PETER: Peter In The Acts Of The Apostles, by Markus Bockmuehl

From Simon Peter in Scripture and Memory

Peter’s image in Acts remains appreciably Lukan, but with a number of interesting changes vis-à-vis the gospel.  As soon as the ascension occurs and the disciples are instructed to await the Spirit’s arrival in Jerusalem, Luke immediately foregrounds Peter as the leading apostle.  It is Peter who proposes to appoint Matthias by lot as the successor Judas.  Throughout the first half of Acts, it appears that Peter is the main human protagonist – the pioneer missionary and chief public speaker, healer, and prophetic overseer of church discipline.

Peter’s speeches sound, as scholars have long noted, somewhat “archaizing” and rather less theologically and Christologically developed than we normally find in Luke.  This does not support easy assumptions about either historicity or Lukan sources, since analysis has also shown extensive overlap between the characterization of different apostolic figures.  Nevertheless, we also need not assume that Luke is merely playing an elaborate game of literary charades.  During the period of living memory, Luke presents us with a picture of Peter’s teaching that would be recognizable and thus find resonance with a Roman church that remembered his ministry.

Peter, then, is indeed the prince of apostles during the first half of Acts.  He acts as the public voice for the believers in his sermon on the day of Pentecost and takes the lead in being the first to perform a miracle in the name of Jesus, with John playing an accompanying role.  In fact, Peter remains the chief miracle worker among the Twelve, with the latecomer Paul a distant, almost derivative second; even Peter’s shadow heals the sick (5:15).

In the developing conflict with the authorities, Peter is again the leading speaker and defendant when he and John appear before the Sanhedrin.  In terms of church discipline, it is also Peter who prophetically pronounces divine judgment on Ananias and Sapphira.  Evangelism and apologetics in Jerusalem and well beyond, miracles, and prophetic speech and action are all predicted of Peter but not of James the Just, who exercises a vital but rather different leadership role in Jerusalem.

Interestingly, it is Peter, not Paul, who assumes early apostolic missionary leadership outside Jewish circles, becoming first the superintendent of an outreach to the Samaritans, and then the pioneer of a mission to gentiles when he converts the household of Cornelius at Caesarea in response to a vision.  This is an episode for which he has to defend himself before an initially skeptical Jewish Christian audience in Chapter 11.

When Emperor Claudius grants Judea to Herod Agrippa after the death of Caligula in AD 41, Peter is immediately imprisoned at Passover, together with John’s brother, James, and nearly suffers the same fate of execution.  But Peter makes a miraculous escape and abandons Jerusalem as his base; Acts 12:17 says cryptically only that he went “to another place,” and like the prison guards of 12:18, we are left to wonder “what became of him.”  Peter appears once more in a position of some peripheral influence at the apostolic council of Jerusalem, but the deciding vote is cast by James rather than Peter, and this is the last we hear of him.

The subsequent silence of Acts has sometimes been assumed to constitute clear evidence that nothing much was known about what became of Peter, and certainly that no Roman ministry is likely to have occurred.  The British scholar Michael Goulder is among a long series of keen critics who have suggested that this is because once Peter was deposed from Jerusalem, his story was effectively over.  Goulder suggests that Peter returned after Agrippa’s rule to die there in obscurity in the mid-50s AD.  It is of course true that the New Testament is not very explicit about asserting a final ministry in Rome: in some ways the clearest statement is 1 Peter itself, to which we will turn below.  Beyond that, we rely on what I have called the period of “living memory.”  But what we can also show is that none of the extracanonical witnesses of that period contradict a Roman martyrdom or narrate an alternative tradition – and several of those that explicitly affirm or strongly imply it predate the latest New Testament documents.

In literary terms, however, it seems significant that the narrative pattern of Acts parallels the public lives of Peter and Paul as Luke’s twin dramatis personae, his two chief actors and witnesses.  Without any significant overlap, their ministries are developed analogously.  From Acts 1:8 onward, the narrative points to the ends of the Earth, and from 19:21 onward, we know that for Paul, at least, this means Rome.  Luke does not, however, reveal what happens once he gets there – or indeed how it all ends, for either Peter or Paul.  In other words, Luke’s narrative vector points from Jerusalem all the way to Rome, and his twin narratives tell a tale that does end up there; and yet each of the twin stories ends not with a bang but a whimper.  In both cases, a mysteriously anticlimactic exit makes it reasonable to suppose that Luke knows more than he tells, and (if he has any literary skill at all) that he knows his audience is aware of this, too.  This is certainly an impression that would follow well on the much-noted analogy of the martyrdoms of Jesus and Stephen.  Moreover, it is possible that Luke may, like 1 Clement and the Gospel of Mark, have good reasons for this somewhat taciturn narrative wink-and-nudge strategy (escaping “to another place” indeed!).  Like any author of potentially dangerous underground literature, he seeks to protect both his sources and his readers from attracting official attention for what in the recent past has become a politically toxic cause.


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