The Apostle Peter

By Peter Eng
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Apostle Peter – Part 1

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Peter was probably the oldest of Jesus’ disciples. This led to a consistent portrait of Peter as an old man. In some instances, as a very old man. The artists seem to forget that he was young once!

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When Jesus began his ministry, Jesus was about 32/3 years old. It is likely that Peter was not much older (if indeed he was older) than Jesus. At the time when Jesus walked the earth, we should expect Peter to be no older than his mid-thirties.

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The representation of Peter in “The Passion of the Christ” is closer to the age of Peter at that time. It may still be a little too old, but that depends on how quickly an individual ages.

When Peter first met Jesus, he was living in Bethsaida. Not long after, he moved to Capernaum.

Peter was married. We do not have the name of his wife in the Bible. We also do not know if they had children. One possible reason for this silence is to protect them during this time when persecution, or the threat of persecution, was ever present.

Peter’s ministry started with the Jews, but it very quickly included Gentiles. He was originally based in Jerusalem, but eventually went to Rome where he served a significant length of time.

While in Rome, he bore witness for Jesus. Mark was this companion assistant and he recorded Peter’s account of Jesus. This eventually became the Gospel according to Mark. Mark’s Gospel is really Peter’s portrait of Jesus Christ. But in it, we also find Peter’s portrait of himself. It is a humble representation of his own foibles and Jesus’ greatness.

Matthew and Luke used Peter’s (Mark’s) account as their framework. John did not. So John’s representation of Peter is much kinder than Peter’s representation of himself.

Two things stand out in the early church. The individual who did wrong is most likely the one who made it public. The other Christians represented the failure more kindly than the person who failed.

This stands in contrast to the thinking of the world, which has also crept into the church. The wrong-doer denies fault or minimizes it, and third-parties, including Christians, can be vicious in their attacking the brother who has fallen.

Apostle Peter – Part 2

Bethsaida, about 2 km from the shore

Peter’s first hometown was Bethsaida (John 1:44; 12:21) before he moved to Capernaum (Matthew 8:5, 14). There is both historical and spiritual significance in this.

There is dispute on the location of Bethsaida [Aramaic: House of Fishing]. The traditional site of Bethsaida (Julias) was under the jurisdiction of and raised by Philip the Tetrarch. The chief problem with this site is that it is about 2 km from the shore of Galilee and it does not make a good fishing village. Some have suggested Peter’s Bethsaida is a location yet not discovered, or not yet identified among the excavated sites, but one that is much closer to Capernaum where Peter eventually moved. There have been some suggestions, but none is confirmed. So for now, we will work with Bethsaida Julias as the site of Peter’s first home (that we know of). John is the one who recounts this detail. And John and James were fishing partners with Peter and Andrew. As far as John was concerned, Peter and Andrew were the guys from Bethsaida. This suggests the move was fairly recent. In any case, it suggests they were adults when they moved.

We do not know why Peter and Andrew moved to Capernaum. If they had lived in Bethsaida Julias, it is unlikely that they were fishermen there as the coast was 2 km away. Of course it is possible that they were fishermen and were tired of making a daily commute and decided to move closer to the shore.

I like to suggest that when Peter and Andrew moved to Capernaum, it was somewhat tied to their entering into the fishing business with John and James, with their father Zebedee. Perhaps Peter and Andrew relocated to be closer to their business partners who had a better location than their own. Perhaps they moved first and found James and John later.

At some point after they were business partners, Jesus called them to be his disciples. We do not know the interval, but when we factor in Peter and Andrew’s move from Bethsaida and their fishing partnership, it could have happened not long before Jesus called them to follow him.

Peter and Andrew, James and John could view the call to discipleship two ways. One is to argue that they have a newly formed and good business going on. God couldn’t possibly want them to put that on hold, or on the backburner to follow Jesus. The other way is to say that even though their aim was to build a business, and they came together for that purpose, God had a higher plan for them. He was redirecting them to follow Jesus and put their fishing business on the backburner — they should follow Jesus and just wait and see what would happen to their business.

Bethsaida - The Fisherman House

We know they decided to follow Jesus. Their cost was to become absentee business owners rather than owner-operators. They had to let go of their business operations. That too, was risk. That too was a step of faith. Especially for Peter and Andrew. They moved from Bethsaida to Capernaum for a reason, and it wasn’t Jesus. They had to make significant adjustments to follow Jesus.

Apostle Peter – The Fisherman

Peter and Andrew were brothers. James and John were also brothers. They were in the fishing business. That is to say they were fishermen who owned fishing boats, not fishermen who were employed to catch fish. In that sense, they were entrepreneurs or business owners.

We don’t know how many boats they owned, but there is a hint of it in John 21. After the resurrection of Jesus, Peter wanted to go fishing. It was night and about the right time to fish. When Peter was following Jesus, it is likely they employed others to fish for them. Alternatively, they could have leased out their boats to other fishermen. In either case, Peter should have a vacant and fully equipped boat that he could just take and go fishing. This suggests to us that he had at least one standby boat.

In this event, we learn there were seven disciples. They went fishing with Peter. This suggests to us the size of the fishing boats. Some fishing boats could take only two people. But this could accommodate at least seven people.

When Jesus was in a storm with his disciples, it is possible that this was a boat belonging to Peter and Andrew, or James and John (Mark 4:36-41). This boat was big enough to have a hold where Jesus could sleep. This boat cannot be an open boat for just two people.

1st century boat found

A first century fishing boat was excavated and it was length 26½ ft x width 7½ ft x height 4½ ft. There seems to be enough space for the description of activities on the boats, but it would be a tight fit. Josephus, the Jewish historian suggested that the boat can hold 15 people. Perhaps our understanding of space requirements today is different from that time.

Is it possible that this excavated boat is still a little small, and there may be bigger boats? For that we wait for future discoveries.

In Luke 5:10, we are told that Peter and Andrew, James and John with their father Zebedee were partners in the fishing business.

We do not have details about this business relationship, but it was a good relationship. They were hanging out together outside of their fishing business.

When they left their nets to follow Jesus, it does not mean they sold off their business. In all likelihood, they kept their business which provided a source of income for them and their families.

Reconstruction of Boat

Mark’s Gospel & Apostle Peter

There is significant early Christian record that Mark’s Gospel was a record of Peter’s preaching in Rome. Early Christian tradition is not to be regarded as the Word of God, or to be totally reliable. But they give us the background to things that the Bible does not talk about.

Mark_4x6 Papias was the Overseer of the church in Hierapolis, and he died as a martyr in Smyrna (AD 155). Many of his writings are no longer extant, but he was cited by Eusebius the church historian (d. circa AD 340) concerning Mark’s Gospel:

The Elder (John) said this also: Mark, who became Peter’s interpreter, wrote accurately, though not in order, all that he remembered of the things said or done by the Lord. For he had neither heard the Lord nor been one of his followers, but afterwards, as I said, he had followed Peter, who used to compose his discourses with a view to the needs of his hearers, but not as though he were drawing up a connected account of the Lord’s sayings. So Mark made no mistake in thus recording some things just as he remembered them. For he was careful of this one thing, to omit none of the things he had heard and to make no untrue statements therein. (Ecclesiastical History 3.39.15)

We do not know who the Elder John was. Some believe it was the same person as John the Apostle, or it could be John Mark himself, or some unknown John. But this represents very early tradition.

There was strict journalistic rigor in the first centuries about representation, unlike the liberties some journalists practise today. The recording was not chronological probably because they were Peter’s preaching, which would not be chronological. But when the gospel was written, Mark did place the events in general chronological order.

We are told that Mark’s job was as an interpreter to Peter. It could well be that Peter did not speak Latin and Mark did.

When I preach with an interpreter, I give him a detailed outline so he knows ahead of time what I will be saying. Perhaps Peter did that also. If so, Mark would have the preaching notes of Peter.

The Anti-Marcionite Prologue (AD 160-180) has a surviving fragment that reads:

“… Mark declared, who is called `stump-fingered’ because he had short fingers in comparison with the size of the rest of his body. He was Peter’s interpreter. After the death of Peter himself he wrote down this same gospel in the regions of Italy.”

This tradition affirms Markan dependence on Peter and places the composition somewhere in Italy.

Irenaeus (c. AD 180) a church father when writing to refute heresies mentioned Mark’s Gospel thus: “And after their [Peter’s and Paul’s] death, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, himself also handed down to us in writing the things preached by Peter.” (Contra Haereses 3.1.2).

When we read Mark’s Gospel with this awareness, it is really not difficult to see Peter as the content provider. For e.g. Simon Peter was the first disciple in Mark 1. This is Simon Peter’s point of view.

st-peter-preaching-in-the-presence-of-st-mark (caption)

Peter’s Home, Jesus’ Base

We don’t usually pay attention to place names in the Bible because there is no image in our mind’s eye when these places are mentioned, and we do not move from one place to another as we read the story. If I were to tell you I left Pasir Ris and went to Tampines, those of you who know these places would know it is only one subway stop. But when we read that Jesus left Capernaum and went to Bethsaida, it makes no impression on us because we don’t know these places.

When you read the gospels, you will constantly come across the town called Capernaum. This is because it was Jesus’ home base when he first started his ministry. When Jesus began his ministry, he spent time in Capernaum and Nazareth (his own hometown). But the people of Nazareth rejected Jesus (Luke 4:23ff; Matt 4:13).

Capernaum was the hometown of many of his disciples. From what we know, it was the hometown of Peter and Andrew, James and John, Matthew, and others.

What escapes some of us is that Jesus was operating from the home of Peter, the leader of the twelve disciples of Jesus.

In Mark’s gospel, you will notice a constant reference to Capernaum. This is because Peter was recounting the things closest to his heart and home.

Peter and Andrew were not rich people. They shared a home, which was usually not large. You should not expect anything larger than a two bedroom apartment of today. Andrew was probably not married but Peter was. We do not know how many people lived in this house, but we know Peter’s mother-in-law lived there with him. His father-in-law might be expected to live there if he were alive. Perhaps his own parents also lived there. Perhaps Peter had children and they also lived there. At least 4 adults lived there (Peter, Peter’s wife, mother-in-law, and Andrew), perhaps there were as many as 7 adults. If Peter had children, say 3 of them, with 7 adults, the home could have as many as 10 people (Mark 1:29f).

It is almost certain that the place Jesus used as home base in Capernaum was Peter’s home. It is therefore likely that Jesus lived in the home of Peter and Andrew and the ministry of Jesus operated mainly from Peter’s home.

After Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law, we notice Peter’s home became the place from which Jesus taught and healed (Mark 1:29-34). When he left and returned “the house he was staying” probably Peter’s home, became packed with people (Mark 2:1-2). So the story of the men who dug a hole through the roof to let in their invalid friend, dug through Peter’s roof (Mark 2:1-5).

We do not know all the details in Peter’s home. Perhaps we can indulge in a little imagination.

Peter’s mother-in-law might have been quite pivotal in how the home was used. She was severely sick with fever and after Jesus healed her, she was so well, she got up and prepared food for Jesus, and his disciples. If she had objected to the intrusion into their life, we get the sense that from that time, she facilitated the use of Peter’s home.

There is an important take-away for us. In Singapore, we are limited in how we can use our homes for religious purposes. But the lesson of Peter was how his home became a vital resource in Jesus’ ministry.

We can imagine Peter telling Jesus, “Come to my home and stay with me. Use my home as the base for your teaching.” Peter did not emphasize his sacrifice but we can see that he was leading the others by example of how he used his resources to promote Jesus’ ministry.

Gaulanitis Capernaum Bethsaida

— Click on map to get clearer picture —

Capernaum, in Galilee was under the jurisdiction of Herod Antipas, the Herod who executed John the Baptist. Bethsaida, Peter’s hometown before he moved to Capernaum, was in Gaulinitis, under the jurisdiction of Herod Philip. Antipas had stolen Philip’s wife and you can guess that they are not on friendly terms. When Jesus wanted to get out of the way of Antipas, he would go to Bethsaida which was under Philip’s control.

Peter’s Babylon

She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you her greetings, and so does my son Mark. Greet one another with a kiss of love.” (1 Pe 5:13-14a).

Most scholars believe the Apostle Peter wrote from Rome and John Mark was with him. The term “Babylon” is not real Babylon, but it refers to another city, that is, Rome. Some believe that Simon Peter was writing from a small city called “Babylon” which existed at that time.

It appears to me that it is far more probable that Peter’s Babylon is Rome. We see the mention of Babylon in Revelation 14:8 and 17:5. It is a political code-speak against Rome and not the literal city of Babylon. John explains the Babylon is the city that rules over the kings of the earth (Rev 17:18).

This creative political rhetoric is necessary because Christians were facing increasing pressure as Peter was writing, and by the time John wrote Revelation, that persecution had come in full force. It is not expedient to antagonize the powers that be, yet people needed instruction. It is common for us to find ancient writers using a creative political rhetoric that allows his audience to understand him but causes the censor to dismiss the document as one that might harm the interest of Rome (codified in the Roman laws of treason [leges maiestatis]).

Babylon is synonymous to a city of exile. The Babylonians exiled the Jews in 586 BC. Peter writes to his audience as the Diaspora, the exiles that are scattered about. He sees Rome as the new Babylon and uses Babylon to identify Rome and its role. He turns to the experience of the Jews in exile under Babylon as a reference point for Christians in exile because of Rome.

The phenomenon of calling one city by another name is not new. For instance, Isaiah 1:10, calls Jerusalem “Sodom” and “Gomor-rah.” Two cities are used to refer to one. Isaiah does this to indicate the judgment about to fall on Jerusalem.

It is most probable that the majority opinion is right, that Peter’s Babylon is the city of Rome.


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