Simon Peter ‑ Fisher of Men
13. Into the Unknown
With the close of the Jerusalem conference of AD 50, recorded in Acts 15, Peter drops out of New Testament history. A few brief allusions in one or two of the Epistles afford some slight clues to his later movements but that is all. There are plenty of traditions, based on recollections handed down from generation to generation of the Early Church, but most of them are too fanciful or improbable to take seriously. The two items which do stand out are that he spent some years with the church at Antioch and after that went to Rome where he was eventually martyred. The Second and Third century writers are so unanimous on these phases of Peter's life that they are very generally accepted as factual. A sensation was caused in 1949 when the discovery of what was claimed to be the tomb and bones of Peter in a hitherto unknown crypt, deep under the basilica of St. Peters at Rome, was announced. Expert archaeological examination since then has endorsed the validity of the claim and it is now accepted in most quarters that the Apostle's last resting place has in fact been discovered.
With the aid of this admittedly slender store of data it is possible to frame a very tentative outline of Peter's probable activities during the last twenty years of his life. Nothing definite can be claimed, but the outline is at least consistent with what is known and with what could be expected of a man of Peter's character and calibre. From the Day of Pentecost to the conference at Jerusalem, Acts 2 to Acts 15, was a period of seventeen years. During the whole of that time Peter had laboured tirelessly and zealously to build up the church in Judea, Samaria and Galilee. He had worked virtually entirely inside the Jewish community whilst Paul had been travelling the wider world taking the Gospel to the Jews of the Dispersion and the Gentiles. Now the Jewish-Christian churches in Jewry were well organized and ably led. James the Just was leader of the central church at Jerusalem and had many efficient helpers. Some of the original twelve apostles and others were beginning to make their way into distant lands in the discharge of their mission - Thomas to Parthia and India, Andrew to Armenia, Mark to Egypt, and so on. The active mind of Peter must have been questing for a sphere of service offering more scope for his energies than was now afforded him in Judea,
The first move appears to have been to Antioch. Paul's reference in Gal. 2.11-14 to a difference he had with Peter at Antioch concerning the latter's alleged 'separation' could only have taken place in AD 54, four years after the Jerusalem conference. Paul was with his home church at Antioch for about six months in that year, between his second and third missionary journeys, and after that he never returned to Antioch. It could be inferred therefore that Peter spent the next few years as leader of the Antioch church. There might have been a real need for his service. Not only Paul, but Barnabas, Silas, Lucius and possibly others of the church presbyters had all gone off on extended missionary tours.
The next clue to the Apostle's movements is afforded by his First Epistle, written from Rome a decade later and addressed to "the strangers" (a term for Jews living in Gentile lands) "scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia" (1 Pet. 1.1). These provinces were adjacent one to another in what is now modern Turkey, and some of them were areas into which the Apostle Paul never penetrated. The inference is obvious that Peter wrote to these particular brethren because he himself had been the means of their conversion and that he had undertaken an extensive missionary journey in these lands similar to those conducted by Paul farther west. This would account for Peter's writing to them later on in life when he realised that his own end was approaching and he could not expect to see them again in the flesh. It is certainly a fact that Christianity was very strong in these provinces at a very early date, especially in Bithynia where Luke is reputed to have ended his days twenty years after Paul's death. It is difficult to account for this fact except on the supposition that they were evangelised by Peter. Antioch was the great missionary church of the times. Antioch had sent Paul and others on many such journeys. It is quite in keeping to think that after Peter had spent say three or four years at Antioch he too, with the blessing of that church, should set out on this enterprise, the result of which was the establishment of so many Christian communities in these five provinces. On the basis of the time taken by Paul's similar journeys, this tour by Peter would have occupied at least three years. It would in such case have extended over the years round about 58 to 60, so that Peter could have returned to Antioch at about the same time that Paul, as a prisoner, was being sent by Porcius Festus to Rome to stand trial before Caesar the first time.
This brings us to the most difficult and most debatable period of Peter's life, his residence and martyrdom at Rome. The accounts and statements of so many Early Church writers are so contradictory and confused that it is very difficult to create a consistent sequence of events from them. The time of his arrival is indeterminate over a period of about six years and so is the time of his death. Rather than attempt the hopeless task of sifting fact from fiction, probabilities from improbabilities, in this mass of tradition and legend, it is perhaps better to construct a feasible narrative from the few hints and allusions found in the New Testament. In doing so we must take into full account the known characteristics of the leading figures in the story and how they could be expected to act in the prevalent situation.
One significant point does present itself. There is no indication or inference anywhere in the New Testament that Peter and Paul were present in Rome simultaneously. In fact the evidence is to the contrary. The Book of Acts closes with Paul's time in Rome ending in AD 63 after which he left Rome. If Peter had been present at any time during the two years when Paul was awaiting trial, living "in his own hired house and receiving all who came in unto him" (Acts 28.30) it is most likely that he would have been mentioned. This could have been either by Luke in the historical account or by Paul in one of the many letters dating from this time in which he sends greetings from his fellow brethren. Luke, Mark, Timothy, Aristarchus, Demas, Onesiphorus, Epaphras, Tychicus, Epaphroditus, all visited the Apostle during that two years and all are mentioned, some several times. Had Peter been present with them it is certain that he too would have been mentioned. It must be taken therefore that Peter arrived in Rome after AD 63, when Paul had already left Rome on the unrecorded journeys which culminated in his arrest at Troas five years later, and his return to Rome for his second trial.
Paul was, in all probability, condemned and executed in the spring of AD 68 - certainly not later, for it was in the reign of Nero and Nero died in June of that year. The trial would be within a few months of his arrival and he probably arrived in Rome in late AD 67, alone except for Luke. Here again it is certain that Peter was no longer there. Writing his last letter to Timothy, then at Ephesus, after the first indecisive hearing, Paul says "At my first answer no man stood with me, but all forsook me" (2 Tim. 4.16). Can it be imagined that if Peter was then in the city, he who in time past had defied the rulers of his own country to do their worst, would not have rallied to the support of his fellow-Apostle?
The native Christians of Rome, who had so recently endured the horrors of the Neronian persecution of AD 64 following the Great Fire of Rome, might perhaps be excused for not wishing to be involved in the trial of Paul, but not so one of Peter's calibre. Moreover, on the authority of Peter's First Epistle, both Mark and Silas were with Peter in Rome. Would anything have kept Silas, that stalwart companion and fellow-traveller of Paul in bygone day, from standing by his old friend, if he was in fact still in the city? And on the strength of 2 Tim. 4.11, at the time of Paul's trial Mark was away in Ephesus and not in Rome at all. The logical inference is that Peter arrived in Rome after Paul left the city in AD 63 and was martyred before Paul was brought back in AD 67/68 for his own trial and death. Silas had already gone, bearing Peter's First Epistle to the churches in Asia, and Mark would obviously go immediately after Peter's death, so that when Paul arrived there were none of his old friends in the city. That is what all relevant Scripture allusions seem to indicate.
On this basis events begin to fall into place. If, after his return from his missionary journey into the Asiatic provinces, Peter spent a few more years as the leading presbyter at Antioch, which is what the traditions insist, one comes to AD 64, when Nero instigated the first and most terrible of all persecutions. The Church at Rome was decimated and most of its leaders martyred. What more natural than that Peter, fired by his ever-present burning zeal, upon receiving the news should decide to proceed to Rome himself to help his suffering brethren? He would probably arrive as the persecution was ending. Although terrible, it lasted less than six months and was virtually over by the end of AD 64. Peter would find much to do in re-organising and encouraging the scattered remnants of the Church and he took Silas with him. Silas was an old stalwart of Antioch who had originally come from Jerusalem so that Peter had known him from the beginning. It is quite likely that Silas, who had accompanied Paul on his second missionary journey, had also shared Peter's missionary tour to the five provinces. He is described in Acts 15 as one who had 'hazarded his life for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ"; just the kind of man Peter needed by his side. The couple were accompanied by Mark, and this is where certain scraps of history fit the picture. Mark is known to have founded the church at Alexandria in Egypt, at a much earlier time. He was at Rome for a short time during Paul's first imprisonment in AD 60/62 according to Col. 4.14 and Philemon 24. This coincides with the statement of Eusebius, the learned 4th Century church historian, who says that Annianus succeeded Mark in AD 62 as the bishop of Alexandria. After Paul's acquittal and departure from Rome with Luke and Aristarchus, Mark, as the only one left, would not be likely to stay. Moreover, Paul would want his home church at Antioch to be apprised of the turn of events, most likely, therefore, Mark was sent there for that purpose, and so was available two or three years later when Peter was ready to set out.
Thus, one day in late AD 64 or early the following year, the three friends stood on the deck of a merchant ship as it ploughed the waves of the Mediterranean, heading westward for Rome. Peter, Silas and Mark were following in the course of those other three stalwarts five years earlier, when Paul, Luke and Aristarchus stood on just such a ship bound for the same destination. What experiences lay before them they did not know, only that many of the friends Paul had made during his two years' sojourn in Rome had suffered martyrdom at the hands of the mad emperor Nero. Where Paul and his two companions were now serving they did not know either, only that Mark would have been aware of Paul's intention to carry the Gospel to the "furthest limits of the west" and that meant Spain, Gaul, Britain. None of them knew that three years later Paul would, in his turn, follow them, this time in chains, and that both Apostles would within a year of each other seal their testimony with their blood.
For the present this was hidden from their sight. The sun shone warmly and the wind filled the great sail as the ship made its way steadily towards Rome. And Peter talked vigorously and enthusiastically of the work they must do in rallying the remaining brethren, binding up the wounds they had suffered, and encouraging them to hold fast to their faith. The prospect of persecution he probably dismissed as unimportant; he had already had many conflicts with the authorities and miraculous deliverance several times. He was now quite persuaded that he was immortal until his work was finished. It was almost certainly with intense interest and eager expectation that the Galilean fisherman set eyes upon the great city which was the capital of the world, impatient to begin his labours under the shadow of its walls. Perhaps he dreamed of a repetition of Jerusalem at Pentecost here in Rome: perhaps of another missionary Church like Antioch.
It was not so to be. About three years at the most seems to have been the limit of his service for the scattered brethren in Rome. Assuming that he commenced his work there in AD 65, he must have written his First Epistle a year or so later and dispatched it by Silas to the Asiatic brethren to whom it was addressed. That left only Mark with him (1 Pet. 5.13). That the shadow of persecution was over the church is evident from his use of the symbolic term "Babylon" for Rome when he said in the same verse "the church that is at Babylon salutes you". If the letter fell into the authorities' hands before Silas got clear away from Rome there would be nothing to incriminate the writer or his brethren. Peter must have known, though, that he was a marked man, and in that knowledge wrote his Second Epistle very soon after the First. From the Second Century onwards there have been doubts as to whether this Second Epistle really was from Peter's own pen, but many of the arguments used to discredit its authenticity do not seem to take into proper consideration the circumstances of the time. If Peter did in fact write this Epistle, it must have been within a few months of his death, which he realised was imminent. That is definitely stated in 2 Peter 1. 14-15. It would certainly have been written as his last message to all believers everywhere whom he had known and among whom he had laboured, hence the absence of any special recipients as was the case with the First Epistle. His words are urgent. His strictures are severe against false teachers he knew would invade the Church after his decease. These and vivid visions of the end of the Age and Second Advent, and the exhortation to steadfast faithfulness, are all consistent with the mental state of a man who knew his earthly course was nearly run and he could do no more. We can read this Second Epistle as the last words of a man who, like Paul, felt that he had fought a good fight, had finished the course, had kept the faith, and now was ready to be offered. Then it becomes much easier to accept it as the parting message of the Galilean Apostle to all Christians of every generation everywhere. Clement, Bishop of Rome in succession to Peter, appears to allude to several passages in this Second Epistle in his own "Epistle to the Corinthians" which was written at some time between AD 70 and 90, and this gives ground for thinking that it must have existed at this time.
If then Peter did write this Epistle, he would obviously entrust it to Mark to convey to Antioch or Ephesus immediately after the Apostle's death. Perhaps a copy was made for the use of the Church in Rome for they stood in need of the exhortation and encouragement it contained. Tertullian says that Peter ordained Clement to succeed him as leader of the Church. There is some confusion in the traditions here for Eusebius records that the first Bishop was Linus and Clement came third. The conclusion which has found most favour is that at the beginning there was a Latin Church and a Jewish Church in Rome. Clement became the first Bishop of the Jewish Church after Peter's death, and Linus, known to Paul, (2 Tim. 4.21), followed by Anencletus bishop of the Latin Church. Upon the death of Anencletus in AD 93, Clement became the accepted leader of both churches and from then dates the regular succession of the bishops of Rome.
Then the darkness closed in. There was no general persecution of the Church in AD 67 but because Christianity was now an illegal religion prominent leaders were liable to be arrested and executed whilst the general mass of believers were left alone. That was probably how Peter came to suffer martyrdom although Linus and Clement and others of the Roman Church escaped unscathed. The general impression of the early historians is that Peter died a year before Paul. That means he came to his end in early AD 67, Mark thereupon left Rome, and Paul, a prisoner, arrived about a year later for his own trial and condemnation. Writing to Timothy his Second Epistle, Paul asked Timothy to try and reach Rome speedily and to bring Mark with him. He must have learned of Mark's whereabouts from the Roman brethren, who seem to have had access to Paul to the end. So Paul arrived in Rome too late to see Peter.
At last, the stalwart Galilean came to the end of the way. Most of the colourful legends associated with his death, especially that of his being crucified upside down, are fairly certain to be inventions and the elaboration of later ages. That he suffered death by crucifixion is highly probable, but nothing is really definite. All that is known for certain is that after thirty-seven years of zealous and faithful service for the Master he loved, Simon Peter, fisher of men, laid down his task and resigned his turbulent spirit into the care of his Lord. It had been marred at times by some very human weaknesses and failings but stamped all along with the impress of a personality of strong faith and fixed determination. It was the power of the risen Christ that he preached and in the power of the risen Christ that he conquered.
"And this voice which came from heaven we heard, when we were with him in the holy mount. We have also a more sure word of prophecy, whereunto you do well that you take heed, as unto a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawn". (2 Peter 1.18,19)