Were Peter and Paul good friends who felt that they were working together in the spread of Jesus’s message, or were they bitter competitors who both felt that the other had the wrong idea?
While the first possibility is the one generally accepted by the faithful, and the second possibility is one pushed by those who either have a strong bias toward one theology over another or who have an agenda to discredit Christianity as a whole, the truth is probably somewhere closer to in between.
As I understand it from my years associated with the protestant Christian church, the general feeling among mainline Christians – if they even consider it at all (and most don’t) – is that Peter and Paul, like the other apostles, were generally united in their efforts to spread Jesus’s message. The evidence, however, is that most all of the primary apostles (that is, both members of Jesus’s inner circle, as well as early Christians like Paul who never actually met Jesus) had their own ideas about the meaning of Jesus’s life. By the 300’s C.E., Rome’s version of orthodox Christian theology had deftly woven these competing apostolic theologies together, set up Peter as the primary apostle on whose theology (that is, the Church’s interpretation of Peter’s theology) the Church’s dogma would follow, and had put together a nice little package of orthodox Christian writings. These writings, of course, came to be called the New Testament and were introduced to the faithful as the only divinely-inspired Christian texts. The countless myriad other Christian texts were first called heresy and greatly discouraged, and then, beginning in the 390’s C.E., were outlawed completely by Emperor Theodosius, who subsequently sent his lackeys around the empire to collect and destroy the banned texts.
It’s little wonder these non-canonical Christian texts were largely unknown until the 19th century, and many that we do have now (through various archaeological discoveries over the last hundred years) are incomplete and unreadable. Countless others, no doubt, have never been discovered. Yet, I’ve had traditionally-believing Christians in just the last six months point to the fact that these non-canonical texts are so rare and so few-and-far-between that it must be God’s way of showing that they are unreliable – if they were reliable, so the argument went, they’d still be around. They’re rare, of course, because the Church systematically destroyed them 1700 years ago! It had nothing to do with God!
But I digress...
Even in the canon, there is much evidence of the contention between Peter and Paul. Scholars and theologians generally portray Peter as the missionary to the Jews, while Paul is described as the missionary to the Gentiles. Paul himself paints it precisely this way in his letter to the Galatians. Indeed, it is widely understood that Paul was the one who first began spreading the “Good News” to the Gentiles in large numbers.
What could have led to such a dichotomous set-up? Why was Paul designated the Gentile missionary, while Peter was designated the Jewish missionary? If they were doing God’s work, shouldn’t they have been missionaries to everyone? Why the specialization?
Clues both in the canon and outside of the canon can help lead us toward an answer. In Galatians 2, Paul admonishes “Cephas” for not eating with the Gentiles. Galatians 2:11 reads: “When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong.” He goes on to explain that Peter wouldn’t eat with the Gentiles when his Jewish friends were around. Paul then transcribes a two or three paragraph admonishment that he supposedly gave to Peter in front of everyone, calling him to the carpet for not associating with Gentiles and even calling him a hypocrite and suggesting that he fooled Baranabas (Paul’s missionary companion) into doing the same thing.
Pretty harsh words for two men supposedly united in a cause.
Anyone familiar with Jewish eating customs will quickly be able to figure out the significance of this admonishing by Paul. Paul, who argued that Jesus’s message was for everyone, Jew and Gentile alike, did not believe it was necessary to become a Jew, and live by Jewish law, in order to accept the message of Jesus and become a Christian. In other words, one did not have to live by the kosher rules of Jewish consumption in order to be a Christian. Peter, apparently, felt differently. When given the opportunity to eat with Gentile converts in front of his Jewish friends, he chose not to. He did not want to eat Gentile food, as it would have meant he was breaking kosher Jewish laws. Not only did he, apparently, not want to do this for himself, but he also did not want to offend other Jewish Christians. Paul clearly took issue with this, and upbraided him for it in public. For it to have been important enough to reference in one of his letters, it must have been a major issue between the two Christian leaders – one that everyone knew about.
Some scholars and theologians, in an effort to preserve the idea of Peter and Paul being united in the message of Christ, have attempted to suggest that the “Cephas” referred to in Paul’s letter is not Peter. If you read my previous blog, you will know that “Cephas” is the Greek transliteration of Peter’s Aramaic nickname – Kepha. It is true that in most places in the New Testament, the writers referred to Peter as “Petros” – that is, they translated his name from Aramaic to Greek, rather than “Cephas.” But there are several places, Paul’s letter included, where the Greek transliteration was used instead, for whatever reason. It’s hard to imagine that there would have been two major Christian leaders named Cephas, particularly when you consider that “Cephas” is not a real name at all, but merely a transliteration of one language to another. Were there really two prominent Aramaic-speaking Jewish Christians in 1st century Palestine whose nicknames were “Kepha,” thus transliterating into the Greek “Cephas”? Probably not. Most every reputable scholar and theologian agree that Paul’s Cephas was, in fact, Simon Peter.
If we assume that Paul’s Cephas was Simon Peter, then we are faced with trying to understand the context of this apparently major disagreement the two had on the necessity of abiding by Jewish law and custom. Peter seems to have believed that Gentiles first needed to convert to Judaism – with all its kosher laws – before becoming Christian. Paul, on the other hand, makes it clear that we are saved through grace alone, and works (that is, sticking to kosher laws, etc.) are not necessary for salvation. In Galatians 2:16, during his admonishment to Peter, Paul says, “A man is not justified by observing the law [that is, the Jewish law], but by faith in Jesus Christ.”
The writer of James takes up this very issue when he argues that while we are saved through grace, a faith without works is dead. James, apparently, wanted to heal the long-standing rift created by the prominent disagreement between Peter and Paul, over whether religious laws had to be followed in order for salvation to be granted. James, then, argued that salvation comes through faith, but that without works, there can be no faith. A nice middle ground. But, as alluded to above, the very fact that James felt it necessary to address this issue so in-depth in his writings is evidence that it was a major issue in the early Christian church – and it’s an issue that can be traced to a fundamental disagreement between Peter and Paul – one that eventually led Paul to proclaim himself the missionary to the Gentiles, while Peter stuck with the Jews.
There are other clues to the rift in the New Testament as well. Luke, who wrote two volumes of Christian works – the first a narrative of Jesus’s life, and the second a narrative of the early days of Christianity – wrote many years after Paul’s death. His books, of course, are known to us as the Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles. Luke seems to have been aware of Peter and Paul’s disagreement, and so, in an effort to show that Peter didn’t really think you had to be Jewish before you could be a Christian, he describes a scene in which Peter converts a Roman centurion – that is, a Gentile – to Christianity, after eating with him, no less. It starts with a story that is a Sunday School favorite – Peter dreams of a large sheet covered with a bunch of Gentile (that is, unclean) food. God instructs him to eat it. Peter is appalled and tells God he hasn’t ever eaten unclean food in his life. God then tells Peter that he shouldn’t call anything unclean that God has made pure. Peter then goes and eats with the Gentile centurion and converts him to Christianity. Clearly Luke was familiar with the kosher disagreement between Peter and Paul, and he attempts to “clear Peter’s name” by describing this scene in which God himself tells Peter that non-kosher is just fine. In my opinion – and in the opinion of many scholars – this is a rather blatant attempt by the writer of Acts to counter contemporary ideas that Peter had been a follower of Jewish law right up to his death.
Evidence of this rift between Peter and Paul is even more prominent in non-canonical writings. A set of writings attributed to a 1st century Christian leader named Clement includes a letter supposedly written by Peter to James – the same James who wrote about faith and works, referenced above. (The Clementine writings were supposedly written by the man who the Roman Catholic Church calls Pope Clement I, the fourth bishop of Rome, the third in succession after Peter, and an actual traveling companion of Peter. A whole series of blogs could be written about whether Clement actually authored this set of writings, or whether it was authored later and simply attributed to him, or whether it was based on some of his authentic writings – now lost – but was heavily changed and edited. After that, we could go into a discussion of whether Clement himself even existed, and whether he was, in fact, a bishop of Rome, and whether he was actually a companion of Peter. But this isn’t the place to delve into all that.)
In this letter supposedly transcribed by Clement, Peter rails against those who suggest that he teaches a “dissolution of the law.” He states, emphatically, that he never teaches for dissolution of Jewish law, “for to do so means to act contrary to the law of God which was made to Moses and was confirmed by our Lord.” He goes on to talk about how many Gentiles have rejected his “lawful” preaching and have preferred a “lawless and absurd doctrine” preached by “the man who is my enemy.” This is a clear and obvious reference to Paul.
In another Clementine writing, called the Clementine Homilies, there is a confrontation between Peter and a character named Simon Magus. Simon Magus appears in the New Testament, as well as in other non-canonical writings. He was a magician (that is, a pagan who worked wonders) in Rome, and some evidence even suggests that he was, in fact, a rival Christian leader. In one non-canonical work (The Acts of Peter, written in the 2nd century), Simon Magus and Peter engage in a long, drawn-out battle of magic. The winner (who, of course, is ultimately Peter) has the pleasure of getting all the masses to proclaim allegiance to his god. In the Clementine Homilies, however, Simon Magus is portrayed as rival Christian leader, and a rather lengthy passage is devoted to Peter’s derision for this pagan-in-sheep’s-clothing. Interestingly enough, even though the name used is that of Simon Magus, all the “facts” given about his life – and about which Peter speaks with contempt – are “facts” we know from the life of Paul. For instance, Peter says that Simon’s conversion on the road to Damascus was a sham, and that just because he saw a vision of Jesus decades after Jesus’s death, did not give him authority over people like Peter, who knew Jesus personally. Of course, it was Paul who was converted on the road to Damascus, and it was Paul who claimed authority through a vision he had of Jesus. Clearly, the writer of this non-canonical work was acutely aware of the rift between Peter and Paul, and used the character of Simon Magus to weakly mask the real source of Peter’s derision – that is, the apostle Paul.
Of course, just as we can’t read the New Testament as though it is a history book describing linear, historical events, we can’t read the Clementine writings, or any non-canonical work, as if they deal with literal events. However, we can glean from the non-canonical sources some insight into the mindset of the early Christians; as such, we can see that even in the 2nd century, perhaps as much as 100 years after Peter and Paul had both died, traditions surrounding their theological disagreements remained. If no such disagreement had ever existed, stories such as the ones I have outlined above would not have come into existence. It’s a matter of following the trail of canonical and non-canonical evidence to logical conclusions.
While mainstream Christian theology suggests that Peter and Paul were a united front in spreading the message of Christ, I believe the textual evidence points more toward Peter and Paul being as much competitors as they were comrades. In the book of 2 Peter, which has traditionally been credited to Peter himself, the writer, after a vitriolic exposition on the dangers of false prophets and a long, flowery sermon on the second coming of Jesus, encourages his readers to follow the teachings of “our dear brother Paul.” He goes on to admit that while Paul’s writings are sometimes confusing, they should be studied deeply and followed completely. Bearing in mind the likely reality that Peter and Paul had some major theological differences, what are the chances Peter himself actually wrote this passage? I’ll delve into that in my next blog.