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The Apostle Peter Holding the Keys to the Kingdom

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Chapter One

The Apostle Peter

“But what about you?” He asked. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “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, and on this rock, I will build my church …” Matthew 16:15–18 NIV

 

The Gospel of John tells us that the apostle Simon Peter was the son of Jonah and the brother of the apostle Andrew. At the time they received their calling to be disciples of Jesus, both men were living in the small Galilean fishing village of Bethsaida. And it is with this most innocent of references in St. John’s Gospel that the historical confusion regarding the life of Peter begins. This is because modern-day researchers cannot even agree on the exact location of which John is speaking when he said “Bethsaida.” Therefore, until the archaeologists decide for sure, I’ll just say that Peter was born in a fishing village on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee near where the Jordan River flows into it.

Peter makes many appearances in the four Gospels, mostly as one of the three apostles that Jesus seemed to treat as his inner circle (the other two inner-circle members being James and John, the sons of Zebedee). He traveled extensively with Jesus and the other apostles throughout the regions of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee. The farthest north they all traveled together that is mentioned in the New Testament is Caesarea-Philippi, located at the base of Mt. Herman in present-day Israel; in the south, they ventured as far as the Judea wilderness near the north and west shores of the Dead Sea.

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After Pentecost, Peter took charge of the early Christian Church in Jerusalem until the time James the Just became her bishop. The book of Acts records several of Peter’s local missionary journeys to the surrounding region. One of the first trips mentioned is to Samaria (the town of Samaria, not the region). Known today as the village of Sebastia, it was there that Peter and John encountered and defeated Simon the Sorcerer. Next, the book of Acts has Peter traveling to the town of Lydda (the modern-day city of Lod), where he cures a paralyzed man named Aeneas. Acts 9:36–41 tells of his travels to the town of Joppa (modern-day Jaffa) to raise the disciple Tabitha from the dead. It was in Joppa, as well, while he was staying at the home of Simon the tanner, that Peter had his vision in which a voice told him, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

The apostle is then summoned by Cornelius the centurion—who, himself, had a dream at the same time as Peter did—to the soldier’s home in the Mediterranean port city of Caesarea. It was there that this Roman officer was baptized by Peter and became the first uncontested Gentile to convert to the new faith of Christianity. Acts 12:17 states that while with the disciples at the house of Mary, the mother of John, Peter told the assembled anxious listeners, “Tell James and the other brothers and sisters about this [his having just escaped from prison in Jerusalem],” and then he left for another place.

“And then he left for another place.” With that simple and highly imprecise statement, not another conclusive word is written in the New Testament regarding Peter’s future missionary travels.

A Point to Ponder! The Greco Roman city of Caesarea-Philippi (modern-day Banias) was the furthest north Jesus had traveled in the company of the Twelve Apostles. It was in that region of northern Israel twenty-five miles north of the Sea of Galilee that Matthew’s Gospel says that Jesus revealed He would establish a Church and that He would give primacy over it to the apostle Peter. Much has been written over the millennia speculating as to why Jesus chose this place to make this important announcement. One interesting opinion I discovered in my researches for this book I found very intriguing.

-In ancient times, Caesarea-Philippi was a cultic center for the worship of many of the Greek and Roman gods. There was even a temple complex built in honor of the Greek god Pan in a rocky grotto from which flowed the source of the Jordon River. It is this association with the pagan Gentiles that perhaps inspired Jesus to select this spot for this most important of pronouncements. On its surface, the meaning of “and on this rock I will build my Church” is quite clear. He was talking directly to the apostle Simon Peter (afterward known only as Peter). But to add a deeper and more inclusive meaning to His statement, imagine that at the same time He was talking to Peter, He also turned toward the Gentile temples in the rocky cliffs behind them to indicate symbolically His wish to build the Church upon these non-Jews as well. Or taking the metaphor even one step deeper: He also pointed to Himself to remind the apostles not to forget about Him.

 

Although it is not precisely clear in the book of Acts, it is thought (with the exception of James the Less) that after the final Apostolic Council in Jerusalem in 50 AD that those of the Twelve Apostles who were still alive—and who had not done so yet—dispersed once and for all time upon their various evangelist journeys. They were following Jesus’s command to spread the Gospel to the rest of the known world. What is known of Peter’s travels, his martyrdom, and the final resting place of his earthly remains (as will be the case for all of the other eleven apostles) I will base on:

-Local tradition (a concept mostly ignored by scholars)
-The writings of the early Church Fathers
-Hints from Peter’s Epistles and the Gospel of Mark
-The founding traditions of various Christian denominations
-The lack of competing traditions (an idea equally dismissed by scholars)
The Apostolic CouncilThe Apostolic Council (also known as the Jerusalem Council) took place around 50 AD in the city of Jerusalem. Attendees that we can be sure of that were in attendance were Paul, the apostles Peter and James the Lesser, and possibly John. The meeting’s primary purpose was to determine just how much of existing Jewish Mosaic Law that those Gentiles who wished to join the new Christian movement would need to follow. The biggest issue was to decide whether or not new non-Jewish men who wanted to join would need to be circumcised first. It was determined that they did not.

Peter’s Travels

Due north of Jerusalem and located in what is today southern Turkey, is the city of Antakya. In the days of the Twelve Apostles, however, the city was called Antioch. At the time, the city was one of the largest in the Roman Empire. It was in Antioch that the term “Christian” first came into common use.

The ancient Church fathers say that it was in Antioch that the apostle Peter (along with Paul) founded a Church and that Peter spent seven years as her first bishop. To this very day, the patriarchs of the Syriac Orthodox Church trace an unbroken line of apostolic authority all the way back to St. Peter. And, quite famously, the city was the location of the “Incident at Antioch.” According to St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians (2:11) it was here that Paul rebuked Peter for treating Gentile converts as inferior to Jewish Christians.

The author of the New Testament book Peter 1 addresses the “exiles of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia.” The third-century Church father, Hippolytus of Rome, confirms Peter’s actual visits to these places. If you look at a map of these former Roman provinces that today make up the vast majority of the modern nation of Turkey, it would seem logical as well. Geographically speaking, Peter would have had to pass through these regions on his way to the eastern seaport city of Ephesus. It would have been neglectful of him not to have at least stopped to visit his fellow apostle, John, to say hello and spend the night.

It was from Ephesus that he probably departed for Corinth, a city 180 miles away by the sea that still can be visited today in modern Greece. Acts 18:1–17 says that Paul founded the Church in Corinth. However, the first-century bishop of Corinth also included the apostle Peter as a cofounder of the Church: “You have thus by such an admonition bound together the planting of Peter and of Paul at Rome and Corinth. For both of them planted and likewise taught us in our Corinth.”

After a short stay in Corinth, the apostle Peter ultimately sailed to Rome and to his martyrdom. Although the matter is slightly controversial, it is very likely that there was already a thriving Church in the city when Peter arrived there shortly after 62 AD, and that this Church was originally founded by Paul. Most scholars place the time of his martyrdom—along with Paul’s—to have been under the reign of Nero around the year 64 AD. The New Testament is silent on the matter of Peter being crucified in Rome, but the apocryphal literature associated with him overwhelmingly reaffirms the tradition, as do all of the early Church fathers.

For example, in the apocryphal Acts of Peter, the document describes a rather amusing battle of magic powers between Simon Magus and Peter that mentions the Roman Forum. Also, Ignatius, the third bishop of Antioch and an actual student of the apostle John, speaks in one of his letters of Peter and Paul admonishing the Roman Christians. Another early Church Father, Irenaeus of Lyons, whose teacher, Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna (also a disciple of the apostle John), wrote that Peter and Paul had been the founders of the Church in Rome. In summary, the fact that the apostle Peter was martyred in Rome sometime around the year 64 AD is something that nearly all historians and religious scholars are in complete agreement with. But one of the most important concepts that is available to thinking people—but one that very few academic researchers give much credit to—is that of a lack of any other competing tradition(s).

That is, we have a man, a very important man, a relatively well-known man who, through his dedication and sacrifice, was instrumental in helping to change the course of history. If there was anyplace other than Rome that thinks or feels it has a claim to Peter’s martyrdom and burial site, they would be shouting it from the mountaintop. (There’s a lot of money to be made from being a pilgrim site, and the world would certainly have heard of it.) Yes, I know there have been a few naysayers out there over the centuries whose bizarre logic and self-serving arguments are in the literature. I have read many of their claims, but on close and objective analysis, the evidence just isn’t there.

The Early Church FathersThe Early Church Fathers were theologians and historians who, through their writings and examples, nurtured and influenced the development of the early Christian Church after the deaths of Jesus and the Twelve Apostles. The study of these ancient Church Fathers is called patristics. Scholars who study patristics traditionally end this period of the early Church at 700 AD. To be considered a Father of the Church requires four qualifications: Antiquity, personal sanctity, proper orthodox belief, and approval of the Church.

— There are several ways patristic scholars have attempted to classify the various groups of Church Fathers and there is great overlap between these categories.

-The Apostolic Fathers were men who actually personally knew one or more of the Twelve Apostles, the Seventy Disciples, or were strongly influenced by them. Examples are Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna.

-The Greek Church Fathers were Irenaeus of Lyons, Clement and Origin of Alexandria, John Chrysostom, and Basil the Great.

-The Latin Fathers were early Christian theologians who wrote in Latin. Examples include Tertullian, Ambrose of Milan, Jerome of Stridonium, Augustine of Hippo.

-Syriac Fathers. These were early Christian theologians who wrote in Syriac, a language spoken throughout the Middle East. Examples include Aphrahat of Mesopotamia and Isaac of Antioch.

-The Desert Fathers were Egyptian monastics whose writings were few but whose influence was great. Examples include Anthony, Pachomius of Thebes and Paul the Anchorite.

— The Catholic and Eastern Orthodox tradition also recognizes the Great Church Fathers. In Catholicism, they are also referred to as the original Doctors of the Church. These are theologians who had a huge influence on early Church doctrine and growth. Examples include Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, Gregory the Great, Basil the Great, Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, and John Chrysostom.

Visiting St. Peter’s Martyrdom Site and Grave

Of all of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus, the site of Peter’s martyrdom and the location of his final tomb are the easiest to visit. The only effort involved is making a trip to Rome, Italy, to the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica. Whether your religious beliefs agree with the primacy of the pope as the Bishop of Rome and the unbroken, apostolic descendant of St. Peter (as do Roman and Eastern Catholics), or whether you disagree (as do the Orthodox and Assyrian Churches and many Protestant sects), everyone is welcome to visit this undisputed tomb of the “Fisher of Men.”

To visit the site of St. Peter’s martyrdom, you walk to the south transept of the basilica to the Altar of St. Joseph. On the left-hand side of the chapel is the Altar of the Crucifixion. When you stand or kneel in front of the mosaic reproduction of the picture of St. Peter being crucified upside down, you are standing exactly over the center of the ancient Roman Circus Maximus where the apostle died.

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One of the most distinctive features of St. Peter’s Basilica, both from the inside and outside, is its magnificent dome. If you were to shine a laser beam straight down from its midpoint, the light would pass directly through the center of the church’s main altar into the grotto below. There it would pass through the remains of the third-century church built by Constantine, which he had constructed directly over the grave of the apostle Peter. When you stand in the crypt below the main  floor of the church, outside of a well-marked walled-off area, you will be in the presence of the man that Jesus called Petros, the Rock: a simple Jewish fisherman who walked upon the earth with the Son of Mary, who broke bread with Him at the Last Supper, who loved Him but who also denied his beloved friend three times, who was to witness the Lord’s empty tomb, and who would ultimately become the rock upon which Jesus said, “I will build my Church.”

It was there in the crypt below St. Peter’s Basilica in front of the mortal remains of the great apostle that I stood, laid my hand on the glass wall that separated us, and became “one” with this great man of God. After several minutes of giving him thanks, I continued to just stand there for a couple of minutes in silent awe. It was also at this time that I first asked myself the question, “Rich, I wonder where the rest of these guys are?”

Quo Vadis

Two miles southeast of the Vatican along the old Roman Appian Way is the Church of St. Mary in Palmis, better known as the Church of Domine Quo Vadis. The small, ancient church is built over the spot where the apocryphal Acts of Peter state that the apostle Peter met the crucified Christ.

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According to the legend, Peter had been captured and sentenced to death by Emperor Nero. His followers, anxious to see him live, broke him out of prison. In one last act of human weakness, the apostle then fled Rome, heading south on the old Roman road. As he reached the spot where the church now stands, he saw his dear old friend and Lord walking toward the city. He asked Jesus, “Domine, quo vadis?” Where are you going Lord? Tenderly, but tired, and probably once again exasperated by His friend’s lapse of faith, Jesus answered, “I am going to Rome to be crucified yet one more time.” Moved by his Lord’s willingness to suffer once more, Peter regained his courage and said, “Lord, I will return and will follow Thee.” Jesus then disappeared, and Peter went back to Rome and to his martyrdom.

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