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Peter in Christian Tradition

Pietro Perugino
Pietro Perugino

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

    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).