Among Christians, St. Peter is often compared to St. Paul.
Women in Early Christianity
Women, in fact, performed essential work among the early Christians. Food preparation, laundry and other domestic chores were not accomplished through miracles. And there’s no New Testament record of manna falling from heaven. No, women usually took up these necessary duties.
Scholars also realize that women played key inspirational, pastoral and organizational roles within the early Church.¹
Who was Peter?
In the New Testament St. Peter was a 1st century fisherman living in the village of Capernaum. He went by the name of Simeon, Shimon or Simon bar Jonah.
Jesus … told Simon, “Row the boat out into the deep water and let your nets down to catch some fish.”
“Master,” Simon answered, “we have worked hard all night long and have not caught a thing. But if you tell me to, I will let the nets down.” They did it and caught so many fish that their nets began ripping apart. Then they signaled for their partners in the other boat to come and help them. The men came, and together they filled the two boats so full that they both began to sink.
When Simon Peter saw this happen, he knelt down in front of Jesus and said, “Lord, don’t come near me! I am a sinner.” Peter and everyone with him were completely surprised at all the fish they had caught. His partners James and John, the sons of Zebedee, were surprised too.
Jesus told Simon, “Don’t be afraid! From now on you will bring in people instead of fish.” The men pulled their boats up on the shore. Then they left everything and went with Jesus.²
Simon was renamed Cephas. In Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, Cephas means “rock.” In Greek, the language of the New Testament, Petros also translates to “rock.” Hence the modern term, petroglyphs.
Peter (from Petros) went on to do great things, but it wasn’t always a smooth ride. All four canonical gospels tell how Jesus accurately predicted Peter betraying him three times before the cock crowed.
After Christ’s resurrection, Peter is the first to enter the empty tomb but not to see the risen Christ. Women and an unknown “beloved disciple” had that honor.
Always mentioned in the gospels as the first of the Twelve Apostles, Early Church tradition – not the Bible – says Peter was the founder of the Church in Rome, along with Paul. There he was the first bishop, wrote two epistles, and was martyred along with Paul.
For Roman Catholics, Peter is the first Pope. Catholics support their beliefs about Peter with two essential scriptural passages:
Feed my lambs… feed my lambs… feed my sheep. (John 21:15–17)
I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:18–19)
However, “Pope” is something of a retroactive title. In his lifetime Peter was never called “Pope” or “Vicar of Christ.” But Catholics believe their tradition and scripture are equally valid. So if Catholic authorities can retroactively discern that a marriage never existed (annulment), they also believe they understand how God saw things before mankind came to that realization.
Catholic Tradition also maintains that Peter was crucified upside down on the same day Paul was beheaded, just outside of Rome.
Not everyone agrees with the Catholic legitimization of the Papacy. Protestants tend see the office as an example of arrogant self-aggrandizement. For Protestants, Peter did crucial missionary work in Rome and for the Eastern Orthodox Church, he holds a “primacy of honor.” But he is not Pope as understood by Catholics.
Neither Eastern Orthodox nor Protestant Christians formally recognize any Pope. Although Catholic-Protestant relations seem to be warming among some denominations. What motivates this is hard to say.
In popular culture St. Peter guards the “pearly gates” of heaven, allowing good souls to enter while rejecting evil doers. This allusion no doubt premised on Matthew 16:19.
Shia Muslims draw a parallel between Peter and the “Ali” of Muhammad’s time. Ali was the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. Ali was the fourth caliph (656-661 CE) and first Imam of the Shia (632-661 CE).³
Peter and Paul
The contrast between Peter and Paul often crops up in Catholic homilies. Paul’s Letter to the Romans breaks new ground by claiming that salvation through Christ is not just for a select few but for all—Gentiles, Jews and anyone who lives in Christ. For Paul, living by the spirit of the Mosaic law trumps outwardly following the letter of the law.
But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code. (Romans 7:6)
So Paul is portrayed as the living, dynamic breath of God within humanity. Peter, on the other hand, represents Catholic Church rules, regulations and its hierarchical structure.
For me, both are important. It’s a kind of balancing act among trying to do God’s will, being respectful and yet tailoring my understanding and experience of the rules to my God-given individuality. Also, Catholic rules and regulations have morphed over the centuries. So one must keep an eye to the future and not get too fixated on current conventions.
I remember a long time ago when converting to the Catholic faith. Back then, a monsignor whom I respected once spoke in homily, “God gave us intelligence. We have to use it.”
¹ See http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-17/neglected-history-of-women-in-early-church.html Volunteer work by contemporary Catholic women seems largely unrecognized. I have never heard a word of thanks in homilies.