The Lasting Legacies of Peter and Paul

Keeper of the Keys

Most readers are familiar with the various Gospel accounts of St. Peter as the Apostle specially chosen by Christ to “feed my sheep” (John 21:17). Jesus gave to Peter (not to the other apostles) the keys to the “kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 16:19). His name was changed by Jesus from Simon to Peter, because the name “Peter” translated signifies “Rock,” the very rock upon which, addressing Peter, Jesus said he would build his Church (Matthew 16:18), against which the gates of hell would not prevail. Likewise Jesus said to Peter, and to Peter alone, “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” With these words Jesus conferred on Peter an absolute and infallible authority to protect faith and morals from being altered and corrupted.

Peter’s Primacy

Now there can be no better evidence that Peter’s primacy was recognized than that his name, in connection with his words and acts, is mentioned more than fifty times in the first twelve chapters of Acts, whereas the other apostles (except for John) are barely mentioned by name. The first incident by which Peter’s role as leader of the apostles is recognized is in the selection of an apostle to replace Judas. It is Peter who announces the necessity of doing so in the first chapter of Acts, and it is Peter who lays down the requirement for the twelfth apostle, Matthias, who is elected by drawing lots. This fact of Peter’s important role in the selection of a new apostle is prelude to the later history of Peter’s successors as Bishop of Rome having the recognized authority to appoint bishops.

Then comes the great Pentecost event, the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles. It is Peter who gives the great speech in Acts 2:14-40, followed by the baptism of three thousand souls that day. Then, following the example of Jesus who established his authority to teach by performing miracles, Peter performs his first miracle by healing a cripple in Acts 3. In Acts 5 the citizens of Jerusalem “even carried the sick out into the streets and laid them on cots and mats so that when Peter came by, at least his shadow might fall on one or another of them.” Clearly the record that Luke is establishing favours the primacy of Peter as the Vicar – he who stands in the place – of Christ on earth. It is true that the other apostles taught and performed miracles, but by emphasizing the ministry of Peter, Luke is telling the world that one apostle stands above all the others in the eminence of his ministry.

There is yet another important fact to signify the scope and magnitude of Peter’s commission. We do well to remember that only once before did God change a name, that of Abram to Abraham, signifying the first “rock” upon which would be founded the second Covenant with God (the first covenant being that between God and Adam and Eve). Now Jesus establishes yet another Covenant, and Simon’s name should be changed to Peter, as Abram’s name was changed to Abraham, to signify the monumental importance of Peter (and his apostolic successors), as the humans who continue to bear the keys to the kingdom. After all the words Jesus addressed to Peter in all the Gospels, can there be any doubt that it was Peter he chose to be the leader of the Church in his place after his departure? Moreover, can there be any doubt that only by gifting this infallible power to one person with the primacy to decide, would it be possible to prevent a crowd of apostles (and later bishops) from wrecking the unity of the Church by each asserting his indomitable will against the other? We know it was the will of Jesus made abundantly clear and emphatic in the Gospel of John 17:21, where Jesus prays “that they [his followers] may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

Then there is the miracle of Jesus walking upon the water in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and John. The sea is roiling and Jesus, recognizing the fear of the apostles that their boat would sink, appears to them and urges them to “be not afraid.” Whereupon Peter (not the other apostles) descends into the water to be nearer to Jesus; but he begins to sink because he loses courage. At that moment, Jesus takes hold of Peter and lifts him up so that he too, walking on water, shares in the miracle and proof of Christ’s divinity. Peter is literally lifted and saved from perishing, a forecasting of Christ’s later assurance to Peter in Matthew 16 that not only would he be the rock upon which his Church would be built, but that this Church would forever be saved from perishing at the gates of hell.

Another passage of considerable importance indicating Peter’s primacy is in Luke 22:32. Jesus says: “Simon, Simon, behold Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed that your own faith may not fail; and once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers.” Here Jesus sets Peter apart from the others with a special role of primacy, not as one who will not be tempted by Satan like all the others, but as one who, having repented his sins, will turn to strengthen the other apostles. This is a sign of Peter’s primacy over the others that cannot be denied. St. Paul too acknowledges in I Corinthians 15:3 that Jesus, after the Resurrection, chose to appear to Peter first, before appearing to the other apostles. “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures; that he appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the Twelve.”

The Council of Jerusalem

Indeed, at the Council of Jerusalem as recorded by Luke in Acts 15:7, Peter reminds everyone present: “My brothers, you are well aware that from early days God made his choice among you that through my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe.” From these words it is self-evident that, since the Gentiles were all the unbelievers in the world, Peter was chosen by Jesus to be the chief pastor not only of Christians, but of the entire world yet to be converted. Moreover, it is instructive that “the whole assembly fell silent” for a while after Peter pronounced his agreement with Paul that all Gentile men, upon their conversion, need not be circumcised according to the law of Moses (that law had been insisted upon by the Jews in Jerusalem who had been converted to Christ). Falling silent cannot be taken as anything other than that the matter is settled because Peter was recognized to have the last word; that is to say, Peter had exercised the authority given to him by Jesus when he said “whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Peter by his magisterial authority had loosened the law of Moses for the sake of converting Gentiles.

All the Gospels agree in this: that Peter is given first place as the single apostle who is most often addressed (and most often enough redressed!) by Christ. We can count on this fact because the Gospel of Mark (some biblical scholars consider it the first Gospel written) was guided in its revelations by Mark being a follower of Peter both in Jerusalem and in Rome. Throughout Mark’s long association with Peter he learned from his teachings and homilies about the doings and sayings of Our Lord. In a sense, to the extent that the other three Gospels merely amplify and do not contradict Mark’s Gospel, we can reasonably conclude that all four Gospels are indebted to Peter for their train of thought and authenticity. By deducing this, it is possible to reverse the long held and mistaken view of some Christians that Paul’s influence on the New Testament, judging by the number of epistles he wrote, was far greater than Peter’s. Indeed, since the Gospels record that Peter is present at all the main events and teachings of Jesus, we may infer that only through him as eye witness story-teller can we rely on the veracity of all the Gospels.

Peter and Paul

There is some indication that from the time of Paul’s conversion, tensions over the years continued to rise between him and Peter. At first Paul surely would have been deferential to Peter, since he had to come hat in hand (having been a rabid former persecutor of Christians) to seek the acceptance of the apostles as one of their number. Initially some of the apostles did not trust and strongly resisted him, but Barnabas persuaded them that Paul’s conversion was genuine. Subsequently, Paul would have learned from Peter more or less the same sayings and doings of Jesus that Mark would later learn and record in his Gospel. Paul’s conversion on the Road to Damascus would therefore be fleshed out and magnified by what he learned from Peter, especially during the fifteen days he spent with Peter in Jerusalem as Paul noted in Galatians (1:16-19). Saying this does not detract from the profound debt owed to Paul as one who himself was able, by the grace of God, to flesh out and magnify the teachings of Jesus for Gentiles in all the cities he visited. It is clear from his many epistles, and Luke’s testimony in Acts, how well received a missionary Paul was and how fully his work bore fruit everywhere he went.

But now comes a critical moment in the relationship between Paul and Peter. In Galatians 2:11-14, Paul makes a few remarkable comments on Peter (Cephas): “And when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face because he clearly was wrong. For, until some people came from James [circumcised Jews from Jerusalem], he [Cephas] used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to draw back and separated himself, because he was afraid of the circumcised. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not on the right road in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of all, ‘If you, though a Jew, are living like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?’”

What may seem peculiar about this passage is that Paul indicts Peter for ceasing to eat with the Gentiles, then leaves the indictment hanging in the air without further comment. There is no consideration given to the possibility that Peter resisted eating with the Gentiles because he was an apostle both to the Jews and the Gentiles. If he had eaten with the Gentiles, thus defying all by himself the circumcised Jews, he might well have created quite a hostile stir against his authority among the circumcised Jews both in Antioch and Jerusalem. As it turned out (noted above) Peter, at the council of Jerusalem, speaks as Christ’s anointed Apostle to the Gentiles, and declares in concert with all the apostles assembled, that the Gentiles not be required to be circumcised; and that was to settle the matter for all, and for all future generations of Christians. Paul’s conduct was salutary in the matter insofar as he may well have precipitated the council of Jerusalem and its great consequence of liberating the Gentiles from the ancient rule of circumcision and dietary laws. Nor should it be forgotten that long before Paul was to become an apostle to the Gentiles, Peter had already by his preaching brought many Gentiles into the Church and released them from the Jewish law. But it was also Peter’s wisdom that the matter should be settled by the calling of a council at Jerusalem, so that from this point on, circumcised Jews and uncircumcised Gentiles would know that there was to be unity among them rather than factions.

Peter as the Great Unifier

Christ preached emphatically the unity of his Church, as in John 15:5, “I am the vine, you are the branches.” But more especially in John 17:21, “So that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.” The principle of unity in God’s Church is the person Jesus Christ, who is referred to as the cornerstone. But his visible head on earth is the person he referred to as the rock upon which he would build his Church, namely Peter (Matthew 16:18). Citing Psalm 118:22 and Isaiah 8:14, Peter tells us (in 1 Peter 2): “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” and “A stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.” Peter goes on to say: “They stumble because they disobey the message.” What message are they disobeying? The message that Christ is the cornerstone. For the message to be obeyed by future generations of Christians it will be necessary that a single person take on the visible role of the cornerstone. And who else could that person be than Peter, the one upon whom Christ himself conferred the name Rock (Petros)?

It was Jesus who appointed the first hierarchy (Bishops of the Church), the Twelve Apostles. It would have made no sense for there to have been no principle force of unity among them after the Ascension of Jesus into heaven; nor would it make sense to regard any of the apostles as that principal force who was more worthy of the role than Peter, and those who would in later generations be designated as Peter’s successors; those who would continue to serve as the Rock upon which Christ built his Church. Without this Rock of leadership, there would not be any way to achieve the unity for which Christ prayed so fervently. Consider the lack of unity throughout the Protestant world, and the rise of a thousand sects that Christ prayed would not be the fate of his Church. How was this possible unless Protestantism rejected the idea of a Rock which, however exposed to crashing waves and storms of conflict, would withstand breaking and shattering into a thousand pebbles on the beaches of history?

Finally, we know for a fact that all the notable early Church Fathers acknowledged the Primacy of Peter. Pope St. Gregory the Great (540-604) reminds us of the view that it was necessary to explain to the emperor Tiberius II when the primacy of the Bishop of Rome was in question:

To all who know the Gospel, it is manifest that the charge of the whole Church was entrusted by the voice of the Lord to the holy Apostle Peter, Prince of all the Apostles. For to him it is said, ‘Peter, lovest thou me? Feed my sheep.’ To him Is said, ‘Behold Satan hath desired to sift you as wheat, but I have prayed for thee, Peter, that thy faith fail not; and do thou, one day, in turn, confirm thy brethren.’ To him is said, ‘Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven; and whatever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven.’

 St. Paul: Theologian and Missionary

Knowing Peter’s role to be that of Primacy and Keeper of the Keys, Christ knew also Peter’s limitations; these limitations we observe from the small little literary output he left behind, though we may surmise that the contents of the Gospels must be derived from him as their primary source of witness to the life and teachings of Jesus. For this reason, that so little of Peter’s writings survived (he must have written many more than two epistles), Paul received the grace to be gifted as the master and model of early Christian theologians. Not only does his legacy leave a record of early Christian theology, but also the early history of missionary endeavors. Without Paul’s epistles, we might know very little about the struggles of the early Church when personality conflicts, power struggles, and false teachings began to spread as they continue to spread in our day. Paul’s struggle to establish unity among the various communities shows that from the start he was conscious of the need for a universal (catholic) understanding of the truth.

For examples, Paul speaks with a very catholic voice when he says: “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to think in harmony with one another, in keeping with Christ Jesus, that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 15:5-6) And again: “I urge you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree in what you say, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose.” (Corinthians 1:10) And yet again: “Only conduct yourselves in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear news of you, that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind struggling together for the faith of the gospel.” (Philippians 1:27)

Paul had in him not only the gift of theological inspiration and genius, but also a touch of the poet. Consider the following passage from Ephesians (6:10-18) where he mixes a powerful message of fighting evil with just the right metaphors for the battle.

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace, above all taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.

And again, a passage in Paul that excels anything in theology since his time:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (I Corinthians 13:4-8)

 Moreover, we see in Paul a very Catholic saint, for he is the first theologian to describe the doctrine of original sin that is at the root of all Catholic teachings: it is the one sin from which we must all be saved. “All sinned when Adam sinned; all sinned in and with his sin.” (Romans 5:12) Baptism is the sacrament by which the guilt we share with Adam and Eve is washed away. Baptism opens the way to all future sacraments. And notice how deftly Paul develops his Catholic theology of the Eucharist in I Corinthians 11:

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes. Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup.

It is clear from this text that Paul is not treating the “body” and the “blood” as mere figurative or poetic language, but rather as the actual body and blood which must be approached without sin for fear of losing one’s salvation. In brief, by stating the doctrine of the Eucharist as perfectly as could be done (which no doubt he learned from Peter and from others who were present at the last supper) Paul was as Catholic as anyone could be.


It was fitting that Peter and Paul should be martyred about the same time in Rome (ca., 67 A.D.) during Nero’s persecution of Christians. Doubtless, whatever differences they may have had between them, they were reconciled before Peter was crucified upside down and Paul was beheaded. Just as history has it that Romulus and Remus were twin brothers who founded the city of Rome, Peter and Paul were the twin brothers in Christ who founded Christianity in Rome, from whence it spread throughout the Roman Empire; and even to this day, amid scandals and persecutions, still spreads the promise of salvation throughout the world.

Post Script 1: (the unifying power of the papacy)

The tragic dimension of the loss of papacy in the Anglican world (the pope being replaced by the king as the head of the Church) is evidenced in the fact that by the 19th Century the Church of England, which had held itself to be orthodox, for a long time had been showing signs of a collapsing theology brought on largely by the rejection of the authority of the Bishop of Rome. The papacy had historically been a unifying authority for doctrine that could not be ignored. But once ignored, it was inevitable that Christian disunity would follow. The well-known fragmentation of the Church of England into several disputing parties that rejected each others doctrines has proven disastrous for the Anglican Church. By the 19th century an Archbishop of Canterbury was appointed by Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, a Jew. It would be as if Peter had been appointed chief bishop of Christendom not by Jesus, but by Herod Antipas, the Jewish ruler of Galilee, the one whom Jesus called “that fox” (Luke 13:32).

Post Script 2: (an idle speculation)

I once was asked with which follower of Jesus (other than Mary) I would most like to spend, if I could, three hours in conversation. There was no doubt in my mind that the choice was between Paul and Peter. I chose Peter. We know many of Paul’s thoughts from his epistles (even what he thought about Peter). There is less that we know of what Peter thought about many things, including Paul. There is one brief remark about Paul in 2 Peter 3:16. “His [Paul’s] letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.” But this remark was not aimed at Paul’s person so much as at his writing style and the complex depth of his insights.

Also, a conversation with Peter would produce considerably more insight about the person and character of Jesus than what is revealed in the Gospels, not to mention more about the person and character of our Blessed Mother, whom Peter must have known and loved. A conversation with Peter would also reveal a great deal about the origins of the Church as an administrative body; for it is likely that Peter would have had to deal with some of the issues of papal primacy that we have to deal with today. To satisfy my own curiosity, I would like to know from Peter’s mouth what he and Paul talked about during those fifteen days spent together in Jerusalem. This could be a fascinating theme to explore for a budding young dramatist.