Simon Peter: From Galilee to Rome

Written by Carsten P. Thiede Reviewed By I. Howard Marshall

The historical Peter has fared badly in scholarship. The references to him in the NT hardly amount to a connected narrative of even a part of his career, and the two epistles that are attributed to him are declared inauthentic by a growing number of critical scholars. Dr Thiede’s exhaustive bibliography lists less than half a dozen books on Peter’s career in English; to these can be added a short study by J. Lowe (1956) and the recently published articles on Peter and the Petrine Epistles by R. P. Martin and J. R. Michaels in the revised International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, Vol. III. Hitherto the only full-length treatment of Peter in scholarly detail has been O. Cullmann, Peter, Disciple, Apostle, Martyr. This new book, therefore, which offers a thorough study of the career of Peter, based on a firsthand acquaintance with the scholarly literature, is much to be welcomed.

What we are offered here is a careful reconstruction of all that can be known about Peter from the NT; the author goes step by step through each incident in which he is involved. He compares the gospel accounts with one another and harmonizes the information which they offer to give a more complete picture. Interesting light is shed at various points. But it is in the discussion of Peter as church leader that Dr Thiede offers a new light on the apostle. He claims that it would be Peter from whom Paul got his knowledge of Jesus in Gal. 1:18f. (cf.Acts 9:27). After the Cornelius episode (dated before ad 41) Peter was a supporter of mission to the Gentiles. When he escaped from prison in Jerusalem (ad 42) he went to Rome, the ‘other place’ of Acts 12:17, identified via Ezek. 12:3, 13 as ‘Babylon’ (cf. 1 Pet. 5:13). He possibly visited Antioch and Corinth en route. Thus he was the founding apostle of the Roman church (cf. Rom. 15:20!). Here he was with Mark (ad 42–6), and here Mark wrote his Gospel, whose existence before ad 50 is guaranteed if we can accept the identification of the Qumran papyrus fragment 7Q5 as part of Mk. (see the author’s essay in German in Biblica 65, 1984, pp. 538–559 [with the correction in 66, 1985, p. 261], and his book on Die älteste Evangelien-Handschrift, Wuppertal, 1986). This ties in with the patristic belief that ‘after the exodos (sc. “departure” of Peter from Rome)’ Mark wrote what he remembered. At this point Peter may have baptized Priscilla and Aquila. Then he returned via Antioch to Jerusalem, being joined en route by Mark (Acts 13:13), and took part in the ‘council meeting’ about the requirements to be placed on Gentile converts (Acts 15, understood as the same meeting as that described in Gal. 2:1–10). Since his work in Jerusalem was finished, he departed and returned to Antioch, where he yielded to persuasion by the ‘men from James’ about not eating with Gentiles and fell out with Paul. He may have gone to Corinth, but in any case he reached Rome after ad 57 (the date of Romans). During this period he wrote his two letters, i.e. before the persecution of ad 64. 1 Peter was written up by Silvanus in good Greek, and some allusions to Nero’s crimes may be detected in 1 Pet. 4:15. 2 Peter is also regarded as genuine (c. ad 59–60), with stronger traces of Peter’s own hand but written up by a scribe trained in the ‘Asian’ style detected by some critics. It served as the source for some of Jude’s ideas. Peter perished in Nero’s pogrom probably in ad 67, and the authentic site of his burial is the tomb known to Gaius in the second century and rediscovered by modern archaeologists on the Vatican hill.

Anybody who thought that conservative scholars could not produce new ideas or new arguments in favour of traditional positions will have to think again after reading this book. Certainly there are several places where the author needs to examine the cases for opposing viewpoints and demolish them rather than simply assert in effect that the onus of proof is on those who question the historical statements in a document. I have quite a number of points where I want to place question marks. Is Dr Thiede prepared to accept the authenticity of late traditions too easily? Does he take over J. A. T. Robinson’s redating of the NT documents before ad 70 too readily? Is his thesis dependent on the assumption that three of the gospels rest on direct eye-witness testimony, and how far has he considered the case for a different view of their origins? Did not Irenaeus place the composition of Mk. after the exodos of Peter and Paul from Rome? Is it credible that ‘rough notes’ of Peter’s speeches were made from memory shortly afterwards? How far is the identification of the incidents in Acts 15 and Gal. 2:1–10 essential for his reconstruction? Is it so certain that Jude is dependent on 2 Peter and not vice versa? And why should a letter by Jude push a letter by Peter into the background?

On the other hand, it can be argued that Dr Thiede is right to attempt ‘psychologizing’ explanations of some of the phenomena in the NT and to resist those who arbitrarily reject them out of hand. He is right to call those who make easy assumptions about inauthenticity and unhistoricity to provide arguments for their positions. If he is correct about the date of Mk., a lot of current reconstructions of the history behind the NT are going to be undermined. It is imperative, therefore, that his carefully argued case for the identification of 7Q5 be swiftly available in English and be subject to expert assessment by palaeographers who have no particular axe to grind.


I. Howard Marshall

I. Howard Marshall
University of Aberdeen
Aberdeen, Scotland, UK