“Paul Is Derivative of Peter” with Gene Green

What follows is the transcript of a conversation I had on The Stone Chapel Podcast with Dr. Gene Green about his wonderful book, VOX PETRI. Peter, he says, is the lost boy of Christian theology, particularly with the Protestant Church.

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Episode 132 Vox Petri with Gene Green.

Gene Green   

I’m Gene Green. I’m Professor Emeritus of New Testament from Wheaton College and Graduate School in Illinois, and also currently adjunct professor at NACOS, the Native American Course of Studies of The United Methodist Church. 

David Capes   

Dr. Gene Green. Gene, good to see you. Welcome to the Lanier Theological Library and to the Stone Chapel Podcast.  

Gene Green 

Well, it’s a delight to be here. And it’s such a beautiful place and beautiful day here in Houston, Texas. And I’m grateful for the weather. 

David Capes   

Well it’s cooler than usual, but I’m sorry.  

Gene Green 

I brought the weather f. Blustery.  

David Capes 

The Lanier Library is a delightful place. I know you haven’t seen much of it. But after this weekend, you’re here for a lecture weekend. Hopefully, you’ll get a chance to see a little bit of all of it.  

Gene Green   

Well, I hope so. And the library is just a beautiful place a marvelous collection of books. And I’m sure that many many scholars are wanting to come here if they haven’t already come to do some research. And may I say probably they’d want to ride the small gauge train around the property as well.  

David Capes   

So, for those who don’t know, who is Gene Green?  

Gene Green   

Well, I’m a New Testament prof.  Taught for about 13 years in Latin America and the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica. I spent about 24 years at Wheaton College, teaching New Testament and have done some academic administration—crossed over to the dark side of the academy. But my real joy is being with students and teaching and writing, to be able to think through in fresh ways, some issues in Scripture and theology. It’s been quite a joy. The experience in Latin America brought me pretty deep into the conversation with our brothers and sisters who are developing Latin American theologies, and that was extremely enriching. I have had the honor of working not only with Latin Americans, but also women and men from across the globe, from Africa, Asia, Latin America, as well as in indigenous communities and listening to the theological conversation. This cutting edge conversation, Justo Gonzalez said, is a macro-reformation in Christian theology that’s happening around the globe.  

David Capes   

And it’s really exciting.  

Gene Green   

It really, really is, as our brothers and sisters are bringing us fresh and faithful visions of the faith that are enriching us all, not only for their communities, but for all Christians, every place. And here in North America, we need to be listening to them as we listen to our brothers, like Peter. And as he’s developing theologically, in his context, also, we’re seeing tremendous developments in these various regions of the world. So, that’s what I’ve been up to. Currently, I’m writing a commentary on Acts for the Tyndale series, and just having a great time.  

David Capes   

Good. Well, we’re so pleased that you’re here. We’re here today to talk about your book that was published a couple of years back, called Vox Petri, A Theology of Peter, foreword by Michael Gorman, a good friend of ours. But “Vox Petri”, “the voice of Peter,” is that a good translation? 

Gene Green   

Yeah, his voice that said, we use the title Vox Petri to  talk about the way that the New Testament gives us the, not the ipsissimia verba, the exact words of Peter, but the voice of Peter. Peter is always mediated to us in the various witnesses in the New Testament. So, there are others that are managing his voice. So, it’s the voice of Peter, but I think we have a faithful picture of who Peter is. But my concern has been over the years with the way that the New Testament presents the theology of Peter. And we have to remember that Peter was the Rock, and ‘upon this rock, I’ll build my church’.  

David Capes   

I would love to have some sort of a study done with Protestant ministers, to say how many of you are preaching on Peter. I bet not too many. I mean, we’re “all in” for Paul. We’re sort of “all in” for Paul. And maybe the Gospels. But there’s a huge part of the New Testament that we stay away from, I’m afraid, some of that’s the reaction to the Catholicism in terms of how they view Peter, right? We don’t want to do that. We don’t want to go that far. So, in a way we play him down.  

Gene Green   

We do and, in the book, ‘Vox Petri, Theology of Peter,’ I start off by talking about Peter being the lost boy of Christian theology and we’ve lost him, we lost him in the Reformation. We think, well, Protestants, we’ve got Paul and Roman Catholics have Peter, we’ve lost him in the pulpit. When you think about the preaching we’ve heard about Peter, you know, he’s the disciple who fails and is restored. you know, he rejects the idea of the cross. Jesus rebukes him for that, he denies the Lord, he walks on water and he sinks. He and Paul have a bit of conflict in Antioch. And we think about him as the failed but then restored disciple, so we lose him in the pulpit, as a theological figure, we’ve lost him to critical scholarship.  

Our colleagues who do not believe that you can hear or reconstruct a theology of Peter from the New Testament sayt all we have are images of Peter, instead of the authentic voice of Peter, the authentic theology of Peter. So, the problem with Petrine and studies is very similar to Jesus studies, where you bifurcate between in Jesus studies—the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith—with the Christ of faith being the invention of the church. Well a similar thing happens in Petrine studies. Now, you have the Simon of history. And then the Peter of faith. And most who work on Peter say, really, all we’ve got are just images of Peter, but not Peter himself. And my argument has been that no, the Simon of history is the Peter of faith, and we can hear him. We can hear him in the New Testament.  

David Capes   

Yeah, and I love the way you bring in the Gospel of Mark, at a very early part. Tell us a little bit about that. Why Peter is not the one speaking necessarily, but he is speaking through Mark.  

Gene Green   

Yeah, there’s the church father, Papias, who talks about the gospel of Mark being the anecdotes of Peter. And that Mark was Peter’s translator. Now for many years, people didn’t think that that was really a faithful statement. But scholars such as the late Martin Hangul and Richard Bauckham, and others have said, No, we believe that Papias’ testimony is correct that that Mark was Peter’s interpreter. And basically, from Papias, we understand the gospel of Mark was Peter’s preaching, translated and formed into a gospel. But it’s interesting. Papias also says that, the gospel of Mark is not “in order,” in order which doesn’t mean chronological or logical order. But it was language that was used at the time to talk about a literary production. This is not a final, polished literary production. Whereas Matthew, for example, is in order, which means that it’s a final edited edition. So, there’s something rough; I mean, we teach Greek, we speak Greek-well we read Greek. And we know that the Greek of Mark is not the best of the New Testament. There’s something rough about it. But this is the first telling of the Jesus story. And then we have Matthew and Luke, at least according to one school of thought, that are using this gospel, which is really in some ways an inferior literary production. And the question is, why did they use it? If it wasn’t the best, and I think it’s because Peter,  is behind it. He’s just amazing. Now, you know, what started me off on the study was the recognition that the New Testament witness about Peter always puts him in the first place. He’s the first disciple chosen, he’s the first to walk on water and sink, but he did walk on water, not something you and I have done recently, and he’s the first one to confess that Jesus was the Christ. Yeah, he was the first to deny the Lord but he was the first to be restored. Go tell my disciples and Peter. He was remembered as the first witness of the resurrection, the women were there first. But he was remembered by the church as the first Apostolic witness to the resurrection. First leader of the early church, I’m working on Acts right now-there’s Peter. Yeah, right at the beginning, and the first one to open up the mission to the Gentiles. And the first one to defend Gentile inclusion without conversion to Judaism without having to be circumcised. So there’s something there’s a Petrine primacy, in the New Testament.  

David Capes   

And there’s deference in Paul’s language, too, for Peter? There’s some little bit of a struggle going on there and Galatians 2. There’s still a deference in that a Peter extended to me the right hand of fellowship, he affirmed my gospel. 

Gene Green   

Right, and so Peter has a much more prominent place in the early church than we recognize. And the argument that I’m trying to build is that that primacy wasn’t just about leadership in the church, but it was about theology as well. I think that Peter is foundational for Christian theology.  

David Capes   

So, is Peter the first theologian, in a sense? I mean, Paul’s literary output is much greater, and he was first. 

Gene Green   

 I like to wind up my Pauline scholar friends by saying that Paul is derivative of Peter. And when you think about Peter’s story about Jesus, I mean, he was the one that recorded what we know or remembered. What we know as Mark 10:45, the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many. And here he’s bringing together obviously, teaching from Jesus, but mediated through Peter to Mark and then in our Gospel. So, our basic understanding of what the cross is all about. Where does it come from?  

David Capes   

As a Protestant, they would go to First Corinthians, they would go to Galatians. Right? We almost always go to Paul.  

Gene Green   

Yeah. And it’s really Peter, who is giving that first testimony. And in Galatians, Paul says he went up and interviewed Peter, he talked to Peter and I don’t think they just sat around and had a cup of mint tea. Or talk about the weather. But where did Paul get his full understanding  of the Jesus story? So we find that there’s not this type of old Tubingen school, two wings of Christianity, Pauline and a Petrine.  You know Martin Goulder, in a revival of that. No. There was a right hand of fellowship between them. So there is harmony. 

David Capes   

There’s tension in every human relationship too. So sure, these guys are not infallible completely. 

And you know, a similar case been made for James but other people as well that James is much more significant figure that we don’t totally ignore, right, but we don’t spend a lot of time with it. So, is there anything unique about Peter’s theology compared to let’s say, Paul, or John or Matthew? 

Gene Green   

Exactly. That Petrin primacy. That’s there. He was a more important figure in Christian theology than we dare realize. 

David Capes   

Yeah, he is certainly an influencer. At the very beginning, isn’t he of all this. Now, let me let me ask this. Beyond the New Testament, there are a number of books like the acts of Peter and the acts of Paul and Peter and the apocalypse of Peter and the Gospel of Peter right? There are these other books. Do you include those in your book, Vox, Petrie?  

Gene Green   

To answer that, let me read to you a little bit from ‘Vox Petri, Theology of Peter’. And this is at the end of the book, “Peter and the Foundations for Christian Theology’. And I think that’s the point of this book, that Peter is foundational for our full understanding of the faith. Let me read “Peter was the first to tell the story of Jesus as a narrative whole, the first to identify Jesus as the Messiah, and the first to explain the meaning of the cross of Christ. He developed his theology on the road, in the face of opposition, offering the church a theology of suffering and glory. He stood to the very beginning of Christian understanding of the inclusive nature of God’s saving work through Christ, the Jews and the Gentiles together. All people, both Gentiles and Jews have a place in God’s plan. The Apostle lifted the church’s eyes in hope to the final consummation of all things, when God’s act of restoration would be complete.” All that is very familiar. And that’s the point and that was a surprise. That when we take a look at Peter and his theology it’s not that it’s unique. But the beauty of it is that it’s not unique. It’s the theology that you and I, and the rest of the church have inherited and understood. It’s just that we haven’t recognize that at the very head of the table is Peter as the first Christian theologian and our contours of the faith, our understanding of the gospel is mediated to us, obviously, it’s originated from Jesus, but mediated to us in the first place through Peter. And that’s the beauty of it. So, as I said, Peter is the lost boy of Christian theology, but in the end of the day, he’s been sitting there at the table all along. We just didn’t see him. We didn’t recognize him.  

David Capes   

So, you don’t hear the authentic voice of Peter, then in these other second century or third century manuscripts? 

Gene Green   

No, I really don’t. And I’d want to refer people to the work by Pheme Perkins on Peter, the apostle for the whole church. And what Pheme Perkins does is talk about the way that in the early church, second, third century, that if you wanted to support a heresy, you appeal to Peter because he was recognized as so foundational for theology, so central that you’d appeal to him. Or if you wanted to take down a heresy like the Gnostic heresy; Well, you’d bring up the story about Peter and Simon, the magician, who was considered by some to be the genesis of Gnosticism. So, you would appeal to Peter. So, I think it’s interesting that in the early church, there was a recognition of Peter’s theological role, and not simply his leadership role in the church.  

Gene Green   

Well, I’ll just say that hasn’t been part of the study. Are there echoes of his voice in that? Possibly. Well, there’s echoes of his importance whether there’s any fragments in there of Peters theology, I’d hesitate. Now, truth in advertising here in Vox Petrie, I didn’t deal with Second Peter either. Yeah. And I’ve written commentary on Second Peter and Jude couple of commentaries on them.  

David Capes   

Well, this is a big book to start with. 

Gene Green 

And there’s so much controversy about the authorship of Second Peter, although I come down in favor of the authorship, I just didn’t want it to be a distraction. From this. I think there’s another study to be done to take this material and then ask, are there resonances there in Second Peter. Obviously, the style is different in the Greek, and, and there’s some changes in emphasis in Second Peter, but I think it’s a worthwhile study that I hope somebody will do,some day. 

David Capes   

Well, this is a book that took you how long to write? 

Gene Green   

Oh, my, well, you know, Peter, and I started going a long time ago. I mean, I started back in my doctoral studies at Aberdeen in 1977. You know, I worked on First Peter, theology and ethics and First Peter. So this has been a long time coming, but this particular book, about 15 years, yeah, you know, but that’s in the middle of writing some other things and fishing, but it was a slow process. It was slow cooked.  

David Capes   

The old adage, I hate writing, but I am so pleased that I have written. It is done.  

Hey, listen, thanks for being with us today, Gene on the Stone Chapel Podcast.  

We’ve been talking to Dr. Gene Green, who’s written an amazing book and awesome book, I’d encourage you to go out and get a copy and read his called Vox Petrie: a Theology of Peter, published by Cascade Press.  

If you’ve learned too much today, in the podcast, there is one guaranteed cure, and that is to share it with a friend. It’ll take the pressure off the brain, okay? If you’ve never visited the amazing Lanier Theological Library, make plans to do it soon. We are growing, we’re expanding. We’ve got a new presence over in Oxford, England. This is a place of solace and discovery. If you have comments for us or some questions or just want to be in touch, contact us at podcast@lanierlibrary.org. And thanks to all those who make this podcast possible, you know who you are Till next week, thanks for listening. Standby for a nugget of wisdom from our friend, Dr. Gene Green. 

I had open heart surgery in 2010. And I’ll never forget after that somebody came in and gave me a glass of orange juice. And I broke out in tears. There was something so wonderful in its taste, and that freshness-an absolute delight. And I’d like to say for all of us that life is grand, and we find the grandeur of life given to us by God and just the simplest things. It might be the rays of the sun, shining through the clouds and might be the emerging of spring where I live in Chicago. It might be a first kiss that you’ve had. Life is grand-the birth of a child. And we’ve got a lot of, a lot of problems in life. We have sickness, we have death, we have heartache and lack, but still there’s a grandeur in life. So I like to say to people, life is grand. 

Peter, the Rock: Matthew 16–Gene Green

Dr. Gene Green,
Dean of Trinity International University Florida

Dr. Gene Green is Professor Emeritus of New Testament at Wheaton College and Graduate School, and Dean of Trinity International University – Florida. Among his many and diverse publications are Vox Petri: A Theology of Peter (Cascade, 2019); The Scalpel and the Cross: A Theology of Surgery (Zondervan, 2015); Jude and 2 Peter (Baker, 2008); 1 and 2 Thessalonians (Eerdmans, 2002); the co-authored New Testament in Antiquity (Zondervan, 2020); and the co-edited Majority World Theology (IVP Academic, 2020). He shares the reasons he believes that it was Peter himself whom Jesus designated the “rock” on which his church would be built.

To hear the podcast click here.

“Exegetically Speaking” is a weekly podcast of the friends and faculty of Wheaton College, IL and The Lanier Theological Library. Hosted by Dr. David Capes, it features language experts who discuss the importance of learning the biblical languages—Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek—and show how reading the Bible in the original languages “pays off.” Each podcast lasts between seven and eleven minutes and covers a different topic for those who want to read the Bible for all it is worth.

If you’re interested in going deeper, learn more about Wheaton’s undergraduate degree in Classical Languages (Greek, Hebrew, and Latin) and our MA in Biblical Exegesis

You can hear Exegetically Speaking on SpotifyStitcherApple Podcasts, and YouTube. If you have questions or comments, please contact us at exegetically.speaking@wheaton.edu. And keep listening. 

Jesus and Capernaum (Part 2)

Capernaum is not mentioned in the Old Testament.  Although we cannot say for certain, it is probable any local population would have been killed or otherwise displaced in the Assyrian invasions in the 8th century BC. In fact there is little material evidence of human settlement before the 2nd century BC. Later Jewish writers refer to Capernaum as  “Kefar Nahum” (the village of Nahum—not likely the biblical prophet). Apparently, Capernaum was the site of some of Jesus’ earliest miracles, a fact that didn’t escape the hometown crowd in Nazareth (Luke 4.23). Matthew tells us that Jesus healed the centurion’s son from a distance in Capernaum and went on to heal Peter’s mother-in-law (Matt 8.5, 14).  He healed a paralytic after four of his friends peeled back the roof of a modest Capernaum house and lowered him in front of the Savior on his mat (Mark 2.1; Matt 9.1-8).  It was in Capernaum that Jairus, a ruler of the synagogue, implored Jesus to raise his daughter after the mourners had already gathered to grieve (Matt 9.18-26).  Despite all the miracles Jesus performed there, he still prophesied destruction against the village and people there because of unbelief (Matt 11.23). 

Capernaum is described in the Gospels as “his own city” (Matt 9.1), but the text is silent on why Jesus chose Capernaum as the center of his public life.  Perhaps it was the ease of travel on the flat plain along the shore of the Sea of Galilee.  Perhaps it was the speed of passage across the lake to the Gentile cities of the Decapolis.  Perhaps it was because Capernaum sat at some distance from Antipas’ seat of power.  It was Antipas after all who had John beheaded, and Jesus’ fate was supposed to end in Jerusalem not Galilee.  Still for reasons known only to him, Jesus chose Capernaum, and now for centuries Christian pilgrims have made their way to the place where Jesus first proclaimed with power the rule of God.   

Modern visitors to Capernaum can explore the remains of a beautiful synagogue built in the Byzantine era.  It is one of the best preserved ancient synagogues in the Holy Land.  The large, white limestone blocks and columns stand in sharp contrast to the native stone which is a black basalt (volcanic) stone.  The Byzantine synagogue was apparently built over the site of an earlier synagogue whose floor archaeologists uncovered a few years ago.  It measures 60 feet wide by 79 feet long.  Since building materials were hard to come by, builders often incorporated stable parts of earlier foundations and walls into later structures.  This both concealed and preserved the earlier buildings.  Although we cannot say for certain, this may well be the floor of the synagogue where Jesus preached and exorcized evil spirits in Capernaum (Luke 7.1ff; Mark 1.21-28). 

In the fifth century AD Christians built an octagonal church building south of the synagogue.  Byzantine Christians loved the octagonal form and often used it to commemorate places they considered holy.  The building with its lovely mosaic floors had been constructed over the remains of a 4th century structure (likely a church) that had in turn been built over a first century house.  A particularly strong tradition holds that this is the Capernaum residence of Peter, one of the twelve.  The house of Peter, as it is called, was a modest, one-story house.  Its roof would have been made of branches, thatch and mud, not unlike the roof that was dug out to allow the paralyzed man access to Jesus (Mark 2.1-12).  The plastered walls of the large, central room contain over 150 inscriptions scribed like graffiti in the walls in the various languages of the early church: Greek, Aramaic, Hebrew, Syriac and Latin.

To preserve the house where tradition has it that Peter lived, believers have constructed a new church over the site. Like its ancient counterpart the modern structure has eight sides, but it sits several meters above the site atop eight pillars that describe eight sides.   It hovers above the Byzantine remains preserving and protecting the precious material culture of the past from Capernaum’s warm summers and winter rains.  Today Christian pilgrims, like their spiritual ancestors 1500 years ago, make their way to Capernaum to see the place where Peter lived and where Jesus began to turn the world upside down. 

Jesus and Capernaum (Part 1)

When Jesus heard that John the baptizer had been imprisoned, he left the Jordan valley and went north toward the district of Galilee (Matt 4.13).  His baptism by John in the river had been the turning point of his life.  From here on everything would be different.  Jesus had lived a private life; now he would become a public person.  He had earned his living as a carpenter selling his goods in Nazareth and likely Sepphoris, a larger, more affluent city a few miles away; now he would become a preacher of the Kingdom of God, healing and making disciples throughout Galilee, Judea, Samaria and the Decapolis.  He had grown up in Nazareth; now he would leave behind his hometown and settle in Capernaum.  

But why did Jesus go north to Galilee?  Why didn’t he head straight for Jerusalem, the city of prophets?  Well, the answer is simple.  He was guided by Scripture.  Hundreds of years before Mary labored and gave birth to her male child, the prophet Isaiah had foreseen a day when hope returned to the land mortally wounded by invaders from the north.  He prophesied:

 Isaiah 9:1-2  (NASV)  But there will be no more gloom for her who was in anguish; in earlier times He treated the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali with contempt, but later on He shall make it glorious, by the way of the sea, on the other side of Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles.  2 The people who walk in darkness Will see a great light; Those who live in a dark land, The light will shine on them.

Jesus knew the Scriptures.  He understood that the renewal was to begin up north, in the ancestral lands of Zebulun and Naphtali, districts known in his day as Galilee.   That was only right in the justice of God because it was these regions that fell first to Assyrian and Babylonian aggression.  The villages and towns first to fall and walk in darkness were to be the first to have the light shine upon them.  Jesus was that light.  Capernaum would become his city.

Rather than return to Nazareth, his hometown, the Gospels tell us that Jesus “moved” to Capernaum and made it the headquarters of his ministry.  Capernaum was a village on the north-west corner of the Sea of Galilee.  It was the home of two sets of brothers–Simon and Andrew, James and John.  Fishing provided their families a living on the Sea of Galilee.  The sea also provided plenty of fresh water for the people residing there.  Population estimates during Jesus’ day for the village have conservatively been set between 1200-1700 inhabitants.  Although most of Capernaum’s citizens were Jewish, there is evidence some non-Jews also made it their home.  Still this is no thriving city.  Unlike larger cities it had no wall to protect it, no aqueducts, no colonnaded streets, no administrative buildings and no theater.  Its only significant public space was a synagogue that served as both a place of worship and a community center. Had Jesus not made Capernaum his base of operations, it is likely most would never have even heard of it. 

Join me next for Part 2 of Jesus and Capernaum.

How Did Simon Peter Die?

How Did Simon Peter Die?

I traveled recently to Edinburgh, Scotland.  The university where I teach, Houston Baptist University, is looking into the possibility of establishing a study-abroad agreement with the University of Edinburgh, and I was there to help make that connection.  While there, I attended some lectures on Simon Peter sponsored by the Center for the Study of Christian Origins (CSCO).  Founded by Professor Larry Hurtado (now retired) in the late 1990s, the center is today ably run by Dr. Helen Bond. I heard a number of good papers on the apostle Peter; though he is the best known of Jesus’ “twelve,” he is often neglected by Protestants (Protestants tend to favor Paul). Caravaggio_-_Martirio_di_San_Pietro 

One paper in particular stood out.  It was given by (retired) Professor Timothy D. Barnes.  He is a world class historian who is known for being a bit feisty.  He began his lecture recognizing full well that he was about to ruffle a few feathers. 

Many Christian scholars have thought that Simon Peter died in Rome by crucifixion.  There are a variety of early Christian reports that seem to indicate this (Tertullian, Praescr. Haer. 36.3; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3.1.2).  In one tradition, Peter asks to be crucified upside-down because he is not worthy to be crucified in the same manner as Jesus, his Lord (Martyrdom of Peter 8.3-4). 

Professor Barnes, however, reads the evidence differently.  He takes his cue from John 21.18-19.  Here is how these verses are translated in the New American Standard:

Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to gird yourself, and walk wherever you wished; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will gird you, and bring you where you do not wish to go. Now this He said, signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when He had spoken this, He said to him, “Follow Me!” (Joh 21:18-19 NAS)

The problem with this translation, Barnes says, has to do with the Greek word translated “gird yourself.”  It is typically taken to refer to tying a belt around your waist and hitching up your outer garment for travel, work or possibly battle.  Barnes argues that the Greek verb actually means “dress yourself.”  A number of modern translations agree (English Standard Version, New Living Translation).  Here is how the NLT renders the verses:

“I tell you the truth, when you were young, you were able to do as you liked; you dressed yourself and went wherever you wanted to go. But when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and others will dress you and take you where you don’t want to go.” Jesus said this to let him know by what kind of death he would glorify God. Then Jesus told him, “Follow me.” (Joh 21:18-19 NLT)

Notice. This saying of Jesus let’s Peter (and John’s readers) in on the way in which Peter was going to die.  When Peter is old, he will stretch out his hands, someone else will dress him, and take him where he would rather not go.  Some have taken this as an image of crucifixion.  John goes on to say that this refers to the kind of death he would die and thereby glorify God.  A careful reader will recall that earlier in John’s Gospel, the crucifixion of Jesus is his hour of glory.  Some have taken these verses as a reminder that Peter had been crucified (The Fourth Gospel was probably written 25-30 years following Peter’s execution). 

For Barnes the problem with the crucifixion of Peter theory is this.  Men were always crucified stark naked.  You would not be dressed for it; you would be undressed (Artemidorus, Oneirocritica 2.53). You may recall how the soldiers divided Jesus’ garments as he suffered on the cross.  Jesus may typically be depicted with a loin cloth around his waist, but that is a matter of piety and modesty not history.  Jesus hung on the cross stark naked. If Peter had been crucified, he would have been stripped as well. But according to Barnes, he was not.

So how did Simon Peter die?  From John’s Gospel Barnes directs our attention to Tacitus (Annals 15.44.4) and the madness of Nero.  After Rome went up in flames in AD 64, Nero wanted to make an example of the Christians whom he thought were a despicable lot. He knew the public was already against them so it was convenient to make them the scapegoats. Nero, who was always a bit of a showman, wanted a spectacle; he rounded up the Christians who lived in what was left of the city and slaughtered them.  Here is how Tacitus describes it:

And, as they perished, mockeries were added, so that, covered in the hides of wild beasts, they expired from mutilation by dogs, or were burned fixed to crosses for use as nocturnal illumination on the dwindling of daylight (Barnes’ modification of the translation by A. J. Woodman). 

Barnes thinks his case is “rock solid” (a phrase he used with me over dinner after his lecture). Peter, who was present in Rome at the time, was apprehended with the rest of the Christians. He was bound by authorities and dressed in a tunic dipped in a flammable substance. He was taken and fixed to a mock cross near the banks of the Tiber River, his hands extended, and then he was set on fire.  If Barnes is correct, Peter died in the persecutions that followed Rome’s burning in AD 64 by burning not by crucifixion.  Crucifixion was a slow, agonizing death by asphyxiation that took up to three days in some cases.  Peter’s death would have come much more quickly but the sight everyone would remember would be his charred body, formed like a cross, smoldering by the Tiber.  Peter Conference Edinburgh 2

Barnes makes a compelling case; it is historically plausible if not likely.  Still it is always difficult to move from the general to the particular.  While it is true generally that many Christians died during Nero’s persecution in this way, it is not “rock solid” (with apologies to the apostle) that a particular person named Simon Peter died on that day in that way.  More evidence is needed.  There is no physical evidence you consider as you might have with a modern crime scene investigation. Still, Barnes has a good bit to teach us.

On this occasion, the Romans wanted to mock their enemies.  You can almost hear one of them thinking:  “These despicable people love their crosses. Let’s see how much they love them after they’ve been burned to death on them.”  It wasn’t enough to put these poor souls to death; they increased the humiliation—as the Romans would have seen it—by wrapping the martyrs in animals skins or fixing them to crosses. 

But what the Romans failed to recognize was that the cross had already become a fixture in early Christian devotion.  The crucifixion of Jesus was central to their confession.  Rather than being a place of disgrace and death; it had become a symbol of honor and life.  It is no wonder that later generations of believers continued to imagine that Peter died with his arms stretched wide, embracing the world.