Saint Peter

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The artist Rubens's depiction of St. Peter
The artist Rubens's depiction of St. Peter

Saint Peter, also known as Peter, Simon ben Jonah/BarJonah, Simon Peter, Cephas and Kepha—original name Simon or Simeon (Acts 15:14)—was one of the twelve original disciples or apostles of Jesus. His life is prominently featured in the New Testament Gospels. A Galilean fisherman, he (with his brother Andrew) was called by Jesus to be an apostle. Above all the other diciples, Peter was called into a leadership role by Jesus (Matt. 16:18; John 21:15-16), and indeed he was a prominent leader within the early Church.

He is considered a saint by many Christians and the first Pope by the Roman Catholic Church and its Eastern Rites. Other Christian denominations recognize his office as Bishop of Antioch and later Bishop of Rome but do not hold the belief that his episcopacy had primacy over other episcopates elsewhere in the world. Still others do not view Peter as having held the office of bishop, holding the view that the office of bishop was a development of later Christianity. Furthermore, many Protestants do not use the title of saint in reference to Peter, believing instead in the sainthood of all believers.

The Liturgy of the Hours records June 29, 69 as his date of death. However, the date is uncertain. Some scholars believe that he died on October 13, 64. He is traditionally believed to have been sentenced to death by crucifixion by the Roman authorities. According to tradition, Peter is buried in the grottoes underneath the Basilica of Saint Peter in Vatican City. He is often depicted in art as holding the keys to the gates of heaven, as described in the Gospel of Matthew.



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Saint Peter is often depicted in art holding the keys to the gates of heaven.
Saint Peter is often depicted in art holding the keys to the gates of heaven.

Peter's original name of Simon or שמעון comes from the Hebrew language meaning hearkening and listening. In standard Hebrew it is pronounced as Šhimʿon and in Tiberian Hebrew it is pronounced as Šhimʿôn. According to New Testament gospels of Mark, Luke, and John, Jesus renames him Petros or Πετρος which comes from the Greek meaning pebble or piece of rock (but can also be understood to be Matthew changing the feminine "Petra" to the masculine "Petros"). The name is also occasionally given in the Aramaic form Cephas (כיפא).


Most reconstructions of Peter's life depend primarily on the New Testament; there are no other contemporary accounts of his life or death. According to the New Testament, before becoming a disciple of Jesus, Simon (i.e., Peter) was a fisherman. He was originally a native of Bethsaida (John 1:44), the son of Jonah (Matt. 16:17) or son of Jochanan (John 1:42). The synoptic gospels all recount how his mother-in-law was healed by Jesus at their home in Capernaum (Matt. 8:14-17; Mark 1:29-31; Luke 4:38f), so we know he was married, but the name of his wife is not known. A number of later legends allege that he had a daughter.

While fishing in the Lake of Gennesaret, Simon was called by Jesus to be his follower (Matt. 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-20; Luke 5:1-10; John 1:40-42), along with his brother Andrew. Seeing them cast a net for fish, Jesus is said told them "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men."

Peter is often depicted as spokesman of the twelve disciples, and he and James and John seems to have formed the core of an intimate group which is closest to Jesus, present in many moments of special revelations, such as the Transfiguration.

The gospels also state that Jesus foretold that Peter would deny him three times after Jesus' arrest. Again according to the Gospel of Matthew, on the evening before the Feast of Unleavened Bread (which is called the Passover), Jesus predicted to his disciples that they would "fall away" from him that night. Peter replied, "Even if all desert you, I will never desert you." Jesus answered, "In truth I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times." Confronted after Jesus had been arrested, Peter did deny knowing Jesus to avoid being arrested himself. When he heard a cock crow, he remembered what Jesus had said, and wept. (Matt. 26:31-35, 69-75; Mark 14: 26-31, 66-72; Luke 22:31-34,54-62; John 18:15-18, 25-27).

However, after Jesus' resurrection, Peter is presented as meeting the risen Jesus. As Peter re-affirms his love for his master, Jesus re-affirms Peter's calling. (John 21:15-17)

Statue of St Peter on the south door of St Mary's Church in Aylesbury, United Kingdom
Statue of St Peter on the south door of St Mary's Church in Aylesbury, United Kingdom

The author of the Acts of the Apostles, portrays Peter as an extremely important figure within the early Christian community. Peter delivers a speech immediately after the event of Pentecost. Furthermore, according to the Acts, Peter takes the lead in selecting a replacement for Judas (1:15). He is twice examined, with John, by the Sanhedrin and directly defies them (4:7-22; 5:18-42). He undertakes a missionary journey to Lydda, Joppa and Caesarea (9:32-10:2). He is instrumental in the decision to evangelise the gentiles (Acts 10), and he is present at the Council of Jerusalem, where Paul further argues the case for admitting gentiles to the Christian community, without circumcision.

From the early Christian writings, it is clear that Peter was considered one of the principal members, if not leaders of the early community. Most of the gospels suggest that he was favored by Jesus. Although, since Peter does not reappear in Matthew’s gospel after his denial of Jesus, a few scholars have suggested that for Matthew, Peter was an apostate.

After Acts turns its attention away from Peter and to the activities of Paul, Peter's movements are not recorded. It is clear that he lived in Antioch for a while, for not only did Paul confront him there (Galatians 2:11f), but tradition makes him the first bishop of that city, and thus the first Patriarch of Antioch. Paul's account of his confrontation with Cephas might suggest that the latter was no more important than James, brother of Jesus, since envoys from James turn Peter away from eating with Gentiles. Some scholars interpret Paul's mention of Peter in 1 Corinthians 1:12 as evidence that Peter had visited Corinth. A far more insistent tradition, at least as early as the first century, is that he came to Rome, where he was martyred. The Gospel of John may be interpreted as suggesting that Peter was martyred by crucifixion ("when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and take you where you do not want to go" John 21:18), and Clement of Rome in his Letter to the Corinthians placed his death in the time of Nero. Later traditions hold that the Romans crucified him upside-down by his request, as he did not want to equate himself with Jesus. On the way to his execution, it is said, he encountered Jesus and asked: "Domine, Quo Vadis" ("Lord, where are you going?"). Other versions of this story claim that this occurred as Peter was fleeing Rome to avoid his execution, and that Jesus' response, "I am going to Rome, to be crucified again," caused him to turn back. This story is commemorated in an Annibale Carracci painting. The Church of Quo Vadis, near the Catacombs of Saint Callistus, contains a stone in which Jesus' footprints from this event are supposedly preserved, though this was actually apparently an ex-voto from a pilgrim, and indeed a copy of the original, housed in the Basilica of St. Sebastian.

This story is recorded in a number of places, notably the apocryphal Acts of Peter (35):

And as they considered these things, Xanthippe took knowledge of the counsel of her husband with Agrippa, and sent and showed Peter, that he might depart from Rome. And the rest of the brethren, together with Marcellus, besought him to depart. But Peter said unto them: Shall we be runaways, brethren? and they said to him: Nay, but that thou mayest yet be able to serve the Lord. And he obeyed the brethren's voice and went forth alone, saying: Let none of you come forth with me, but I will go forth alone, having changed the fashion of mine apparel. And as he went forth of the city, he saw the Lord entering into Rome. And when he saw him, he said: Lord, whither goest thou thus (or here)? And the Lord said unto him: I go into Rome to be crucified. And Peter said unto him: Lord, art thou (being) crucified again? He said unto him: Yea, Peter, I am (being) crucified again. And Peter came to himself: and having beheld the Lord ascending up into heaven, he returned to Rome, rejoicing, and glorifying the Lord, for that he said: I am being crucified: the which was about to befall Peter.
-- M.R. James, The Apocryphal New Testament, Clarendon Press, 1924.

The ancient historian Josephus describes how Roman soldiers would amuse themselves by crucifying criminals in different positions. This is consistent with the ancient traditions about Peter’s crucifixion.

Roman Catholic Church

Main articles: Primacy of Simon Peter, Primacy of the Roman Pontiff

In Roman Catholic tradition, Peter is considered the first bishop of Antioch, and later bishop of Rome and therefore the first pope. The first epistle ends with "The church that is in Babylon, chosen together with you, salutes you, and so does my son, Mark." (1 Peter 5:13), but Babylon has sometimes been taken figuratively to mean Rome. It could also be a symbolic code-name for Antioch or some other large city. More literally, it could refer to some city in Mesopotamia.

The Roman Catholic Church makes use of his position as first bishop of Rome and Jesus' statement that Peter was the rock upon which he would build his community as the case for papal primacy. Numerous authors have noticed that the terminology of the comission is unmistakeably parallel to the comissioning of Eliakim ben Hilkiah in Is. 22:15, 19-23. The popes are thus the successors of Peter and as a result, retain his privileges, given by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew (Mt 16:18-19). (Protestants argue against this.) In honor of Peter's occupation before becoming an Apostle, the popes wear the Fisherman's Ring, which bears an image of the Saint casting his nets from a fishing boat. The so-called "Keys of Heaven" or Papal Keys were, according to tradition, received by Peter from Jesus, marking Peter's role as head of the Christian faith on earth. Thus, the Keys are a symbol of the Pope's authority still to this day.

Controversy between Roman Catholics and Protestants still remains to this day on the interpretation of Mathew 16:18-19. Protestant theologians try to resolve this question by looking at two key words in the original Greek text: The word “Peter” and the word “rock.” In the original language of the New Testament, Koine Greek, the text reads: “You are Petros, and on this petra I will build my church.” Matthew distinguished between Petros (Peter’s name in the Greek, which means “stone” or “pebble”) and petra (the Greek word for “rock” or “boulder”). For Matthew to have avoided any confusion He could have used the word “Petros” twice. In this way, He would have clearly demonstrated that the church would be built upon Peter. However, as can be seen, He used a different word — namely, “petra” — maybe to make it absolutely clear that He was referring to the foundation of the church. The context of the passage (which begins in verse 13) attests to a play, by Matthew, on these two words.

The Roman Catholic argument is that Peter was called "Petros" because he was male -- and "Petros" is merely the masculinzed form of the Greek word for "rock", "Petra", which is a femininized form. Thus, the apparent dichotomy of "Petros" and "Petra" is merely a grammatical necessity. Moreover, Catholics argue that although the gospel was written in Greek, the actual language Jesus spoke was likely Aramaic. In Aramaic, the word for "rock" is "Kepha", without masculinized/feminized forms. Therefore Jesus would have stated, "You are Kepha, and on this Kepha I will build my church."

St. Peter's Basilica is built at the site of Peter's alleged crucifixion, and beneath the main altar there is an altar dedicated to St. Peter. Recent excavations have discovered a burial chamber even deeper beneath this altar where one skeleton, which was missing its feet, was interred with special honor. Some archeologists propose that these are the actual remains of Saint Peter, supposing that after dying by crucifixion (upside-down according to tradition), his feet were cut off to remove him from the cross. They also cite, among other things, the age of the deceased (60-70, which would be consistent with Peter's age), and the fact that a piece of plaster which had come off the marble-lined repository in which the bones were supposedly buried bore the Greek inscription PETROS ENI - "Peter is within".

Pope John Paul II would always visit the altar of Saint Peter before leaving Rome on an apostolic journey.

His writings

The New Testament includes two letters (or epistles) ascribed to Peter. While neither demonstrates the quality of Greek expected from an Aramaic fisherman who learned it as a second or third language, a number of scholars argued that if his first epistle was not at least written by him with the help of a secretary or amanuensis, then its author was a close associate of Peter who not only knew his opinions well, but felt comfortable speaking in Peter's name.

The Second Epistle of Peter is another possible case. This letter demonstrates a dependence on the Epistle of Jude, and some modern scholars date its composition as late as AD 250. However, this epistle is included in numerous early Bibles of around that time and before, such as Papyrus 72 (3rd century) and the Bible of Clement of Alexandria (ca. 200). See the following section for more detail.

The Gospel of Mark is generally attributed as being the teachings of Peter, recorded by Mark. According to Eusebius' "Ecclesiastical History" 3.39.14-16, Papias recorded this from John the Presbyter: "Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him. But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to the necessities [of his hearers], but with no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord's sayings. Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them. For of one thing he took especial care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements." If this tradition is authentic, and Mark was the faithful amanuensis of Simon Peter, then very strong doubt is cast on Peter stories found in the NT but not in the Gospel of Mark, including the paean to Peter in Matthew 16:17-19. If this were authentic, then Mark would certainly include it, but it is found only in Matthew and nowhere else.

Further detail on the authenticity of 2 Peter

Until the early 4th century, there was controversy in the Western Church over the authorship of 2 Peter. In the East as well, the work was not accepted universally for an even longer period; the Syriac Church only admitted it into the canon in the 6th century.

It is to be noted, however, that the church historian Eusebius remarks on Origen's reference to the epistle before 250. In the collection of Cyprian's letters, the Bishop Firmilian speaks in favor of authenticity. Many scholars have noted the similarities between pseudo-2 Clement (1st century - related to Clement of Rome) and 2 Peter. Several early church writers, the author of the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas among others, make allusions to the letter, which may give it an earlier priority.

2 Peter may be earlier than 250 AD, but there is no reference to it dating back to the first century or even the early second century, according to liberal scholars. The strongest evidence, they allege, that it is a late forgery is the reference in 3:15 to "our beloved brother Paul," and to Paul's writings as "Scriptures." Many historians believe that relations between Paul and Peter were tense, even antagonistic (see Galatians 2:11), and it would thus be impossible that Simon considered his opponent's letters as "Scripture," which may give credence to the liberal argument. In fact, even for followers of Paul, the elevation of the Pauline epistles to scriptural status would have been far more gradual and slow.

Regardless of doubt on the legitimacy of 2 Peter, conservative scholars had insisted that it was written in the first century (not the second or even third century A.D.), and had long questioned the methods used by liberals. They also rejected the controversial claim that it was a forgery, which they argue is based on questionable textual criticism.


In Jewish folklore St Peter has a pristine reputation as a greatly learned and holy man who stopped Gnostics from judaizing by setting up a noahide system for them to follow as sebomenoi. Thus he is seen as the mastermind behind St Paul's mission to the Gentiles which R. Jacob Emden complimented. In the folklore he is accredited with the establishment of the Sunday sabbath for Gentiles instead of Saturday, Noel (as a new year feast but not as Christmas) instead of Hannukah, the Feast of the Cross instead of Rosh Hashana, Pascha instead of Pesakh, remembering the feast of the Jews instead of Sukkot, and the Ascension for them instead of Shavuot. R. Judah Ha-Hassid who led Germany's 12th century Hasidei Ashkenaz, considered him to be a "Tzaddik" (a Jewish saint or spiritual Master among Hasidim). The Tosaphist R. Jacob Tam wrote that he was "a devout and learned Jew who dedicated his life to guiding gentiles along the proper path". He also passed on the traditions that St Peter was the author of the Sabbath and feast-day 'Nishmat' prayer which has no other traditional author, and also that he authored a prayer for Yom Kippur. There are also a number of other apocryphal writings that have been either attributed or written about Peter. They were from antiquity regarded as pseudepigrapha. These include:

See also

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Preceded by:
Bishop of Antioch
Succeeded by:
Saint Euodias
Preceded by:
30–64 or 67
Succeeded by:
Saint Linus

Apostles of Jesus Christ
Simon Peter | Andrew | James | John | Philip | Bartholomew | Matthew | Thomas
James son of Alphaeus | Simon the Zealot | Thaddaeus | Judas Iscariot

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