St. Peter ( died c. 64 AD), also known as Simon Peter, Simeon, or Simōn, according to the New Testament, was one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus Christ, leaders of the early Christian Church. The Roman Catholic Church considers him to be the first Pope, ordained by Jesus in the “Rock of My Church” dialogue in Matthew 16:18. The ancient Christian churches all venerate Peter as a major saint and associate him with founding the Church of Antioch and later the Church in Rome.
The New Testament indicates that St. Peter was the son of John (or Jonah or Jon) and was from the village of Bethsaida in the province of Galilee or Gaulanitis. His brother Andrew was also an apostle. According to New Testament accounts, St. Peter was one of twelve apostles chosen by Jesus from his first disciples. Originally a fisherman, he played a leadership role and was with Jesus during events witnessed by only a few apostles, such as the Transfiguration. According to the gospels, Peter confessed Jesus as the Messiah,was part of Jesus’s inner circle, thrice denied Jesus, and preached on the day of Pentecost.
According to Christian tradition, Peter was crucified in Rome under Emperor Nero Augustus Caesar. It is traditionally held that he was crucified upside down at his own request, since he saw himself unworthy to be crucified in the same way as Jesus. Tradition holds that he was crucified at the site of the Clementine Chapel. His remains are said to be those contained in the underground Confessio of St. Peter’s Basilica, where Pope Paul VI announced in 1968 the excavated discovery of a first-century Roman cemetery. Every June 29 since 1736, a statue of St. Peter in St. Peter’s Basilica is adorned with papal tiara, ring of the fisherman, and papal vestments, as part of the celebration of the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul. According to Catholic doctrine, the direct papal successor to Saint Peter is the current Pope, Pope Francis.
St. Peter’s original name was “Shimon” or “Simeon” (“Simon” in modern English). He was later given the name “Peter”, New Testament Greek Πέτρος (Petros) derived from πέτρα (petra), which means rock. In the Latin translation of the Bible this became Petrus, a masculine form of the feminine petra (f), which is a loanword from Greek still meaning “rock.” Another version of this name is Aramaic: (Šimʻōn Kêpâ Sëmʻān Kêpâ), after his name in Hellenised Aramaic.
The English and German “Peter”, French “Pierre”, the Italian “Pietro”, the Spanish and Portuguese “Pedro”, the Polish “Piotr” , Russian Пётр (“Pyotr”) and Malayalam പത്രോസ് (“patros”) are all derived from Petrus. (“Pierre” is also an ordinary French noun meaning “stone”.)
The Syriac or Aramaic word for “rock” is kepa, which in Greek became Greek: Πέτρος, also meaning “rock”. He is also known as Simon Peter, Cephas (Greek: Κηφᾶς) and Kepha (Hebrew: כיפא). Both Cephas and Kepha also mean rock.
St. Peter’s life story is told in the four canonical gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, New Testament letters, the non-canonical Gospel of the Hebrews and other Early Church accounts of his life and death. In the New Testament, he is among the first of the disciples called during Jesus’ ministry. St.Peter became the first listed apostle ordained by Jesus in the early church.
In the Synoptic Gospels, Peter (then Simon) was a fisherman along with his brother Andrew and the sons of Zebedee, James and John. The Gospel of John also depicts Peter fishing, even after the resurrection of Jesus, in the story of the Catch of 153 fish. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus called Simon and his brother Andrew to be “fishers of men”.
A Franciscan church is built upon the traditional site of Apostle Peter’s house. In Luke, Simon Peter owns the boat that Jesus uses to preach to the multitudes who were pressing on him at the shore of Lake Gennesaret. Jesus then amazes Simon and his companions James and John (Andrew is not mentioned) by telling them to lower their nets, whereupon they catch a huge number of fish. Immediately after this, they follow him. The Gospel of John gives a comparable account of “The First Disciples”. In John, we are told that it was two disciples of John the Baptist (Andrew and an unnamed disciple) who heard John the Baptist announce Jesus as the “Lamb of God” and then followed Jesus. Andrew then went to his brother Simon, saying, “We have found the Messiah“, and then brought Simon to Jesus.
Three of the four gospels – Matthew, Mark and John – recount the story of Jesus walking on water. Matthew additionally describes Peter walking on water for a moment but beginning to sink when his faith wavers.
At the beginning of the Last Supper, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. Peter initially refused to let Jesus wash his feet, but when Jesus responded: “If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me”, Peter replied: “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head”. The washing of feet is often repeated in the service of worship on Maundy Thursday by some Christian denominations.
The three Synoptic Gospels all mention that, when Jesus was arrested, one of his companions cut off the ear of a servant of the High Priest. The Gospel of John also includes this event and names Peter as the swordsman and Malchus as the victim. Luke adds that Jesus touched the ear and miraculously healed it. This healing of the servant’s ear is the last of the 37 miracles attributed to Jesus in the Bible.
Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter (Petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
A common view of Peter is provided by Jesuit Father Daniel J. Harrington, who suggests that Peter was an unlikely symbol of stability. While he was one of the first disciples called and was the spokesman for the group, Peter is also the exemplar of “little faith”. In Matthew 14, Peter will soon have Jesus say to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”, and he will eventually deny Jesus three times. Thus, in light of the Easter event, Peter became an exemplar of the forgiven sinner. Outside the Catholic Church, opinions vary as to the interpretation of this passage with respect to what authority and responsibility, if any, Jesus was giving to Peter.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church this passage is interpreted as not implying a special prominence to the person of Peter, but to Peter’s position as representative of the Apostles. The word used for “rock” (petra) grammatically refers to “a small detachment of the massive ledge”, not to a massive boulder. Thus, Orthodox Sacred Tradition understands Jesus’ words as referring to the apostolic faith.
Petros had not previously been used as a name, but in the Greek-speaking world it became a popular Christian name, after the tradition of Peter’s prominence in the early Christian church had been established
All four canonical gospels recount that, during the Last Supper, Jesus foretold that Peter would deny him three times before the following cockcrow (“before the cock crows twice” in Mark’s account).
The three Synoptics and John describe the three denials as follows:
Matthew adds that it was his accent that gave him away as coming from Galilee. Luke deviates slightly from this by stating that, rather than a crowd accusing Simon Peter, it was a third individual.
The Gospel of John places the second denial while Peter was still warming himself at the fire, and gives as the occasion of the third denial a claim by someone to have seen him in the garden of Gethsemane when Jesus was arrested.
In the Gospel of Luke is a record of Christ telling St. Peter: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: but I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.”
In a reminiscent scene in John’s epilogue, St. Peter affirms three times that he loves Jesus.
There is a reversed “denial” of Peter by Jesus in Gnostic Apocalypse of Peter, perhaps revealing an origin in gnostic tradition of the reversed canonical version. It may pertain to a denial of Jesus appearing to the disciples in the Gethsemane scene, where he comes three times but finds them sleeping, so withholds a vision of himself from them. That is the apparent mystic meaning found in the gnostic version regarding his denial of Peter there.
In John’s gospel, Peter is the first person to enter the empty tomb, although the women and the beloved disciple see it before him. In Luke’s account, the women’s report of the empty tomb is dismissed by the apostles, and Peter is the only one who goes to check for himself, running to the tomb. After seeing the graveclothes he goes home, apparently without informing the other disciples.
Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians contains a list of resurrection appearances of Jesus, the first of which is an appearance to Peter. Here, Paul apparently follows an early tradition that Peter was the first to see the risen Christ, which, however, did not seem to have survived to the time when the gospels were written.
In the final chapter of the Gospel of John, Peter, in one of the resurrection appearances of Jesus, three times affirmed his love for Jesus, balancing his threefold denial, and Jesus reconfirmed Peter’s position. The Church of the Primacy of St. Peter on the Sea of Galilee is seen as the traditional site where Jesus Christ appeared to his disciples after his resurrection and, according to Catholic tradition, established Peter’s supreme jurisdiction over the Christian church.
St. Peter is always listed first among the Twelve Apostles in the gospels and in the Book of Acts (Acts 1:13). He is also frequently mentioned in the gospels as forming with James the Elder and John a special group within the Twelve Apostles, present at incidents at which the others were not present, such as at the Transfiguration of Jesus,at the raising of Jairus’ daughter and at the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. St. Peter often confesses his faith in Jesus as the Messiah.
The Acts of the Apostles portrays St.Peter as an extremely important figure within the early Christian community, with Peter delivering a significant open-air sermon during Pentecost. According to the same book, Peter took the lead in selecting a replacement for Judas Iscariot.
He was twice arraigned, with John, before the Sanhedrin and directly defied them. He undertook a missionary journey to Lydda, Joppa and Caesarea, becoming instrumental in the decision to evangelise the Gentiles.
Acts 12 tells how Peter, who was in Jerusalem, was put into prison by King Herod (A.D. 42-44), but was rescued by an angel. After his liberation Peter left Jerusalem to go to “another place” (Acts 12:1-18).
At the Council of Jerusalem (c. 50), the early Church, Paul and the leaders of the Jerusalem church met and decided to embrace Gentile converts. Acts portrays Peter and other leaders as successfully opposing the Christian Pharisees who insisted on circumcision.
According to the epistle to the Galatians 2:11, Peter went to Antioch where Paul rebuked him for treating Gentile converts as inferior to Jewish Christians (see the Incident at Antioch). Galatians is accepted as authentic by almost all scholars. These may be the earliest mentions of Peter to be written. Later accounts expand on the brief biblical mention of his visit to Antioch. The Liber Pontificalis (9th century) mentions Peter as having served as bishop of Antioch for seven years and having potentially left his family in the Greek city before his journey to Rome. Claims of direct blood lineage from Simon Peter among the old population of Antioch existed in the 1st century and continue to exist today, notably by certain Semaan families of modern-day Syria and Lebanon. Historians have furnished other evidence of Peter’s sojourn in Antioch. Subsequent tradition held that Peter had been the first Patriarch of Antioch. According to the writings of Origen and Eusebius in his Church History (III, 36) Peter would have been the founder of the Church of Antioch and “after having first founded the church at Antioch, went away to Rome preaching the Gospel, and he also, after [presiding over] the church in Antioch, presided over that of Rome until his death”.
The Catholic Church speaks of the Pope, the Bishop of Rome, as the successor of St. Peter. This is often interpreted to imply that Peter was the first Bishop of Rome. However, it is also said that the institution of the papacy is not dependent on the idea that Peter was Bishop of Rome or even on his ever having been in Rome. While accepting that Peter came to Rome and was martyred there, scholars find no historical evidence that he held episcopal office there.
In the epilogue of the Gospel of John, Jesus hints at the death by which Peter would glorify God, saying “when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” This is interpreted by some as a reference to Peter’s crucifixion. Early church tradition (as indicated below) says Peter probably died by crucifixion (with arms outstretched) at the time of the Great Fire of Rome in the year 64. Margherita Guarducci, who led the research leading to the rediscovery of Peter’s reputed tomb in its last stages (1963–1968), concludes Peter died on 13 October AD 64 during the festivities on the occasion of the “dies imperii” of Emperor Nero. This took place three months after the disastrous fire that destroyed Rome for which the emperor (Nero) wished to blame the Christians. This “dies imperii” (regnal day anniversary) was an important one, exactly ten years after Nero ascended to the throne, and it was ‘as usual’ accompanied by much bloodshed. Traditionally, Roman authorities sentenced him to death by crucifixion. According to the apocryphal Acts of Peter, he was crucified head down. Tradition also locates his burial place where the Basilica of Saint Peter was later built, directly beneath the Basilica’s high altar.
Catholic tradition holds that Peter’s inverted crucifixion occurred at the spot now occupied by the Clementine Chapel in the grottoes of Saint Peter’s Basilica, with the burial in Saint Peter’s tomb nearby.
In the early 4th century, the Emperor Constantine I decided to honour Peter with a large basilica. Because the precise location of Peter’s burial was so firmly fixed in the belief of the Christians of Rome, the church to house the basilica had to be erected on a site that was not convenient to construction. The slope of the Vatican Hill had to be excavated, even though the church could much more easily have been built on level ground only slightly to the south. There were also moral and legal issues, such as demolishing a cemetery to make room for the building. The focal point of the Basilica, both in its original form and in its later complete reconstruction, is the altar located over what is said to be the point of Peter’s burial.
According to a letter quoted by Bede, Pope Vitalian sent a cross containing filings said to be from Peter’s chains to the queen of Oswy, Anglo-Saxon King of Northumbria in 665, as well as unspecified relics of the saint to the king.
In 1950, human bones were found buried underneath the altar of St. Peter’s Basilica. The bones have been claimed by many to have been those of Peter. An attempt to contradict these claims was made in 1953 by the excavation of what some believe to be St Peter’s tomb in Jerusalem. However along with this supposed tomb in Jerusalem bearing his previous name Simon (but not Peter), tombs bearing the names of Jesus, Mary, James, John, and the rest of the apostles were also found at the same excavation—though all these names were very common among Jews at the time.
In the 1960s, some previously discarded debris from the excavations beneath St Peter’s Basilica were re-examined, and the bones of a male person were identified. A forensic examination found them to be a male of about 61 years of age from the 1st century. This caused Pope Paul VI in 1968 to announce them most likely to be the relics of Apostle Peter. On November 24, 2013, Pope Francis revealed these relics of nine bone fragments for the first time in public during a Mass celebrated in St. Peter’s Square.
According to Catholic belief, Simon Peter was distinguished by Jesus to hold the first place of honor and authority. Also in Catholic belief, Peter was first bishop of Rome. Furthermore, they consider every bishop of Rome to be Peter’s successor and the rightful superior of all other bishops. Although Peter never bore the title of “Pope“, or “Vicar of Christ”, in this sense the Catholic Church considers Peter the first Pope.
The Catholic Church’s recognition of Peter as head of its church on Earth (with Christ being its heavenly head) is based on its interpretation of two passages from the canonical gospels of the New Testament; as well as sacred tradition. The first passage is John 21:15-17 which is: “Feed my lambs… feed my lambs… feed my sheep” (within the Greek it is Ποίμαινε i.e., to feed and rule [as a Shepherd]., v. 16 while Βόσκε i.e., to feed., for v.15 & v. 17) which is seen by Catholics as Christ promising the spiritual supremacy to Peter. The Catholic Encyclopedia sees in this passage Jesus “charging Peter with the superintendency of all his sheep, without exception; and consequently of his whole flock, that is, of his own church”.
The second passage is Matthew 16:18:
I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven”.— Matthew 16:18-19 (NIV)
Jesus could have said the following phrase in Aramaic, which could have spoken:
ܐܳܦ݂ ܐܶܢܳܐ ܐܳܡܰܪ ܐ݈ܢܳܐ ܠܳܟ݂ ܕ݁ܰܐܢ݈ܬ݁ ܗ݈ܽܘ ܟ݁ܺܐܦ݂ܳܐ ܘܥܰܠ ܗܳܕ݂ܶܐ ܟ݁ܺܐܦ݂ܳܐ ܐܶܒ݂ܢܶܝܗ ܠܥܺܕ݈݁ܬ݁ܝ ܘܬ݂ܰܪܥܶܐ ܕ݁ܰܫܝܽܘܠ ܠܳܐ ܢܶܚܣܢܽܘܢܳܗ܂— (Peshitta) ܡܬܝ ܝܘ. ܝܚ – ܟ
also I say I to you that you are Keepa (Cephas) and on this Keepa (Cephas) I will build my Church and the gates of Sheol not will subdue it.
You are a rock, and upon this rock will I build my Church and the gates of Sheol not will subdue it.
Paul of Tarsus called Peter as “Cephas”, in the same way that Jesus did. This Hellenized Hebrew word of Aramaic ܟ݁ܺܐܦ݂ܳܐ (Cephas), was not a proper name, but Paul assigns him as such.
Petros (Πέτρος) and petra (πέτρᾳ) are the Greek equivalent to the Syriac Cephas (ܟ݁ܺܐܦ݂ܳܐ) which means “rock”, and there is no difference at all between Petros and petra.
To better understand what Christ meant, St. Basil elaborates:
Though Peter be a rock, yet he is not a rock as Christ is. For Christ is the true unmoveable rock of himself, Peter is unmoveable by Christ the rock. For Jesus doth communicate and impart his dignities, not voiding himself of them, but holding them to himself, bestoweth them also upon others. He is the light, and yet 2. You are the light: he is the Priest, and yet he 3. maketh Priests: he is the rock, and he made a rock.— Basil li. De poenit. cƒ. Matt. v. 14 ; Luke 22:19
In reference to Peter’s occupation before becoming an Apostle, the popes wear the Fisherman’s Ring, which bears an image of the saint casting his nets from a fishing boat. The keys used as a symbol of the pope’s authority refer to the “keys of the kingdom of Heaven” promised to Peter. The terminology of this “commission” of Peter is unmistakably parallel to the commissioning of Eliakim ben Hilkiah in Isaiah 22:15-23. Peter is often depicted in both Western and Eastern Christian art holding a key or a set of keys.
The Roman Martyrology assigns 29 June as the feast day of both Peter and Paul, without thereby declaring that to be the day of their deaths. Augustine of Hippo says in his Sermon 295: “One day is assigned for the celebration of the martyrdom of the two apostles. But those two were one. Although their martyrdom occurred on different days, they were one.”
In the Roman Rite, the feast of the Chair of Saint Peter is celebrated on 22 February, and the anniversary of the dedication of the two papal basilicas of Saint Peter’s and Saint Paul’s outside the Walls is held on 18 November.
Before Pope John XXIII‘s revision in 1960, the Roman Calendar also included on 18 January another feast of the Chair of Saint Peter (denominated the Chair of Saint Peter in Rome, while the February feast was then called that of the Chair of Saint Peter at Antioch), and on 1 August the feast of Saint Peter in Chains.
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