From Peter in Early Christianity
As often noted, the concept of repentance plays a crucial role in Luke-Acts. In the gospel, the call to repentance occurs frequently in the preaching and teaching of Jesus. While Jesus in Mark and Matthew claims that he has “not come to call the righteous, but sinners,” Luke significantly adds that Jesus has come to call the sinners “to repentance.” This undoubtedly programmatic statement has a crucial impact on the way Luke recasts the figure of Peter. While Mark’s portrayal of Peter time and again focuses on Peter’s misunderstanding of Jesus’s person and mission and his weakness and fear, and only hints at his remorse and perhaps repentance at the end, Luke has moved Peter’s “conversion” and acknowledgement of Jesus’s holiness forward to his call as a disciple, as Peter’s words indicate: Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man. Luke’s portrayal of Peter focuses accordingly on Peter’s life after his “conversion,” and this might explain why he writes an embellished version of the Peter narrative. Thus while in Mark’s gospel Peter’s denial was the last incident in a long line of failings, the denial is the only occasion when Peter is portrayed in a poor light in Luke’s gospel. The account of Peter’s denials was probably included in order to emphasize Peter’s paradigmatic role in repentance and “conversion.” Peter is, however, not the only figure in Acts that is paradigmatic for repentance and “conversion.”
As often noted, there is a parallel portrayal of Peter and Paul in Acts. They are both led by the Holy Spirit, and learn about God’s plan through visions. Their gospel message is very similar and they believe that the Jews as well as the gentiles are coheirs. They speak with boldness, are successful, and act courageously before the Jewish council. They have a miraculous aura; perform miracles, resurrections, exorcisms, and miracles of punishment. They are imprisoned, experience a miraculous release, and have a tense relationship with parts of the church in Jerusalem at some point in their career. The most significant parallel is, however, that they both act as preachers of repentance, and just as Peter experienced a change or reversal prior to his new ministry as a preacher of repentance, so did Paul. They are even addressed by Jesus in a similar way when he twice calls them with their former name in the crucial narratives about their “turning.”
By focusing on the transformation of Paul, his change from persecutor to persecuted, Luke also turns Paul into a paradigmatic figure. Paul’s journey of “conversion” becomes “representative of the conversion of all believers” when, for instance, he recalls the circumstances of his own “conversion” in order to appeal to his listeners to recognize the need for repentance. By emphasizing Paul’s role as the great persecutor in each account of his “conversion,” Luke draws a contrast between Saul, the ideal persecutor, and Paul, the ideal missionary. Paul’s persecution is here used as a foil to display God’s miraculous intervention. With his portrayal of Paul as a paradigmatic figure, Luke probably exploits Paul’s self-portrayal as a persecutor of the church. Though Paul himself claims to have persecuted the church in order “to destroy it,” he is not as specific as Luke concerning the nature of the persecutions. According to Luke, Paul was engaged in acts of violence against his victims. He had Christians imprisoned and voted for the death penalty against them. Luke seems, however, to exaggerate Paul’s brutality, probably in order to emphasize God’s transforming power and highlight all the more his later missionary activity. As rightly stressed by Arland Hultgren, Paul probably did “not understand persecution as a procedure which ends in the death of the victim”; his persecution should rather be seen within the framework of “the Jewish system of discipline prevailing at the time, i.e., the judicial flogging and imprisonment, both of which were designed to bring the offender back into line.” By exaggerating Paul’s brutality Luke creates a greater contrast between Saul, the persecutor, and Paul, the persecuted. Paul is now persecuted for the same reasons that he himself became a persecutor.
Luke’s portrayal of Paul seems to develop the contrast between “then” and “now” – between Paul as persecutor and Paul as preacher – which is a crucial idea in the letter to the Galatians. Given the fact that Luke portrays both Peter and Paul as preachers of repentance in Acts, I would hypothetically suggest that Luke’s portrayal of Peter might have been written under the influence of Paul’s letters. Luke might not only have written a “Pauline” speech for Peter at the Jerusalem council, he may even have rewritten Peter narratives such as the denial narrative under the influence of Paul’s letters – in this case Paul’s self-portrayal as a persecutor of the church. Just as Luke turns Paul into a paradigmatic figure for repentance and “conversion,” so he presents Peter’s denial and subsequent repentance and returning as a paradigmatic experience similar to the people’s sudden involvement in Jesus’s crucifixion and their subsequent repentance and turning.
Although Luke never explicitly mentions Peter’s repentance after the denial scene (with the exception of his bitter weeping), much of the later story in Luke and Acts actually depends on this incident. Luke accordingly picks up Mark’s figure of Peter at the moment when he breaks down outside the high priest’s palace. While Mark left his figure in the courtyard and only indicated that Peter got the better of his fear, Luke takes on the mantle of Mark and demonstrates what the figure would look like upon leaving the courtyard. In Luke’s view, Peter would, of course, be present at Jesus’s crucifixion, would later run to the tomb, and would be the first to meet the risen Lord. But most importantly, he would carry on Jesus’s mission in Luke’s gospel by moving the people to repentance.