St. Peter in the New Testament
By Steve Ray
An article in the soon-to-be-published Catholic Dictionary of Apologetics and Evangelism by Ignatius Press
From the obscure fishing village of Capernaum on the shores of Galilee, Simon son of John rose to great prominence in the early Church. When choosing Simon as a disciple, Jesus informed him that his name would be changed to Cephas (Rock) (Jn 1:42). From his simple beginning as a fisherman, Simon Peter’s life ended in a glorious martyrdom in the Imperial City of Rome.
In the NT, the names Simon, Peter, or Cephas occur almost 200 times. The names of all the other disciples combined occur only about 130 times. In the NT lists of apostles, Peter is listed first. Matthew uses the word first (Mt 10:2) to “to single him out as the most prominent one of the twelve”. He was the spokesman and authoritative voice of the apostles, as seen in the early chapters of Acts. Paul spent fifteen days in private with Peter before beginning his own apostolate (Gal 1:18).
Jesus bestowed special prerogatives on Peter, recounted in Matthew 16:13-20. Peter is given a new name, which in Scripture denotes a change in status or position (e.g., Gen 17:4[font=Symbol]-[/font]5). Jesus spoke Aramaic and gave Simon the Aramaic name Kepha (Rock) which is is “Petra” in Greek and “Peter” in English. The Greek “petra” is feminine so the masculine “Petros” was adopted. There is no distinction between Kepha the man and Kepha the Rock upon which Jesus would build his Church-Peter is the rock (cf. CCC no. 552). Protestants often claim that Christ is the only foundation (1 Cor 3:11) attempting thereby to unseat Peter. However, they mistakenly mix the metaphors. In 1 Corinthians, Paul is the builder and Jesus is the foundation; in Matthew, Jesus is the builder and Peter is the rock foundation. Another NT metaphor pictures the Church “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (Eph 2:20).
Jesus chose Caesarea Philippi as the backdrop for the Petrine appointment. Here Herod had built a temple to Caesar Augustus atop the massive rock, a center of pagan worship and a source of the Jordan River. At the rock base was a gaping cavern referred to by the pagans as the “gates of hell”. Standing before the “temple” built to the “divine Caesar”, Jesus revealed God’s plan to build his new “temple”, the Church, to the true God with Peter as the solid rock.
After establishing Peter as the “Rock”, Jesus promises to give Peter the “keys of the kingdom of heaven”-a reference to the steward’s keys in Isaiah 22. The Davidic throne had been vacant since the Babylonian captivity (586 BC). The archangel Gabriel announced to Mary her Son Jesus would be given “the throne of his father David” (Lk 1:42). As Jesus, the new King of Israel, re-established the Davidic throne he appointed Peter to the office of royal steward-to rule “over the house” of the king (cf. CCC 553). Keys represent exclusive dominion and this authority was granted to Peter alone. The office of royal steward was successive in Israel. Familiar with their history, the Jews certainly understand that the office of Peter would be filled by successors as was the royal steward’s office in Judah. The steward may die, but the office continues.