Peter After the Book of Acts

James Dunn titled his chapter on Peter in his book on the apostolic period “The Voiceless Peter” (Beginning at Jerusalem, chapter, 35).  His point is that the book of Acts has little to say about Peter after chapter 12 and that there is very little (if any) historically reliable data which allows us to know much at all about Peter.  Dunn does not accept 1 Peter as coming from a historical Peter, although he discusses the locations from 1 Peter 1:1 as possible locations for Peter to have ministered and he uses the reference to Babylon in 5:13 as a int that Peter was in fact in Rome in the early 60’s.

Saint Peter and the KeysAny “quest” for the historical Peter will be complicated by the fact that so much tradition surrounds Peter.  It is difficult know when a later generation was recalling a real event or creating an event in order to give Peter more weight as the leader of the Church.  One example is the elevation of Peter in Matthew 16:13-20.  “Upon this rock I will build my church” seems to be a clear statement that Peter is the foundation for the church.  For many scholars, this text suspicious since it is only found in Matthew and sounds a bit too much like Matthew was reflecting the current state of the church at the time he was writing rather than something that Jesus actually said.  For example, Dunn thinks that Matthew did in fact give Peter a great of significance, but this may be rooted in the memory of Peter functioning as a foundational figure in the church.

It is however clear that Peter was a follower of Jesus from the beginning.  Jesus chose him as a leader of the twelve because he understood who Jesus was most fully.  Peter is at the head of every list of the disciples and there is no question that the gospels see him as the chief of the apostles.  The only exception to this might be John, which features the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” probably John himself.

The center of the three synoptic gospels is the confession of Peter, his statement that Jesus is in fact God’s messiah, God’s son.  In each gospel this is the climax of the first half of the book, as Jesus teaches the crowds who he is, after the confession of Peter there is far more training of the disciples personally, and several predictions that Jesus will suffer at the hands of the elders and priests and be crucified.  After Jesus announces that he will suffer and die, Peter rebukes Jesus and tells him that he will not die – often this is described as a failure on Peter’s part.

But Peter is not “succumbing to the flesh” (as John MacArthur says in Twelve Ordinary Men, 37), but he is making a thoughtful statement about who Jesus is (and he gets it correct), but misunderstands what Jesus will do in Jerusalem. MacArthur is better later in the text (page 45) when he contrasts Peter’s  confession with his rebuke, the harshest endured by any person in the gospels (Get thee behind me, Satan!)  But he is not rejected as the leader of the disciples, nor does the rebuke seem to change the relationship of Peter and Jesus.  Peter’s lack of understanding is an opportunity for Satan to tempt Jesus.

The confession and rebuke therefore stand out as an example of Peter’s boldness and initiative – he is the one who must stand up for the rest and speak on their behalf because that is the place to which God has called him.

Obviously his denial is a spectacular failure, but at least he is in the position to make that kind of failure.

Acts 12:17 – Where Does Peter Go?

After he is miraculously released from prison, Peter goes to the home of Mary and her son John Mark. This seems to have been a larger home where people have gather to pray for him. While Peter had no problems getting out of the prison, he has some (humorous) trouble getting into the house where Christians are praying for him! (For this story as Greco-Roman Comedy, see J. Albert Harrill, “The Dramatic Function Of The Running Slave Rhoda (Acts 12.13-16) : A Piece Of Greco-Roman Comedy.” New Testament Studies 46.1 (2000): 150-157.)

No, not this one.

No, not this one.

Peter reports to this group what has happened (12:16-17). The scene inside the house is of chaos. Everyone is asking the same question: How did Peter get out of prison? Did he deny the Lord (again)?  He explains to the group how the Lord rescued him. Peter tells the group to report to James what had happened. This request is unexpected at this point in Acts. The reader is not aware that James, the Lord’s brother is a believer. James will, however, become one of the major leaders of the Jerusalem church by Acts 15.

Jesus’ brothers did not believe he was the messiah during his ministry, but after the resurrection at least James and Jude come to understand what Jesus was. Paul reports a tradition 1 Cor 15:3-5 that Jesus appeared his brother James at some point.  This may be a kind of commissioning to ministry since the other two named people on this list (Peter and Paul) are commissioned to a particular ministry. In church history, James has a reputation for being an extremely zealous Jewish believer and a leader among the Pharisees and priests who accepted Jesus (cf. Acts 21:18-25).

After asking for the group to inform James, Peter goes “to another place” (v. 17). This is rather non-specific way to conclude a series of stories about Peter, almost like “riding off into the sunset” at the end of an old movie. There are several possibilities for understanding the phase. First, it might mean Peter simply went to another location in Jerusalem. If he remained in Mary’s home, she could have been in danger for harboring a fugitive. Second, Peter may have left the region, out of Herod Agrippa’s jurisdiction, Keener suggests out of Palestine (2:1952). Third, a traditional view is Peter began travelling as a missionary like Paul will in the next chapter. This might take him as far as Corinth (1 Cor 9:5), Asia Minor (1 Peter 1:1) and possibly Rome. This tradition comes from Eusebius (H.E. 2.14.5). But since he is in Jerusalem in Acts 15, he does not seem to have gone far. Perhaps he only returned to the coastal plain and Caesarea, within easy travel of Jerusalem and later made Pauline-like missionary tours.

Fourth, some scholars see this as an indication of a shift in leadership in the Jerusalem community from Peter to James. Luke does have a tendency to briefly introduce characters who will be important later in the story, so there may be simply literary device like foreshadowing. It is fascinating to observe Peter’s absence from the book of Acts after this point, in contrast to James’ importance in chapters 15 and 21. James is not an apostle, but he does seem to be the leader of the Jerusalem community from this point forward.

It is also significant there is no effort to replace James the son of Zebedee after he is killed.  On the one hand, it is at least 13 years after the resurrection, so the pool of individuals who could be witnesses from John the Baptist through the resurrection is diminishing. Even James the brother of Jesus does not qualify as a witness under those requirements!

All this seems to point toward a dramatic shift in the Luke’s story. He is concluding the first major movement of the book and preparing for Paul’s mission to the Gentiles in chapter 13.

Trash

Acts 12:12-17 – Praying for Peter

Peter PrisonPeter’s rescue from prison is one of several miraculous escape stories in Acts. Dunn points out that this sort of story is almost a distinct genre in ancient literature (Beginning from Jerusalem, 408). There are several of these sorts of stories in Acts.  Luke tells the story with intentional humor (Peter has to be roused by the angel, Rhoda plays the dizzy serving girl, etc.) But there is more going on in the story than an amusing anecdote about Peter escaping prison and execution at the hand of Herod Agrippa.

While Peter is in prison, people were gathered at Mary’s home praying. Mary is the mother of John Mark, and her home appears to be the location of a house church. Her husband is not mentioned so she may be another wealthy widow who supports a local church (like Tabitha, for example). John Mark may have some role as a leader in the church along with Peter. The evening that Peter is rescued, this community is gathered to pray.

What Luke does not tell us is what were they praying for. It is possible that this is simply a meeting of a house church for a prayer time. It is the Passover, so it is possible that these Jewish believers gathered at Mary’s house to share a Passover meal and then spend time in prayer after the meal. But given the context it is reasonable to assume that they were praying for Peter.

However, if they were praying for his release, then their response to Peter’s escape from prison is unusual. When Peter knocks at the door the servant Rhoda is so overjoyed that Peter is at the door she forgets to let him in to the house! When she reports that Peter is at the door the people gathered to pray think that she is “out of her mind” (μαίνομαι, literally, “you’re crazy”). They even suggest that she has seen “Peter’s angel.” Neither response sounds like they expected God to answer a prayer to rescue Peter.

No. Not Her.

No. Not Her.

John Polhill thinks that this might be a reference to the Jewish belief in guardian angels, or perhaps spirits of the recent dead who lurk for a time after death. Polhill cites Tobit 5:4-16, although this is not exactly the same sort of situation (Acts, 282) . Even when Peter finally gets into the house, the whole group is amazed by this escape. If they were praying for escape, they seem rather surprised by it.

It is more likely that the gathered church was praying that Peter would actually die for his faith and not deny Christ. It must have been well known by this point that Peter and the twelve all once denied Christ. Peter’s denial was most spectacular, denying his association with Jesus three times soon after he declared his loyalty to Jesus.  With the apostle James dead, perhaps this group is worried that Peter will not be able to withstand the pressure and he will deny that Jesus was in fact raised from the dead. A denial of this sort would be a disaster for the Jewish Church in Jerusalem.

This story underscores the importance of fa faithful witness in Acts. The gathered believers want Peter to be that faithful witness, willing to continue to declare his faith even if he pays with his life. Peter is a changed man after the resurrection and he has already stood up to the Sanhedrin on several occasions.

This story demonstrates that faithful witness may be required not simply to live for Christ, but also to die for him.

Acts 12 and Luke’s Literary Style

Luke IconIf Luke has been tracking the story of the movement of the Spirit to the “fringes” of Judaism, then we might wonder what the point of chapter 12 is in that development. It is possible to see persecution from Herod (Agrippa I) as a demonstration of how far out of step the leadership of Israel was with the movement of the Holy Spirit. Herod was considered to be the best of his line with respect to Jewish roots. But as we shall see, he was quite Roman in his thinking. With this story, we have in many ways crossed the line to “outsiders,” and it is therefore quite surprising to find the “King of the Jews” on the outside of the growing movement of the Spirit.

Luke collected a number of stories about Peter into a mini-collection (9:32-12:25). In the first of these stories, Peter is something like the Old Testament prophets Elijah and Elisha in that he goes to the boundaries of the nation and finds faithful people even there. In this finals story concerning Peter, he is back in Jerusalem at a time of persecution. Because the death of Herod Agrippa is well know from Josephus, we can date the events of this chapter fairly precisely to A.D. 43-44, some 14 years after Pentecost.

There are several Lukan literary features in this chapter. He introduces two key characters (John Mark and James) by simply mentioning them, knowing he will pick up both characters again in the following chapters. In addition, there are several stories of imprisonment for preaching the gospel, followed by a miraculous escape (twice for Peter, later with Paul in Philippi and Jerusalem, the shipwreck in chapter 27 may also be a miraculous escape story.) Finally, Acts 11:19-29 and 12:25 form a frame around this passage; this may be significant since Luke tells a very brief story of Saul’s involvement with the Antioch church and the growing importance of the ministry in that city.

Acts 12 is more here than an entertaining incident in the life of Peter: it anticipates a major transition in the book, from Peter to Paul.

Acts 10 – Peter and Salvation of the Gentiles

After Cornelius receives the Holy Spirit, Peter returns to Jerusalem. The “circumcised believers” there asked him about his visit to a Gentile’s home. To what extent is Peter defending himself in this section? Luke says that they the circumcised believers “criticized him” (διακρίνω). The verb used is in the imperfect, so “began to criticize” is possible, although it may be an ongoing judgment on Peter – they “were criticizing” him. Keener suggests this is an indication Peter’s influence in Jerusalem has waned (2:1818), perhaps foreshadowing the controversies after Paul’s first mission to establish Gentile churches.

Peter's visionThe content of the criticism is that he enter the home of a Gentile and ate with them. Peter had been staying in the home of Simon the tanner and presumably eating with him. A Tanner is not a problem but table fellowship with a God-Fearing Gentile is a problem for the Jerusalem community. Keener points out this is ironic, since the Pharisees complained about Jesus eating with sinners (Luke 19:7, Zacchaeus); now the complaint comes from the “apostles and brothers” in Jerusalem (2:1821).

In fact, Peter himself is a bit disturbed by what happened with Cornelius. James Dunn entitles the section dealing with Peter’s vision as “the Conversion of Peter” (Beginning From Jerusalem, 26.3) There are more than a few parallels between Paul’s experience in chapter 9 and Peter’s in chapter 10. Both experience a visionary experience and both receive a command to go to gentiles, although Paul’s is a commission to a ministry, Peter is sent only to a particular individual. Both are obedient to their visions and both find themselves in trouble with the Jews as a result. Paul must escape Damascus, Peter must explain his actions to the (Christian) elders in Jerusalem.

Why was sharing a meal with Cornelius such a major problem for some of the believers in Jerusalem? If some of these were Pharisees, as Acts 15:1-2 implies, the sharing table fellowship with anyone who is not a Pharisee is going to be a problem. But there is not much evidence Pharisees imposed their table rules on non-Pharisees. Here are two examples of Jewish attitudes toward eating with Gentiles:

Jubilees 22:16 And you also, my son, Jacob, remember my words, and keep the commandments of Abraham, your father. Separate yourself from the gentiles, and do not eat with them, and do not perform deeds like theirs. And do not become associates of theirs. Because their deeds are defiled, and all of their ways are contaminated, and despicable, and abominable.

Joseph and Asenath 7:1 And Joseph entered the house of Pentephres and sat upon the throne. And they washed his feet and set a table before him by itself, because Joseph never ate with the Egyptians, for this was an abomination to him.

In Joseph and Asenath, Joseph refuses to kiss his future wife Asenath saying “to kiss a strange woman who will bless with her mouth dead and dumb idols and eat from their table bread of strangulation and drink from their libation a cup of insidiousness and anoint herself with ointment of destruction” (Jos.Asen. 8:5). Not all Jews had such strong attitudes toward sharing food with Gentiles and there were many who would have no problem sharing hospitality with a prominent Gentile.

Peter, however, does seem to have a strong aversion to eating with a Gentile. In the first part of Acts 10, Peter struggles to understand the vision concerning clean and unclean foods (he is “deeply perplexed,” διαπορέω). After he obeys God by going to Cornelius’ home, he is reluctant to enter (10:28). Given this background, is it possible to describe Peter’s experience as a “conversion,” as James Dunn has? To what extent does Peter’s views about Gentiles change at this point in the story?

Acts 10 – What is a “God-Fearing Gentile”?

Gerbrand van den Eeckhout - Vision of CorneliusLuke describes Cornelius as God-Fearing and devout. “Devout” (εὐσεβής, 10:2) indicates someone is devoted to a particular religion or god; a person who is “profoundly reverent” (BDAG), whether this is a person who is reverent towards the God of Israel or a Greco-Roman god. The description of Cornelius as a God-Fearer (φοβούμενος τὸν θεὸν) may mean he was a Gentile who was nearly a convert to Judaism, keeping as much of the Law as possible, but not submitting to circumcision. Julius Scott provides the more or less standard definition of a God-Fearer: “an unofficial class of Gentiles who stopped short of becoming full proselytes but were permitted limited participation in Jewish worship” (JETS 34 [1991]: 478). The key word here is “unofficial.” There was no recognized class of Gentile “near converts” in the first century, although it is likely that most synagogues had one or two of these God-Fearing Gentiles.

When Luke used the term “God-fearer” he has in mind Gentiles who worshiped the God of Israel in the Synagogue without practicing all the Jewish boundary markers. For the most part, a retired soldier could have kept Sabbath and observed dietary laws without attracting much attention.

A. T. Kraabel examined the archaeological evidence from synagogues concluded that there was no class of “Gentile God-fearer” worshiping alongside Jews in Diaspora synagogues. After examining about a hundred synagogue inscriptions, he did not find a single example mentioning God-fearers (116). Based on his reading of the archaeological evidence, Luke created this class of “near convert” for theological reasons. “It is a tribute to Luke’s dramatic ability that they have become so alive for the later Church, but the evidence from Paul’s own letters and now from archaeology makes their historicity questionable in the extreme” (120).

Craig Keener cites Kraabel’s article as well , but he offers a wide range of evidence the term could be applied to proselytes (Test.Jos. 4:6) as well as “Gentile sympathizers” (Jos. Ant. 20.195; 14:110), concluding that it is “not accurate to claim the phrase we never applied to Gentiles” (Keener, 2:1752). In fact, archaeology since Kraabel’s article has cast doubts on his conclusions. At Aphrodisias there were at least 50 Gentiles described as God-Fearers.

Luke is telling the story of the movement of the Holy Spirit from the Temple in Jerusalem were the Jewish audience would be the most godly to the fringes of Judaism (proselytes like the Ethiopian, Samaritans, magicians, Hellenists, etc.) and now a God-Fearing Gentile in Caesarea. Cornelius is the most likely candidate for a Gentile conversion to the followers of Jesus.  Cornelius is on the very edge of what makes one part of the people of God.

The question remains, for Luke, on which side of the Jew/Gentile line is Cornelius?  From a Jewish perspective, could he considered “right with God,” despite not submitting to circumcision?  Or, is this story a kind of “Pentecost” for the Gentiles?  Is it possible the conversion of Cornelius, a man farthest away from the Temple possible, can still be a part of the people of God?

Acts 10 – Jews and Gentiles

In Acts 10:27-29, Peter expresses his hesitancy to enter the home of a Gentile.  I think the key here is not simply talking with a Gentile, but receiving hospitality form a Gentile. Primarily this was because of food, but some Jews in the first century did in fact avoid contact with Gentiles in order to avoid impurity.  This was certainly true in Jerusalem where Temple worship could be a daily experience.  Josephus tells us that the Jews kept separate from the Gentiles: “[the Jews]…did not come into contact with other people because of their separateness.” (Antiq. 13:245-247; cf., Apion, 2.210) Witherington (Acts, 353) observes that the Greek word Luke chooses here probably has the sense of “taboo” or “strongly frowned upon.”

Kosher

But this is not to say that Gentiles were totally excluded from Jewish worship.  There was a huge “court of the Gentiles” in the temple complex itself, giving Gentiles a place of worship in the temple.  On a number of occasions in the gospels Jesus speaks with Gentiles, although usually the faith of the Gentile is in contrast to the unfaithfulness of the Jews.

One factor bearing on this issue is the long standing Jewish belief that purity laws did not apply to Gentiles even when they lived in Israelite territory.  The “sojourner laws” of Deut 5:14 ff define these Gentiles as resident aliens and require only a few general commands for them while they are living within the nation of Israel. (These are the same commands given by James at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15:24-29.)

Rabbinic writers seem to have defined a category “gentile impurity,” but this does not appear in the eighteen benedictions (dating to the period just prior to the fall of Jerusalem.) Did Jews of the first century consider Gentiles impure and therefore exclude them from the inner courts of the temple?  Several Second Temple period texts indicate that Jews did not mix at all with Gentiles (Jubilees 22:16, Tobit 1:10-12, Judith 12:1-1).  Consider also Joseph and Asenath 7:1:  “Joseph never ate with the Egyptians, for this was an abomination to him”

Jubilees 22:16 And you also, my son, Jacob, remember my words, and keep the commandments of Abraham, your father. Separate yourself from the Gentiles, and do not eat with them, and do not perform deeds like theirs. And do not become associates of theirs. Because their deeds are defiled, and all their ways are contaminated, and despicable, and abominable.

Tobit 1:10-12 After I was carried away captive to Assyria and came as a captive to Nineveh, everyone of my kindred and my people ate the food of the Gentiles, but I kept myself from eating the food of the Gentiles. Because I was mindful of God with all my heart . . .

Judith 12:1-4 Then he commanded them to bring her in where his silver dinnerware was kept, and ordered them to set a table for her with some of his own delicacies, and with some of his own wine to drink. But Judith said, “I cannot partake of them, or it will be an offense; but I will have enough with the things I brought with me.” Holofernes said to her, “If your supply runs out, where can we get you more of the same? For none of your people are here with us.”  Judith replied, “As surely as you live, my lord, your servant will not use up the supplies I have with me before the Lord carries out by my hand what he has determined.”

What I think is fascinating is that Cornelius, as a God-Fearer, might very well have followed the food laws as well as Peter did.  Yet there was still a hesitancy on the part of the apostolic mission to cross over the next social barrier and bring the gospel to Gentiles, even a God-Fearing Gentile like Cornelius.  These issues will erupt into the first major church controversy by Acts 15 and may stand in the background of Paul’s confrontation with Peter in Galatians 2.