The Strange Case of Peter

Nov 03 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

(As part of an ongoing if occasional poke at fundamentalist Christian shibboleths, I am today taking a look at the strange case of Peter, the mythical hero who is said to have founded the papacy. If they want us to believe this stuff, they need to do a better job with proof. My apologies in advance for an unavoidably long article – Hrafnkell)

The crucifixion nobody knew about until over a century later

One of the most interesting and enduring mysteries of early Christianity is the fate of its leaders, namely, the disciples hand-picked by Jesus to spread his message. After his death, most of them disappear from history without a trace, receiving barely a mention in our earliest record of the Church, the Book of Acts. But you would think something would have come down to us regarding the fate of Jesus’ Number One Disciple. What happened to Peter?

It’s odd enough that he was supposedly selected by Jesus to lead his Church (Matt. 16:18-19), only to have James the Just, the brother of Jesus, chosen for that position. Still more surprisingly we are informed that Peter was among those who voted for James.[1] This despite the fact that Acts tells us that Peter became more powerful than Jesus himself. More powerful than the Son of God! If Peter passed by on a sunny day his shadow cured the ill but even Jesus could not do that!

Strangely, given the story told by Matthew, just before he disappears from Acts and from history, Peter, if it is indeed Peter (in 15:14 James seems to refer to him as “Simeon”), lays no claim to any purpose or divinely assigned mission other than this: “My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers (15.7).” There was nothing said about being the Rock upon which Jesus intended to build his church. What are we to make of this? Especially in light of the fact that while Acts 10-11 also shows Peter starting the mission to the Gentiles, Paul’s own letters show not Peter, but Paul starting the mission to the Gentiles (Gal. 1:2). Both could not have been first! Yet somehow, Christians have found it possible to believe both stories (just as they’ve found it possible to reconcile four contradictory gospels). Is Acts just trying to set up a rationale for Peter’s strange disappearance?

One of our major problems in resolving Peter’s fate is determining just who Peter was. That this is no small problem in itself cannot be overstressed. It was suggested long ago by Clement of Alexandria (Titus Flavius Clemens) who died sometime between 211 and 216, that Cephas, that same Cephas Paul spoke of and who he claims to have confronted in Antioch and called a hypocrite, was not Simon Peter, but another who had the same name.[2] Clement was not alone. The second century work Epistola Apostolorum (Epistle of the Apostles) discovered in 1895, includes both Cephas and Peter among the Twelve[3] and a third century list generally but incorrectly attributed to Hyppolytus of Rome lists Cephas at 51st out of 70 apostles. There is some reason to wonder, after all. Any reader of the Pauline Epistles has doubtless noticed that sometimes Paul refers to Peter and sometimes he refers to Cephas.[4]

At Galatians 2.6-9, Paul mentions both, Cephas and Peter, and there is an indication that two different individuals are under discussion. Here, Peter is the missionary to the Jews and Peter is one of the three “pillars” of the Jerusalem Community. Most scholars have dismissed the statement. Cephas is Peter; that much is plain, they say. But this argument was recently made again in scholarship by Kirsopp Lake in 1921.  Lake points out that Peter receives only two mentions in the Corpus Paulinus while Cephas is named eight times (Peter: Gal. 2.7, 8; Cephas: 1 Cor. 1.12; 3.22; 9.5; 15.5; Gal. 1.18; 2.9, 11, 14). And as Lake says of our passage in Galatians, “To call the same man by two names in the same sentence is, to say the least, a curious device.”[5] Donald W. Riddle attacked the problem in systematic fashion in 1940.

Lake’s argument was resurrected in 1990 by Bart Ehrman and attacked by Dale Allison two years later. Ehrman notes that the Codex Sinaiticus Syriacus, a document from the 9th century contains a list supposed to derive from Irenaeus which lists Cephas as “the fourth of the seventy” and says that he was stoned to death in Antioch. And there are other examples as well. As Ehrman sums up the ancient evidence, “from the early second century on, a number of sources maintain that Cephas and Peter were two different persons. Some of these sources claim that both belonged to the Twelve, others place Peter among the Twelve and Cephas among the seventy, yet others leave the matter unresolved.”[6] As Ehrman points out, we have only one primary witness, and that is Paul. All of our other sources date from much later, and furthermore, Paul is “the only writer from antiquity whom we know beyond reasonable doubt to have been personally acquainted with Cephas. Paul’s testimony must be construed as prima facie evidence and cannot be discounted because of what is said in later sources, written by those who did not know Cephas.”[7] And needless to say, we can reasonably suppose that being the case that Paul knew who and what he was talking about when he referred to Peter and Cephas as different people. The conclusion is obvious – and inescapable. Even so, Dale Allison argues that in the absence of “solid evidence to the contrary” we are “compelled to believe that Peter and Cephas were one and the same.”[8]

At the very least, there seems room for doubt as to the identity of Peter and Cephas. Yet moving forward, we will assume for the sake of argument that orthodox Christianity has the facts straight when it assumes Peter/Cephas to be the same person.

Following the execution of James son of Zebedee (one of the few disciples whose fate we do know) Herod Agrippa had Peter arrested and thrown into prison under guard (Acts 12:3). Somehow, he escapes and appears at a prayer vigil being held (evidently on his behalf) at the house of Mary, the mother of John, who was called Mark. This is a strange passage (12:6-17) and has given rise to a theory that it represents a story of Peter’s death and departure from this world.[9]

Taking this theory a step farther, Warren Smaltz demonstrates that 1 Clement’s reference to Peter’s death actually makes sense in the context of a scenario wherein he dies in Agrippa’s prison c. 44 CE.[10] But this leaves open the question of how he could speak at the Council at Jerusalem in chapter 15 if he died in chapter 12.  And even if Peter did not die, where did he go? Acts 12 leaves us with an unsatisfactory “he departed and went to another place.”  What kind of story-telling is this? Where did he go? We are not told. He just suddenly reappears three chapters later before disappearing again entirely from history and this time his passing goes completely unremarked. A strange fate for the disciple who was said to be closest to Jesus.

S.G.F. Brandon believes that Peter did indeed go “to another place,” and that place is, in his estimation, Alexandria, made to disappear from the narrative by the author of Luke because it would have been inconvenient to mention that Peter had gone to join a Christian community he found to be “defective in its Christology.” Peter’s presence there would have had the effect of strengthening the Alexandrian ekklesia (explaining why Paul eschewed it as a destination as well as clearing up some of the mystery of Christian origins there).[11] We cannot know for certain, unfortunately; all we can take from Luke is that he deliberately obscured or omitted the fate of Jesus’ right hand man.

This whole sequence, however it is resolved, had to take place somewhere between 41-44 CE because this was the period of Herod Agrppa’s Kingship. Since we are given no explanation for Peter’s first disappearance we can only speculate. Was it to flee Herod’s authority, which did not extend to the Roman province? If so, this self-exile is understandable, given the execution of James son of Zebedee, beheaded at Herod’s orders (Acts 12:2), though Eisenman finds this James (not to say the plethora of other duplicated names in the NT problematic.[12] But since Herod remained alive and in power between the two events even this theory loses power to persuade.

We are made to wonder why it was suddenly safe for Peter to return not only to Judaea, but to its capital and the heart of Herod’s domain, Jerusalem. Would it not have made more sense to meet in the relative safety of Caesarea? After all, the Romans were not in any way hindering the activities of Jesus’ followers. And why, after this, does Peter suddenly vanish into thin air? If the author of Acts remained deliberately silent, why was not the tradition preserved in the early church? Certainly, somebody must have cared what happened to so important a figure.

Perhaps we can look to the Christian writers of the early church for an answer. Surely they knew what happened to Jesus’ most important disciple! But no, the opposite is true; the Christians of the generations following Peter’s seem woefully ill-informed about the fate of the men who followed Jesus. 1 Peter 5:13 suggests that Peter is writing from Rome (“Babylon”, a Christian codeword) but this letter was not written by Peter from Rome c. 65 CE but by another, later author who took Peter’s name for the same reason other authors took Paul’s – to lend authority to their own views. Ehrman suggests a date near the end of the first century, by which time Peter would most certainly have been dead. Peter does receive a mention in Clement’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, written c. 96, some 50+ years after his disappearance in Acts and around the same time as the Epistle of 1 Peter mentioned above:

There is Peter, who because of unjust jealousy bore up under hardships not just once or twice, but many times; and having thus borne his witness he went to the place of glory that he deserved,[13]

This is often seen as a clear reference to martyrdom and of course we’re all familiar with the stories of his being crucified upside down in a Roman arena, but the author of 1 Clement (who was not Clement, by the way) provides us with no details. Donald Robinson contends that all Clement is saying here is that Peter “was to his dying day a loyal witness to the Faith.”[14] The only early source to actually suggest martyrdom for Peter is John 21, but even this offers no specifics and is every bit as unsatisfying as the rest of our evidence. Surely, as John’s Gospel was the last to be written we could expect him to have known Peter’s fate. But he does not. Perhaps Clement and John are merely relating to us a legend; much as is Irenaeus c. 180 (not some mere 50+ years now but more on the order of 140 years after the fact) does when he tells us that Peter and Paul together establish (“founded and organized” are his words) the Church of Rome (Against Heresies 3.3.2). It must be legend, after all, for Irenaeus directly contradicts Paul himself, who in his letter to the Christian community there (Rom. 1:13) states that he has not yet visited Rome.

More than that, in this letter Paul entirely fails to mention Peter, which he most certainly would not have done had Peter preceded him there! Indeed, if Peter were alive, would Paul not have addressed his letter to him, or at least have extended his greetings, as was common in his Epistles? Instead, from every indication, Paul did not know anyone he was writing to. It was an open letter to whatever Christians might be there. Still the mere fact of the letter and its survival is proof of a community’s existence there, Peter or no Peter and this puts paid to Irenaeus’ claims. It would be difficult to found a church that is already in existence and the fact of there being a group to write to presupposes organization. Bart Ehrman suggests that Irenaeus’ motives for telling this tale is to provide support for the Church of Rome, by the second century the “predominant church in the Christian world.” In truth, as he goes on to say, “the reality is that we do not know who started the church in Rome.” This event may well have taken place a decade or more before Paul wrote in the 50s.[15] In all likelihood Irenaeus did not know either, or any other Christian, and it was important that the Christian community in the First City of the empire not be without a founder. Who better then, but Peter and Paul?

Indeed, the first suggestion of Peter’s martyrdom appears c. 160 CE from the pen of Dionysius of Corinth (a century after Peter’s disappearance) but for this reference we are entirely dependent upon Eusebius, writing more than 200 years after Peter disappeared![16] Worse, even if Eusebius did actually preserve part of a genuine letter of Dionysius, it only proves that Dionysius was a liar. What Dionysius says about his own church of Corinth is not true, and if he cannot be trusted to know even this then how can he be trusted with regards to events a century before his time?[17]

J.F. Robinson in addressing Peter’s supposed martyrdom concludes, “Was Peter martyred? The earliest references to Peter’s death do not warrant the conclusion that he was.” In fact, Robinson goes onto say,

“It is possible that the Roman tradition is not a memory of historical fact, but the result of wishful exegesis on the part of the Roman church itself.” [18]

Likewise Peter’s supposed role as the city’s first Pope. Bart Ehrman observes that “Peter…could not have been the first bishop of the church of Rome, because the Roman church did not have anyone as its bishop until about a hundred years after Peter’s death.”[19] And Warrant Smaltz points out that had Peter held that office, “it is utterly unlikely that Clement would have dismissed him with relatively faint praise.”[20] Indeed.

First and foremost, it must be remembered that Jesus only tells Peter that he is to be the head of his church in one place in the Gospels, in Matt. 16.17-19, and the word ekklesia (church) appears just twice, once in that same passage and again in Matt. 18.17. None of this has any mention in Mark (the first Gospel written) or in Luke, whose author (Luke or otherwise) also wrote Acts. So perhaps this is part of our answer. Luke (for we shall call him that for convenience sake) could not relate the decision that Peter had been chosen to head the Church because Luke did not know of any such tradition, and as Bart Ehrman has pointed out, John does not seem to depend upon the Synoptic Gospels as a source. Indeed, Ehrman goes on to say that he finds it unlikely that the author of John even knew about the Synoptic Gospels.[21] Jesus’ biographer Geza Vermes has concluded that

The episode of Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ is contained in all three Synoptic Gospels, but his appointment to be the rock does not figure in either Mark or Luke. Their silence on something as important as Peter’s nomination as head of the ekklesia strongly intimates that Matthew 16:17-19 must be a secondary accretion. The lack of any mention of the church in the other Gospels, including John, also points in the same direction. In short, the words about Peter’s promotion should be credited not to Jesus, but to Matthew or his editor in AD 80 or later.[22]

What then are we left with? James was probably Jesus’ choice, definitely the remaining disciples’ choice, to head the church, if such it can be called. Community might be a better word, though they both derive from the ekklesia, since Jesus’ followers continued to live as Jews and worship in the synagogue with their co-religionists. Certainly the story found in John and repeated in the Gospel of Peter that Peter planned on returning to Galilee after Jesus’ death argues against him being the head of any church (John 21; Gospel of Peter 60). After all, if he had been chosen to head the “church” why would he plan on going home instead?

In the end, Peter probably remained one of the leaders of this community and as such was arrested by Herod Agrippa. Where Peter went after escaping or being freed from prison is unknown, but it is a long stretch to suggest that he went to Rome, especially in light of the fact that this event somehow remained unknown until Irenaeus some 140 years later (Clement certainly was unaware of it when he wrote almost 50 years before Irenaeus), or that while there he became Pope, which remained unknown until Jerome’s declaration three centuries later!

And if he was in Rome, and Acts takes the time to describe Paul’s arrival there, why does it not also mention Peter’s, since we are supposed to believe he preceded Paul by some 20 years? Further illustration of ignorance regarding Peter’s career following his disappearance comes in the form of an Arab manuscript dated to 799 CE but of earlier composition which claims that Peter not only went to Rome but “baptized Nero, his son and the whole imperial court.”[23]

In the end there is one thing Christians should know. All the evidence for Peter in Rome is non-canonical and as we have seen, there are many arguments to be raised against it and no good ones in its favor. It is interesting that while resisting the potential influences of non-Canonical sources (witness the recent controversies regarding the Gospels of Thomas and Judas) Christians are willing to entertain pure fantasy when it supports, rather than challenges the accepted version of events.  We have no choice but to accept the fact, incredible as it is, that none of the Gospel writers knew what Peter’s fate was, nor did any of the Christian writers who came after them. Unfortunately for history and for our understanding of the development of Christianity, the fate of Peter will never be known, and his upside down crucifixion must be relegated to the realm of fiction, as must his wearing of the papal crown.[24]



[1] Eusebius, EH 2.1.

[2] In Hypotyposes (Outlines), 5. Repeated by Eusebius, EH 1.12. The Hypotyposes no longer exist outside of Eusebius.

[3] See Kirsopp Lake, “The Epistola Apostolorum,” HTR 14 (1921), 15-29.

[4] This kind of issue can be obscured in some translations, such as the NIV, which renders “Peter” in both cases in Galatians 2.6-9, relegating the Aramaic “Cephas” to a footnote.

[5] K. Lake, “Simon, Cephas, Peter,” HTR 14 (1921), 96.

[6] Bart Ehrman, “Cephas and Peter,” JBL 109 (1990), 463-466.

[7] Ehrman, “Cephas and Peter,” 473-474.

[8] Dale C. Allison, Jr., “Peter and Cephas: One and the Same,” JBL 111 (1992), 495.  Eisenman, 7, thinks the speaker in Acts is actually Simeon bar Cleophas, “very likely the second brother of Jesus.” – italics in the original).

[9] See Bronson, JBL (1945), 127.

[10] Warren J. Smaltz, “Did Peter Die in Jerusalem” JBL 71 (1952), 216 cf. John 21.

[11] S.G.F. Brandon, The Fall of Jerusalem and the Christian Church, 210-12; 225-227.

[12] Robert Eisenman, James the Brother of Jesus (NY: Viking, 1996), 95. Eisenman notes that James the brother of John “is eliminated from the scene…just in time for the sudden eruption of the second James (James the brother of Jesus) into the narrative.”

[13] 1 Clement 5:4, Ehrman’s translation, in The Apostolic Fathers (London: Oxford University Press, 2003) 1:44-45.

[14] Donald Fay Robinson, “Where Did Peter Die?” 258-259.

[15] Ehrman, Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene, 82

[16] Eusebius, EH 2.25.

[17] Michael Grant, Saint Peter: A Biography (NY: Scribner, 1994), 148-149.

[18] J.F. Robinson, “Where Did Peter Die?” 260, 263..

[19] Ehrman, Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene, 82-84.

[20] Warren J. Smaltz, “Did Peter Die in Jerusalem” JBL 71 (1952), 216

[21] Bart Ehrman, The New Testament, 163.

[22] Geza Vermes, The Authentic Gospel of Jesus, 362

[23] T.D. Barnes, “Legislation against the Christians.” The Journal of Roman Studies 58, Parts 1 and 2 (1968), 33.

[24] Still, Christians accept this unsubstantiated tale as though it were (pardon the pun) gospel. For example, apologist Paul McKechnie The First Christians (2001, 43) relates “Peter, before his move to Rome during Claudius’ reign (41-54)…” and narrows the move down on p. 54 where he goes on to assert that “Peter…moved there between the meeting at Jerusalem in 48 and Claudius’ death in 54.” On what basis? What evidence is there for supposing this? And why, if Peter went to Rome so early, does Acts say nothing about it. The argument that the second half of Acts is dedicated to Paul’s activities does not seem a satisfactory explanation. If, as McKechnie further asserts, Peter was so important to Paul, why does he not mention it himself in his epistles, particularly those from Rome. If Irenaeus is right, Peter was there with him, after all. But he is silent, as Acts is silent.

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