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:
- (1) It is clear from Mark (including its early layers) that Peter was the leading figure among the five original disciples, the other two in the inner circle being James and John of Zebedee.
- (2) That account makes Peter a commercial fisherman, in partnership with his brother Andrew. The Greek name "Andrew" is significant, and implies a somewhat Hellenized household. As a commercial (not a subsistence) fisherman, Peter would have been involved with the Galilean export trade in dried fish, this giving him (and the Zebedee brothers, who were also commercial fishermen, in partnership with their father) a connection to the world of the fifth disciple, Levi of Alphaeus, whose job, again requiring knowledge of Greek, was to tax trade going through the route lying near Capernaum, and ending at the seacoast (Acco). There is no immediate reason to doubt that these details are truthful. They reflect a definitely entrepreneurial tone in the original circle of Jesus followers. Such people would have been accustomed to contact with non-Jews engaged in trade. They might not originate anything, but they knew how to read a ledger and they knew when the weather was adverse. They were probably good at exploiting existing opportunities, and they, especially Levi, were probably good managers. This is compatible with their later role in undertaking the conversion of Jews all over the Mediterranean world to the Jesus movement.
- (3) The early layers of Mark incidentally tell us that Peter lived in the house of his mother-in-law in Capernaum. He had married money.
- (4) Paul, also incidentally, remarks that Peter took his wife with him when on missionary journeys. Later legends may have been based on the fact that the couple had a daughter.
- (5) The early layers of Mark make Peter the leader in affirming Jesus as the Messiah; later layers support this by showing Peter as opposed to the new idea of Jesus's inevitable death (that is, the Resurrection doctrine). The implication is that some aspect of the Resurrection doctrine as it eventually developed was opposed by Peter. This might be enough to account for the factional difference between Paul and the Peter party in Corinth; it would have been essentially an Alpha/Beta conflict.
- (6) Peter is redeemed as a person (in Mark's later layers) not by his doctrinal acceptance (Mark by that time had adopted an increasingly Pauline view of the Resurrection), but by the personal courage he showed after Jesus was arrested. (The whole story of a first trial before the Sanhedrin, and its detail of Peter in the Courtyard, is legally impossible, and has been excised as an interpolation in Adela Yarbro Collins' 2007 commentary on Mark). We may credit the idea that Peter did have physical courage, as well as a spirit of enterprise. His missionary leadership is unintelligible otherwise.
- (7) Late layers of Mark (with support from the early version of the Gospel of Peter which was the probable source of John 21) make it clear that Peter was also the leader of the disciples in the period after Jesus's death, and was the first who had a vision of the risen Jesus. Whether that vision was incorporeal (as the accounts in Matthew and Luke imply) or corporeal (as the Gospel of John, and the Beta parts of 1 John, insist) became a major point of debate in later Christian theology. Evidently, given the Gospel Trajectory sequence, the John version, and thus the doctrine of a corporeal Resurrection (as distinct from a vision of Jesus) is a later development, though one occurring within the lifetime of Paul. The corporeal Resurrection was thought to be a necessary foundation for the Atonement doctrine, which requires a literal physical Crucifixion as its basis. It is possible that Peter never accepted this view of Jesus's death.
- (8) We have Paul's word for a seemingly amicable meeting with Peter in Jerusalem.
- (9) Paul gives an ill-tempered account of meeting Peter again in Antioch much later. The point of tension in Antioch was the question of food purity, as it affected Jewish and Gentile Christians eating together, and perhaps especially celebrating the Eucharist together. In this story, Peter was comfortable ignoring food purity rules, but was faced out of that position by representatives from the Lord's Brother James, sent from Jerusalem. The Lord's Brother had become the leading figure at Jerusalem after the death of James of Zebedee, who had previously held that position, but was executed by Herod Antipas in c44. These two Jameses in the record have led to some confusion in the later texts. James of Zebedee was still the leader at Jerusalem at the time when he and his brother John and Peter, the three leading disciples during Jesus's lifetime, approved of Paul's latitudinarian Gospel (see the article of Beare). The Lord's Brother, when he succeeded to that position, enforced a much more pedantically Jewish interpretation of the Jesus message, and it was he who sought to bring Paul (not to mention Peter) to account at Antioch.
- (10) Uncontradicted tradition says Peter died in the Neronian persecution, thus connecting Peter with Rome. Our best date for that persecution is presently autumn 64. His presence in Rome would agree with Peter's seeming role as the fireman of the early missionary movement, who visited churches where doctrinal controversy or uncertainty existed. Paul died in c60 (Luke's claim of a two-year easy arrest is part of Luke's Roman apologetic, and must be rejected, hence not c62). If Paul's Beta doctrine (for his attempt to introduce it to Rome, see Romans) had been disturbing a previously Alpha community, a visit by Peter in c63 would be intelligible; He was then caught in the Neronian persecution and executed, not for some crime, but simply as a relatively visible Christian.
- (11) There are repeated later statements which differ in detail but agree that Peter was one source, and in most statements, the only source, for the information in Mark's Gospel. For that possibility, which seems to have something sound at its core, see the John Mark page. Note that the spurious 1 Peter contributes to the myth linking Peter and Mark with each other, and with Rome. It is the Rome strand in this myth that is spurious.
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:
- 1 Peter
- 2 Peter
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.
25 Nov 2011 / Contact The Project / Exit to Alpha Index Page