saint peter and the early Christian church

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Saint Peter in Rome

saint peter

Saint Peter also known as Simon Peter, Kepha or Cephas was a Jewish fisherman, born in Galilee and died in Rome around 67AD, crucified (upside down) during the persecutions of the early Christians at the time of emperor Nero, shortly after the great fire of Rome. The site of his crucifixion is unclear although two or three possibilities have been identified through the ages, a likely one being Neroís circus which was on the Vatican hill on the right bank of the river Tiber. However, it must be said that there are some historians who feel doubt that Peter was ever in Rome at all on the basis that the evidence of his presence is shaky and unreliable.

We also know that he was married, (that Jesus healed his mother in law) and that he had a brother Andrew who also became a follower of Jesus.

It is perhaps easiest to talk about St Peter by working backwards:

Saint Peterís Burial

The tomb of the saint is in the Vatican crypt, in correspondence with the main altar although it is said that his remains were moved more than once through the ages, particularly in the early centuries.

According to tradition, the earliest place of burial was in a family crypt along a roman road leading out of the city, the via Cornelia (as was customary in ancient roman burials). The apostle Peterís tomb, like that of St. Paul were frequently the site for the arrest of many Christian pilgrims who went there to pray. There was mounting fear of the tomb being violated and so the remains were secretly moved to the catacombs of San Sebastiano and then subsequently to other sites, including the Vatican.

Historical and archaeological research suggests a slightly different interpretation: after his death at the circus Peterís remains were buried in a common grave nearby. As soon as the Christian persecution abated the simple tomb was turned into a more solid brickwork tomb, similar to those commonly used by the Romans. The tomb attracted pilgrims, was then built around by emperor Constantine who then built the first Christian basilica dedicated to the saint. Saint Peterís basilica was gradually modified to the shape we know today, particularly under Pope Julius II.

Saint Peterís Name

Saint Peterís name is worth talking about because lies so close to the core of the issues dividing Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox.

Clearly the saintís real name is not an issue per se, but the (very ambiguous) way in which it is used within a single passage of Matthewís gospel (16:18) is a cornerstone of the Catholic papacyís claim to leadership of the Christians.

When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?"

They replied, "Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets."

He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?"

Simon Peter said in reply, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."

Jesus said to him in reply, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.

And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.

I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."

Then he strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one that he was the Messiah.

At face value the phrase in italics is rather harmless, until we remember that the bible was written in the Greek common to the eastern part of the Roman empire and that the apostles likely had Aramaic as first language, ie the name as spoken in Aramaic and written in Greek has various grammatical twists and turns. The essence though is that the name Peter is synonymous with the word "rock" (I guess we can think of the stem "petrified" for example). The phrase therefore has more than one interpretation:

Needless to say that the church of Rome opts for the first interpretation, especially given that the Pope is somehow construed to be he who inherits Peterís role as bishop of the Christians in Rome, whilst the Protestants and Orthodox churches opt for the broader second interpretation.

Saint Peterís life and work

Peterís real name was Simon until Jesus named him Peter. Both Peter and his brother Andrew were fishermen in Galilee and became disciples of Jesus, the event was marked when they went fishing with Jesus and when instructed to lower their nets they caught an unusually huge number of fish.

Simon Peter was evidently fervent in his belief, an extremely active follower of Christ and was regarded with authority by the other Apostles. Peter was the first of Jesusí followers to be ordained Apostle, often the first in lists of the Apostles and the first to enter Jesusí (empty) tomb. He is presumed to have been part of a tighter group together with John and James although he was also the Apostle whom, as Jesus pointed out, would deny him three times before the cock crowed. A denial which Peter later atoned for by three times affirming his love for Jesus when he saw him resurrected.

Through Paul we know that Peter was chosen to be Apostle to the Jews whilst he was meant as Apostle to the Gentiles (ie non-Jews = the Romans/pagans). We also know of his numerous missionary journeys for example to Antioch, Caesarea and finally to Rome, where he was eventually persecuted, incarcerated and executed by Nero.

Further debate regarding Peterís position revolves around:

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"saint peter" was written by Giovanni Milani-Santarpia for - Rome apartments. Last revised October 2011