ST. PETER: HIS LIFE, LEADERSHIP, DEATH AND RELATIONSHIP WITH JESUS

ST. PETER

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St. Peter is the most well known Apostle. Described by Jesus as “a fisher of men, “he was a fisherman by trade and was with Jesus from the beginning of his teachings. According to Matthew, Peter was the first to believe in the divinity of Jesus. He said: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Peter was present at most of the important events described in the Gospels.

After Jesus was arrested by Roman police after the Last Supper a violent struggle ensued in which Peter drew his sword and sliced off the ear of one policeman. When Jesus was grabbed, the fighting stopped and the disciples ran away. When the Romans asked Peter if he knew Jesus, Peter denied he did (three times) just as Jesus predicted. Peter “went outside and wept bitterly.” He later repented his denial.

Peter is often portrayed as the closest disciple to Jesus and the leader of the Apostles. According to Mathhew Jesus appeared first to Peter after the Resurrection. Among the Apostles he is often described as the first among equals.

According to the BBC: “Peter is a prominent character in the New Testament Peter is remembered by Christians as a saint; the fisherman who became the right-hand man of Jesus himself, the leader of the early church and a father of the faith. But how much of his fascinating story is true? How much do we know about the real Peter? [Source: BBC, June 21, 2011 |::|]

“Of all the disciples that Jesus chose we know most about Peter. He is one of the most carefully described characters in the New Testament, and yet the picture we have is a composite from various authors at various times and there are still many things the Bible does not tell us. However, there are other sources of evidence now available that can take us closer than ever before to the historical Peter. Great insight can be drawn from modern science, archaeology and countless other ancient texts, many of which have only come to light recently having been lost for centuries. |::|

Websites and Resources: Christianity Britannica on Christianity britannica.com//Christianity ; History of Christianity history-world.org/jesus_christ ; BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ;Wikipedia article on Christianity Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/christ.htm ; Christian Answers christiananswers.net ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org ; Early Christianity: Elaine Pagels website elaine-pagels.com ; Sacred Texts website sacred-texts.com ; Gnostic Society Library gnosis.org ; PBS Frontline From Jesus to Christ, The First Christians pbs.org ; Guide to Early Church Documents iclnet.org; Early Christian Writing earlychristianwritings.com ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Early Christian Art oneonta.edu/farberas/arth/arth212/Early_Christian_art ; Early Christian Images jesuswalk.com/christian-symbols ; Early Christian and Byzantine Images belmont.edu/honors/byzart2001/byzindex ; Bible and Biblical History: Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible biblegateway.com ; King James Version of the Bible gutenberg.org/ebooks ; Bible History Online bible-history.com ; Biblical Archaeology Society biblicalarchaeology.org ; Saints and Their Lives Today's Saints on the Calendar catholicsaints.info ; Saints' Books Library saintsbooks.net ; Saints and Their Legends: A Selection of Saints libmma.contentdm ; Saints engravings. Old Masters from the De Verda collection colecciondeverda.blogspot.com ; Lives of the Saints - Orthodox Church in America oca.org/saints/lives ; Lives of the Saints: Catholic.org catholicism.org Jesus and the Historical Jesus ; Britannica on Jesus britannica.com Jesus-Christ ; Historical Jesus Theories earlychristianwritings.com ; Wikipedia article on Historical Jesus Wikipedia ; Jesus Seminar Forum virtualreligion.net ; Life and Ministry of Jesus Christ bible.org ; Jesus Central jesuscentral.com ; Catholic Encyclopedia: Jesus Christ newadvent.org

Peter’s Early Life

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Peter Codex by Egberti
According to the BBC: “The Bible tells us that Peter was a fisherman by trade and that he lived in the village of Capernaum on the shores of Lake Galilee. Early in three of the gospel accounts there is a story of Jesus healing Peter's mother-in-law, which clearly implies Peter had his own house and that it accommodated his extended family. All these details are historically plausible but recent archaeology has been able to support them with hard evidence. [Source: BBC, June 21, 2011 |::|]

“Life was undoubtedly far from easy in first-century Galilee; the land was occupied by the Romans, taxes were high and labour was hard. However, both the house and the boat can help to dispel the romantic notion that Peter was a humble fisherman from a rural backwater. Galilee was in fact a strategic part of the Roman Empire and Capernaum and the surrounding settlements were centres of commerce where at least two languages were spoken. Could it be that Peter was not in fact a poor fisherman but a businessman with his own boat, hired help and a family to feed? |::|

“Whatever Peter's life was like before, it was turned upside down by Jesus. The story goes that Jesus called Peter to follow him and Peter did not hesitate; he left everything and embarked on an incredible journey of discovery. In fact one could say that Jesus altered his very identity, for it was Jesus that changed his name from Simon to Peter. This was a hugely significant nickname, for in every language other than English Peter means 'The Rock'. Jesus appointed Peter as the rock on which he would build his church but the character revealed in the gospels seems far from stable, so did Jesus really know what he was doing? |::|

“Peter's House and Boat”

According to the BBC: “Excavations in Capernaum have uncovered the remains of a synagogue and several houses, one of which could be the very house of Peter himself. The original structure is a series of rooms around a central courtyard, easily big enough for a large family. Scholars agree they may never know for certain if it is the home of the apostle but it is clear that the site was venerated very early on by Christian believers. The evidence shows that the family home became a public meeting place and several shrines were subsequently built on the site. Today a Catholic church stands over the ruins. [Source: BBC, June 21, 2011 |::|]


Capernaum

“However, the house is not the only significant find in the area. In 1985 after several years of drought, the water level of Lake Galilee had dropped and one day two walkers saw a very distinctive shape in the mud. Archaeologists uncovered the remains of a boat, amazingly preserved since its use on the lake before the 1st century. The boat was partly made of expensive, imported wood and was so big that it would have needed at least 12 people to handle it. For the first time archaeologists had a precise idea of the type of boat Peter owned; the one that transported Jesus and his disciples. |::|

Peter's Character

According to the BBC: “One stormy night the disciples were battling against the waves as they crossed the lake. As dawn was breaking they saw Jesus coming out to them, walking on the water. They were terrified, thinking it was a ghost, but Peter asked Jesus to call him out onto the lake with him. Peter took a few steps towards Jesus on the water but fear and doubt then made him sink. Peter is remembered in this episode for his lack of faith but, as commentators point out, although he failed he was the only one to try. [Source: BBC, June 21, 2011 |::|]

“On another occasion Jesus asks his disciples who they think he is, Peter is the one who says "You are the Messiah". In Matthew's account Jesus commends Peter's observation; it seems the penny has finally dropped! But just moments later Peter receives Jesus' sharpest rebuke "Get behind me Satan!" because he tries to dissuade Jesus from the path of suffering and death. Peter shows he does not fully understand the nature of Jesus' Messiahship. Throughout the gospel narratives Peter seems so near and yet so far from understanding Jesus' message and yet he is consistently portrayed not only as one of the chosen 12 but as one of Jesus' most intimate group of three or four. |::|

Peter's Betrayal

According to the BBC: “Peter is the spokesperson for the disciples but frequently says the wrong thing at important moments. He is constantly asking questions and is not afraid to argue with Jesus. He is rash, impetuous and even foolish at times but he is never slow to pledge his absolute loyalty to his master. However, he was not to know how much this would be tested. [Source: BBC, June 21, 2011 |::|]


Peter denies Christ by Rembrandt

“One night in Jerusalem, after Jesus asked his friends to pray with him in a garden, Peter fell asleep. Moments later, Judas arrived with a mob from the temple to arrest Jesus. In John's account Peter lashes out with a sword and cuts off the ear of High Priest's slave. This may have been the act of a man protecting his friend but if Jesus had been preaching peace, what was Peter doing carrying a sword? Peter got it wrong again. Jesus is arrested and the disciples scatter but Peter follows at a distance. |::|

“Earlier that same evening Jesus had predicted that Peter would deny him three times before the cock crowed. Peter was adamant that he would remain loyal. Now, as Jesus faced a sham of a trial, Peter stood in the shadows of the High Priest's courtyard and three different strangers recognised Peter and accused him of being one of Jesus' companions. Each time Peter denied it vehemently and just then, a cock crowed. |::|

“The cockerel became a defining symbol throughout centuries of Christian art and this episode became one of the most famous of Peter's story. Scholars believe that Peter would have reached hero status by the time the gospels were written and history has a tendency to write about its heroes in a good light. The fact that Peter's denial remained so foundational to the narratives underlines the authenticity of the whole story. |::|

“For Peter in that courtyard, it must have seemed like the end of the line. He had let his master down, Jesus was sentenced to death on a cross and the movement was over... but that was not the end of the story. |The gospels say that in the following days an incredible event took place. Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to his followers. The accounts differ as to what happened in those days but from the earliest sources Peter is listed as the first male witness to the resurrection. Whatever the precise nature of his encounter with the resurrected Jesus, the result was that Peter was transformed from a scared and dejected failure into the leader Jesus had predicted at the outset. |::|

Peter and the Resurrection

John's Gospel finds Peter and the fishermen working through the night on the Sea of Galilee, but to no avail. They are preparing to come back in with empty nets, when in the half-light of dawn they catch sight of Jesus standing on the shore. |::|


Christ after his death appearing to Peter

“Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realise that it was Jesus. He called out to them, "Friends, haven't you any fish?" "No," they answered. He said, "Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some." When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish. Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, "It is the Lord!" |::|

“As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, "It is the Lord," he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed him in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from the shore, about a hundred yards. When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread. Jesus said to them, "Bring some of the fish you have just caught." Simon Peter climbed aboard and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn. |::|

“Jesus said to them, "Come and have breakfast." None of the disciples dared to ask him, "Who are you?" They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came, took bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead. — John 21:4-14

St. Peter’s Work After Jesus’s Death

St. Peter was selected by Jesus to carry on his teachings after his crucifixion. At the Last Supper Jesus said, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my community. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven.” Peter then told Jesus, “Even if I fall from you, I will never fall away.” When Jesus was resurrected he appeared to Peter, and said, “Feed my sheep, feed my lambs.” Peter was shocked that Jesus still trusted him even though he had betrayed him.

Peter reportedly became a great teacher after Jesus’s death and worked tirelessly to spread his word in the early days of the church. Peter worked in Palestine and is said to have worked in Rome. Catholics regard St. Peter as the first bishop of Rome and the first pope. There is no historical evidence this back this up.

The First Epistle of Peter is believed to have been written by Peter. The Second Epistle is often attributed to him although it isn’t clear who wrote it. Many of the events in the Gospel of Mark are believed to have been derived from Peter’s accounts.

Peter as a Christian Leader


According to the BBC: “The opening chapters of the Acts of the Apostles show Peter working miracles, preaching boldly in the streets and in the temple and standing up fearlessly to those who had condemned Jesus just days before. The number of believers grows enormously and it is Peter who leads them with authority and wisdom as chief of the apostles. [Source: BBC, June 21, 2011 |::|]

“From such unpromising beginnings it now seemed that Peter had indeed become the rock of the church but in actual fact his leadership was soon contested. Midway through Luke's account in the Acts of the Apostles it is clear that the man known as James the brother of Jesus, and not Peter, is leader in Jerusalem; a fact that is often overlooked by readers of the Bible. How or why Peter is superseded we are not told but scholars suggest James had a greater religious pedigree that gave him a better standing with the Temple authorities. Or perhaps, if James really was a relation of Jesus, it was only natural for him to succeed his brother. Whatever the reason, it is clear that Peter defers to James' authority. |::|

“Yet the power struggle was not just two-way; Paul was taking the message all over the Mediterranean and setting up churches wherever he went. It is clear that on one occasion Paul and Peter had a major disagreement and Paul calls Peter a hypocrite for siding with James. Peter seems to be caught between two extremes with sympathy for both; James believed that anyone who became a Christian must subscribe to the Jewish customs; Paul believed that no obstacles should be placed in the way of non-Jewish converts. It was an issue that could have split the fledgling church, perhaps it was Peter's stance that held the movement together. |::|

Peter's Later life

According to the BBC: “Considering Peter's prominence in the Acts of the Apostles, it is remarkable that he completely disappears from the narrative halfway through. So what happened to Peter, where did he go and where did he die? There are a few clues from Paul's letters that he did travel and, interestingly, he did so with his wife. This has led some scholars to suggest that Peter ministered as part of a husband and wife team and that the role of women has been deliberately diminished over history. However, the details of Peter's later life cannot be found in the Bible: one must look elsewhere. [Source: BBC, June 21, 2011 |::|]

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Peter by Caravaggio: Peter shown wearing only a loincloth
and nailed to a cross, being heaved into a
vertical upside-down position
“The word 'apocryphal' means 'hidden away' and is used to describe literature that contains similar material to the Bible but which was not included in the canon. Most of these writings were condemned by the church as heretical and dangerous but used in the right way they can give scholars a great insight into biblical characters and their environment. |::|

“Peter is mentioned in many of these ancient texts and they provide a great deal of support for the long-held tradition that Peter went to Rome. The Acts of Peter is a document that is first mentioned by the early church historians and from these clues scholars can establish that it was in circulation by the end of the 2nd century. It depicts Peter entering Rome after Paul had left and rescuing the church from the influence of one Simon the Magician. Simon is mentioned briefly in the New Testament and is almost certainly a historical character. In this account he is portrayed as Peter's arch-enemy. The two embark on an amazing miracle contest that culminates with Simon flying unaided through the air - but at the prayer of Peter, Simon is dropped and crashes to the ground, breaking his leg. Simon is defeated and the people turn back to Christianity.|::|

“Some believe this literature is merely pious fiction but others believe there is a skeleton of truth that is further support to the traditions of Peter in Rome. It is certainly plausible that Peter went to Rome; after all, it was the capital of the greatest empire the world had ever seen, so if the message took root there it would reach every corner of the known world. |::|

St. Peter’s Death and Burial at St. Peter’s Basilica

According to the BBC: “ Tradition has always maintained that Peter was martyred in Rome, crucified upside down so as not to be equated with his master. The written accounts of this event are detailed but relatively late. The strongest evidence lay unchecked for centuries, right under the noses of the Vatican. [Source: BBC, June 21, 2011 |::|]


Saint Peter's Basilica

According to the traditional story, in 67 A.D. St. Peter was hung upside down and beheaded at the Circus Maximus during a wave of brutal anti-Christian persecution under Emperor Nero, after the burning of Rome. His brutal treatment was partly of the result of his request not to be crucified, because he didn’t consider himself worthy of the treatment of Jesus. After Peter died, it is said, his body was taken to a burial ground, situated where St. Peter's cathedral now stands. His body was entombed and later secretly worshiped.

The Teimpietti at S. Pietro in Rome marks the spot were St. Peter was supposedly crucified. The Cathedral of St. John Lateran, the oldest Christian basilica in Rome, founded by Constantine on A.D. 314, contains reliquaries said to hold the heads of St. Peter and St. Paul and the chopped off finger doubting Thomas stuck in Jesus' wound.

St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, the world's largest and arguably most famous church, sits on the place where St. Peter purportedly was buried. The roof of the dome and the main alter are all said to line up exactly with his grave site. There is even archaeological evidence to support this. During the construction of a tomb in 1939 for Pope Pius the XI an ancient burial chamber was discovered. Later archaeological work uncovered the words "Petro eni" among some ancient graffiti, which could be interpreted as "Peter is within."

Discovery of St. Peter’s Bones?

In 1960 some bones were discovered that belonged to a robust man between 60 and 70, a description which matches up with the traditional profile of St. Peter at the time of his death. The Vatican conducted an investigation. In 1968 Pope Paul VI announced publicly that bones confirmed what the Vatican knew all along that Peter was in fact buried under the cathedral. The evidence is certainly not beyond reproach but it is plausible the bones belonged to Peter. When the bones were re-interned the bones of a mouse that had wandered into the repository and perished there sometime in the last 1,800 years were also reburied.


Saint Peter's bones

According to the BBC: “The magnificent basilica that now stands in the centre of Vatican City was built to replace the original structure built by Constantine, the first Christian emperor. Constantine's basilica was a remarkable engineering feat: his men moved a million tonnes of earth in order to create a platform for the structure and yet there was a flat plot just yards away. Constantine went to such lengths because he believed that this was the very spot where Peter was buried, on the side of the Vatican Hill. This tradition remained strong throughout the ages but without concrete proof. Then in 1939 routine alterations under the floor of St Peter's unearthed an incredible find. [Source: BBC, June 21, 2011]

“Archaeologists discovered a whole street of Roman mausoleums, highly decorated family tombs of both pagans and Christians dating to the early centuries AD. They asked for papal permission to dig towards the high altar and there they found a simple, shallow grave and some bones. It took years for these bones to be analysed and the anticipation grew but the results were bizarre and disappointing. The bones were a random collection consisting of remains from three different people and several animals! But this was not the end of the saga. |::|

“Years earlier, one of the Vatican officials overseeing the dig removed some bones from a niche above the grave for safe keeping after the team had gone home. Amazingly no one gave them a second thought until one of the experts asked whether there had ever been anything found in the niche. These bones were then analysed and the tests showed they were the remains of a man in his 60s or 70s and of stocky build. Yet perhaps even more revealing was the fragment of graffiti-covered plaster discovered next to the bones. The words were incomplete but could read petros emi, which means 'Peter is within'. It could be that the remains of Peter the apostle had finally been found.

Oldest Icons of St. Peter

In 2010, it was announced that the earliest known icons of the Apostles Peter and Paul had been discovered in a catacomb located under a modern office building in Rome. Associated Press reported: Twenty-first century laser technology has opened a window into the early days of the Catholic Church, guiding researchers through the dank catacombs beneath Rome to a startling find: the first known icons of the Apostles Peter and Paul. Vatican officials unveiled the paintings, located in an underground burial chamber under an eight-story modern office building on a busy street in a working-class neighborhood of Rome. [Source: Associated Press, June 22, 2010 *=*]


location of Saint Peter's grave in St. Peter's Basilica

“The images, which date from the second half of the 4th century, were uncovered using a new laser technique that allowed restorers to burn off centuries of thick white calcium carbonate deposits without damaging the brilliant dark colors of the original paintings underneath. The technique could revolutionize the way restoration work is carried out in the miles (kilometers) of catacombs that burrow under the Eternal City where early Christians buried their dead. The icons, which also include the first known images of the apostles John and Andrew, were discovered on the ceiling of a tomb of an aristocratic Roman woman at the Santa Tecla catacomb, near where the remains of the apostle Paul are said to be buried. *=*

“Rome has dozens of such catacombs and they are a major tourist attraction, giving visitors a peek into the traditions of the early Church when Christians were often persecuted for their beliefs. Early Christians dug the catacombs outside Rome's walls as underground cemeteries, since burial was forbidden inside the city walls and pagan Romans were usually cremated. *=*

"They are the first icons. These are absolutely the first representations of the apostles," said Fabrizio Bisconti, the superintendent of archaeology for the catacombs. Bisconti spoke from inside the intimate burial chamber, whose entrance is crowned by a red-backed painting of the 12 apostles. Once inside, visitors see the loculi, or burial chambers, on three sides. But the gem is in the ceiling, with each of the apostles painted inside gold-rimmed circles against a red-ochre backdrop. The ceiling is also decorated with geometric designs, and the cornices feature images of naked youths. *=*

"Chief restorer Barbara Mazzei noted that there were earlier known images of Peter and Paul, but they were depicted as if in narratives. The images on display in the catacomb - with their faces in isolation, encircled with gold and affixed to the four corners of the ceiling painting - are devotional in nature and as such represent the first known icons. "The fact of isolating them in a corner tells us it's a form of devotion," she said. "In this case, Sts. Peter and Paul, and John and Andrew are the most antique testimonies we have." In addition, the images of Andrew and John show much younger faces than what are normally depicted in the Byzantine-inspired imagery most often associated with the apostles, she said." *=*

Jesus Boat --- Maybe Better Described as the Jesus Boat

The Kibbutz Nof Ginnisar Museum in Kibbutz Ginossar (10 minutes from Tiberas on the Sea of Galilee) is the home for a 24-foot, 2000-year-old fishing boat found well preserved in the Sea of Galilee mud in 1986. It has been dubbed the “Jesus boat” because many scholars are convinced that the boat dates back to the time of Jesus.


Jesus Boat

The “Jesus boat” was discovered in 1986 by two amateur archaeologists, exploring the Sea of Galilee coast at a time when the water level was low and found the remains of the wooden boat buried in sediment. Professional archaeologists excavated it and found it dates to around 2,000 years ago. There is no evidence that Jesus or his apostles used this specific vessel. Recently archaeologists discovered a town dating back more than 2,000 years that was located on the shoreline where the boat was found. [Source: Owen Jarus, Live Science, September 30, 2013]

Kristin Romey wrote in National Geographic: “A severe drought had drastically lowered the lake’s water level, and as two brothers from the community hunted for ancient coins in the mud of the exposed lake bed, they spotted the faint outline of a boat. Archaeologists who examined the vessel found artefacts dating to the Roman era inside and next to the hull. Carbon 14 testing later confirmed the boat’s age: It was from roughly the lifetime of Jesus. Efforts to keep the discovery under wraps soon failed, and news of the “Jesus boat” sent a stampede of relic hunters scouring the lakeshore, threatening the fragile artefact. Just then the rains returned, and the lake level began to rise. [Source: Kristin Romey, National Geographic, November 28, 2017 ^|^]

“The round-the-clock “rescue excavation” that ensued was an archaeological feat for the record books. A project that normally would take months to plan and execute was completed, start to finish, in just 11 days. Once exposed to air, the boat’s waterlogged timbers would quickly disintegrate. So archaeologists supported the remains with a fiberglass frame and polyurethane foam and floated it to safety. ^|^

“Today the treasured boat has pride of place in a museum on the kibbutz, near the spot where it was discovered. Measuring two metres wide and 8 metres long, it could have accommodated 13 men... To be candid, it’s not much to look at: a skeleton of planks repeatedly patched and repaired until it was finally stripped and scuttled. They had to nurse this boat along until they couldn’t nurse it any longer,” says Crossan, who likens the vessel to “some of those cars you see in Havana.” But its value to historians is incalculable, he says. Seeing “how hard they had to work to keep that boat afloat tells me a lot about the economics of the Sea of Galilee and the fishing at the time of Jesus.” ^|^

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons except the Bones, BBC, and grave location,

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; “Egeria's Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem” users.ox.ac.uk ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL), translated by William Whiston, ccel.org , Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org, Frontline, PBS, “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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