2008-01-28

Missing a real Peter in Acts

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by Neil Godfrey

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.

  • 2008-01-29 20:39:35 UTC - 20:39 | Permalink

    Thanks, I continue to get a lot of value from your writing. Regardless of who or what Peter was, episode 9 is of huge importance. See ‘Aaron’s staff’ on my site.

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