Alpha Christianity


Peter is one of the enigmas of the early Christian movement. A few points seem to emerge from the present confusion, if we begin by confining ourselves to the most reputable early sources, plus (with due caution) the most persistent later ones. We suggest the following as actionable inferences:

Summary: Peter in the Alpha Movement. Allowing for the probability that Jesus's preaching career lasted somewhat more than a year (it is probably telescoped in Mark), Peter became a disciple in 28, and remained the leading figure among the original five disciples upon Jesus's death in 30. Shortly thereafter he had a vision assuring him that Jesus was somehow still in being, though on a higher plane; this inspired him and the others to carry on with a revised agenda for Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus was no longer seen a national saviour, but as a personal one, who would come into power not following his symbolic cleansing of the Jerusalem temple, as Jesus himself had planned (in which he was disappointed; Mark makes this unmistakably clear), but as a divine figure at the Final Judgement. The other disciples (their number later expanding to a symbolically recognized Twelve) accepted this view, which became what we call Alpha Christianity. Attention in Alpha was refocused from the salvation of Israel (see Lk 24:21 for a reminiscence of this hope in Jesus's early followers) to the Last Days, thus reverting to the expectations of the parent John the Baptist movement. The key to personal salvation was what Jesus himself has always taught, namely a simplified Law (omitting all Pharisaic purity quibbles, as well as the Mosaic Sabbath). A teaching manual for right conduct appeared as the Two Ways document, a development from a Jewish prayer. From Peter's first encouraging but intangible vision (the Matthean and Lukan risen Jesus can pass through doors at will), the Alpha movement developed an exaltation Christology (Jesus in Heaven, as future judge of the world; see the hymn in Philippians 2). It also readopted Johannine water baptism (see the Didache) and fasting (predicted by the Markan Jesus, detailed in the Didache), and developed the Eucharist as a distinct celebration of Jesus's new status, and as the Christian counterpart of the Passover (see the Eucharist prayers in the Didache, which do not mention the Resurrection). The Philippians hymn was current in Philippi as of Paul's letter to Philippi (in the 50's). Peter continued to be the roving inspector of new churches, not only in Antioch but in Corinth and later in Rome, down to his accidental death in Rome in 64. His service to the Jesus movement, in its Alpha version, thus spanned 36 years, and like Paul, he was probably about 65 when he died.

Later Sources are increasingly problematic, especially those that serve the interests of one or another faction within the early church. In particular, Luke-Acts presents a schematized picture of Christian history in which Peter and Paul are the polar figures, but have been assimilated to the other, so that both are scarcely recognizable, and the historicity of any part of that account is thus dubious. Peter, for instance (in the Cornelius Incident), and not Paul, is made to be the first apostle to the Gentiles, and also the first of the disciples to accept the doctrine that food purity does not matter. (On the other side of the Lukan dichotomy, Paul in Acts never preaches what his letters show to have been his most fiercely held principle: the Atonement interpretation of the Resurrection). Jesus himself, probably like most Galilean Jews, had had no interesrt in Pharisaic food purity rules, and that Peter was comfortable in ignoring them would follow naturally from his origins. Galilee in general is not likely to have been a hotbed of compliance with the hundreds of Pharisaic rules. The picture of Peter as strictly law-observant (meaning, Pharisaically compliant) is due to Acts and also to Luke's Gospel; like Matthew's denial of Jesus's alterations in even the basic Mosaic law, this is an artifact of later tradition reshaping, and is not to be referred to the historical Peter. More accurate historical memories of Peter are available, though, even in the late material. Especially notable is the Clementine Homilies (4c, but the text has earlier origins), in which Peter endlessly preaches a doctrine in which the Resurrection is never mentioned. Alpha tradition thus did persist beyond the 1st century; it was still producing and sponsoring new texts as late as the 4th century. Not that any of the details in the Clementine Homilies are factual (the thing is a typical family-reunion and wonder-working romance), but its doctrinal base is soundly Alpha, and the ultimate purpose of the Homilies is to authenticate, and promote, that doctrine.

Canonical Peter. 1 and 2 Peter (the second not even bothering to imitate the first stylistically) are both pseudonymous; they might arguably be considered as part of the Pauline tradition, and in any case tend to seek a rapprochement between Petrine and Pauline ideas. For details, see these separate pages:

The chronology of these texts is interesting. Whether 2 Peter is known to 1 Clement has been argued; we find that the case for knowledge is slightly stronger. We then have the following sequence (in reverse order): 1 Clement (c96) knows 2 Peter, which has swallowed Jude whole and thus follows it. Separately, 2 Peter refers to 1 Peter as an authenticating precedent, meaning that 1 Peter was generally known when 2 Peter was written, so 2 Peter is after, but not immediately after, 1 Peter. 1 Peter in turn knows Ephesians, which is indebted to the genuine Pauline epistle Philemon (which probably dates from the middle 50's). This is one important strand of relative chronology, not less important because it is anchored at both ends to probable dates of composition. It follows that 1 Peter is post-Pauline (that is, post-Philemon), and also later than the collection of the first Pauline Corpus (to which Colossians was written as an introduction), and later than Ephesians, the sequel to Colossians, which expands certain novelties found in Colossians. This puts 1 Peter hopelessly out of range of the historical Peter, given Peter's death in Rome in 64. The chronology alone disproves the authenticity.

The Petrine Corpus. There are thus two Deutero-Petrine texts in the NT canon, but (in contrast to the case of Paul), there are no primary Petrine texts. Peter's textual legacy is a corpus without a core. Nor, given what we can reliably infer about Peter, was it likely that he left a core; his teaching of the churches will have been done in person, and those back at movement headquarters (at first Capernaum; later Jerusalem) will have written any circular letters of encouragement that were thought necessary. Several of the noncanonical texts associated with Peter have been collected and surveyed by Lapham. For an overview, see the Petrine page.

Back to Texts Index Page

25 Nov 2011 / Contact The Project / Exit to Alpha Index Page