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Peter

(c. 64 ad)


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(d. c.64),

leader of the apostles. Most of what we know of him comes from the New Testament. He was called Simon, a native of Bethsaida, near the Sea of Galilee, and a brother of Andrew, who introduced him to Christ, who gave to him the name of Cephas (Peter) which means rock. Andrew and Peter, who was married, were fishermen by profession; Peter may have been the leader of a ‘cooperative’ which included the sons of Zebedee. In the list of the apostles he is always in the first place; he was one of the three apostles who were privileged to witness the Transfiguration, the raising of the daughter of Jairus, and the Agony in the Garden. The meaning of the name Peter was further explained by Christ when, in answer to Peter's famous confession of faith, recognized by Jesus as the result of revelation by the Father, Christ told him that he would be the rock on which his Church would be built, that the ‘gates of hell’ would never prevail against it, and that Peter would have the power of ‘binding and loosing’ (like the other apostles), but that he personally would be given ‘the keys of the kingdom of heaven’. The strongly Aramaic character of this passage, together with the fact that it is present in all the earliest manuscripts of the Gospels, makes varied attempts to explain it away as an interpolation completely unconvincing. Christ also prophesied Peter's betrayal and subsequent strengthening of the other apostles; after the Resurrection Christ appeared to Peter before the other apostles and gave him later the mission to feed both the lambs and the sheep of Christ's flock. In the early chapters of the Acts of the Apostles Peter took the lead in deciding what should be done: he designated the successor to Judas; he preached authoritatively at Pentecost; he was the first apostle to work a miracle and soon became the most notable miracle-worker; he justified the apostles' teaching to the sanhedrim, condemned Ananias and Sapphira, admitted gentiles into the church with Cornelius; later he took a prominent part in the council at Jerusalem. Later still he was rebuked by Paul at Antioch for temporizing about eating with gentiles.

The venerable and early tradition which links Peter with an apostolate and martyrdom at Rome is not explicitly affirmed in the New Testament, but it is quite consistent with it, especially in view of Peter's first epistle mentioning ‘Babylon’, which is usually identified with Rome. Paul's preaching at Rome had been long delayed because it was his usual policy not to preach where other apostles were at work. But Peter's presence in Rome is explicitly affirmed by many early witnesses such as Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Irenaeus. The same passages imply that he was its (virtual) founder, instituted the episcopal succession, and suffered martyrdom. Tradition affirms that he suffered under Nero and was crucified head-downwards (Origen), but the claim that his apostolate there lasted twenty-five years appears first in Jerome and is less convincing. Recent excavations at the Vatican, while of very great interest, do not conclusively prove that Peter's relics are under St Peter's, although it is probable that the tomb is authentic. It is also most significant that Rome is the only city that ever claimed to be Peter's place of death.

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Subjects: Christianity.


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