Daily Archives: 2008-01-28 15:58:13 UTC

Missing a real Peter in Acts

Crazy as it might sound to some, there is simply no biographical information about Peter in the book of Acts. Every story told in relation to Peter has a miracle as its absolute base. In other words, remove the mythical element from each anecdote concerning Peter and there is nothing left. It is not as though the author has tagged a miracle on to some biographical detail of Peter’s life to give it sparkle, as we sometimes find in genuine biographies. There is simply no Peter apart from the mythical in this book.

Episode 1: Reconstituting the Twelve

If Mark’s gospel was the first, and if we concede the arguments that Judas was Mark’s literary creation, then the arguments that this event which Peter leads is a theological construct than a dedication to historical sources are surely strengthened. The way Judas is placed in Mark’s gospel is without narrative coherence (e.g. Jesus was well enough known not to need one of his disciples to point him out, no motive is given to explain his betrayal. . . .), appearing to be unnaturally introduced into the story simply to make the plot work. If there ever were a body of Twelve based at Jerusalem and recognized as eyewitnesses of Jesus and authoritative guardians of the original faith, Paul’s, and even Acts’, failures to appeal to them for dispute resolution is inexplicable. The names of the Twelve vary in different writings, as happens with free-floating legends, and they are little known except as an abstraction beyond the canonical documents until the later second century. If, as Bauckham affirms, the most solid basis for believing their existence to be historical is found in Meier’s study, they have precious little substantial foundation indeed. (See my post on Meier’s discussion of the evidence for the Twelve.)

But even apart from the implausibility of the existence of the Twelve, and of an historical Judas who occasions this scene in Acts, the story itself climaxes with an act of God demonstrating the continuity of the church on Pentecost with the earlier Mosaic tradition. The meaning of the story is bound up in the casting of lots to ascertain the divine will (as per Aaronic practice) in order to establish the divine appointment of the Twelve. The author portrays this as a direct act of God without which Peter’s role would be meaningless. Readers are left without any biographical or historical story in association with this divine act. There is no discussion of Peter’s relationship with the Twelve, or feedback on the discussions and concerns that one would expect among the players in the context. The is interested in nothing more than proof-texting from Scriptures and describing an act of God for his readers. There is no history, no biography here.
We can safely hold the first anecdote in which Peter is the focus in abeyance pending further support for its historicity.

Episode 2: Pentecost

Peter’s function here in chapter 2 of Acts is to act as the interpreter of the public miracle of the sound of wind, tongues of fire, and miracle of linguistic communication. He is used as the mouthpiece for assuring both real audience and his narrative audience that all that is happening to the disciples in Jerusalem is a direct fulfilment of prophecy. His preaching is so effective that 3000 Jews turn around from fickle Christ-crucifiers to a converted utopian community of believers.

Again, not surprisingly in such a scene, there is no background historical or biographical description or discussion. What you read is all there is: a tale of the miraculous and its theological meaning.

We are still no nearer to knowing anything of a man Peter. We know about scriptural fulfilments and miracles, but nothing about real people and history.

Episode 3: Miracle and Sanhedrin

In Peter’s first miracle (Acts 3) there is no detail offered that is not integral to the miracle story itself. In the subsequent arrest and interrogation before the Sanhedrin where one might hope for some enlightenment of an historical exchange for us to better glimpse the real historical goings on in the early church, and its relations with Jewish authorities, there is again nothing. Only a discussion that pivots around the performing of a miracle and the theological message it conveys.

Unless one believes that life, history, and the interventions of the divine were quite unlike anything we know today, then there is no news about history or a real Peter here either. And if we did believe that, then to be fair we’d have to have pretty good grounds for accepting that things were only validly different for the “peoples of the Book” and not for pagans who also experienced miracles and interventions of deities.

Episode 4: Striking liars dead and healing with a shadow

No discussion is required concerning Peter’s appearance in the Ananias and Sapphira incident. Fortunately we can safely assume that these two were not struck dead at a word from Peter’s mouth, any more than we will assume that his shadow really did heal the sick.

But what we are looking for is something else beside these tall tales that might suggest some genuine biographical source. Unfortunately, there is nothing but the tall tales.

Episode 5: Prison break out and another interrogation

Peter is imprisoned with the others but an angel miraculously releases them. Hardly a basis for a presumption of historicity. Unless the angel did intervene the story would lose its meaning. It is intended to amuse the audiences as they find opportunity to snicker at the trembling guards and authorities who are at a loss to comprehend their freedom. No miracle or angel, no story. That is, the miracle is not tacked on to an historical event. The miracle is presented as the central historical event.

Again one might hope for some survival of sources to seep through to the telling of the official interrogation that follows, but this session is narratively a sequel to the earlier one that was itself a direct consequence of a miracle. If some do see some historical source behind the account of Gamaliel’s advice, it unfortunately throws no light on an historical Peter.

Episode 6: A real event?

The dispute between 2 groups over handouts sounds plausible enough. It’s the sort of incident one would expect to read about in a new community working out its ways. But if this is the first whiff we have of something that reads like history, it is not only very generalized and sweeping in its account, — it also finds Peter completely out of sight.

Episode 7: Putting super magicians in their place

Peter’s encounter with Simon Magus is obviously designed to demonstrate the superiority of Peter to this Samaritan would-be rival. The dialogue is tailored to pronounce doom on this arch-heretic and to depict the victim as cowering and begging for mercy in response. The theological and political message underlying the anecdote is obvious. Peter stands for the theological and political message. There is nothing else of Peter here. The account of Simon is so cryptic it serves to raise questions rather than enlighten. It tells us more about Simon than Peter and it drapes Simon himself beneath an impenetrable shroud. If Simon here is a substitute for Paul as some have argued (Detering), then Peter likewise is as much a metonym.

Episode 8: Aeneas and Dorcas

As the plot of Acts advances toward the full inclusion of gentiles, Peter is found performing miracles firstly on the namesake of the Romans, Aeneas, and secondly on one nicknamed Deer. One miracle is at a place that reads like a homonym for Lydia — from where the Romans traced their descent; the other at Joppa, from where Jonah embarked on his (unintended) way to preach to the gentile Assyrians. Both miracles are obvious re-writes of miracles already attributed to Jesus and Elijah and Elisha. The symbolic nature of the stories, and their clear literary borrowing, is enough to attribute them to authorial imagination and creativity.

But of course, Peter here is placed in no historical or biographical context. He is nothing more than the agent of the miracles — which obviously are the what the anecdotes are about. Not Peter.

Episode 9: Vision and Cornelius

Here the author gives us some detailed narrative fillers for Peter as a character. But that’s all — only narrative filler. More dialogue as opposed to monologue, more detail about where he is and what he’s doing and how he’s feeling (e.g. on a roof, sleepy, hungry). Unfortunately, it’s not the sort of detail that will help a historian or biographer learn anything about the real man. There is no discussion, as one would expect in a document if it were aiming at recording and instructing in an historical past, of the viewpoints within the Church or among its leaders on the issue of Jewish customs. There is only one person discussed, and that’s Peter himself. He is being used to inform readers how of a “Just-So” story of how the church came to be made up of gentiles. There is no discussion of the different persons who must have been involved in any such real event. But we know it is not a real event because its plot hinges squarely on 2 miraculous visions and then another miracle of a visible display of the descent of the spirit.

Episode 10: Last jail break

Just like in a Greek play about a mythical character, this near-final scene of Peter’s tells us nothing about a real event, let alone a real person. I sometimes think it would have been a nice touch if the author had added that Peter sent condolences to the families of the guards who were executed as a result of his escape. “I’m very sorry about what happened to your Brutus and Cassius back there, but with that angel coming in and striking chains in two and swinging iron gates open with just a look I was too frightened to do anything but run like the blazes. It’s a real shame our God does not have more pity for you pagans.”

Episode 11: Summing up

Finally at the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 Peter makes his last appearance. But all he does is repeat a litany of miracles.

Missing the real Peter

From first to last, there is no real Peter, no historical material. There is only miracle and theology, of which Peter is a mouthpiece or agent.

And this Peter of narrative is different from the Peter of the epistle to the Galatians. He is also different from the Peter in the gospel of Mark, and again from the one in the gospels of John and Matthew.

Like Paul, he is a Protean figure who can be turned into whatever the narrator cum theologian requires.

Dating the Book of Acts: Marcionite Context 2 — and beyond

Continued from Dating Acts: Marcionite context . . . (see also Tyson and Marcion archives)

After attempting a form of controlled analysis for determining the main themes and their supporting literary patterns in Acts, and arguing that the results are best explained as a response to the Marcionite challenge, Tyson examines the characterizations of Peter and Paul in Acts to see if they also are best explained the same way.

Tyson leaves what I think is a major gap in his discussion of how the author presented Peter in Acts but I’ll leave that discussion till after outlining Tyson’s argument.

Characterization of Peter

There is no subtlety in how the author of Acts portrays this leading apostle. We all know Peter is the leader — (Tyson specifies that he is depicted as the leader of the church at Jerusalem), miracle-worker, bold and convincing speaker before rulers and converting crowds of thousands (2:41), taking the initiative in reconstituting the Twelve in the wake of the demise of Judas, interpreter of divinely sent visions (10:28 ) and miracles (2:14-16). Sinners drop dead (5:1-11) or beg for mercy (8:20-24) at his word and his mere shadow heals the cripples (5:20). Not even prison chains and guards can hold him (12:8-10).

But Tyson asks, if the author knew the epistles of Paul, why did he portray Peter this way? In Galatians Paul portrays a Peter who is unstable, very much “unleaderlike” — I would add, as much more akin to the Peter of the synoptic gospels. There Jesus had to regularly correct him; in Galatians Paul assumes that role.

Tyson asks if it is possible the author of Acts derived his alternative image of Peter from 1 Clement, thought to be written near the end of the first century. (Tyson, of course, is arguing for a second century date for canonical Luke-Acts.) That document elevates both Paul and Peter to leadership status, and speaks of Peter’s sufferings. But there is no indication of his relationship to the Jerusalem church or of his role as a prominent preacher and witness there.

Tyson believes that the best explanation for the way Peter is drawn in Acts is the Marcionite context. Marcion relied exclusively on the letters of Paul, and declared the other apostles, including Peter, to be false apostles. Paul seems to be referring to the Jerusalem apostles in 2 Corinthians 11:1-15 when he criticizes those known as “super apostles”, whom he calls “false apostles”, implying they were preaching a “different gospel” (cf Gal.1:6-7).

Tyson argues that a Marcionite challenge would have provided the perfect foil for the way the author of Acts accounted for Peter.

He was answering the charge that Peter

  • was an unreliable and false apostle
  • was not a dependable witness to the faith — nor even the resurrection (Marcion’s gospel apparently disputed Peter’s witness of this)

and, it should be added, also answering the charge that Jerusalem was the birth place and base of this false witness and gospel.

A question — the limits of the anti-Marcion hypothesis?

While I like the idea of canonical Luke-Acts being a response to Marcionism, I cannot avoid a problem when it comes to Tyson’s discussion of Peter in support of this. If Acts was composed so late, then surely the author knew of the gospel of Matthew. And if, as Tyson’s argument goes, the same author heavily redacted Luke to become a companion volume to Acts, then why would he have omitted any reference in his gospel to Jesus’ promise to give the keys of heaven to Peter and use him as a foundation stone for his church (Matt.16:18)?

This passage in Matthew would surely have served as the most direct challenge conceivable to Marcionism.

If Matthew was written as a response to the “Paulinism” many see in Mark (compare Matthew’s heavy emphasis on obedience to a law more binding than that of Moses in the Sermon on the Mount, Matt 23, etc.) one might easily see Matthew’s depiction of Peter’s confession as a direct rebuff to the name and authority of Paul.

If the author of Acts intended to show that Paul stood subordinate to the Twelve then surely this claim about the leader of the Twelve would have found a prominent place in the debate.

The broader catholicizing agenda of Acts — embracing James, and group work, too?

To me the best explanation is that while Marcionism might have been a/the prime challenge that its author was addressing, it was not the only one. Marcionites looked to Paul as The (Sole) Apostle. But there were others who looked to James. Indeed, Paul’s letter to the Galatians appears to acknowledge James as the leader of the Jerusalem community by naming him first among the pillars there.

The Gospel of Thomas informs believers that James is the primary focal point of the church on earth. It was even believed among some Christian quarters that God willed the destruction of Jerusalem because of the martyrdom of James. And James was undeniably a representative of a form of Jewish Christianity.

The author of Acts obviously had no problem with allowing James to assume the leadership of the Jerusalem church. Presumably this was because James represented the same Jewish flavoured Christianity as Peter also represented and that stood in opposition to Marcionism .

But there was more than the inclusion of those Christians who looked to James at work here.

Peter does not wield Matthew’s keys to the kingdom of heaven willy nilly — or ever at all, really, in Acts.

  • In the appointment of Matthias to fill the twelfth position Peter may initiate the action, but the action is carried out by the collective as they roll the dice while praying to God. Matthias is not added by Peter, but by God, through the acceptance of “the Twelve”.
  • Peter’s first dramatic miracles are performed in partnership with John (3:1, 12).
  • Similarly in the appointment of the Seven. Peter is not seen there. It is the Twelve who summon the community and give directions for how they were to appoint the new leaders.
  • Philip and others are used to first push the ethnic boundaries of the church by evangelizing among the Samaritans and to an Ethiopian.
  • And in the conversion of the Centurion, Peter is confused at first, not knowing what the vision he has just seen means. He has to explain both to the centurion’s household that he is letting God decide how things turn out and what they mean.
  • And after that moment, he is summoned to give an account of his actions to those “of the circumcision”, presumably among both the apostles and brethren (Acts 11:1-3).

Peter is a leader — even THE leader in the early chapters of Acts. But he is not the sole leader of the Jerusalem community. The author of Acts is stressing the significance of not only Peter, but of the authority of the Twelve with Peter, and even of James eventually.

Justin Martyr is witness, in Trypho, that at the time of Marcion, other well entrenched traditions throughout the Christian “philosophy” included the belief that its beginnings could be traced to The Twelve at Jerusalem, and that among those Christians were those who followed Jewish customs, and that these were to be accepted as brethren, too.

Canonical Luke-Acts comfortably fits in such an environment.

Matthew 16:18 could well have been a response too much in the faces of those the author of canonical Luke-Acts wanted to embrace. It could serve well in a power conflict between West and East. But it risked supplanting the idea of the Twelve as an authoritative foundation from Jerusalem. Note that Matthew even concluded his gospel with some of the Twelve (or Eleven) doubting the resurrection.

To continue with the characterization of Paul . . . .