Following is an attempt to explain the mixed messages given the role of Peter in the post-resurrection narratives of the canonical gospels. It argues that Peter first met the resurrected Jesus, as per 1 Corinthians 15:5, some time after the writing of the gospels of Mark and Matthew but just prior to Luke’s gospel — or more likely as late as that redaction of Luke by the author of Acts (Tyson) and around the time of the Pastorals.
Let’s start with the widely held scholarly views that (1) the Gospel of Mark was the first gospel to be written; and that (2) the epistles of Paul were written before the Gospel of Mark.
Let’s also assume for now that Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians contains evidence that some of the earliest Christian communities believed that the resurrected Christ first appeared to Peter.
Christ . . . rose again . . . and that he was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve . . . . (1 Cor. 15:3-5)
Paul’s resurrection appearances catalogue in Corinthians
It seems odd that the same author who wrote Galatians should also give Peter (Cephas) this place of honour here, even to the point of declaring himself far behind Peter’s status with:
For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle . . . . (15:9)
Contrast the attitude of the author of Galatians who speaks of Peter as one who:
“seemed to be something — whatever [he was] it makes no difference to me . . . . for [he who] seemed to be something added nothing to me . . . . who seemed to be [a pillar]. . . .” (Gal. 2:6-9)
and who then goes on to effectively declare James and Peter as being false apostles:
But when Peter had come to Antioch I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed . . . . when [certain men came from James] he withdrew and separated himself [from the gentiles], fearing those who were of the circumcision . . . . But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter before them all, “. . . . Why do you compel Gentiles to live as Jews?” (Gal. 2:11-14)
That passage, when read with the author’s earlier discussion about false brethren, places Peter squarely among those false brethren according to Paul:
“false brethren secretly brought in . . . . that they might bring us into bondage . . . . to whom we did not yield submission even for an hour” (Gal. 2:3-5)
The evidence of Galatians supports the argument that the catalogue of resurrection appearances in 1 Cor.15:3-11 is not original to that letter. If, as other evidence indicates, Paul was from early times accounted as an apostle “to the heretics”, and if his letters were first known as a collection among the Marcionite Christians, then this catalogue of resurrection appearances in 1 Cor.15:3-11 has a simple explanation: it was an attempt by “orthodox” Christians to demonstrate Paul’s compatibility with and support for “orthodoxy”. “Orthodoxy” traced its foundation to Peter and the Twelve and James and that is what the catalogue of appearances supports.
We have then Galatians informing us of a major rift between between predominantly gentile Christians led by Paul and mostly Jewish ones led by James and Peter.
1 Corinthians tells us that Peter was certainly held in the highest esteem among many early Christians regardless of the authenticity of the passage to the original author.
The Gospel of Mark’s lack of resurrection appearances
Now come to the gospel of Mark. (I assume here that Mark’s ending is at 16:8 and that the following verses were a later attempt to give the gospel a more palatable ending for new audiences. See a brief discussion of the evidence here.)
In this earliest of the canonical gospels Peter is treated with as little respect as the author of Galatians shown him. His name, meaning Rock, is nowhere associated with a firm foundation for the church but rather appears to be more compatible with the quickly withering fruit that comes from rocky soil (Tolbert). From an excellent enthusiastic beginning his career with Jesus gradually degenerates until by the end he falls, like Judas and the rest of the Twelve, ignorantly and blindly into the camp of those who deny their Lord before men and thus their souls. Mark drives home the failure of this disciple for his readers by having Jesus send a reminder to Peter that those who wish to see Jesus again must go the Galilee (the metaphorical place of the kingdom of God that replaced the kingdom of Jerusalem), a reminder Mark bitingly tells readers, Peter did not even receive. He was not so blind and deaf as to be beyond redemption. It was as if Jesus did not really care that he got the message. After all, he had already made taught:
For whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed . . . . (Mark 8:38)
The tears of Peter are a warning to Mark’s readers of the fate of one who denies Christ. There is no narrative redemption in them in this gospel. The tears Peter wept were the signs of anguish over his condition, no more effective for salvation than Judas’s torments that led him to hang himself or the bitter wailing of those other evangelists tell us is the fate of those in hell.
There is no resurrection appearance to Peter in Mark’s gospel.
This despite — or more likely because of — Peter’s prominence in rival Christian factions. Mark’s attack on Peter and the Twelve must have been in response to the prominence of Peter and the Twelve among significant numbers of Christians with whom he disagreed (Weeden, Fowler, Kelber, Tolbert). Like the author of Galatians, most likely.
The place of Peter from the beginning
So before Mark wrote (I refer to Mark as the author for convenience — no-one knows the identity of the original author except those who read more than is warranted into what Eusebius said Papias said — see “authorship“. Ditto for the other gospels too.) . . . . . so it is safe to say that before Mark wrote, Peter was held in very high esteem among many Christian communities. But not all.
The bland but blunt instrument of Matthew’s first resurrection appearance
The Gospel of Matthew rehabilitates Peter from Mark’s denigration. Matthew in response to Mark (whom he was in large measure copying and re-writing) chooses to drop Mark’s bitter reference to Peter after the resurrection completely. Where Mark had sarcastically concluded his gospel with the women running in fear from the tomb too frightened to breath a word to anyone, let alone Peter, about what they had just seen, Matthew sends them none other than Jesus himself. By so doing, he overturns Mark’s biting attack on the credibility of the witnesses. He re-writes Mark: Sure the women ran like blazes from the tomb, but they were really on their way to tell the disciples, and moreover Jesus met them on the way — so the women’s testimony suddenly has authority of having seen the resurrected Jesus himself.
Many have commented on the apparent pointlessness of Matthew’s account of Jesus appearing to the women here. He doesn’t tell them anything that they have not already heard from the angel in the tomb. But Matthew has a very real point to make when we think of him wrestling with the best way to re-write Mark’s account to redeem the authority of the apostles. He changed Mark’s young man (possibly meant to be the same as the young man who fled naked from Jesus at his arrest in Gethsemane) to an angel. That was a first step in giving the apostles an authoritative base. Next he had Mark’s fearfully fleeing women run smack bang into Jesus himself. The women were not running in fear as Mark had said. Matthew explains that they were running in joy and only became fearful when they unexpectedly ran into Jesus himself. And they did tell the disciples not just the message of an angel but the very message of Jesus himself. Matthew has added the Jesus appearance to the women to undo Mark’s cynicism. It hardly mattered that he could not think of anything more to add about what Jesus might have said than what Mark had already fed him with the speech of the young man in the tomb. The point was the authority of eyewitness and its links between the empty tomb and the disciples to counter Mark’s renunciation.
But Matthew does not give Peter a resurrection appearance. Peter is not even named by Matthew — presumably to muffle the memory of Mark’s sarcastic naming of him in his closing verses (Mark 16:7). Instead Matthew leaves it to the reader that Peter is among the eleven disciples who saw Jesus on a mountain in Galilee at the end.
Presumably then Matthew, and therefore Mark, was writing before the passage in 1 Corinthians 15:5 (“he was seen by Cephas”) was known to him.
But what was certainly known to Matthew was the prominence of Peter as a leader in the church. Hence Matthew 16:17-18:
Jesus answered and said to him, Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, . . . . And I also say unto you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, . . . . And I will give you the keys of the kingdom, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. . . .
By the time of Luke’s gospel
By the time Luke wrote his gospel, however, it appears that there were (noncanonical) stories floating that Peter’s prominence among the churches was even more securely grounded by the resurrected Jesus having appeared first to him.
But this story had not yet taken on the flesh and bones of narrative detail. It was presented as “an event”, “a fact”, a new piece in the armory of those in the trenches battling for the superiority of their pro-Petrine faction’s historical priority.
It may have first appeared in 1 Corinthians 15 then. Luke’s briefest, almost incidental mention, that the resurrected Jesus had appeared to Peter, is certainly strange. Luke tells good stories, fleshed out narratives. He has just told a good one of the two travelers to the village Emmaus (24:13-33). These two rush off to tell their detailed experience with the resurrected Jesus to the disciples, where they blurt out:
The Lord is risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon! (Luke 24:34)
A strange thing to say when the group they are addressing clearly included Simon Peter himself. (Since the group numbered the eleven the only one absent therefore was Judas.) Did he not tell anyone that he had seen Jesus? How did the 2 travelers know he had appeared to Simon? But most bizarre of all, it seems the 2 travelers had no interest in pouring out their own experience of having just walked and talked with one resurrected from the dead — only to tell others someone else had seen him! The story of the 2 travelers meeting Jesus has been awkwardly edited to bring in to the narrative a report of Jesus having appeared (first) to Peter.
This passage may be a later interpolation to give the story link with the 1 Corinthians 15 catalogue of appearances. If so, I would suspect it was from the redactor of an early version of Luke — the same one who wrote the pro-Petrine Acts and edited Luke to make it fit as a companion to Acts (Tyson).
He seems not have had one for Jesus’ appearance to Peter.
Luke 24 follows the order of 1 Corinthians 15:4-5, with the same words, mentioning an appearance to “Simon” followed by an appearance to the entire group. “The Lord has been raised and appeared to Simon” . . . . The combination of “raise” and “appear” in the passive voice may seem unremarkable, but it is found only in these two places. Wolfgang Schenk has developed a detailed argument based upon the similarities among Luke 24, 1 Corinthians 15, and Galatians 1. Although the relation may seem tenuous at first sight, the question deserves serious attention. Luke 24:34 may well be a reflection of 1 Corinthians 15:4-5. (Pervo, p.70)
And the gospel of John?
If we take John’s gospel as later than Luke’s (some scholars doubt that is the case, however — Matson, Shellard, et al) then we still have no narrative of the resurrected Jesus appearing first to Peter.
By the time of Luke-Acts and the Pastorals
By the time the Book of Acts was being written the values expressed in the Pastoral epistles were casting a longer shadow across the progenitors of orthodoxy:
Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach . . . . but to be in silence. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression. (1 Timothy 2:11-14)
The author of that probably liked the original ending in Mark: women running like scared rabbits and too scared to open their mouths (16:8). He might have had a harder time with Matthew’s attempt to undo Mark’s damage by having the women run into Jesus instead of oblivion (28:9). At least the author of John’s gospel had the good sense to have the first woman witness of the resurrected Jesus fail to recognize him (John 20:11-16). But the Gospel of Luke reaffirms the ascendancy of the male role, despite some possible ambiguity over the gender identity of the two travelers to Emmaus.
If the passage in Luke about the appearance of the resurrected Jesus to Simon Peter was from the hand of the author of Acts (and other recent posts here express reasons for a late date for Acts) then we can surmise at least one good reason for him wishing to include this passage in Luke. Acts is about the parity between Peter and Paul. Both perform similar miracles (raising the dead, healing the cripples) and undergo similar experiences (e.g. flogging, prison, false prophets). Yet the author is also at pains to demonstrate Paul’s submission to Peter and the Twelve (e.g. Acts 15). Paul’s conversion is to be by the direct revelation of Jesus himself — just as he appeared to all the apostles, first of all Peter, in 1 Corinthians 15. (I’ve already cited Pervo and Tyson for what I consider very plausible arguments that the author of Acts and Luke did know and used Paul’s letters.)
This author had no other stories about this resurrection appearance of Jesus to Peter to draw on. Only the bare fact that it happened. So it was clumsily placed in the mouths of the two travelers to Emmaus. From that somewhat ill-balanced position the author could speak of Paul’s conversion as a result of a vision and not risk it over-shadowing the experience of Peter who had been the very first to see the resurrected Christ.
By the time 2 Peter was written, as if from the pen of the apostle himself, it seems telling that not even that author could go past his seeing Jesus on the mountain at his transfiguration (2 Peter 1:16-17) — presumably he thought this account would give him more authoritative status than a mere appearance of a resurrected Jesus! Some scholars wonder if the transfiguration appearance was a retelling of an original resurrection appearance. If so, then it was muted sufficiently as such to require the subsequent evolution of a separate — and newly prioritized — appearance of the resurrected Jesus to Peter possibly as late as around the early second century. Ignatius is the first non-canonical author to reference it. But that leads us to a new set of questions about dates and identities that will have to be addressed another time.