Academic journal article Theological Studies

Peter as Witness to Easter

Academic journal article Theological Studies

Peter as Witness to Easter

Article excerpt

IN 2010, FOUR YEARS AFTER Martin Hengel's Saint Peter: An Underestimated Apostle appeared in German, it was published in English. (1) This learned book has established itself as a significant contribution on Peter and his role in the emergence of Christianity. It belongs not only with such earlier landmark works as Oscar Cullmann's Peter: Disciple, Apostle, Martyr and the ecumenical collection of essays Peter in the New Testament, (2) but also with recent studies by authors like Christian Grappe and Rudolf Pesch. (3)

Hengel argues that "the historical and theological importance of the fisherman from Bethsaida has been generally underestimated within both evangelical [= Protestant] and Catholic exegetical circles." He applies his wide learning to establish Peter's "overarching importance" for all four Gospels and, more generally, for Jewish and Gentile Christianity. (4) Peter proved to be "the apostolic foundational figure" in the emerging church. The key texts for Hengel's argument are Jesus' promise to Peter in Matthew 16:17-19 and, to a lesser extent, the promise in Luke 22:31-32, along with the commission in John 21:15-17. (5) Yet Hengel, like so many earlier and later writers, has little to say about the resurrection of Jesus and Peter's decisive function as Easter witness. In Hengel's study (and elsewhere), it is this that continues to be generally underestimated.

In this article I first discuss the work of Hengel, Pesch, and Grappe, and then illustrate a pervasive inattention to the role of Peter as witness to the resurrection. That will prepare the ground for exploring exegetically, historically, and theologically, the importance of the Easter function of "the fisherman from Bethsaida." (6)


Martin Hengel

Hengel spends over 100 pages arguing for the fullness of Peter's power that was exercised in proclamation and leadership for the emerging church. Apropos of Matthew 16:17-19, he elucidates the nickname that functioned as a honorific name, Kepha as "Rock," (7) insists that, as the one who alone has "the power of the keys," the Matthean Peter was not simply the "typical disciple," (8) and argues that long before Matthew wrote his Gospel, Peter was already the foundational, apostolic figure in the church. (9) In particular, he was the great witness to the teaching and activity of the earthly Jesus; shortly after the martyrdom of Peter, his disciple Mark wrote a Gospel that transmitted the witness of Peter. (10) Luke and, even more, Matthew were to draw on Mark and maintained "the overarching importance of Peter," an importance reflected not only in John but also in Acts and in such Pauline letters as Galatians and 1 Corinthians. (11)

When reaching these and other conclusions about Peter, Hengel draws magisterially on a wide range of ancient and modern authors and generally establishes his case convincingly. He did not persuade me on a few points, like his late dating of Matthew's Gospel (around AD 95). But these are minor issues; my questioning centers on what he said (or rather did not say) about the resurrection of the crucified Jesus. Hengel names Peter as "the decisive apostolic witness," (12) but--normally--without stating that the heart of this witness concerned the unique divine action in raising Jesus from the dead and making his glorious existence the beginning of the end for all history and of a new life for a transformed world.

Hengel refers to the appearances of the Resurrected One and what he did for the disciples (in the plural) by giving them "the experience of the forgiveness of their guilt." (13) Then he mentions Peter "as the first to see the Resurrected One," a vision that meant "both forgiveness and a new acceptance." (14) I had expected Hengel to say much more than that, by appreciating the appearance of the risen Jesus to Peter, who was named in the ancient "summary of the gospel" in 1 Corinthians 15:5 not by his personal name "Simon" but as "Cephas. …

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