Glossary of Terms



Young People's Bible Dictionary

by Barbara Smith (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1965)

Peter; also Simon; Simon Peter; Cephas. One of the twelve disciples* of Jesus -- the most outstanding one, and a leader in the early church. Matt. 4:18-20; 16:16; Mark 14:54, 66-72; Luke 18:28; John 1:41-42; 18:10; Acts, chs. 2; 3; 9:32 to 11:18; Gal. 2:7-19.

Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

Peter, one of Jesus’ twelve disciples*. Originally named Simon, Peter was a Galilean fisherman (Mark 1:16; Luke 5:2; John 21:3), the son of John (Matt. 16:17; John 1:42; 21:15-17) and brother of Andrew. According to a tradition preserved in John 1:35-43, the brothers came from the village of Bethsaida (John 1:43; 12:21) and had been disciples of John the Baptist before they became disciples of Jesus. Peter was married (Mark 1:29-31; 1 Cor. 9:5). He is said to have owned a house in Capernaum (Mark 1:29). The traditional site of ‘Peter’s house’ has been excavated, though most of the structure on the site is from a later period.

The name ‘Peter’ is the Greek word for ‘rock’ (petra) and translates an Aramaic nickname (CephaÕ) that also means ‘rock.’ The Greek rendering of the Aramaic name, Cephas, is also used for Peter in the nt (John 1:42; 1 Cor. 1:12; 3:22; 9:5; 15:5; Gal. 1:18; 2:9, 11, 14). Peter’s emergence as a leader among Jesus’ disciples is reflected in the story found in Matt. 16:18-19 that Jesus bestowed the nickname ‘rock’ on Simon as a sign of his future role as upholder and interpreter of the traditions established by Jesus.

Calling: All of the Gospel traditions place Peter among the first disciples to be called, frequently along with his brother Andrew and the sons of Zebedee (cf. Mark 1:16-20; Matt. 4:18-22; in John 1:40-42 Peter is summoned by Andrew and given his ‘name’ as part of his calling). Luke 5:1-11 preserves a longer, independent story about the calling of Peter and the sons of Zebedee, which may be related to the Johannine tradition in which the risen Jesus calls the disciples away from their fishing (John 21:1-11). In its present form, this story exemplifies the ideal response to the call for discipleship. Confronted with Jesus’ divine power evident in the large catch, Peter confessed his own sinfulness (Luke 5:6-8). When summoned to change his life and become a ‘fisher of human beings,’ Peter and his companions left everything in order to follow Jesus (vv. 9-11). Peter’s possessions were always at Jesus’ disposal. Jesus stayed at Peter’s house at Capernaum, where he is said to have healed Peter’s mother-in-law (Mark 1:29-31; Matt. 8:14-15; Luke 4:38-39). He used Peter’s boat as a place from which to speak to the crowd (Luke 5:1-3). Matt. 14:28-33 recounts a story of Peter’s attempt to walk on water as instruction to the church that it must learn to have faith in Jesus’ power during its own ‘troubled times.’ Behind this story, we also see the somewhat rash and impetuous Peter who appears in all the stories handed down about him. In John 21:7, as soon as Peter hears that the Lord is on the shore, he throws on his clothes and jumps into the water.

Role as Leading Disciple: Peter is credited with being a leader among the disciples during Jesus’ ministry. Frequently, he was their spokesman. His name always occurs first in lists of the disciples (Mark 3:16; Luke 16:14; Matt. 10:2; in Matthew ‘first’ is added to Peter’s name). Along with James and John, he is singled out for special revelations of Jesus’ divinity (Mark 5:37; Luke 8:51, the healing of Jairus’ daughter; Mark 9:2; Matt. 17:1; Luke 9:28, the transfiguration). He is singled out as a spokesman for the disciples in three ways: first, he is credited with special insight into Jesus’ identity as God’s Messiah (Mark 8:29; Luke 9:20; Matt. 16:16-17; in Matthew Jesus responds with a beatitude proclaiming that Peter’s insight is a revelation of God). Second, he voices views that represent opinions of ‘the world,’ views that are rejected, as in his opposition to Jesus’ prediction that it is his messianic role to suffer and die (Mark 8:31-33; Matt. 16:22-23; in keeping with his policy of omitting episodes that place Jesus’ disciples in an unfavorable light, Luke omits the story of Jesus rebuking Peter). Finally, Peter requests information, as in the question to Jesus about the reward for those who have ‘left all’ to follow him (Mark 10:28; Matt. 19:27; Luke 18:28).

Peter’s role as spokesman is expanded in the special material from which Matthew drew the information about Peter in his Gospel. As the one who is to function as a ‘Christian rabbi,’ interpreting the traditions of Jesus, Peter must have special understanding of that teaching. He is the one who requests clarification about the saying by which Jesus declared ‘all things clean’ (Matt. 15:15; in Mark 7:17 it is simply ‘the disciples’ who ask). In Acts 10:9-16 God reveals to Peter in a heavenly vision that ‘all things are clean’ and thus paves the way for Peter to baptize the first Gentiles. Peter deals with the authorities on the question of paying the Temple tax and then receives further instruction from Jesus, who significantly provides for both himself and Peter (Matt. 17:24-27). Peter also receives special instruction on forgiveness within the Christian community (Matt. 18:21-22). In the Johannine tradition there is a variant of Peter’s confession of Jesus: when others have deserted Jesus, Peter confesses Jesus as ‘the Holy One of God’ who has the words of eternal life (John 6:68-69). The impetuous Peter, acting as a ‘proper disciple,’ misunderstands the gesture of footwashing (John 13:1-10) and elicits information about the meaning of what Jesus has done. Peter is also the one who asks about the identity of Jesus’ betrayer (John 13:24-25).

All the Gospels agree that Peter had impetuously promised that he would follow Jesus even to death, only to be answered with Jesus’ prophecy that he would in fact deny him (Mark 14:29-31; Luke 22:33-34; Matt. 26:33-35; John 13:37-38). The accounts of Jesus’ Passion then contain scenes in which Peter denies being one of Jesus’ disciples (Mark 14:53-72 and parallels) interlocked with the scenes of Jesus being interrogated by the Jewish authorities. Peter’s denial provides a foil for Jesus’ faithfulness.

Luke 22:31-32 ‘rehabilitates’ Peter through Jesus’ prayer that ‘your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.’ In John 21:15-17 the risen Jesus elicits a threefold protestation of love, corresponding to the threefold denial, from Peter before commissioning him to feed Jesus’ sheep. These passages suggest that Peter’s leadership among the disciples in the post-Easter church was based on his having been the first disciple to see the risen Lord (e.g., Luke 24:34; Mark 16:7?). Our earliest testimony to the resurrection, the creedal passage in 1 Cor. 15:3-5, places an appearance to Peter before all the others. It may also have been the occasion for a reassembling of the disciples who had scattered at the time of Jesus’ arrest. However, none of the Gospel narratives recounts the circumstances of such an appearance.

Mission: Paul tells us that Peter was one of the leaders of the Jerusalem community he went to ‘visit’ two or three years after his conversion (Gal. 1:18-19). Paul’s own rhetorical agenda in Galatians would keep him from ascribing any ‘official’ purpose to the visit. However, many scholars think that at this time Paul’s gospel and mission were subject to some authority from the Jerusalem community. The overall picture of Peter as one of the chief leaders responsible for an expanding Christian mission, first to Jews, then to interested Gentiles, is confirmed by the picture of Peter in Acts 1-15. Peter may, indeed, as Acts 10-11 suggests, have been responsible for some form of compromise by which Gentiles were considered ‘clean’ and acceptable members of the Christian community. The story of Stephen, the ‘Hellenists,’ and their mission in Acts 6-8 suggests that there were different forms of preaching to the Gentiles. The ‘Hellenists’ preached a rejection of Jewish cult and Mosaic authority considerably more radical than that of other Christians, including Peter. Acts 8:14-17 brings this independent Samaritan mission under the aegis of the Jerusalem church by having Peter and John confer the Spirit on the converts. The dispute at the Jerusalem council over whether circumcision is to be required of Christians showed that Peter’s support of a circumcision-free mission was not enough to decide the practice of the whole church (Gal. 2:1-10; Acts 15:1-29). It appears from the account in Acts 15 that leadership of the church in Jerusalem had passed over to James (esp. vv. 13-21).

Although Gal. 2:7-8 speaks of Peter as missionary ‘to the circumcised,’ he appears also to have converted Gentiles (Acts 10; 11:1-18). Castigating Peter for encouraging Jewish Christians at Antioch to separate from their Gentile brothers and sisters lest visiting Jewish Christians be scandalized by associating with Gentiles, Paul admits that Peter, himself, was willing to ‘live like a Gentile’ (Gal. 2:11-14). Peter’s attitude of compromising with the visitors may have won out, since Paul leaves Antioch at about this time (Acts 15:36-41 gives a different reason for Paul’s departure, however). Peter’s influence at Antioch is reflected in the Petrine traditions of Matthew (e.g., 16:17-19), which may have originated there.

We have only very sketchy information about the rest of Peter’s missionary career (1 Cor. 9:5 mentions his traveling as a missionary). Peter enjoyed considerable prestige among the Corinthians, some of whom claimed special allegiance to him (1 Cor. 1:12; 3:22). Since only Paul and Apollos are explicitly mentioned as working in Corinth, some scholars argue that Peter had gained this reputation through persons he had converted elsewhere rather than having preached in Corinth. A letter from Rome, 1 Peter, is directed to churches in rural Asia Minor, reflecting Peter’s reputation there, even if, as some scholars think, he was not the author of that letter. These churches were predominately Gentile and were probably the fruit of Petrine missionary work in that area. (2 Peter, a much later writing, uses Petrine authority to counter rejection of Christian preaching about the Parousia that was in part based on false interpretations of Paul’s Letters.)

Death: We know that Peter died as a martyr in Rome (1 Pet. 5:1, 13; John 21:18-19; 1 Clem. 5:1-6:1). But we have no early traditions about how he came there, whether he ever served as ‘presbyter-bishop’ in Rome—a possibility that seems somewhat unlikely since apostles played a unique role superior to that of the supervisors of local churches—or what led to his martyrdom, perhaps under Nero in a.d. 64. Nor have archaeologists been convinced that excavations under St. Peter’s basilica in modern-day Vatican City have uncovered the remains of the apostle. Indeed, it may not have been possible to recover the body if Peter died in the arena during Nero’s persecution. Therefore, some scholars think that the original monument was a simple marker of the place where Peter died. Later development of a cult of saints and relics converted that monument into a ‘tomb’ of the apostle.

NOTE: To further explore Peter's role and life in the early church, browse "Part 2. An illustration of repeated need for correction of an early church leader" at


Topical index of terms
Edited for by Robert Nguyen Cramer
Top of page