Simon son of Jonah was born c. AD 1 (3761–3762 in the Hebrew calendar) in the Roman district of Gaulanitis. He is better known as Peter (Greek: Petros; G4074), a name that Jesus gave him as a ministry title (Matt. 16:18). Simon was a fisherman from Bethsaida (John 1:44), a Jewish fishing village on the Sea of Galilee's northern shore. As his name implied, his father was either named Jonah (Matt. 16:17) or John (John 1:42; 21:15-17), as the New Testament authors used both—probably because they share the same Hebrew consonants (יוחנן Yochanan, H3110; יונה Yonah, H3123). Andrew was his brother, with whom he partnered with the Zebedee brothers—James and John—in a fishing business at Capernaum (Luke 5:10). This means Peter was probably lower middle class, equivalent to a blue-collar worker in today's world. It was this background that often got him in trouble, both with Jesus and the Judean authorities. Peter was impulsive, often taking action and then asking questions later. If the contemporary saying, "It is better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission," was a first-century Galilean one, Peter certainly exemplified it. Although Jesus often referred to the Pharisees and other religious leaders as "vipers" (Matt. 12:34; 23:33) or "thieves" (John 10:8-10), he once rebuked Peter by calling him "Satan!" (Matt. 16:23). It was Peter who 1) took his eyes off Jesus while they walked on the Sea of Galilee, and fell in (Matt. 14:28-31), 2) denied Jesus three times (Matt. 26:33-35; Mark 14:29-31; Luke 22:33-34; John 13:36-38), 3) cut off the ear of Malchus—a slave to Caiaphas, the high priest—during Jesus' arrest (John 18:10-11), and 4) who eagerly responded to questions, usually with the wrong answer (Mark 9:5-6; Luke 9:33). However, Peter's story throughout the New Testament is one of God's mercy, the transition from a hotheaded, provincial fisherman to the "rock of the church".
A Galilean Accent
Other than his job as a fisherman, the other clue that Peter was a backwater hick was his Galilean accent, for which he was belittled during his denial of Jesus at Jerusalem (Matt. 26:73). This accent probably reflected the differences between the northern (Ephraim) and southern kingdoms (Judah) after David's reign (1 Kgs. 12:19). The northerners were geographically and culturally removed from Jerusalem, the cosmopolitan center of Israel to the south. Fishing was such a major part of life in the towns that bordered the Sea of Galilee that it even reflects in modern archaeology—a large number of discarded fish bones. The Galilean accent was widely derided by many first-century Jews, and even the Talmudic authors wrote,
A certain Galilean went around saying . . . "Who has amar? Who has amar?" They said to him, 'You Galilean fool, do you mean a donkey (chamor; H2543) for riding, wine (chamar; H2562) for drinking, wool (amar; H6015) for clothing, or a lamb (imar; H563) for slaughtering?'"
They could not make out what the man was asking because Galileans typically slurred the guttural vowels of Hebrew. This is not unlike how modern English speakers often deride accents from the American South or the Cockney from the East End of London. Matthew's narrative purpose in mentioning Peter's accent was to mark the transition from a fisherman to a church leader. He denied Jesus to save his life, going back to the fishing business. Peter assumed that Jesus' ministry ended with his crucifixion, perhaps too readily dismissing him as yet another false messiah. Although he was the first apostle to see the empty tomb, Peter was amazed, but simply returned home (Luke 12; John 20:4). It was Jesus who came to Peter soon after the resurrection, while he was fishing. Jesus reenacted the first time he called Peter at the Sea of Galilee, once again challenging him to net a large number of fish in broad daylight—153 to be exact. In the conversation that followed, Jesus asked Peter three times, "Do you love me more than these?" for each one of his denials. During the first two questions, Jesus used the verb agapaō (G25), then ended with phileō (G5368). Peter was still unsure of what he got himself into, so he responded to Jesus' query of steadfast love with the intent of mere friendship. Yet, Jesus ultimately responded by describing Peter's martyrdom, knowing that he would eventually prove his undying love for God (John 21:1-19). He would go on to be the church's main voice, using his Galilean accent to proclaim this bedrock truth: Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God (Matt. 16:16). Whereas the Judean religious leaders denied the Holy One of Israel could derive from Galilee (John 7:52), Peter in all of his chiseled wit knew better. The prophet Isaiah once wrote, "In the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the gentiles. The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death, light has dawned" (Isa. 9:1-2; Matt. 4:14-15).
Like a Rock
Peter's declaration to Jesus, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God," at Caesarea Philippi is the single most important creed for the Christian church. It underlies any of the historical symbols of Nicaea, Chalcedon, as well as any modern statement of faith. Peter's confession about Jesus' identity was so foundational, that he named Simon the "rock" upon which he would build his church. At this point in the narrative, Peter did not yet understand the complexity of what he said. In a very short time after Peter made the bold proclamation, Jesus rebuked him as "Satan" for trying to stop his death on the cross. When Jesus called Simon the "rock," he was probably speaking Aramaic, using the words Kephas (G2786) and kef (H3710) as both his new ministry title and name (Matt. 16:13-20). The only difference between the Greek words Petros (G4074) and petra (G4073) implies grammatical gender, but nothing as far as theological implications go. The first time that Peter became the "rock" of the church was on Pentecost when the Holy Spirit emboldened him and the other apostles to tell the good news of Jesus. It was Peter who took charge when Jews from all over the Mediterranean and the Near East asked about their newfound ability to speak various languages. Without the benefit of a theology degree (Acts 4:13), Peter invoked the prophet Joel and King David to show how even the Hebrew scriptures forecasted the Messiah and the dispensing of spiritual gifts. He spoke with such authority that 3,000 people felt convicted and were immediately baptized that day (Acts 2:1-41). In his ministry, Peter healed many individuals with disabilities (Acts 3:1; 9:32; 5:15), boldly testified about Jesus to the religious authorities of Jerusalem (Acts 4:1-22), and summoned God's judgment on Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) for their deceit. He was even able to give the Holy Spirit through the laying of hands (Acts 8:17) and to resurrect a disciple named Tabitha from the dead (Acts 9:36).
Despite Peter's success as an apostle, he still had some important lessons to learn. At first, he only ministered to Jews, thinking that God still only concerned himself with Israel. In a dream, God revealed a sheet for Peter to observe, which was filled with non-kosher animals such as "four-footed creatures, reptiles, and birds of the air" (Acts 10:12). The four corners alluded to the "four corners of the earth," a common scriptural analogy for the entire world. However, God was not teaching Peter so much about kosher foods, but about his concern for all people—not only the Jews. This was confirmed by Peter's meeting with Cornelius, a Roman centurion of whom he baptized (Acts 10). Peter's dream was not only a correction of his latent bigotry stemming from his Galilean upbringing, but also a present vocation to gentiles and a future omen of his death in Rome—the capital of the gentile world. In the meantime, Peter traveled throughout the Levant region with his wife (cf. Mark 1:30; 1 Cor. 9:5) and led the wholesale conversions of Judea, Samaria, and the gentiles. As the leader of the Judaic wing of the early church, Peter met with both James and Paul of Tarsus at the Council of Jerusalem c. AD 50 (Acts 15:1-21). He supported the motion that Christian gentiles should not be held to the Law of Moses, although his Judaic believers still kept it. This problem would come up again in Antioch, where Paul confronted Peter over his eating of non-kosher meals with gentiles, although pretending to faithfully observe the dietary laws around Jewish Christians (Gal. 2:11-14).
Peter died in Rome, but most not according to the pious fiction commonly believed. The scriptures do not mention the details of the apostle's death. When Jesus restored Peter, he warned him,
Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go (John 21:18).
The legends of Peter being crucified upside down stem from accounts dating no earlier than the close of the second century—almost the third. This leaves a gap of nearly 100 years after Peter's death. Jesus' reference to a belt and stretched-out hands has nothing to do with crucifixion, but being burned alive. This took place after the Great Fire of Rome in AD 64 when the emperor Nero killed many Christians by sowing them into animal skins for hungry dogs, or by lighting them as torches for city streets. When the Romans crucified their victims, they stripped them completely naked to maximize their shame. This was also true for Jesus, as the gospels testify (Matt. 27:35; Mark 15:24; Luke 23:34; John 19:24). However, Peter's death included clothing and a belt to fasten it, which the Roman soldiers doused in flammable chemicals for immolation. The Roman historian Tacitus (AD 56–c. 120) described this method when writing about the fire:
Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against humankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle (Ann. 15:44).
The only record of Peter's martyrdom from his time was by Clement of Rome (c. AD 30–c. 100), "Let us take the noble examples furnished in our generation. Through envy and jealousy, the greatest and most righteous pillars have been persecuted and put to death . . . Peter, through unrighteous envy, endured not one or two, but numerous labors and when he had at length suffered martyrdom, departed to the place of glory due to him" (1 Clem. 5:5).
Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe, who inspired Simon Peter, first among the apostles, to confess Jesus as Messiah and Son of the living God: Keep your church steadfast upon the rock of this faith, that in unity and peace we may proclaim the one truth and follow the one Lord, our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
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