Saint Peter: The Underestimated Apostle

Saint Peter: The Underestimated Apostle

by Martin Hengel, Thomas Trapp

"You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my community."
— Matthew 16:18, author's translation

Given that Peter fades from view halfway through the book of Acts and that he left no gospel account in his name, it is tempting for many biblical scholars to dismiss him as a vague figure in Christian history and downplay his


"You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my community."
— Matthew 16:18, author's translation

Given that Peter fades from view halfway through the book of Acts and that he left no gospel account in his name, it is tempting for many biblical scholars to dismiss him as a vague figure in Christian history and downplay his influence in the early church.

Martin Hengel rejects this underestimation of the apostle and argues that Peter was in fact the Rock, central to the development of both the Jewish and the Gentile Christian communities. Hengel clearly shows how each of the four gospels specifically highlights Peter's foundational role. He considers what Peter's message must have been as an eyewitness of Christ, reflects on Peter's theology, and draws attention to Peter's work as an organizer and mission strategist. Hengel also examines the contributions of married apostles — like Peter — and their family communities to the rapid and enduring spread of the Christian message.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Paul J. Achtemeier
— Union Theological Seminary in Virginia
"In this study of Peter's decisive role in shaping the theology of the early Christian traditions, Martin Hengel provides a wealth of material on the historical circumstances and background of both Hellenistic and Jewish/rabbinic thought and history. Revealing Peter as theologian and mission organizer, the book contains a gold mine of information not only about Peter but also about the early church and its development. A highly recommended study."

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The Underestimated Apostle
By Martin Hengel

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2006 Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8028-2718-0

Chapter One

I. Peter the Rock, Paul, and the Gospel Tradition

1. Three Questions for Matthew 16:17-19

"Tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam et portae inferi non praevalebunt adversum eam...." The Protestant who visits Rome is impressed when reading an excerpt from this text in a circular inscription in the dome of St. Peter's Basilica, even if he or she cannot give assent to the interpretation of this text that lies behind it, applying it to the bishop of Rome. In any case, it is worthwhile to reflect upon these texts and others that discuss Peter, and in fact to go further still to consider the unique person of this disciple. The majestic passage in Matt. 16:18, within its wider context in 16:17-19,1 has posed certain puzzling questions since the time of Tertullian, Origen, and Cyprian. The entire passage reads:


But Jesus answered and said to him: "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jona; For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father, who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my community, and the gates of the realm of the dead will not overpower it. I desire to give you the keys of the realm of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth, that will be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth, that will be loosed in heaven."

Few verses in the New Testament have caused such disagreement with respect to their interpretation, especially since the Reformation; at the same time, few have been so important within history as these. At this point we cannot proceed further in considering the many-faceted effect their interpretation has had within history. Instead, in view of our basic theme, we will direct only three questions to the Matthean text at this time:

1. Who is responsible for this textual unit? 2. When did it come into existence? 3. Why did the evangelist insert it as a "special unit" into his writing, or else conceptualize it on his own?

The last question can also be formulated: Why does Peter hold such a position for the evangelist, which one might even say is unique? This question will give direction to the study that follows.

1. The promise to Peter, following right after his confession about the Messiah, does not go back directly to Jesus himself but presents itself as an artfully constructed compositional unit in the manuscript of the evangelist, who is reworking older tradition, though there is no way any longer to distinguish sharply between his redaction and the sources he had available. His is the only one of the four gospels that uses the term [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (community), and twice at that: in 16:18 he uses it for the universal community in Christ, and in 18:17 for the concrete individual community — the two senses in which it was used in early Christianity. The evangelist thus assumes thereby that Jesus himself established a "unique community" within and in addition to Israel, even though during his ministry he concentrated his efforts on the people of the twelve tribes. When looking to what was ahead for him at this point, he was not concentrating on events that would lead to the onset of the history of the church after Easter but was speaking of his suffering as the servant of God and looking forward to the inbreaking of the reign of God, for all to see, when the Son of Man would be revealed.

"Binding" and "loosing" are rabbinic technical terms for halakic and disciplinary decisions that "forbid" or "permit"; said another way, they indicate that one imposes or removes a ban. We do not know how broadly such terms were in use in this sense before A.D. 70. The evangelist, who himself was an unknown Jewish Christian scribe and, one might assume, an experienced congregational leader toward the end of the first century, takes this terminology from his opponents, the Pharisaic scribes who reformulated Palestinian Judaism anew after the catastrophe of A.D. 70. He thus uses 16:19 to articulate the fullness of the power of Peter with respect to proclamation and church leadership, in teaching and in organization, which would have validity on "earth" and in "heaven." By contrast, in the parallel passage that is directed in general to the (twelve) disciples in 18:18, within the framework about discussion of the church, their full authority to carry out discipline is more heavily accentuated. The "keys of the reign of heaven"(16:19a) are mentioned, with respect to Peter, in the message entrusted to him after Easter, which has as its central point the confession to Jesus that he is "the Messiah, the son of the living God" (16:16) and the one who brings the reign of God. Whoever takes hold of this message in faithful obedience and lives out his or her life in a way that corresponds to it, for that person the entrance to the reign of God will open itself, whereas the Pharisaic scribes had closed off access for themselves and for others at the time of the evangelist because of their enmity against Jesus in Jewish Palestine. By analogy, the same admittedly holds true for the (only seemingly) Christian "antinomians" and "libertines" who say "Lord, Lord" but who spurn "the will of my Father in heaven." For those living at the end of the first century, the evangelist wants to restate this message once again in his work, which is addressed to the entire church in the critical situation that was confronting them.

2. These comments provide us with an answer to our second question, which deals with the time of origin for the passage. The text as a whole reflects the unique situation and the theology of the evangelist, who is cognizant of the tradition and who composed his gospel relatively late, approximately between A.D. 90 and 100, either in southern Syria or at the border between Palestine and Syria. As is demonstrated by Matthew 23, he assumes the existence of the decisions of the house of teaching established by R. Gamaliel II, which reconstituted Palestinian Judaism at Yavneh. The historical situation of the First Gospel allows itself to be determined rather specifically. It is considerably younger than Mark and Luke, and it shows an awareness of both. An analysis of its historical situation shows that it could not have come into existence at an early time. Its theological vocabulary is the most developed of the three Synoptics and gives the most evidence of having been carefully thought through. The evangelist was an impressive theological thinker, whose effect on the ancient church compares favorably with that of Paul and of John. All of this leads to the conclusion that the anonymous author looks back upon Peter as someone who was, for him, a unique authority from the past, one who had died a martyr's death in Rome approximately one generation earlier, presumably within the context of Nero's persecution. According to Tacitus, there was a multitudo ingens (great multitude) who received a gruesome execution at that time. This bit of information might be somewhat overstated, but it was in any case the greatest mass execution of Christians in the first century. The "gates of the realm of death" "would not be stronger" than the church of Christ that was built upon Peter the rock, even though the "Man of Rock" himself had been offered up as a martyr. This incident reminds one concretely of this persecution that brought death, but also of the present and even more severe future persecutions that one expected would accompany the arrival of the Antichrist. Because the architect of the church, as the Resurrected One, was the one who broke the power of death, his church, which is built upon Peter the Rock, is also stronger than all the powers of death. The situation of the church during the late period of Domitian had gotten considerably worse than it was during the earlier reign of the Flavians. Even the message about bearing the cross, which Matt. 16:24 takes from Mark 8:34, could point indirectly to Nero's persecution, which is the first time that we hear about Christians being crucified. Even Peter is said to have been crucified at that time. The Lord, who erected his church upon Peter the Rock, which was invincible in spite of all future suffering, is the same one who assures the community of the disciples at the end of the gospel: "I am with you to the end of the world" — that is, until the parousia.

3. Jesus' word about the "Man of Rock," which presents the climax within the Gospel of Matthew, along with the first prediction of suffering, which is set forth in stark contrast to it by design, is unique in the entire New Testament. In no other passage is any particular disciple of Jesus selected for particular emphasis in any comparable way. That is true simply with respect to the beatitude that is directed uniquely toward him. The closest one can come to a comparable passage would be that of the puzzling Beloved Disciple in the Gospel of John, who is presented in a way that competes with Peter because of his closeness to Jesus. But even this ideal disciple does not play the unique, salvation-historical role that the Matthean Christ promises to the Man of Rock. In fact, it is not to that Beloved Disciple but to Peter that Jesus gives the directive in John 21:15-17, to "feed my sheep," three times, which means that, even in John, the Resurrected One confers a leadership role that is higher and of lasting duration, which will come to an end only with his martyrdom. Thus one cannot fail to see that such special authority is attributed to Peter, even in the Fourth Gospel itself.

The closest parallel to this remarkable promise from Jesus to Peter in the middle of the First Gospel appears in an apocryphal gospel from the second century, from the "hidden words" of Jesus "that Didymus Judas Thomas wrote." There, in logion 12, it says: "The disciples said to Jesus: 'We know that you will depart from us. Who [then] will rule over us?' Jesus said to them: 'No matter wherever you have come from, you should go to James the Just, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being.'"

Here Jesus' brother James, who has been given the epithet "the Just," is promised the position of leadership among the community of the disciples. The reason behind this is admittedly very different. In contrast with the address to Peter, the grounds are not Christological or eschatological but cosmological; it corresponds to the Jewish ideal of one who is perfectly righteous. As stated in the monograph by R. Mach that is still the standard: "The entire creation ... is placed under the Zaddik [Righteous One] and stands ready to serve him." The role here ascribed to James clearly competes with the unique position of Peter for the early church. This competitive relationship is also seen in the fact that James, not Peter, is promised in the Gospel of the Hebrews that the first appearance of the Resurrected One will be to him. Later church tradition, from the time of Clement of Alexandria and afterward, in opposition to this claim, which originated from within a staunch Jewish Christian framework, sought to find a compromise, in which James was installed as bishop by all the apostles in Jerusalem. But James can also appear for Clement as the leading recipient of revelation, being named first among those who receive "gnosis" from Jesus. With respect to the institution itself, the "monarchical episcopate" in the church might actually have its roots in James being the leader of the community in Jerusalem, who is at the head of the "elders," and it might have spread to the West from there. Already at the so-called Apostolic Council James is mentioned as the first of the three pillars according to Gal. 2:9, before Peter and John. And according to Acts 15:13-21 James's suggestion resolves the dispute in Jerusalem, which means that he has the final, decisive word. The brother of the Lord apparently functioned as the leading authority figure for the original community in Jerusalem for approximately twenty years — from the time of persecution by Agrippa, roughly A.D. 42/43, until he was stoned in about 62.

It is thus all the more surprising that James appears in the Gospels only in Mark and Matthew, and then in a merely cursory role each time, as the first-named of the four brothers of Jesus, who lived in Nazareth and who are mentioned in the entire New Testament a mere 11 times, including 3 times in Acts and 4 times in Paul. That is certainly also because he (and his brothers) still had an estranged relationship with their strange brother during Jesus' lifetime. By contrast, Peter, when one counts the variety of ways he is named (Peter, Simon, Cephas), is mentioned 75 times in the Synoptics alone and 35 times in John. His person is referred to in the New Testament 181 times altogether; he is mentioned even more often than Paul/Saul, who appears 177 times. Both of them thus appear for us more often than the collective terminology that refers to [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (the disciples), [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (the apostles), or [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (the Twelve). This radical difference in the number of times that James is mentioned, over against Peter and Paul, shows, among other things, that there was significant inner conflict within early Christianity. The result of this was that later, in the decades following 70, James and the relatives of Jesus stood on the Jewish Christian side, and that Peter and Paul — discounting for the moment observable theological and personal differences between them — stand on the stronger, expanding, and primarily Gentile Christian side. This means that the traditions passed on by the church at-large, preserved for us in the canonical Scriptures of the New Testament after the catastrophe of the destruction of Jerusalem, are clearly one-sidedly representative of this latter view. After this deep blow, Palestinian (-Syrian) Jewish Christianity, which remained faithful to the law, had less and less influence. During the second century, it was expelled from the church altogether, just as it had previously been expelled from the synagogue.

In any case, we see from this cursory statistical comparison of names that — at least in retrospect — the two "apostolic princes" obviously played a transcendent role within earliest Christianity that almost completely marginalized the role played by the Lord's brother. This observation is particularly apt with respect to Peter in the gospel traditions and in the Acts of the Apostles. His unique position of importance can be seen already by the very fact that, in a way that is similar to Jesus himself, but in contrast to Paul, we have no genuine written testimony from him. The two letters of Peter are pseudepigraphic, prepared by those who wanted to do something about the lack of written materials when compared to Paul. First Peter probably came into existence about A.D. 95-100, possibly as an answer to the publication of the collection of eleven "Letters of Paul" and at the same time as a way to strengthen the faith when increasing oppression of the church came late in Domitian's reign and early in the reign of Trajan. Second Peter comes from approximately one generation later and laments the misuse of the Letters of Paul, plus addresses doubts that have arisen about the apocalyptic expectation of the parousia. Both writings have the character of testaments of the apostle just before his martyrdom. In this sense they can be compared with the pseudepigraphic Pastoral Epistles. In reality, we do not even know whether we can say for sure that Peter, who was once a Galilean fisherman, even knew how to write decently. The ability to read, already on the level of being able to know the Holy Scriptures, was more important and more widespread.


Excerpted from SAINT PETER by Martin Hengel Copyright © 2006 by Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Martin Hengel (1926–2009) was professor emeritus ofNew Testament and early Judaism at the University ofTübingen, Germany. He authored over 150 books and articles,including Acts and the History of EarliestChristianity; Jews, Greeks, and Barbarians;and Between Jesus and Paul.

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