Saint Peter

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Saint Peter
Cephas (the Rock)
Born (traditionally) Bethsaida
Died (traditionally) crucified upside down ~64 in Rome during Nero's Persecution
Recognised in All Christianity
Major shrine St. Peter's Basilica
Feasts June 29,
Traditional attributes bald man, often with a fringe of hair on the sides and a tuft on top; book; rooster; keys; man crucified head downwards; man holding a key or keys; man robed as a pope and bearing keys and a double-barred cross; reversed cross

Saint Peter, also known as the Apostle Peter, Simon ben Jonah/BarJonah, Simon Peter, Cephas and Kepha — original name Simon or Simeon (Acts 15:14) — was one of the Twelve Apostles whom Jesus chose from among his original disciples. His life is prominently featured in the New Testament Gospels and Acts of the Apostles.

A Galilean fisherman, he (with his brother Andrew) was literally "called" by Jesus to be a disciple. Above all the other disciples, Peter was assigned a leadership role by Jesus (Matt 16:18; John 21:15–16); and indeed, his supremacy within the early Church is recognized by many.

Simon Peter is considered a saint by many Christians, and the first Pope by the Roman Catholic Church. Other Christian denominations recognize his office as Bishop of Antioch and later Bishop of Rome, but do not hold 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 or overseer, holding that the office of bishop was a development of later Christianity. Furthermore, many Protestants do not use the title of "saint" in reference to him.

The Roman Martyrology gives June 29, ca. 64 as his date of death. 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 a tradition recorded or perhaps initiated in the apocryphal Acts of Peter, he was crucified upside down. Tradition also locates his burial place as beneath the high altar in the Basilica of Saint Peter in Vatican City. In art, he is often depicted holding the keys to the kingdom of heaven (the sign of his primacy over the Church), a reference to Matthew 16:18.

Shiite Muslims believe Simon (Sham'oon in Arabic) was the chosen successor of Jesus by God.


Peter's original name of Simon or שמעון (pronounced Shimon) comes from the Hebrew language and meant "hearkening and listening". Jesus gave him a new name, which in the Aramaic language then spoken in Galilee meant "a stone". That name, (Kepha), was transliterated into Greek, the language of the New Testament, as Κηφάς (Cephas) — Jesus looked at him, and said, "So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas" (which means Peter) (John 1:42 RSV) — but was more commonly translated as Πέτρος (Peter) — Simon whom he surnamed Peter (Mark 3:16; cf. Matthew 10:2; Luke 16:14).

What Jesus intended by giving him this name, which eventually replaced his original name, is a matter of dispute between Roman Catholic and other Christian theologians, since the question is linked with the institution of the papacy.

New Testament account

Peter's life story relies primarily on the New Testament, since there are no other contemporary accounts of his life or death, or even of his existence. According to the New Testament, before becoming a disciple of Jesus, Simon (that is, Peter) was a fisherman. According to the Gospel of John he was originally a native of Bethsaida (John 1:44), and the son of a man named John (John 1:42), or, according to another account, Jonah (Matthew 16:17). The synoptic gospels all recount how his mother-in-law was healed by Jesus at their home in Capernaum (Matthew 8:14-17; Mark 1:29-31; Luke 4:38) — implying that Peter was married. Later legends said he had a daughter.

While fishing in the Lake of Gennesaret, Simon and his brother Andrew were called by Jesus to be his followers, with the words, "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men" (Matthew 4:18-19; Mark 1:16-17).

Peter is frequently mentioned in the Gospels as forming, with James the Elder and John, a special group within the Twelve Apostles, present at incidents, such as the Transfiguration of Jesus, that the others were not party to. Peter is also often depicted in the Gospels as spokesman of all the apostles, and as one to whom Jesus gave special authority. In contrast, Jewish Christians are said to have argued that James the Just was the leader of the group.

All four canonical gospels recount that, during the Last Supper, Jesus foretold that Peter would deny association with him three times that same night, and that Peter did in fact do so, while Jesus was on tried before the high priest The three Synoptics describe the three denials as follows:

  1. A denial when a female servant of the high priest spots Simon Peter, saying that he had been with Jesus.
  2. A denial when Simon Peter had gone out to the gateway, away from the firelight, but the same servant girl or another told the bystanders he was a follower of Jesus.
  3. A denial came when recognition of Peter as a Galilean was taken as proof that he was indeed a disciple of Jesus. Matthew adding that it was his accent that gave him away. Luke deviates slightly from this by stating that, rather than a crowd accusing Simon Peter, it was a third individual.

The Gospel of John places the second denial while Peter was still warming himself at the fire, and gives as the occasion of the third denial a claim by someone to have him in the garden of Gethsemane when Jesus was arrested.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus prediction of Peter's denial is coupled with a prediction that all the apostles ("you", plural) would be "sifted like wheat", but that it would be Peter's task ("you", singular), when he had turned again, to strengthen his brethren (Luke 22:31-32). In the final chapter of the Gospel of John, which almost all Christians consider to be canonical, though some scholars hypothesize that it was added later to bolster Peter's status, Peter, in one of the resurrection appearances of Jesus, three times affirmed his love for Jesus, balancing his threefold denial, and Jesus reconfirmed Peter's position (John 21:15-17).

The author of the Acts of the Apostles portrays Peter as an extremely important figure within the early Christian community, with Peter delivering a significant speech immediately after Pentecost. According to the same book, Peter took the lead in selecting a replacement for Judas Iscariot (Acts 1:15). He was twice arraigned, with John, before the Sanhedrin and directly defied them (Acts 4:7-22, Acts 5:18-42). He undertook a missionary journey to Lydda, Joppa and Caesarea (Acts 9:32-10:2), becoming instrumental in the decision to evangelise the Gentiles (Acts 10). He was present at the Council of Jerusalem, where Paul further argued the case for accepting Gentiles into the Christian community without circumcision.

Accounts of Peter's last days

About halfway through, the Book of Acts turns its attention away from Peter and to the activities of Paul, and the Bible is fairly silent on what occurred to Peter afterwards. A fleeting mention of Peter being in Antioch is made by the Epistle to the Galatians (Galatians 2:11), and that Paul confronted him there, and subsequent tradition argued that Peter had been the first Patriarch of Antioch. Some scholars also interpret Paul's brief mention of Peter in 1 Corinthians as evidence that Peter had visited Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:12).

The tradition that Peter went to Rome and there, probably at the time of the Great Fire of Rome of the year 64, for which the Emperor Nero blamed the Christians, met martyrdom is seen as corroborated by the early writings indicated in the following paragraphs.

A phrase in the last chapter of the Gospel of John refers to Peter’s martyrdom by crucifixion: "'…when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and take you where you do not want to go.' Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God" (John 21:18-19).

Clement of Rome, in his Letter to the Corinthians (Chapter 5), written c. 80-98, speaks of Peter's martyrdom in the following terms: "Let us take the noble examples of our own generation. Through jealousy and envy the greatest and most just pillars of the Church were persecuted, and came even unto death… Peter, through unjust envy, endured not one or two but many labours, and at last, having delivered his testimony, departed unto the place of glory due to him."

Saint Ignatius of Antioch, in his Letter to the Romans (Ch. 4) of c. 105-115, tells the Roman Christians: "I do not command you, as Peter and Paul did."

St. Irenaeus of Lyon (a disciple of St. Polycarp of Smyrna, who was himself a disciple of the Apostle St. John; putting Irenaeus not too far from the authentic teachings of the Apostles) writing in c. 175-185 in Against Heresies (Book III, Chapter III, paragraphs 2-3), states:

Since, however, it would be too long to enumerate in such a volume as this the succession of all the churches, we shall confound all those who, in whatever manner, whether through self-satisfaction or vainglory, or through blindness and wicked opinion, assemble other than where it is proper, by pointing out here the successions of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul, that church which has the tradition and the faith which comes down to us after having been announced to men by the apostles. With that church, because of its superior origin, all the churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world, and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic tradition.

The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy. To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric. This man, as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes. Nor was he alone [in this], for there were many still remaining who had received instructions from the apostles. In the time of this Clement, no small dissension having occurred among the brethren at Corinth, the Church in Rome dispatched a most powerful letter to the Corinthians, exhorting them to peace, renewing their faith, and declaring the tradition which it had lately received from the apostles…

Later traditions, originating in or recorded in the apocryphal Acts of Peter, say that the Romans crucified Peter upside down at his request, due to his wishing not to be equated with Jesus. Acts of Peter is also thought to be the source for the tradition about the famous phrase "Quo Vadis" (Where are you going?), a question that, according to this tradition, Peter, fleeing Rome to avoid execution, asked a vision of Jesus, and to which Jesus responded that he was "going to Rome, to be crucified again", causing Peter to decide to return to the city and accept martyrdom. 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.

The ancient historian Josephus describes how Roman soldiers would amuse themselves by crucifying criminals in different positions, and it is likely that this would have been known to the author of the Acts of Peter. The position attributed to Peter's crucifixion is thus plausible, either as having happened historically or as being an invention by the author of the Acts of Peter. Death, after crucifixion head down, is unlikely to be caused by suffocation, the usual cause of death in ordinary crucifixion.

A medieval misconception was the Mamertine Prison in Rome is the place where Peter was imprisoned before his execution.

Religious interpretations

Roman Catholic Church

In Roman Catholic tradition, Peter's leadership role among the Apostles, referred to above, lies at the root of the leadership role of the Pope among the bishops of the Church. The Pope is seen as the successor of Peter as bishop of Rome. Some Protestants question this belief on the grounds of lack of contemporary evidence, but the quotations given above from writers like Clement and Ignatius show that by the end of the first century the tradition that Peter went to Rome and was martyred there was already established. In addition, the first Epistle of Peter ends with "The church that is in Babylon, chosen together with you, salutes you, and so does my son, Mark." (1 Pet 5:13). Though the word "Babylon" refers literally to a city in Mesopotamia, it was used cryptically to indicate Rome, as in Revelation 14:8; 16:19; 17:5, 6, and in the works of various Jewish seers.

In reference to 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 keys used as a symbol of the Pope's authority refer to the "keys of the kingdom of Heaven" promised to Peter (Matthew 16:18-19). The terminology of this "commission" of Peter is unmistakably parallel to the commissioning of Eliakim ben Hilkiah in Isaiah 22:15 and Isaiah 22:19-23.

Peter is therefore often depicted in both Western and Eastern Christian art holding a key or a set of keys.

In the same passage of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells Peter: "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church." In the original Greek the word translated as "Peter" is Πέτρος (Petros) and that translated as "rock" is πέτρα (petra), two words that, while not identical, give an impression of a play on words. Furthermore, since Jesus presumably spoke to Peter in their native Aramaic language, the actual words used will have been totally identical. The traditional interpretation has therefore been that Jesus told Peter (Rock) that he would build his Church on this Peter (Rock).

On the basis of the difference between the Greek words, some Protestant scholars disagree with this interpretation. In classical Attic Greek petros generally meant "pebble", while petra meant "boulder" or "cliff". Accordingly, taking Peter's name to mean "pebble", they argue that the "rock" in question cannot have been Peter, but something else, either Jesus himself, or the faith in Jesus that Peter had just professed.

Counter-arguments are presented not only by Roman Catholic apologists like Karl Keating (see [1]) but also by scholars of other Christian Churches, such as the Evangelical Christian D. A. Carson in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984]). They point out that the Gospel of Matthew was written, not in the classical Attic form of Greek, but in the Hellenistic Koine dialect, and that, even in Attic Greek, in which the regular meaning of petros was a smallish "stone", there are instances of its use to refer to larger rocks, as in Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus v. 1595, where petros refers to a boulder used as a landmark, obviously something more than a pebble. In any case, in the Aramaic language in which the phrase will have in fact been spoken, the petros/petra distinction is inexistent. And in Greek of any period, the feminine noun petra could not be used as the given name of a male, which explains the use of Petros as the Greek word with which to translate Aramaic Kepha.

When, in the early fourth century, the Emperor Constantine I decided to honour Peter with a large basilica, the precise location of Peter's burial was so firmly fixed in the belief of the Christians of Rome that the building had to be erected on a site that involved considerable difficulties, both physical (excavating the slope of the Vatican Hill, while the great church could much more easily have been built on level ground only slightly to the south) and moral and legal (demolishing a cemetery). The focal point of St. Peter's Basilica, both in its original form and in its later complete reconstruction, is the altar placed over what is held to be the exact place where Peter was buried.


New Testament

The New Testament includes two letters (epistles) ascribed to Peter. Both demonstrate a high quality of cultured and urban Greek, at odds with the linguistic skill that would ordinarily be expected of an Aramaic-speaking fisherman, who would have learned Greek as a second or third language. However, the author of the first epistle explicitly claims to be using a secretary (see below), and this explanation would allow for discrepancies in style without entailing a different source. The textual features of these two epistles are such that a majority of scholars doubt that they were written by the same hand. This means at the most that Peter could not have authored both, or at the least that he used a different secretary for each letter. Some scholars argue that theological differences imply different sources, and point to the lack of references to 2 Peter among the early Church Fathers.

Of the two epistles, the first epistle is considered the earlier, and hence more likely to be genuine. A number of scholars have argued that the textual discrepancies with what would be expected of the biblical Peter are due to it having been written with the help of a secretary or as an amanuensis. Indeed in the first epistle the use of a secretary is clearly described: "By Silvanus, a faithful brother unto you, as I suppose, I have written briefly, exhorting, and testifying that this is the true grace of God wherein ye stand" (1 Peter 5:15). Thus, in regards to at least the first epistle, the claims that Peter would have written Greek poorly seem irrelevant. The references to persecution of Christians, which only began under Nero, cause most scholars to date the text to at least 80, which would require Peter to have survived to an age that was, at that time, extremely old, and almost never reached, particularly by common fishermen. However, the Roman historian Tacitus and the biographer Suetonius both record that Nero's persecution of Christians began immediately after the fire that burned Rome in 64. Such a date, which is in accord with Christian tradition, especially Eusebius (History book 2, 24.1), would not have Peter at an improbable age upon his death. On the other hand, many scholars consider this in reference to the persecution of Christians in Asia Minor during the reign of the emperor Domitian (81-96).

The Second Epistle of Peter, on the other hand, appears to have been copied, in part, from the Epistle of Jude, and some modern scholars date its composition as late asc. 250. Some scholars argue the opposite, that the Epistle of Jude copied 2 Peter, while others contend an early date for Jude and thus observe that an early date is not incompatible with the text. Many scholars have noted the similarities between the apocryphal second pseudo-Epistle of Clement (2nd century) and 2 Peter. Second Peter may be earlier than 250, but there is no surviving reference to it that dates back to the first century or even the early second century, although the later church historian Eusebius claimed that Origen had made reference to the epistle before 250. Even in early times there was controversy over its authorship, and 2 Peter was often not included in the Biblical Canon; it was only in the 4th century that it gained a firm foothold in the New Testament, in a series of synods. In the east the Syriac Church still did not admit it into the canon until the 6th century.

Traditionally, the Gospel of Mark was said to have been written by a person named John Mark, and that this person was an assistant to Peter, hence its content was traditionally seen as the closest to Peter's viewpoint. According to Eusebius's Ecclesiastical History, Papias recorded this belief 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 normal or chronological 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 fictional into the statements. —Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3.39.14–16

Also Irenaeus wrote about this tradition:

After their (Peter and Paul’s) passing, Mark also, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, transmitted to us in writing the things preached by Peter. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, III. 1.2.; quoted by Eusebius in Ecclesiastical History, book 5, 7.6)

Based on these quotes, and on the Christian tradition, the information in Mark’s Gospel about St. Peter would be eyewitness material. It should be observed, however, that some scholars (for differing reasons) dispute the attribution of the Gospel of Mark to its traditional author. The gospel itself is anonymous, and the above passages are the oldest surviving written testimony to its authorship.

Pseudepigrapha and apocrypha

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:

  • Gospel of Peter, a Docetic narrative that has survived in part
  • Acts of Peter
  • A Letter of Peter to Philip, which was preserved in the Nag Hammadi library
  • Apocalypse of Peter, which was considered as genuine by many Christians as late as the fourth century
  • The Epistula Petri, the introductory letter ascribed to Peter that appears at the beginning of at least one version of the Clementine literature


In religious doctrine, Saint Peter is the patron saint of:

  • Fishermen

External links

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