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Did Matthew put Peter among the tares?

27 May 2016

John Court analyses a debatable hypothesis about the Evangelist


Peter: False disciple and apostate according to Saint Matthew
Robert H. Gundry
Eerdmans £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50


THE techniques of redaction criticism offer plenty of opportunities for using the special materials in St Matthew’s Gospel to elucidate the standpoint and theological concerns of the Evangelist. For example, the Gospel parable of the sheep and the goats can illustrate not so much today’s concerns of Christian Aid Week as the ethical criteria of missionary work for Matthew’s Jewish-Christian church.

The character of St Peter as depicted in the Gospel is not straightforward. To quote Ulrich Luz’s commentary: “There is a striking ‘ambivalence’ in Peter’s behavior. He is confessor and tempter, denier and penitent, courageous and weak.” Sometimes Peter is seen as a kind of supreme rabbi who guaranteed and transmitted traditions of Jesus for Matthew. But a popular portrayal is as a mixture of the more and less favourable, and so a typical disciple — flawed but redeemable — in Georg Strecker’s view.

Robert Gundry’s picture is dramatically different and strongly controversial. “Matthew portrays Peter as a false disciple of Jesus, a disciple who went so far as to apostatize.” His Christian community are warned that the fact of apostasy exposes falsehood, and apostasy induces persecution. There is a danger of apostasy and of the presence of false disciples in the Church — the Church, which should represent the kingdom of the Son of Man on earth until the final days.

Gundry reaches this position by using redaction criticism in a basically literary reading of the sequence of Matthew’s narrative. Peter’s failings are evidence of his falsity, although he is not explicitly judged. The parable of the wheat and the tares is definitive. The wheat are the true disciples; the tares are the false, first indistinguishable from the others, but then to be eradicated before the harvest. Peter is not, however, judged explicitly by Matthew (because of 7.1-2); in contrast, Judas is condemned by Jesus himself (see 26.24-5). On the higher critical question of the Gospel’s date, Gundry proposes that it was written before the mid-60s CE, and therefore before Peter’s martyrdom (which would have made all the difference?).

The argument for this radical assessment of Matthew’s view of Peter is presented in considerable and careful detail within the Petrine elements of the narrative. The way in which the connections are drawn, and the choice of some texts as determinative, is certainly open to discussion. To rescue from this influential Gospel the traditional view of Peter’s honoured status in church history, the suggestion is made that he was rehabilitated by the later Gospels of St Luke and St John. But the gift to Peter of the “keys of the kingdom” (in Matthew 16.19) still constitutes a problem for this interpretation, unless they no more guarantee entry to the Kingdom than does occupying the seat of Moses for the scribes and Pharisees.


Dr John Court is Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Biblical Studies at the University of Kent at Canterbury.

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