June 30: Acts 15:6-11; Gal 1:18; 2:1-11, etc

This is the second of three daily notes commemorating the feast of Peter and Paul (June 29). In the previous day’s note, I looked at several passages in the New Testament and early Christian writings which can be said to reflect opposition between Peter and Paul; today I will be examining passages which more properly represent Christian unity and harmony.

Peter and Paul as a symbol of Church Unity

To begin with, let me briefly summarize the New Testament passages which could reasonably be said to apply to the theme of unity and concord between Peter and Paul:

  • Acts 15:6-11—During the so-called Jerusalem “Council” (which Paul and Barnabas attended, cf. Gal 2:1-10), on the question of whether it was necessary for Gentiles to be circumcised and observe the Law of Moses in order to be part of the Christian Community, Peter affirms the ‘Pauline’ position in no uncertain terms. Note especially the statements in verse 9, that God did not distinguish at all between “us” and “them” (Jews and Gentiles), “cleansing their hearts by trust [i.e. faith]” (the same way); and also verse 11, emphasizing that it is through a gift (or grace) that “we trust to be saved” in the same manner that they (the Gentiles) do. In the earlier narratives in Acts (chapters 10-11), Peter had already been forced to grapple with the issue of the Gentiles coming to Christ (the Cornelius episode, cf. in the series “The Speeches of Acts”), a fact that he references to in vv. 7-8 here.
  • Galatians 1:18—Paul narrates that, several years following his conversion, he visited Jerusalem “to see” (i(storh=sai) Peter (Kefa, the original Aramaic translated by Pe/tro$/Peter, “Rock”). The verb i(store/w has the basic meaning “to gain knowledge/information” from someone; it can be used generally in the sense of “become acquainted with [i.e. get to know] someone”, but here we should probably understand that Paul visited Peter for the purpose of gaining information (such as Jesus traditions, i.e. sayings by the historical Jesus). We should probably infer this, in spite of Paul’s careful claim in v. 17 that he did not consult with anyone in Jerusalem prior to beginning his missionary work. Paul remained with Peter fifteen days, and the two men presumably would have formed some degree of mutual understanding and friendship as a result.
  • Galatians 2:1-10—Most scholars hold that Paul here is describing essentially the same Jerusalem meeting narrated in Acts 15 (above). Whether or not this is so, apparently the meeting ended with an agreement in place, recognizing that Paul was a legitimate missionary (apostle) to the Gentiles, just as Peter was for the Jews (v. 7-9). However, while the episode may have ended harmoniously, to some degree, there is considerable tension in the way Paul tells the story, especially the manner in which he repeatedly refers to the leaders of the Jerusalem Church (including James, Peter, and John) as “the ones thought/considered to be (something)” (cf. esp. verse 6)—on this, see the previous note.
  • Galatians 2:11-12—Even though Paul is describing opposition between himself and Peter in vv. 11-14ff, the context implies that previously they had been on good (or at least better) terms. Prior to the arrival of “men from James”, Peter, it would seem, had been spending time and working (harmoniously with Paul) among the Gentile believers in Antioch.
  • 2 Peter 3:15-16—The author of the epistle (indicated as Peter, 1:1) refers to Paul as “our beloved brother”, mentioning his “wisdom” and the letters (epistles) which he has written (apparently regarding these as authoritative Scripture). However, it should be noted that many commentators (including most critical scholars) believe that 2 Peter is pseudonymous, having been written some time later, after Peter’s death. Even if one were to accept the critical view, it would still be an indication of Peter and Paul being brought together in a positive, unifying manner, in early tradition.

According to Christian tradition, Peter and Paul were both put to death in Rome as martyrs for the faith. Their martyrdom is hinted at, though nowhere specified, in the New Testament—for Peter cf. John 21:18-19; for Paul cf. Acts 20:22-38; 2 Tim 4:6-8. As for the association with Rome, at the end of the book of Acts, Paul is under house arrest in the imperial city, though there is some evidence (in Scripture and tradition) that he may have been released (only to be arrested later a second time). According to 1 Pet 5:13, Peter would seem to be in “Babylon”, often thought to be a code (or cipher) in the New Testament for Rome and the Roman Empire. There is some question among scholars as to whether Peter actually was in Rome, but there can be no doubt that, by the late-first and early-second century, there was a well-established tradition associating both apostles with the imperial city. This is specified in Clement’s epistle (from the Roman church) to the Corinthians (1 Clement 5)—where mention is also made of their martyrdom—and in Ignatius of Antioch’s letter to the church of Rome (Rom 4:3).

Eusebius, writing in the early 4th century, mentions Peter’s presence in Rome (Church History II.14-15) but gives us scant information about it; the tradition that he followed after Simon Magus is not especially reliable (see the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies for similar traditions, cf. the previous note). In II.25, Eusebius records that both Peter and Paul were put to death during the persecution of Christians under Nero—Paul having been beheaded, Peter crucified—though for earlier witnesses to this he cites only the presbyter Gaius (as to their memorials on the Ostian Way) and a letter from Dionysius bishop of Corinth (a general notice). In III.1, mention is made again of their martyrdom in Rome, along with the detail that Peter was crucified upside down at his own request. The Liberian catalog (list of Popes) from 354 A.D. records the deposition of the remains of Peter and Paul in the middle of the 3rd century.

Peter and Paul, joined together, proved to be a popular image of Christian unity and solidarity, especially within the Roman Catholic tradition. In Rome and its environs, a multitude of churches and monuments have been constructed over the centuries, most notably the great basilicas of St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s. Also in the visual arts of the Medieval and Renaissance period—in both Western and Eastern tradition—Petrine and Pauline images and themes often appear together. An especially noble and poignant motif is that of Peter and Paul standing together, or embracing, as below (and in the Note of the Day header above).


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