Saint Peter, how much do we know?

Peter, born as Simon, was the son of Jonah (Matthew 16:17) - we know nothing at all about Jonah. Peter came from Bethsaida (John 1:44), a major city on the north-eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, but at the time he met Jesus he lived in Capernaum (Mark 1:29) a couple of miles to the west. Capernaum was a border town between Galilee which was Jewish and ruled by Herod Antipas and the mainly Gentile territory of Philip (see reference in Luke 3:1ff). Capernaum had a custom house, a military guard and a synagogue; its inhabitants earned their living from fishing, farming and trading.

Peter and his brother Andrew were fishermen of the poorer class, since apparently they did not own a boat (Mark 1:16). He was among the first disciples whom Jesus called (Mark 1:17, John 1: 40-42). John's Gospel implies that Jesus, before calling Andrew and Peter at the lakeside in Galilee, had previously met them in the Jericho region where John the Baptist was preaching and baptising. This was about seventy miles from Capernaum; the attraction of Jesus must have been great for these poor fishermen to have travelled so far. Peter was married (Mark 1:30) and his wife later accompanied him on some of his missionary journeys (1 Corinthians 9:5). Jesus gave Simon the name Peter, the Greek translation of an Aramaic word "Cephas" meaning stone or rock (Matthew 16:18).

This is all the factual biographical detail we can glean from the scriptures about Peter. Understandings and hints of his character come from the other sparse references to his words and actions. He belonged to the small inner group around Jesus and often acted as their spokesman, especially in acknowledging Jesus as the Messiah; though he was very slow to understand that the Messiah must suffer. On several occasions in the Gospels Peter is presented in a very poor light - frightened and confused at the Transfiguration (Mark 9:5,6) - boastful at the Last Supper (Mark 14:29-31) - doubting and afraid in the storm on the lake (Matthew 14:29-31) - and cowardly and false as he denied knowing Jesus in the high-priest's courtyard (Mark 14:66-72). Peter is painted warts and all, his impulsiveness and dogged loyalty, his courage and the breaking of his courage, his lack of imaginative insight, and his love for his master - all of these come through.

After the Resurrection Peter was the first male disciple to see the risen Jesus (Luke 24:34) and he quickly took a leading part in the early church. He preached (Acts 2:14-36 etc.) and he healed the sick (the lame man at the Beautiful Gate, Aeneas in Lydda, etc.). He was the first to convert Gentiles (Cornelius and his family in Caesarea), although at the Council in Jerusalem (Acts 15) it was made clear that Peter's primary mission was to the Jews, while Paul was the main apostle to the Gentiles. It has to be said that Paul was not wholly convinced of Peter's commitment to the Gentile cause - "I opposed him to his face because he was clearly wrong... and a hypocrite" (Galatians 2:11-14)!

Peter disappeared from the New Testament story very soon after the Council in Jerusalem. We can surmise from Paul's writing that Peter went travelling (1 Corinthians 9:5) but there are no details about his journeys. It is a long-standing tradition that Peter was crucified upside-down on a cross in Rome, during Nero's persecution of the Christians there about 64AD. It is also tradition that St Peter's in Rome was built over his burial place. But there is no written evidence for these.

It was to this Peter, in many ways weak, with large areas of his life now hidden from public view, that Jesus handed over the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven and gave authority over his church (Matthew 16:17-19). God put his trust for the future of humanity in a real, struggling, but ultimately loving and faithful human being.

Eileen McLean, May 1997
St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 5th July 1997