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.
Any “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.