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Prince of elusive apostles

by
01 July 2016

Peter Forster considers the recent scholarly quest for the real man


Peter in Early Christianity

Helen Bond and Larry Hurtado, editors

Eerdmans £28.99

(978-0-8028-7171-8)

Church Times Bookshop £26.10

SCHOLARLY attention to the figure of St Peter in the New Testament and early Christianity, apart from disputes over the Petrine claims of the papacy, has been quite limited. In recent decades, that has begun to change, and this book derives from an Edinburgh conference on the subject.

Some years earlier, the leading Protestant theologian Oscar Cullmann, and the prolific Roman Catholic writer Hans Urs von Balthasar had published important studies, but little dialogue ensued between them. It is one of the fruits of the ecumenical movement that such a dialogue is now taking place, although this collection of essays has a fairly Protestant feel.

Much of the source material is quite fragmentary and allusive. The extensive references to Peter in post-NT writings are shaped by current controversies, which result, for example, in much downplaying of the fragile and human side of the Apostle who thrice denied Jesus. Did later perceptions of Peter as the leading Apostle, and first Bishop of Rome, in turn shape the final form of his NT portrayal?

While many questions remain unanswered, it is clear that the figure of Peter had an important unifying place in early Christianity. No other Apostle connects Christian centres such as Jerusalem, Antioch, and Rome as Peter does.

This is illustrated by the First Epistle of Peter, which has long been recognised as drawing together a range of views and traditions in the Early Church. It used to be held that the quality of its Greek could hardly have come from an uneducated Galilean fisherman, but, given the general NT presentation of Peter as able to interpret and expound biblical texts, the view here is that the question of genuine Petrine authorship of 1 Peter must remain open.

The overall presentation of Peter in the NT is both of a visionary missionary and of a guardian of the tradition. Individual essays explore this in different ways. In one, the relationship between Peter and St Paul is likened to self-enveloping Russian dolls. In another, Peter is seen in St John’s Gospel as an essentially Johannine figure, a faithful leader of the first Christian community. Peter and John may have reacted differently to Jesus, but with equal appropriateness of disciple to master.

An interesting essay powerfully makes the case that Peter died a martyr’s death in Rome in AD 64, but by burning rather than by crucifixion, as later tradition maintained.

In the map of early Christianity, Peter is a pervasive but essentially elusive figure. This book provides an excellent guide to the possible highways and byways where he was reputedly spotted. He remains a universal figure — one way or another.

 

Dr Peter Forster is the Bishop of Chester.

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