Saint Peter, d. AD 64?, most prominent of the Twelve Apostles, listed first in the Gospels, and traditionally the first bishop of Rome. His original name was Simon, but Jesus gave him the nickname Cephas [Aramaic, = rock], which was translated into Greek as Petros [Gr. petra = rock]. Peter was a native of Bethsaida and the brother of St. Andrew; he was married. He and Andrew, both fishermen, were called by Jesus to be disciples at the same time as James and John, the sons of Zebedee (Mark 1.16–20, 29–31; 3.14–16; Luke 5.1–11; John 1.40–44). There are several feasts of St. Peter in the West: St. Peter and St. Paul, June 29; the Chair of St. Peter, Apostle, Feb. 22; and St. Peter in Chains, Aug. 1. A second feast commemorating the Chair of St. Peter (i.e., his episcopal throne) was celebrated on Jan. 18 until abolished in 1960.
In the Gospels
Peter appears throughout the Gospels as leader and spokesman of the disciples, and Jesus most often addressed him when speaking to them (Mat. 10.2; 14.28; 15.15; 17.24; 19.27; Luke 8.51; 12.41). His honored position comes out most clearly in two high points of Jesus' ministry—when Peter confessed Jesus to be the Christ and was told
"Upon this rock I will build my church"
; and when he, together with James and John, was chosen to see the Transfiguration (Mat. 16.13–20; 17.1–13). After the Last Supper he, again with James and John, witnessed Jesus' agony in Gethsemane. When Jesus was betrayed, Peter drew his sword to defend him, but denied him later in the same night, as Jesus had predicted he would (John 13; Mat. 26.26–46, 57–75).
After the Resurrection
After the Resurrection, Jesus appeared by the Sea of Galilee and charged Peter to
"feed my sheep"
(John 20.1–10; 21). The first chapters of the Acts of the Apostles describe Peter's role as leader of the Twelve in the election of a replacement for Judas and in the public declaration at Pentecost (Acts 1.15–26; 2.14–40). Much attention is given to Peter's miracles and to his defense of Christianity; his deliverance from prison by an angel is a celebrated incident (Acts 3; 4; 5.1–11, 29–32; 8.14–25; 9.32–43; 10; 11.1–18; 12.1–19). He was a leader at the council of Jerusalem that was called to discuss the integration of non-Jews into the Christian organization; his hesitation to accept them freely was rebuked by St. Paul (Acts 15; Gal. 2).
A few facts of St. Peter's life are known from 2d-century sources. He apparently left Antioch for Rome c.AD 55; there he died, head of the local church, a martyr under Nero. According to traditional accounts he was crucified with his head downward. From earliest times the Vatican hill has been pointed out as the place of his martyrdom. Constantine erected a church over the supposed burial place of Peter; in the 15th cent. work was begun on a new, huge St. Peter's Church, built on the same location. It is the principal shrine of Roman Catholicism. Excavation has yielded remains of human bones at the site, but they cannot be identified as those of St. Peter. There is a very ancient tradition, accepted by many scholars, that the Gospel of Mark was written with St. Peter's help and that it consists essentially of his memoirs. The epistles of Peter (see Peter, epistles) are regarded by most critics as mistakenly attributed.
Peter and the Papacy
From earliest times Christians looked for leadership to the successors of Peter as the bishop of Rome. However, whether this primacy should be one of honor only (as held by the Orthodox Eastern Church) or of actual rulership of the whole church (as claimed by Roman Catholics; see papacy) is one of the dividing questions of Christian history. The biblical passages cited to support Petrine supremacy are Mat. 16.13–20 and John 21.15–25. From the first passage comes the familiar image of the keys, which are seen to represent papal power, as well as that of St. Peter as the gatekeeper of heaven.
See D. W. O'Connor, Peter in Rome (2 vol., 1960); R. E. Brown et al., Peter in the New Testament (1973).