We have come to the end of Peter’s first letter. The second century church accepted this document as having come from Peter’s hands, and almost unanimously accepted Peter’s second letter as well (and, of course, both were included in the canon of scripture).
The following brief history of Peter comes largely from the Britannica, as well as the cited primary references “First Letter of Clement,” “Letter to the Corinthians” also by Clement, “Letter to the Romans” by Ignatius, and the writings of Eusebius.
Peter’s Early Leadership
When Luke sought to chronicle a well-researched and factual history of Jesus’ ministry and the formation of the church, he focused on Peter as an early leader. For the first ten to fifteen years after Jesus’ resurrection, Peter seems to have taken the initiative to
- Appoint a disciple to replace Judas Iscariot, who had died about a month and a half previously, by his own hand. (c. 33 AD)
- Address the crowds on the Day of Pentecost, winning three thousand to saving faith. (c. 33 AD)
- Advocate for the apostles before the Sanhedrin. (c. 33-34 AD)
- Adjudicate the case of Ananias and Sapphira. (c. mid to late 30’s AD)
- Act as impetus for the disciples in spreading the gospel. (c. 30’s to 40’s AD)
- Affect miracles of healing in Jerusalem, Lydda, and Joppa. (c. 30’s-40’s AD)
- Administer the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands to Samaritan converts. (c. 30’s to 40’s AD)
- Admonish Simon Magus for seeking to purchase God’s Spirit. (c. 30’s to 40’s AD)
- Accept the conversion of the centurion Cornelius, and his household, as of the Lord. (c. mid to late 40’s AD)
- Affirm baptism for the uncircumcised. (c. 50 AD)
Not long after this last blockbuster innovation—inspired and blessed by the Spirit of God—serious persecution of the church began.
Peter’s Early Escape From Prison
Sometime around 44 AD, in short succession, Herod Antipas had John’s brother James beheaded; then, seeing how pleased the Jewish religious authorities were with his bold move, had Peter imprisoned (possibly in response to Peter accepting the conversions of Gentile Roman centurion Cornelius and his household, and baptizing them.)
Over the past ten or eleven years, the church had experienced the mighty wonder-working power of God in response to their fervent prayer, and so they went to their knees for Peter. As Luke recorded the event,
The very night before Herod was going to bring him out, Peter, bound with two chains, was sleeping between two soldiers, while guards in front of the door were keeping watch over the prison. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He tapped Peter on the side and woke him, saying, “Get up quickly.”
And the chains fell off his wrists!
The angel said to him, “Fasten your belt and put on your sandals.”
He did so.
Then he said to him, “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.”
Peter went out and followed him; he did not realize that what was happening with the angel’s help was real; he thought he was seeing a vision. After they had passed the first and the second guard, they came before the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went outside and walked along a lane, when suddenly the angel left him.
Then Peter came to himself and said, “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hands of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.”
As soon as he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many had gathered and were praying. When he knocked at the outer gate, a maid named Rhoda came to answer. On recognizing Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed that, instead of opening the gate, she ran in and announced that Peter was standing at the gate.
They said to her, “You are out of your mind!”
But she insisted that it was so.
They said, “It is his angel.”
Meanwhile Peter continued knocking; and when they opened the gate, they saw him and were amazed. He motioned to them with his hand to be silent, and described for them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. And he added, “Tell this to James and to the believers.”
Then he left and went to another place.Acts 12:1-17 (NRSV)
It is at this point that Peter seems to have receded as an active leader in the church, having passed the mantle of administration to James, the brother of Jesus (who is later identified as the leader of the church in Jerusalem in Acts 15).
Peter’s Later Mission Work
It seems Peter continued as an apostle and envoy to newly planted churches, much in the frame as when he and John had visited the mission in Samaria. Some highlights of his later ministry include
- Mentoring Paul for two weeks in Jerusalem, three years after Paul’s conversion.
- Meeting with the rapidly expanding Antioch church (and being reprimanded by Paul for not eating with the Gentile believers).
- Ministering to believers in Corinth.
- Missioning in partnership with his wife (as many of the other apostles also did).
- Mounting critical testimony on how to proceed with Gentile converts, to the Jerusalem council around 49-50 AD.
It was after this final story in scripture concerning Peter’s involvement with the church that the Jerusalem council recognized God’s anointing on Paul to bring the gospel to the uncircumcised, and on Peter to evangelize the circumcised. Later affirmation of the council’s recognition came when God prevented Paul from traveling to the east, for later it was to these Jewish believers of the Diaspora that Peter sent his letters (reflecting his years of teaching and shepherding among them)—”To the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia.”
The earliest dating for Peter’s two letters is somewhere around 60-64 AD, for according to Eusebius, Peter was martyred during Nero’s reign, 64 AD. Peter’s reference to Babylon was often used as code for Rome, and along with early evidence provided by Ignatius in his Letter to the Romans, many scholars believe this is where Peter had established his home in the final years of his life.
Clement provided the strongest documentation supporting Peter having been martyred in Rome.
Peter, who by reason of wicked jealousy, not only once or twice but frequently endured suffering and thus, bearing his witness, went to the glorious place which he merited (5:4).…To these men [Peter and Paul] who lived such holy lives there was joined a great multitude of the elect who by reason of rivalry were victims of many outrages and tortures and who became outstanding examples among us (6:1).Clement (c. 96 AD), Letter to the Corinthians 5:1–6:4
It seems that Peter—like Paul—used his time in prison to write letters, instruct believers, and receive visitors. According to Eusebius of Caesarea in his Ecclesiastical History (III, 1),
Peter was crucified at Rome with his head downwards, as he himself had desired to suffer.Origen (184–253) in his Commentary on the Book of Genesis III
As Jesus had foretold, that day thirty years and more before,
“Amen, amen, I say to you, that as a young man you were wrapping yourself and were walking where you willed, but when you become old, you will stretch forth your hands and another will wrap you and will bear you to where you do not will.”
For he said this signifying what death God would render, then saying this, said to him, “You follow me.”Jesus to Peter, John 21:18-19
[St. Peter Preaching the Gospel in the Catacombs by Jan Styka | By Jan Styka – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:JanStyka-SaintPeter.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1181389