We carry on with part 2 of our historical investigation of the Twelve special persons chosen by Jesus to supplement his work. This blog will focus on Simon Peter.
“Simon” is the Greek form of the Semitic name Šim`ôn, one of the most common Jewish names known to us from antiquity. It means “Yah(weh) has heard.” Jesus later gave Simon the nickname Kephā’ (Mark 3:16; Matt 16:17-18; John 1:40-42). In Greek this is Cephas, and in Latin, Petros from which we get Peter. It means “rock,” “rocky,” or “stony”; we might equate this today with the nickname Rocky. We cannot be certain what the nickname was meant to imply. However, the Gospel of Matthew makes Peter the bedrock of Jesus’s assembly (ekklēsia) and its own peculiar halakha, perhaps equating him to leading rabbis of the day.
The Gospel of Matthew also quotes Jesus as promising to give the keys of the kingdom of heaven to Peter (Matt 16:19). Scholars see here an echo of the words of Isaiah regarding Eliakim, newly designated senior officer to King Hezekiah (8th-7th c. BCE):
I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open. (Isa 22:22)
The overall sense seems to be that Peter will be something like the senior synagogue officer and/or political official occupying the right-hand position of responsibility next to Jesus.
From the gospels we learn that Peter was married at some point. His mother-in-law lived with him (Mark 1:29-31). Her fever was healed by Jesus and she became a follower. Peter’s wife is never mentioned though it was implied that she later traveled with her husband on his missionary activities (1 Cor 9:5). Peter was a fisherman making his living from the bounteous marine life found in the enormous lake in the center of Galilee (Mark 1:16-18). He had a brother whose Greek name was Andreas (Mark 1:16; Matt 10:2; Luke 6:14; John 1:40). Other than this we have no biographical information from the gospels.
Peter became the point man for the Twelve and is reported in some traditions (Luke 24:34) to have been the first person to see the risen Jesus, although there are competing claims for that honor (Matt 28:9). He was known to have performed numerous healings including raising a woman from the dead (Acts 9:32-35, 36-42). According to Acts, Peter was jailed at least three times in Jerusalem, being released once, flogged once, and miraculously allowed to escape another time. At one point Peter and John traveled to Samaria to “lay hands on” converts made by Philip, perhaps another member of the Twelve or even of the Greek-speaking Seven (Acts 8:14-17). By that time Philip had already encountered Simon Magus, an independent magician and prophet, who Philip converted and baptized. When Peter arrived, the Magus attempted to bribe Peter in order to obtain the power of the Holy Spirit. Peter condemned him leading to Simon the magician’s implied repentance (Acts 8:9-13, 18-24).
Peter came to temporarily reside in Antioch in Syria where there was already a flourishing Christ-following community (Gal 2:11). According to Paul, he and Peter clashed over the means by which converted gentiles and Jews could share meals together. The issue had only been partially resolved at the so-called “Jerusalem Council” (Gal. 2:11-14; 2:1-10; Acts 15:1-29).
Several pseudonymous (written in the name of…) Petrine writings reveal some additional early traditions. For example, numerous manuscript fragments in various languages have been compiled in order to reconstruct the late second century Acts of Peter. A large portion of the Acts survives in a Latin translation which tells the dramatic story of Peter’s further contests with, and ultimate defeat of, the miracle-working Simon Magus, this time in Rome. From an incomplete Coptic manuscript, likely based on the Acts, we are told that Peter had a paralyzed daughter. The Martyrdom of the Holy Apostle Peter has been reconstructed from both a Latin translation and a manuscript in the original Greek. It relates the details of Peter’s death in Rome. It is in this work that we hear of Peter’s legendary request “to crucify me with head downwards.” This is not, as many people think, a reflection of Peter’s humility. Peter explained his odd request by quoting the well-known but extracanonical saying of Jesus: “Unless you make the right as the left and the left as the right, and the top as the bottom and the front as the back, you shall not know the Kingdom.” The upside-down position was, therefore, a commentary on a world gone topsy-turvy with respect to its morals. In other words, only by being upside-down could Peter behold the world as it should be.
Two New Testament letters are attributed to Peter, commonly called 1 and 2 Peter. The addressees of 1 Peter are Christ-followers in Asia Minor (Turkey). There is no sure basis for connecting Peter with this region and the high quality of the Greek writing makes it difficult to think it was composed by the apostle. Both this letter and 2 Peter betray a theology based on the teachings of Paul. The obvious fact that 2 Peter incorporates parts of another New Testament letter, Jude, makes it even less likely that it was penned by the chief apostle.
Is there any evidence of what became of Peter, other than what is found in the apocryphal acts? Gaius, an early-3rd century presbyter and resident of Rome, wrote that “I can point out the trophies (tropaia) of the apostles. For if you will go to the Vatican or to the Ostian Way you will find the trophies (tropaia) of those who founded this Church” (Eusebius, Church History 2.25.7). Much debate has ensued over the meaning of the Greek word tropaia but most scholars agree that Gaius is referring to monuments marking either the location of Peter’s and Paul’s tombs, their places of martyrdom, or both. What do other sources report about the location of the tropaion of Peter?
The fifth-century Martyrium Petri (aka “Martyrdom of the Blessed Apostle Peter” by pseudo-Linus), a Roman revision of the second-century Acts of Peter, adds a number of details to the earlier composition including that the execution of Peter occurred “at the place which is called the Naumachia, near to the obelisk of Nero, on the mount, for there was his cross placed” (Martyrium Petri 10). The Naumachia was a large water tank built for spectacles that involved naval battles. Its location is only theorized – no remains have yet been discovered. The obelisk refers to the monolith brought from Egypt to Rome by Gaius Caligula (37-41 CE) for the circus.
In his indictment of Christians called Against the Galileans, the emperor Julian (361-63 CE) wrote of an earlier time when Christianity began infesting Rome, when “even the tombs of Peter and Paul were being worshipped – secretly, it is true” (Cyril of Alexandria, Against Julian 1.130-131). This secret Christian worship at the tomb of Peter might be the tropaion mentioned by Gaius. Shortly before Julian, Eusebius noted how “Simon who was called Cephas . . . should be more celebrated among the Romans . . . so that he should be considered worthy of an honorable sepulchre in the very front of their city; and, that great multitudes of the Roman Empire should run to it, as to a great asylum and temple of God” (Theophania 4.7). Eusebius may be referring to the tropaion indicated by Gaius. The Syriac Preaching of Simon Cephas in the City of Rome seems to know of this monument:
When therefore Caesar had given orders that Simon should be crucified with his head downwards, as he had himself requested of Caesar . . . there was great commotion among the people, and bitter grief in all the Church, because they had been deprived of the sight of the apostles. And Isus [Linus, successor to Peter] the Guide arose and took up their bodies by night, and buried them with great honor, and there came to be a gathering-place there for many. (Preaching of Simon Cephas in the City of Rome 40.19-26).
The Preaching has not been reliably dated. Nevertheless, it may be that the tropaion of Gaius has finally been discovered beneath the high altar of St. Peter’s Basilica on Vatican Hill. Archaeological excavations in the 1940s and 1950s uncovered not only what appears to be the tropaion but an entire necropolis dating to at least the second century C.E. constructed over graves that date to the first. What may strengthen the identification of this monument with the death of Peter are the bones reportedly found in its wall.
All the remains were determined to be from a single individual: a male, “robust and aged between sixty and seventy at the time of death” (Toynbee and Perkins, 353). Bones from every part of the skeleton were represented save for the feet (Hall, 189). It has been speculated that the feet are missing because Peter was hung from them. Whether these remains can ever be conclusively validated as those of Simon Peter, the Roman Catholic Church seems to have made up its mind.
[W]e believe it our duty, in the present state of archaeological and scientific conclusions, to give you and the church this happy announcement, bound as we are to honor sacred relics, backed by a reliable proof of their authenticity… In the present case, we must be all the more eager and exultant when we are right in believing that the few but sacred mortal remains have been traced of the Prince of the Apostles, of Simon son of Jonah, of the fisher-man named Peter by Christ, of he who was chosen by the Lord to found His church and to whom He entrusted the keys of His kingdom … until His final glorious return. (Text of Announcement by Pope Paul VI Concerning the Relics, The New York Times, 27 June 1968)
The bones, “normally kept in an urn housed in the private chapel of the Pope’s own Vatican apartments,” were put on public display Sunday, November 24, 2013. Monsignor Rino Fisichella, writing for the semi-official Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, seemed to shut the door on further scientific testing by saying, “We did not want to, and have no intention, of opening up any argument,” in connection with the new display. On July 2, 2019, it was announced that Pope Francis had transferred nine of the bone fragments to Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople.
Sources consulted for this post:
Bowersock, Glen W., “Peter and Constantine.” in St. Peter’s in the Vatican (ed. William Tronzo; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005)
Ehrman, Bart D., Peter Paul and Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History and Legend (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006)
Hall, Jonathan M, Artifact and Artifice: Classical Archaeology and the Ancient Historian, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014)
Marcus, Joel, Mark: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, 2 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000/2009)
O’Connor, Daniel Wm., Peter in Rome: The Literary, Liturgical, and Archaeological Evidence (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969)
Tabor, James, The Jesus Dynasty: The Hidden History of Jesus, His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006)
Toynbee, Jocelyn and John Ward Perkins, The Shrine of St. Peter and the Vatican Excavations (New York: Pantheon, 1957)
Williams, Margaret H., “Palestinian Jewish Personal Names in Acts,” in The Book of Acts in its First Century Setting, Vol. 4, Palestinian Setting, ed. Richard Bauckham (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995).
 Codex Vercellensis 158.
 Codex Berolinensis 8502.4 (4th-5th cent. AD). Cf. ANT 391. Coptic is the Egyptian language written using the Greek alphabet.
 Vatopedi 84 from Mt. Athos (10th-11th cent. AD).
 Martyrdom of the Holy Apostle Peter 8-9. See similar versions of this saying found in 2 Clement 12.2; Gospel of Thomas 22; Pseudo-Linus, Martyrium Petri 14; Gospel of Philip 69; Syriac Acts of Thomas 147; Testament of the Lord 1.28.
 Lizzy Davies, “Saint Peter’s Bones: Vatican Exhumes Old Argument with Plan to Show ‘Relics’,” The Guardian, November 18, 2013; http://www.theguardian .com/world/2013/nov/18/saint-peters-bones-vatican-relics.
 Cindy Wooden, “Pope gives relics of St. Peter to Orthodox patriarch,” Jul 2, 2019, Catholic News Service, https://cruxnow.com/vatican/2019/07/02/pope-gives-relics-of-st-peter-to-orthodox-patriarch.