Peter in Christian Tradition by Benedict Thomas Viviano

Peter is the main spokesperson of the apostles in Christian tradition.  He is frequently present in the gospels and in the first half of Acts, is mentioned in the letters of Paul, and has two letters attributed to him in the New Testament canon. In these texts, he is mentioned as Petros 154 times, as Kephas nine times, and as Simon 75 times.

Peter has a two-fold reputation in the New Testament, (a) as a man of strong faith in Christ who is the leader of the apostles and honored by Jesus, and as the gatherer of the disciples after the crisis of Easter, and (b) as an impulsive, impatient, sometimes foolish, sinner. The New Testament sees Peter as guilty of five major sins: his little faith while walking on the water (Matt 14:28-31); his failure to see the necessity of the cross (Matt 16:21-23); his joining other men in flight when Jesus is arrested (Mark 14:50; Matt 26:56); his denial of Jesus three times (Mark 14:66-70); and his withdrawal from the table fellowship in Gal 2:11-14. Also, he behaves foolishly in John 21:7. Peter’s character—a human, repentant, and ultimately forgiven sinner (John 21:15-17)—makes him a popular figure, a sort of Falstaff or Sancho Panza. 

All three Synoptic Gospels record Peter’s key moment of recognition: that Jesus is the Christ (Mark 8:24-30 and parallels). But in the Gospel of Matthew alone (Matt 16:17-19), Jesus makes a statement of the highest importance for church government.  Peter is given a blessing and becomes the rock of foundation for the future church. He is given the keys of the kingdom and the power “to bind and to loose,” that is, to bind the devil (exorcism), to excommunicate troublesome members, to teach, and to legislate authoritatively. There are softer echoes of this promise in Luke 22:31-32 and John 21:15-17.

But would Jesus’ proclamation give Peter too much power? If so, a passage in Matt 18:18-20 seems to balance out the problem; it notes that the power “to bind and to loose” is given to the disciples. Many Christians understand these verses to mean that a Petrine ministry of unity is to be balanced by power-sharing arrangements in church organizations, even very large and centralized ones. Church councils or synods, local, provincial, or ecumenical, should hold in check abuses of power. Such abuse occurs through overcentralization and dictatorial or doctrinal asphyxiation.

The historical Peter is thought to have died in Rome as a martyr under the emperor Nero in 64 C.E. The conviction that Peter’s bones were kept in Rome as relics eventually provided the church of Rome with a basis for the claim that the bishops of Rome (later known as popes) inherited the authority that Jesus had given to Peter; only Peter got the keys. Some commentators try to overcome the danger represented by Matt 16:17-19 by saying that these promises were made only to Peter, not to his successors. This solution is unconvincing if, as most scholars think, these verses were added by Matthew after Peter was dead. The verses Matt 16:18-19 clearly provide guidance for the post-Easter Christian assembly; the tenses are in the future.

In Christian tradition, Peter’s confession of faith becomes the model for all believers. Pope Leo the Great (who reigned from 440 to 461) clearly claimed Matt 16:17-19 as the basis for his broad authority. This bold claim provoked other churches to seek out alternative paths of apostolic authority and tradition.  In Jerusalem, James is claimed as its founding bishop; Constantinople adopted Andrew; Ephesus in Turkey adopted John, who in turn became the most important disciple for a variety of Christian groups and movements. Nevertheless, Peter remains to this day a lively symbol of faith in Christ, of church leadership, and of sinful weakness.

Benedict Thomas Viviano, "Peter in Christian Tradition", n.p. [cited 29 Mar 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.com/en/people/related-articles/peter-in-christian-tradition

Contributors

Benedict Thomas Viviano

Benedict Thomas Viviano
Professor Emeritus, University of Fribourg

Benedict Thomas Viviano is professor emeritus of New Testament at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland. He currently resides in Vienna. He is the author of Matthew and His World (Goettingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007); The Kingdom of God in History (Eugene, Or: Wipf & Stock, 1988); and a commentary on Matthew, in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary (Prentice-Hall, 1999).

The idea that Christian doctrines and bishops obtain their authority through a lineage going back to the original apostles.

An authoritative collection of texts generally accepted as scripture.

Of or related to beliefs held by an institution, such as a religion.

The Christian springtime holiday that celebrates Jesus's resurrection.

The expulsion of demons.

A gospel is an account that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

Service or a religious vocation to help others.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

Of or related to the apostle Peter.

Bodily or personal fragments of a holy person or saint, especially revered in medieval times and associated with miraculous powers.

Meetings of church officials, often from far-flung locations.

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which share similar literary content.

Matt 14:28-31

28Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”29He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water ... View more

Matt 16:21-23

Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection
21From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at th ... View more

Mark 14:50

50All of them deserted him and fled.

Matt 26:56

56But all this has taken place, so that the scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.

Mark 14:66-70

Peter Denies Jesus
66While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant-girls of the high priest came by.67When she saw Peter warming himself, she stare ... View more

Gal 2:11-14

Paul Rebukes Peter at Antioch
11But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned;12for until certain people came from ... View more

John 21:7

7That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jump ... View more

John 21:15-17

Jesus and Peter
15When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; ... View more

Mark 8:24-30

24And the man looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.”25Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently an ... View more

Matt 16:17-19

17And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.18And I tell you, you ... View more

Luke 22:31-32

Jesus Predicts Peter's Denial
31“Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat,32but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not ... View more

John 21:15-17

Jesus and Peter
15When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; ... View more

Matt 18:18-20

18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.19Again, truly I tell you, if t ... View more

Matt 16:17-19

17And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.18And I tell you, you ... View more

Matt 16:18-19

18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.19I will give you the keys of the k ... View more

Matt 16:17-19

17And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.18And I tell you, you ... View more

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