began to come into focus.

Even the most casual study of the lives of the spiritual giants of the Old and New Testaments together with those of the modern prophets leads us to the conclusion that only through a process of overcoming earlier weaknesses and gradually maturing do they eventually achieve the spiritual stature and greatness for which they become renowned. In the years ahead, the challenges and sacrifices that characterized so much of Peter’s life would transform him into the mighty man of God that he became.

Paul implies that Peter was the first of the Twelve to behold the resurrected Lord (1 Cor. 15:5). That same evening Jesus appeared to the other apostles who had gathered in an upper room in Jerusalem (Luke 24:34–49).

Subsequently, Jesus appeared to seven of the Apostles on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and singled out Peter by commanding him to “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15–17). This incident further established Peter as the chief Apostle upon whom Jesus had conferred the keys of the kingdom (Matthew 16:18–19).

Peter’s preeminence was further confirmed on the day of Pentecost (the feast of weeks) when he and his fellow Apostles were “all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4). It was Peter who preached the powerful summary address on that occasion, and he witnessed that the risen Lord was the promised Messiah and that the Apostles were now blessed with the same spiritual gifts by which God had revealed himself through Christ. The scripture tells us there were three thousand converts as a result of the manifestations of that day.

By the eloquence and conviction of his Pentecostal sermon, Peter had made it clear to Jewish leaders and laymen alike that he was no longer intimidated by former doubts and fears. The Sanhedrin could not expect him to bow before that august body ever again. Neither need the members of the scattered flock hesitate any more to affiliate boldly with the brotherhood which was now substantially organized and receiving divine direction from that same beloved Master, who only a short time ago had been with them in the flesh. “And this Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we are all witnesses. Therefore being by the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost, he hath shed forth this, which ye now see and hear” (Acts 2:32–33). Through the Spirit manifest on Pentecost, several thousand new members, both from within and beyond the land of Palestine, were integrated into the movement and fellowshipped with those of the original flock. These local members worshipped both privately and in the precincts of the temple and constituted the Jerusalem church.

It appears that, except for private dwellings, Christianity was proclaimed mainly in synagogues throughout Palestine and the Jewish settlements of the Diaspora, wherever the Apostles felt inspired to take the gospel under Peter’s direction, until about A.D. 70. Indeed, the form, liturgy, ceremony, and later the vestments of Hebrew worship passed down into Catholic ritual. Even the Catholic church government reflected the administrative structure of the synagogue.[2]

Peter’s sermon on Pentecost marked the beginning of an approximately eighteen-year Palestinian ministry. Assisted by his fellow Apostles, more particularly James and John, who had witnessed with him those things that transpired on the mount of transfiguration (2 Peter 1:16–18; Matthew 17:1–9), Peter presided over the Church from Jerusalem, the first capital of Christianity (Acts 8:14), giving it its spiritual direction.

The apostolic church was demeaned by its Jewish enemies as the “sect of the Nazarenes.” But to Peter it was a powerful spiritual force destined to strike at the very roots of the legalistic evils under which the Jews suffered. His was a first-hand knowledge of the lives of the people of the circumcision. He spoke in a language they could understand, with unbounded courage and energy. He was convinced that a kingdom was coming in which justice and peace would prevail.

Soon after assuming leadership of the Christian brotherhood, Peter presided over the convenant effort in communal living. This model of the stewardship principle, as practiced in the spirit of Christian love by the disciples, is one of the finest examples of the workability of basic gospel ideals in practical human relations.

Luke relates:

And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things in common. . . . Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, And laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need (Acts 4:32, 34–35).

There is no specific follow-up information in the scriptures as to the success or failure of the enterprise, but that it was subject to imperfections of humanity; the gradual encroachment of the things of the world over the things of the spirit is affirmed. Eventually greed and selfishness on the part of some may have threatened the foundation of a system that depended upon the highest manifestations of a personal love and devotion to principle. Among those who burdened this order of consecration were Ananias and Sapphira, who sold their property and greedily kept a portion back for themselves before contributing the balance to the order, while pretending the consecration of all they had. The two deceivers perished after Peter confronted them, saying, “why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God” (Acts 5:4).

In the years ahead, Peter would witness time and again disappointing examples of human conduct and attitude. The process of religious and spiritual change which was gradually transforming him did not always have the same effect on others. His mind was beginning to serve him well in the liberation of the new man, freeing him from the self-serving instincts which tend to restrain most men, in one degree or another, from becoming their best selves. He had learned from sore experience that knowing what is good is not enough to save one from reversion to the baser self, unless that knowledge enlists the whole man, including the higher, nobler instincts to defend the right before the soul is wounded.

Some gave lip service to the cause, others were openly brazen in their show of ignorance about things sacred. Religious enthusiasm, with its accompanying manifestations of the power of God to work good in the lives of faithful men, is particularly vulnerable to misunderstanding and abuse, as is, also, the very power, or gift, by which things take place.

While successfully healing the sick at Samaria, Peter met a man also named Simon, who was typical of those whose spiritual eyes remain sightless while the natural eyes see well the outward forms of religion. This man professed conversion with his lips, but his heart was far from it.

But there was a certain man, called Simon, which beforetime in the same city used sorcery, and bewitched the people of Samaria, giving out that himself was some great one. . . . And when Simon saw that through laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Ghost was given, he offered them money (Acts 8:9, 18).

Some have asserted that this same Simon was the father of Christian Gnosticism, a heresy which threatened the very foundation of the early Church for many decades (Talmage, Apostasy 9; Roberts and Donaldson 8:477–86). Others have found no evidence linking Simon Magus to Gnosticism.

At approximately this point in his own ministry, Peter received word of the appearance on the Christian scene of a new personality whose coming would eventually play a great role in the development of the apostolic church. Paul, a Jew of the Diaspora who had been active in the anti-Christian campaign, was miraculously converted near Damascus. Not having been proselyted by the missionaries, Paul maintained, for some time, an aloofness that bore out his sense of rejection. In fact, he claims that he did not even take the trouble to make the acquaintance of Peter and other leaders for at least three years:

I conferred not with flesh and blood: Neither went I up to Jerusalem to them which were apostles before me; but I went into Arabia, and returned again unto Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days. But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord’s brother (Gal. 1:16–19).

At this time, neither Peter nor Paul suspected how closely their lives would one day be intertwined by the thread of the gospel; At the same time, their personal understandings, opinions, and backgrounds would lead them in separate directions as they sought to fulfill their respective destinies and the destiny of the Church.

The next few years of Peter’s Palestinian ministry were enriched by a diversity of experiences as he went from place to place. Luke records a few incidents including the healing of Aeneas, a paralytic at Lydda, and the raising of the woman Dorcas from the dead at Joppa. But Peter also experienced arrest and imprisonment again and again. Sometimes he was flogged and released. However, the scripture attests, more than once, to a miraculous escape from his captors.

That there was great resistance among the Jews to this “heresy” cannot be doubted. However, some regarded Christianity as merely another messianic movement which would spend itself innocuously if left alone. This attitude is reflected in the advice given by none other than the great Gamaliel to the council of High Priests and Jewish leaders who were considering the case of Peter and his associates following the arrest of Peter for preaching his famous temple sermon and healing the lame man at the temple porch. “Refrain from these men, and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought: But if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it” (Acts 5:38–39).

Later, while in Joppa, a small town on the Mediterranean coast, he stayed at the home of a Jewish tanner, whose occupation in handling and preparing the skins of animals made him ceremonially unclean by Rabbinical law. Peter’s condescension in staying many days in such a household shows what a giant step away from Judaistic legal tradition he had taken.

Alerted by a noontime vision, Peter left Joppa with messengers from a certain Italian army officer and accompanied them to Caesarea thirty miles farther north. This constituted even more of a departure from the way of his fathers, since Cornelius, the officer, was a Gentile and, in spite of his being “one that feared God” (a believer in Jehovah), an unfit host for one of the covenant (Acts 10:9–16).

When Peter arrived at the home of Cornelius, and accepted his hospitality, he established a precedent in extending the blessings of the gospel to non-Jews that Paul would remind him about at Antioch in the years ahead (Gal. 2:14). But, he had been reinforced in his inclination to break with tradition by a divine manifestation from which he learned that “I should not call any man common or unclean” (Acts 10:28). He had, indeed, not only set the precedent but would also justify this before his brethren upon his return to Jerusalem (Acts 11:4–13).

In his discussion of the matter with the other Apostles and disciples among the Judaizers in Jerusalem, he did not hesitate to declare his conviction that what he had done was in harmony with the will of God. He was now identifying himself with the universal dimension of the Lord’s work, a dimension no longer to be ignored.

And the apostles and brethren that were in Judaea heard that the Gentiles had also received the word of God. And when Peter was come up to Jerusalem, they that were of the circumcision contended with him, Saying, Thou wentest in to men uncircumcised, and didst eat with them. But Peter rehearsed the matter from the beginning, and expounded it by order unto them, saying, . . . Forasmuch then as God gave them the like gift as he did unto us, who believed on the Lord Jesus Christ; what was I, that I could withstand God? (Acts 11:1–4, 17).

Thus, when the time came to expand the movement beyond the borders of Palestine and to introduce Christ’s message to other peoples in their own homelands, Peter was ready to do so. A series of divine manifestations associated with his experience with the gentile Cornelius had taught him, “Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him” (Acts 10:34–35).

In retrospect, it is possible to recognize at least two principle stages in Peter’s development between the crucifixion of Jesus and Peter’s more forceful assertion of leadership responsibility. The first moved him away from his understandable attachment to Jewish legalism and tradition to an emphasis on the reality and implications of the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah . During this phase, Peter is described by Luke as a forthright and fearless advocate of the risen Lord and of the fact that salvation was obtainable through Jesus’ name, and his name only (Acts 2:38; 4:12).

The second major stage in Peter’s spiritual growth and leadership development began with the events surrounding the conversion of the gentile Cornelius. Peter’s recounting of the matter supposedly mollified his reactionary critics who were offended at his having eaten with the Gentiles, but the issue of the obligations of the Mosaic law was far from resolved.

Following his conversion, James, the half brother of Jesus, appears to have gained considerable prominence in the Jerusalem church. Peter seems to have shown some deference to him, perhaps out of courteous consideration for the special relationship of James to the Lord. For example, Peter sent word to James of his miraculous deliverance from prison (Acts 12:17). Peter and James were the only leaders seen by Paul on his first post-conversion visit to Jerusalem (Gal. 1:18–19). Paul included James with Peter and John as supposed “pillars” of the Church (Gal. 2:9).

James is sometimes identified with the “Judaizers” or circumcision party who, at least initially, sought to impose circumcision and the law on all gentile converts. Paul implies that Peter allowed himself to be intimidated in Antioch by the arrival of men from James, “fearing them which were of the circumcision” (Gal. 2:11–12). He also suggests that, in Peter’s dilemma, he seems to have given himself back to the traditionalists, albeit with some reserve.

President David O. McKay, noting that Peter possessed the keys of presidency, wrote: “one key was to open the door of the gospel to the Gentiles, but it took quite a while before Peter knew how to use it. It is one thing to know that the gospel is true: it is quite another thing to comprehend its purpose and significance” (McKay, Gospel Ideals 231).

Peter may have been caught in the middle of a misunderstanding between James and Paul. While his reaction may have been due to confusion on his part, it may also have been prompted by an awareness of his position which necessitated a mediating, conservative response on that particular occasion. This isolated incident (described from only one point of view) should not be blown out of proportion.

As to Peter’s relationship to James and his reaction to what might have seemed to some as an encroachment on his presidential authority, the scriptures are not that clear (Acts 15; Gal. 2). However, in that moment when Peter knew he could not “withstand God,” he had indeed exercised his ecclesiastical responsibility. He may now be prepared to take the step into “all the world.”

In this connection, according to Paul, James had been the recipient of a personal visitation from his resurrected brother (1 Cor. 15:7). And it may have been this experience that moved him to conversion.

Later, at a special conference in Jerusalem, Paul met with Peter, James and the other Apostles and elders. Following “much disputing” over the obligations of gentile converts to the Mosaic law, Peter spoke against the views of the believing Pharisees, arguing that the law had always been a burden and that when it came to salvation, God made no distinction between Jew and Gentile (Acts 15:4–29).

James concurred with Peter and expressed a presumptive if not final statement when he declared, “Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God” (Acts 15:19). Whatever his traditionalist views may have been originally, his devotion to the cause of Jesus, as he understood it, cannot be questioned.

During the reign of the tyrant Emperor Caligula, referred to by one historian as a “young madman [who] entertained himself with murder and theft” (Frank 423), minority groups, and especially the Jews, suffered persecution throughout the empire. In Palestine, his attempts to enforce the practice of emperor worship had led to riots. Peter and the saints in Jerusalem had weathered the storm, and, with the death of Caligula and the ascension of Claudius, there was a newly declared policy of tolerance (see Momigliano 29–32; Scramuzza 150–51). This policy may have aided in the increased proselyting activity and missionary success of Peter, but eventually it would react against it.

Caligula had left Herod Agrippa, grandson of Herod the Great, in office as a puppet ruler in Palestine. He proceeded to court the favor of the Emperor Claudius with exaggerated enforcement of the edict of toleration in Jerusalem, and with special concessions to the Jewish High Priests and Sanhedrin leaders.

Jewish leaders, in attempting to stamp out the “godless sect,” organized a campaign against the spread of Christianity. Strong measures were employed including the sending of messengers into all areas of the Diaspora. Justin Martyr, a convert to Christianity from Jerusalem a few decades after the death of Peter, points out in his Dialogue with Trypho that the Jewish leaders had sent emissaries “into all the land to tell that the godless heresy of the Christians had sprung up, and to publish those things which all they who knew us not speak against us” (Roberts and Donaldson 1:203).

Thus, influential Jews had come to regard the “Christian sect” as perhaps the most dangerous threat to Jewish solidarity. Because of the great pressure exerted, Herod pacified the Jews by ordering the death of James, who was the brother of John and probably a cousin of Jesus. James served as counselor to Peter. The scripture concludes that Herod not only put James to the sword but, “because he saw it pleased the Jews, . . . proceeded further to take Peter also” (Acts 12:3).

Peter was arrested at the time of the Passover as Jesus had been more than a decade earlier. Showing deference to the custom of not dealing with profane matters during the holy season, Herod chose to wait until after the holiday to bring the Apostle to trial before the people. Peter was kept under heavy guard, and, as an extra precaution, he was chained between two soldiers even while sleeping.

The night before he was to go on trial, he was miraculously delivered from the prison. An angel of the Lord appeared to him while the guards slept. His chains were loosened and he passed through two prison wards and an unlocked main gate into the freedom of the street before the angel left him suddenly aware that what had happened to him was really true and not just a dream or a vision.

After thinking it over, he decided to seek out his friends who were assembled for prayer in the middle of the night at a popular meeting place, the home of the mother of John Mark (Acts 12:12). It may have been in the upper room of this house that the events of the Last Supper had transpired on that fateful night, still vivid in Peter’s memory.

Now those assembled there for the prayer meeting could not have expected that the Apostle would be freed at all and least of all during the nighttime. It is not surprising then that the young lady who listened at the door when he knocked was so astonished at hearing his voice that she ran to the others rather than open the door to him. Even as he finally entered and stood before them, they thought it must be his ghost until he succeeded in persuading them otherwise, and told them of his experience. His last instruction to them was to report these things to James the brother of the Lord. “And he departed and went into another place” (Acts 12:17).

With few exceptions the remaining years of Peter’s life and ministry are not accounted for in the New Testament. He is dropped suddenly by Luke in the midst of his story. From this point on, we are dependent upon Paul and tradition for the few references available to us. The tradition is to some extent derived from non-canonical, apocryphal, or early religious literature, much of which is sheer fabrication or out and out forgery. From such sources, however, we do get a picture of the popular stories and accounts going the rounds in that day. Some of these are repeated and reinforced often enough that they cannot be ignored; they carry some weight, if only that of folklore consensus.

From the available sources it seems reasonable to conclude that Peter left Jerusalem to work among Jewish Christians in Judea and Samaria. That he did not formally abandon his ties and responsibilities is clear since he eventually returned before the council which convened there about A.D. 50 to consider the gentile question.

Here at Antioch, he had one of the most difficult experiences of his ministry, one which probably gave him more cause to think about his position, both ecclesiastically and theologically, than any other since the days when he had come under the direct tuition of the Savior himself.

Paul was very explicit when he declared in the second chapter of Galatians:

when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed. For before that certain came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles: but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them. . . . I said unto Peter before them all, If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of Gentiles, and not as do the Jews, why compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews? . . . Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ . . . If [we built] again the things [we] destroyed, [we] make [ourselves] . . . transgressors (11–12, 14, 16, 18).

Peter no doubt chafed under this and subsequently modified his position considerably since he eventually became a great missionary unto the Gentiles (although this has not been emphasized as part of the Petrine tradition).

It appears that his Antiochian ministry included missionary ventures into the north and west provinces of Asia Minor and Galatia en route to and from the city of Corinth. Although there is some disagreement among Catholic scholars, the consensus of Roman tradition has it that Peter arrived in Rome between A.D. 41 and 45, was the founder of the congregation, and continued to reside there as its bishop, presiding over the whole Church until his death, except for visits to the East and the Holy Land to attend the councils.

Since Peter could not have been in Rome while Paul was writing his epistle to the Romans, and since there is neither scriptural nor even legendary reference to any of the other Apostles having been there, this author senses the implication in Paul’s letter to the Romans that no Apostle had yet visited that city. Paul insists that he is the Apostle to the Gentiles and will magnify his office (Romans 11:13). Since he does not preach the gospel where there has already been an apostolic witness “lest I should build upon another man’s foundation” (Romans 15:20), it would be inconsistent for him to plan to preach in Rome if another Apostle had founded that branch. Therefore, there appears to be justification for the assertion that Peter could not have resided in Rome before A.D. 56–57. This would allow him at least five years for the Antiochian ministry and missionary activities prior to his arrival in Rome two or three years after Nero’s ascension to the imperial throne, and at least that many years before Paul’s arrival in the capital city. From this we can establish a plausible chronology: Peter left Jerusalem and began his Antiochian ministry, A.D. 51; Nero came to the throne, A.D. 54; Peter may have come to Rome, c. A.D. 56–57; Paul to Rome, A.D. 58–59, assuming he followed Peter.

It is also clear that neither Peter nor Paul could have been the founders of the church at Rome since in Paul’s letter to the Romans he is corresponding with an already established community of Christian believers sharing some formal arrangement of congregational communion. This study must therefore concur with others of the same opinion that the Roman congregation may have been made up of Jews of the Diaspora, of the merchant and military class, probably converted by missionaries or during visits to the homeland. Some may even have been among those present on the day of Pentecost and had been converted or moved to investigation by Peter’s sermon.

During at least part of the period of apostolic supervision and leadership in Rome, Peter shared veneration and recognition with Paul. A great deal of evidence is available, especially from fourth century mosaics, burial relics, and other archeological remnants, showing Paul on the right side of the Lord and Peter on the left. Nevertheless, Peter eventually came to be singularly recognized as the presiding Apostle in Rome.

In scant literary remains of the earliest time we have reference to these two united in closest conjunction as sharing in the development of the apostolic church in Rome.

St. Clement, within thirty-five years of their martyrdom, referred to them in this relationship while Gaius and Irenaeus allude to such before the end of the second century; Irenaeus went so far as to declare that when Matthew was publishing a written gospel for the Hebrews, Peter and Paul were anxiously engaged in the good work in Rome (Roberts and Donaldson 1:414).

In the confession of the Roman celebration of the Lord’s Supper, both are still accorded recognition as Saints of the Roman church. There is both scriptural and traditional evidence enough to justify the conclusion that John Mark was also a close associate and assistant to both of the Apostles.

We know that for a while Paul had refused to be bothered with Mark after the young man had deserted him in the midst of their first missionary journey. But even though they had parted asunder, we find that when the Epistle to the Colossians was written by Paul from Rome A.D. 60–61, he makes reference to the fact that Mark is with him and is a fellow worker and a comfort to him (4:10). Papias, through Eusebius, tells us that during this time Mark was also interpreter for Peter, who was residing in Rome, albeit in a separate house. And, the First Epistle of Peter alludes to the affectionate association of Peter with Mark (1 Peter 5:13).

Although the church members in Rome sustained both Apostles during the apostolic period, and Paul may have had many Jewish converts as well, he seems to have looked for most of his support among the gentile converts. He admits that this was true in certain places even outside of Rome when he states in I Cor. 1:12, some said, “I am of Paul; . . . and I of Cephas.” In Colossians, while referring to Mark as one of his fellow workers and comforters, Paul also makes it clear that Mark is one of only three of ecclesia circumciionae who are with him. The rest seem to be gentile converts.

Now, one final consideration. Did Peter live and die in Rome? The Roman tradition can be affirmed with an unequivocal yes. The weight of both historical and traditional evidence supports the claim.

On the other hand, however positive the evidence and tradition seem to be as to his presence and death in Rome, the facts as to his burial are lacking. Here, the evidences made available through archeological findings and tradition, including folklore, must be employed.

Some scholars believe that when Tacitus discussed the multitudo ingens of Christians who died “among ourselves,” there was an implied reference to Vatican Hill as Peter’s place of death (Lowrie 108). This, together with the claim in 1st Clement, makes an interesting combination.

The examination of mounds of material from Gaius, Zephyrinus, Proklos and the Montanist cults, the Petrine and Pauline cults of the third century, the records of the Ecclesia Apostolorum, the Epigram of Damascus, the Diggings of 1917, 1949, and the most recent archeological findings at the Vatican, provide convincing evidence that the Roman congregations of the third century had no united understanding. There was no consensus of opinion about the actual burial place of Peter, although there was no question in their minds that he had been buried somewhere in Rome.

It is reasonable to conclude that of two current theories pertaining to the burial of Peter, the less popular may be the more reliable. The consensus of Vatican scholars is that Peter was crucified on Vatican Hill. It is further claimed that he was buried there and that Constantine’s Basilica was built over his tomb. Later, because of the threat of vandalism and persecution, the remains were temporarily removed to a spot under St. Sebastian’s Church on the Appian Way, and then finally moved back to Vatican Hill. The present Cathedral of St. Peter was built over the burial place.

An alternative theory, based on this author’s composite sequence information derived from inferential data in the catacomb beneath St. Sebastian’s Church, together with evidence compiled by diggers and researchers ad catacumbus,[3] suggests the possibility that Peter was crucified along the Appian Way. His body was claimed by Christians who buried him in a shallow, temporary grave near the roadside. His remains were later entombed in the catacomb over which St. Sebastian’s Church was built and subsequently removed to Vatican Hill. The altar of the present Cathedral of St. Peter was built approximately 75 feet above the location of Peter’s entombment. Finally, the concern is not with the present whereabouts of his bones, but whether this may have been the location of his final resting place. An interesting apocryphal account found in the Acts of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, claims that Peter met Paul on the Appian Way while they were both on the way to execution. After they embraced and parted with good feelings Paul was led away to a more distant place and was beheaded. “And seeing each other they wept for joy; and long embracing each other, they bedewed each other with tears” (Roberts and Donaldson 8:479).

Notwithstanding all this, there are numerous questions left unanswered with reference to certain others who must have figured prominently in the life of Peter. For those of us whose minds remain restless over such, as yet, unsolved problems, there will be the anticipation that some future researcher historian will be able to tell us more about Perpetua, said by Clement of Alexandria to have been the wife and companion of Peter on many missionary journeys. What was her final fate? According to Clement, Peter saw his wife led away to her death and called out to her as a parting word of comfort and admonition, “Remember thou the Lord” (Ibid. 2:541).

How did the missionary couple of Aquila and Priscilla end their lives after years of service? Their home was open to the brethren and other members—a place of refuge and assembly. Flavia Domitilla, and her husband, Senator Flavius Clemens, were Christians, but were also relatives of the Emperor Domitian, and their sons were claimants to the imperial throne. Their house (Flavian) was a central gathering place in Rome for leaders and laity alike. As with much of Peter’s story, it is likely that more was buried with them than has ever yet been uncovered.


[1] For the legend that Salome was Mary’s sister, see The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1960), 4:2664 and A Dictionary of the Bible (Edinburgh: Clark, 1902), 4:355. For the role of these women in Christ’s ministry (Mark 15:14; 16:1 and Matthew 27:56), see The Interpreter’s Bible, George Arthur Buttrich et al., eds. (New York: Abingdon, 1951) 7:908–9; See also James E. Talmage, Jesus the Christ (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1981), p. 521 and Bruce R. McConkie, The Mortal Messiah, 4 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1981), 4:223. Talmage states that the scriptural affirmation is implied and inferential, whereas McConkie categorically asserts that Salome was Mary’s sister and the wife of Zebedee, therefore her sons James and John were cousins of Jesus.

[2] Specific examples of how the form, liturgy, ceremony and vestments of Hebrew worship have passed down into Christian ritual, especially the Catholic Mass, include the Cantor, singing or chanting of liturgy, candelabra and candles, chalice, certain vessels, unleavened bread, tablets and script, server, tabernacle, holy of holies, elevation of the host, incense, ringing of the bell, the basilica patterned after the synagogue, and the vestments including the ephod and even the onyx buttons on the shoulders.

[3] Gaius (about A.D. 200) said that he could point to the monuments of the Apostles (Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica, Book 2, chapter 25, cited in Roberts and Donaldson, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd series (New York: Christian Liberator Company, 1890). Rediscovery of these catacombs by De Rossi was identified with his finding of the inscription: Postea pervenies via Appia ad S. Sebastianum martyrem cuius corpus iacet in inferiore loco, et ibi sunt sepulcra apostolorum Petri et Pauli in quibus XL annorum requiescebant. A translation of the inscription includes “And there (in the neighborhood) are the tombs (now empty) of the Apostles: Peter and Paul in which they rested forty years.”