Book Review: Robert H. Gundry, Peter: False Disciple and Apostate

Gundry, Robert H. Peter: False Disciple and Apostate according to Saint Matthew. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2015. 139 pp. Pb; $20.   Link to Eerdmans

This short study by Robert Gundry makes the somewhat surprising claim that Matthew considered Peter a “false disciple and apostate.” In the introduction to the book Gundry makes his motivations clear. This is not an anti-Catholic book, and he is not interested in subverting any traditions about Peter. Nor is he interested in the “historical Peter,” assuming a history of Peter’s life could be written. Gundry’s project is strictly limited to the presentation of Peter in Matthew’s gospel only.

Gunrdy, PeterIn order to reach this conclusion, Gundry analyzes every appearance of Peter in the Gospel of Matthew. By way of method, Gundry employs redaction criticism in order to show Matthew edited Mark’s narrative to present Peter as an example of a disciple who was very close to Jesus but ultimately failed to follow through on his commitment to Jesus. In the end, Peter is left “outside in the darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Gundry’s use of redaction criticism is well-known from his commentaries on Matthew and Mark. Therefore, many will pre-judge some of his comments based on his method alone.

After a short introductory chapter on method, Gundry’s second chapter surveys all of these texts before the climactic confession of Peter in Matthew 16. Peter is not presented in these texts as a model of faith, in fact, the famous story in Matt 14:22-33 does not demonstrate Peter’s faith, but his lack of faith. The story of Peter’s request to walk on the water is not found in the other Gospels. Matthew, therefore, chose to report the words of Peter, “If you are Jesus (14:28) in similar language to the devil in the Temptation (4:3, 6). The other disciples in the boat confess Jesus as God’s son and worship him, but Peter is not included in that group (12).

In Matthew 16:13-32 Jesus seems to call Peter to be the leader of his church. Gundry, therefore, examines this pericope in detail in Chapter 4. By confessing Jesus is the Messiah, Peter is “playing catch-up” since the other disciples have already done so in 14:33 (16). The real issue in Matt 16 is Jesus calling Peter “the rock.” Gundry argues the “rock” refer to the words of Jesus, recalling Matt 7:24, the wise man builds his house on the rock.”  The bedrock in Matt 7:24 is clearing the words of Jesus (μου τοὺς λόγους τούτους). Peter himself is cannot be the “foundation of the church” since the church will be built on the teaching of Jesus. He is the one teacher (Matt 23:8), and the disciples will be commissioned to disciples the nations by teaching them everything Jesus has taught (Matt 28:20). The “keys to the kingdom” and “binding and loosing” both refer to teaching Jesus’ words, not the words of Peter as the successor of Jesus. The disciples are to convey Jesus’ words, not interpret them (25).

After Peter’s confession, Jesus reveals he will die in Jerusalem (Matt 16:21). Peter rebukes Jesus for this prediction (16:22). The brazenness of this rebuke is often lost in translation, but disciples do not rebuke their masters in the ancient world. Peter not only rebukes, but Matthew uses a double-negation plus a future indicative, the strongest negation in Greek. Jesus calls Peter Satan and a snare. Again, this stinging counter-rebuke is often translated to put Peter in a good light, but Matthew uses σκάνδαλον, a temptation to sin. In Matthew, Jesus has already said anyone who causes others to sin (πάντα τὰ σκάνδαλα) will be thrown into the fiery furnace where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (13:41-42). For Matthew, all “σκάνδαλα belong in hell” (30).

Chapter 4 traces several appearances of Peter in Matt 17-26, from transfiguration to the Garden of Gethsemane. Most of these are examples of “redactionally anti-Petrine moves by Matthew” (40). In Matt 19:27-30, when Peter responds to Jesus’ “camel through the eye of a needle saying, Matthew adds, “what therefore will we have?” (τί ἄρα ἔσται ἡμῖν;). This future expectation of reward is not in the parallel in Mark or Luke. For Gundy, this is evidence Matthew is presenting Peter as “angling for present compensation” (39).

Gundry argues Peter’s denial of Christ is parallel to Judas’s betrayal and suicide (chapter 5). He carefully examines the details of Peter’s denial, demonstrating Matthew’s modifications of Mark show Peter has apostatized. Matthew has redacted Mark in order to demonstrate the gravity of Peter’s denials. Peter swears with an oath (καὶ πάλιν ἠρνήσατο μετὰ ὅρκου, 26:72). In a passage unique to Matthew, Jesus states his disciples should not take oaths. For Gundry, this is flagrant disobedience to the Lord’s commands. By verse 74, Peter begins “to curse and swear,” another redaction by Matthew in order to highlight Peter’s apostasy; Matthew changes Mark’s ἀναθεματίζω to καταθεματίζω and drops “on himself” from Mark 14:71. In Mark, Peter is cursing himself, in Matthew he is cursing others (49-50).

Peter obviously denies his Lord, but most commentators are adamant Peter is restored after the resurrection. His bitter weeping is usually understood as a demonstration of his great remorse in contrast to Judas’s suicide. Gundry lists two dozen statements from various commentaries which try to rehabilitate Peter and offers a short response for each. For Gundry, the “bitter weeping” indicates Peter is an apostate who has moved into the darkness, “where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

In addition, there are a number of places in Matthew where Peter’s name is omitted. Chapter 6 examines these “non-appearances” of Peter and argues they represent Matthew dropping Peter because he is an example of a false disciple. For example, in Mark 16:8, the angels tell the women to go and tell the “disciples and Peter.”

Chapters 7-8 develop two threads Gundry has traced in this book as well in his commentary on Matthew. First, Gundry gathers more than twenty texts in Matthew describing false discipleship and concludes both Peter and Judas are quintessential false disciples (88). Just one example: In the Wedding Banquet parable (Matt 22:1-14), scholars are often perplexed by the unprepared man in the second part of the story. For Gundry, this man is a professing disciple who is marked as a false disciple because of his lack of wedding clothes (79). Like Peter, this man is one of the many who were called but not chosen and will remain outside, where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” The second theme Gundry traces is the flight from persecution in Matthew. He examines (briefly) eight pericopae in which those who flee persecution are condemned.  A false disciple is exposed when there is persecution. Like Peter’s betrayal, the false disciple will publicly show themselves and deny Jesus.

In his final chapter Gundry makes a few suggestions based on the texts surveyed in the book. He speculates a gospel presenting Peter as an apostate could not be written after his martyrdom, so his argument for Peter as a false disciple implies an early date for the writing of Matthew. A corollary he does not mention is dating Matthew to before A.D. 70 pushes the date for Mark/Q perhaps a decade earlier.

A second implication is more speculative. Like many scholars, Gundy associates Matthew with Syrian Antioch. Galatians 2:11-14 describes a face-to-face confrontation between Paul and Peter. Gundry gently suggests Matthew reflects a situation where Paul won his argument with Peter. He recognizes this echoes the old Tübingen school, but it “may call for further investigation” (103).

Conclusion. A book entitled Peter: False Disciple and Apostate will naturally generate a great deal of interest since Peter is beloved as the first leader of the Christian church. This is certainly true in the Catholic tradition, but evangelical pastors love to preach about thick-headed Peter, a simple man used by Jesus to found the Church. Doubtless, many will point to John 21 as a “restoration of Peter,” but that is John’s story and not Matthew’s. Gundry has delimited his topic to only Matthew’s Gospel, so the “restoration” of Peter in the other gospels or traditions does not matter to him.

But it is true the Gospel of Mark also fails to mention a restoration of Peter. Although Luke describes Peter as a leader in the Jerusalem church, people are suspicious of his escape from prison in Acts 12. After this event, Peter is hardly mentioned in Acts and seems to have been supplanted by James, the Lord’s brother. It just might be the case Peter is not as important to the foundational level of the Church as tradition has made him out to be.

Peter: False Disciple and Apostate is a brief but extremely well-researched book that argues a single point in a short 100 pages. Gundry makes his case well, although it is a case many will find jarring. Although I imagine the book will cause much “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” the book will set the agenda for Matthean theology for years to come.


NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.


35 thoughts on “Book Review: Robert H. Gundry, Peter: False Disciple and Apostate

  1. Dear Dr Phil — on another topic: James, the brother of the Lord: are you familiar with the book “James the brother of Jesus” by Robert Eisenman. If so, would appreciate your comments on that book. Thanks – Bill G

    • Eisenman is more than a little idiosyncratic (a fancy word for strange). He tends to favor non-canonical stories about James and has a rather complex scenario built around these traditions. I read the book maybe twelve years ago, but I remember being impressed with some of his ideas, but ultimately I wonder if he can really prove anything. I mentioned him a few years ago when discussion James commentaries:

      I agree with his view that James is the leader of the Jerusalem church, but I had that view before I read his book. What becomes of Peter after Acts 12 a fascinating study since all we have are extremely friendly traditions from sources thinking of Peter as the first Pope.

  2. Prof. Gundry’s lecture on the topic can be found on youtube. If my link doesn’t work, just type in Gundry’s name and you’ll get the hit. Personally, I think biblical studies is better for people going out on a limb like this. It’s a good reminder that the gospels aren’t all telling the same story, and it behooves us to listen to the four individual/independent voices, regardless of how you interpret them.

      • Just a happy accident. I just grabbed and dropped the link. This book is on order from amazon so I was delighted to see your erudite review. I look forward to reading it.

  3. This analysis of Mt borders on the perverse.
    It assumes that Mt depends on Mk, a view effectively challenged by Neville, Peabody, Powell, Butler, Wenham and many others.
    It downplays the comparable prominence of Peter in all four gospels and in the early pre-Pauline part of Acts, where exercising his role as keeper of the keys of the kingdom makes the decisive judgement at the Council of Jerusalem (with James adding some useful extras).

    • I did say in my review that if you are not in agreement with his method, then you are not going to like his conclusion. For you, this appears to be the case for both Markan Priority and limiting the discussion to just Matthew.

      I think you can say Markan Priority has been challenged, but perhaps not “effectively.” Gundry’s redaction criticism is “state of the art” even if it depends on scholarly consensus.

  4. Most interesting! Sounds plausible and makes me want to read the book (tho I doubt I’ll have the chance). I do think we have not yet “solved” a number of Gospel(s) puzzles (in any source I’m familiar with… and which has caught on with many people). That certainly includes Mark’s theme of secrecy and this issue of a partially hidden agenda against Peter’s position (or whatever Matthew’s point might be in Gundry’s thesis). One thing it makes me think is that the supposedly later dynamic of Gnosticism was maybe already well in play by the Gospel writings; and the authors were jockeying for “position” in terms of who had the correct (or “insider”) knowledge of things not so much historical as mythical, tho carrying a common historical core.

    If not “gnostic” in nature, at the least it appears they were supporting one social and/or regional circumstance and bias or another (cf. the strong work of B. Mack on “social interest theory”). Again, using the same basic oral historical narrative and many of the same basic dramatic enhancements to it (miracles, Passion, resurrection accounts, e.g.).

    Can you comment on this point specifically?: Does Gundry seem, to you, to tie up his case adequately, that the “keys to the kingdom” passage was NOT intended to mark Peter as at least the initial leader of the disciples following Jesus’ death? That didn’t seem clear from your summary. (I do think it’s quite clear, both from Paul and from “Luke” in Acts, that not many years along, IF Peter had been leader, it then became James. Peter’s role at Antioch was still important, but perhaps he’d become too welcoming of Gentiles, among other possible issues.)

    I do think it’s tough to date Matthew as early as Gundry might require, at least assuming (as I still do) Markan priority… any thots on this? At least in the form of our earliest editions, Mark seems to have to be right at or after 70. And Mt. a few years later, minimum…. How could at least our form of Matt. have preceded Mark? I think the idea of Mark being a summary of Mt. and Luke has been adequately discounted and set aside, has it not?

    • To clarify, Gundry says “For the figure of keys represents Jesus’ words just as much as the figure of bedrock does” (24). Jesus is the only teacher and the Great Commission consists of conveying his words/commandments, not in interpreting the” (24). Later, “Peter’s having the keys guarantees his entrance into the kingdom no more than the sitting of the scribes and Pharisees in the seat of Moses guarantees entrance for them” (25).

      He also points out that Matt 18:18 expands the authority of the “keys” to all the disciples, Judas Iscariot included (24).

      If I could answer for Gundry, I think he would say no, the Keys of the Kingdom are not given specifically to Peter and they do not connote leadership of the either the Twelve or the later Church.

      “I think the idea of Mark being a summary of Mt. and Luke has been adequately discounted and set aside, has it not?” – I think so, but a previous comment disagrees.

      • The passage using the name of Peter and the pun referring to him as the stone/rock on whom the church will be built becomes clearer in the original Aramaic. Peter is first among equals. His pre-eminence runs through the entire NT. The notion of his humility as a servant runs almost concurrently.

        All this was made clear in the best of the old RC apologetics manuals, and there is no serious reason to revise the massively detailed evidence therein (including the “satan” reprimand &c). I too took the “Mt = Mk+Q” hypothesis as an incontrovertible paradigm until I actually bothered to study the modern (non-RC) critiques, based solely on internal evidence, with an open mind.

      • Thanks for the reply. I can see a number of reasons for the “on this rock” passage and options for its interpretation. To the extent Gundry keeps his interpretation consistent with his overall understanding re. Matthew and its presentation of Peter, that’s a plus, weighing in its favor.

        I like (apparently, per your description) him not caring about either the “historical” Peter or church traditions re. him. We can know little about the actual persons and even the roles, the theology, etc. of ANY of the disciples/Apostles. Without a lot of re-reading, I think one might even make a case that the “sons of Zebedee” were as much leaders (or in competition for leadership) among the disciples as was Peter, during Jesus lifetime. And then James (not of Zebedee) definitely “in charge” within several years after Jesus’ death… quite likely on some level of dynastic succession (if Jesus was really considered King/Messiah) combined with a strength of character and focus.

  5. Thanks for the informative review. I have a huge respect for Gundry in challenging consensuses and following wherever he sees the evidence leading him, but I cannot buy his thesis! Admittedly I have not yet read the book and my bias may be in the opposite direction of viewing Matthew as rehabilitating Mark’s harsher portrait of Peter. I do not see how Matthew excludes Peter from those in the boat who confess Jesus’ divine sonship, so I am not sure how Peter is playing catch up at Caesarea Philippi (it is an interesting observation that Matthew’s redactional change of Mark in chapter 14 does make Peter’s confession less climatic in chapter 16). I would argue that Matthew cuts out the specific reference to Peter in Mark 16:7 because it is redundant (i.e. Peter is one of the disciples), but includes Peter among the “eleven disciples” commissioned by the risen Jesus. Finally, I find both of his implications unlikely: why could Peter not be remembered negatively by certain individuals before or after his (alleged) martyrdom in Rome and it seems like a stretch to connect Matthew’s Gospel with Paul. Now I definitely have to get a hold of the book.

    • You need to read the book, yes. My review does not do justice to all the details. What was most impressive to me is Gundry’s description of Peter’s denial: he really does move into the dark and he does weep. Matthew uses that language for those who are shut out of the kingdom of God frequently. In addition, Matthew has several examples of people who will call Jesus Lord on the judgment but will not be permitted to enter the Kingdom. Until reading this book, I assume those were references to Judas, but Gundry argues Peter himself could be included in the ones left outside the door!

      Again, as Gundry says (and I repeat above), he is not interested in the “historical Peter” (ie, did Peter really apostatize) or his restoration as recorded in other books (John and Acts), and he has no time at all for any church traditions. He really does stick to Matthew as a redactor of Mark.

      • Thanks Phillip, I get that Gundry is bracketing out questions about the “historical Peter” or other narrative representations of him and my initial objections are aimed solely at Matthew’s redaction of Mark. I might try to see if I can review this one for a journal since the title and your review of it makes it sound like a fascinating book.

  6. The more I think about dating for Acts (related to G. of Luke being probably no more than 20 yrs. earlier), the more the period of 110-120 makes sense (no time to elaborate now). Do you know if textual evidence (i.e., textual history, variants and such) pushes or allows it potentially that late?

    • I just thot of another text-existence issue possibly related to date of Luke/Acts (sorry, I know it’s not about the main review issues): Do we have very precise dating for Marcion’s “canon” of 10 Pauline epistles plus an edited version of Luke? My sense/recollection is that it couldn’t be earlier than late 130s or 140+, so may be of no real help.

    • Textual evidence is not going to help much for dating Luke/Acts, earlier MSS of Luke is p75, early 3rd century; nothing any earlier for Acts. As you mention, Marcion is the evidence for Luke in early second century.

      • Re Luke-Acts the question of its dependence on Josephus is relevant to the date.

      • Thanks. As to the comment just below (but prior to this one) by David Ashton, Steve Mason devotes a long chapter to the Josephus issue in “Josephus and the New Testament”: Ch. 6, “Josephus and Luke-Acts”. I don’t have time to summarize it now, but he gives several categories including generic similarities, style and vocab. (which doesn’t necessarily show borrowing, of course), similarities in specifics of several events: the census, Judas, Theudas and The Egyptian, etc. He isn’t claiming “proof” but the case he makes seems pretty strong to me. It certainly, if anything, supports an Acts date of ca. 95 or later. (There is no way I can see “Luke” being a companion of Paul… and not mainly for dating reasons.)

      • Sorry about the threading problem, that is WordPress’s fault – hopefully we can still find our way around still. As it turns out, I have Mason, so I reviewed chapter 6 (Second Edition). He starts with reference to Krenkel’s study (1894) arguing Luke/Acts is dependent on Josephus, but he says the view has “much of a following today” (p. 251), although he concludes later that it is more likely than not Luke knew Josephus (283). He surveys generic parallels, commonly reported events, and agreements in theme and vocabulary. Near the end he says something like “I cannot prove Luke knew Josephus, but is seems more likely than calling all this evidence a coincidence!”

    • Cool…Eerdmans thanks you! And I am glad you liked the review. When you finish the book, please feel free to come back and share your thoughts.

  7. Thank you for bringing Gundry’s book to our attention. Even though his work is strictly between Matthew and Mark, we must always consider the whole context of the Bible. Peter was in fact in the upper room when the Holy Spirit fell on the twelve. YaHavah judges by what he sees in the heart of a person and their intentions. Peter’s weeping is a sign of his repentance. The reference to weeping and gnashing of teeth reminds me of the old V8 commercial, (slap forehead) and say “I could have….” after the fact realization. Peter did, in fact, receive the anointing in the Spirit of YaHavah, so any conclusions by Gundry of Peter becoming apostate is stated outside the context of the whole.

    There is more to the purpose of each of the Gospels than most realize. The theme of Matthew is of Jesus as the Son of David, Lion of Judah, promised Davidic King. The theme of Mark is of Jesus as Savior, the last sacrifice for sin. Luke’s theme is of Jesus as, both, the Son of YaHavah (sinless) and Son of Man (human). He had to be both to break the default sin of Adam through human fathers. The theme of John is that of Jesus being the Light of the World, lifted on the wings of an eagle, and the promise of the Spirit of YaHavah for salvation from YaHavah’s wrath. These four are based on the appearance of Ezekiel’s Four Living Creatures angel, who is the heavenly representation of every facet of Jesus’ life and purpose.

    The four Gospels do not compete with each other, they simply bring to light different facets of the truth for specific reasons. It is our job to listen and learn what those reasons are.

  8. Robert Gundry continues to be a learned reader, exegete, and teacher. If your return to this work does not herald a resurgence of purchases I will be amazed. Twice, now I have read this review. Once back then and now. Frankly, I loved his “Matthew: A Commentary on His Literary and Theological Art” and am drawn to tomes that stretch my mind and muscles. I would love to be in possession of this book! I win either way: as a gift or as a purchase.

  9. Would it be relevant/perspicuous to situate Gundry’s thesis relative to the Tubingen tradition of F.C. Baur, Michael Goulder, and co? (I think especially of Goulder’s Tale of Two Missions)

    • Perhaps, although Gundry (like almost all NT scholars these days) would not look back to Baur for guidance. One thing lacking from Gundry’s book is the point of it all. He argues Matthew considers Peter a bad disciple, but does not make any theological or historical point with that argument (such as Peter is not a founding apostle, bishop of Rome, etc., or that Paul was the true founder of the church, etc.).

      It is also worth noting that this book is no longer listed on Eerdman’s website. As far as I know it has been withdrawn from print some time int he five years since I wrote this review.

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