Before Christ renamed him Kepha (Peter), his name was Simon, son of Jonah (or John). He ran a commercial fishing business in Bethsaida. Middle East commercial fishing boats in those days were relatively small. Usually 27 feet long or less with a crew of 5 to 16. Fishermen in the region of the Sea of Galilee fished with cast nets. Something still seen in modern times and involving a 20 foot circular net with weights attached to the periphery. Often, the fishermen would have to swim do to retrieve their nets and therefore fished naked. To this day, the Sea of Galilee is reknowned for its sardines. And at the height of fishing season, dozens of tons of sardines are caught nightly. Most likely, Peter was making a living catching sardines.
Because of the Levitical rules regarding seafood diet (Lev 11:9-12), the Jewish fishermen had to immediately sort their catch on shore. Rejecting unclean fish (i.e.: those without scales or fins, such as eels and catfish) and counting the clean fish meticulously so as not to be penalized by the Romans for evading taxes on their income.
From this point on, most of the fish were sent to Magdala on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee were they were preserved in salt and sold to merchants travelling to Rome.
Fishermen of that day and region had to be skilled as businessmen because without freezers onboard their vessels, they had to unload their catch to a buyer rather quickly. Because of the lucrative fishing trade surrounding the Sea of Galilee, Greeks, Romans, Phoenicians and Syrians swarmed through the fishing villages. So fishermen usually had to have a conversational grasp of at least Greek, if not Latin and Syro-Phoenician dialects. And the shear physical demands of hauling cast nets containing hundreds of pounds of live, struggling fish would have made them very well accustomed to hard work as well as no nonsense teamwork.
Peter would have been in his late twenties when Christ first met him on the shores of Galilee. Christ used this fisherman’s natural abilities to lead and guide the first Christian church. Peter and his brother Andrew were the first apostles called by Christ. They were then told to fish for men instead of fish.
Christ ordained Peter as an apostle. Peter is also classically believed to have been the chief of the apostles. The gospel of Mark is often regarded as the work of John Mark, Paul’s travel companion who later became Peter’s disciple and secretary. Therefore the Gospel of Mark is believed by some theologians to be the influence of Peter’s recollection and records of Christ’s ministry.
Peter was an impetuous man. One minute he was the bravest soul on the planet, single handedly taking on the Jewish guard squadron in the garden of Gethsemane, only to cower at the questions of a young girl only hours later. He boldly preached at Pentecost, overseeing approximately 3,000 conversions in one day and ignoring the threats of the Jewish religious leaders, only to be intimidated by regular Jews years later as the apostle Paul describes in his letter to the Galatians. Up and down. A man after my own heart! A lion and a hamster, all rolled into one. I certainly can identify with this man.
Peter spent the majority of his leadership years in Israel as leader of the Jewish Christian church.
There must have been tens of thousands of fishermen in Israel during the 1st Century A.D. Yet the most famous, by far, is one who retired very early, Peter the Apostle. Besides Christ, no religious position is more well known than the Papacy. A position supposedly created for Peter, and believed by catholics to be the highest possible human office.
Evangelical Christians seriously debate the reality or necessity of the Papacy. How important was Peter and his position as church leader? Does the bible tell us?
The debate between catholics who venerate Peter as the first Pope and evangelicals who call him chief apostle whose line ended with his death centers around the following verse in Matthew chapter 16:
“Now I say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it.” – Matthew 16:18
This statement by Jesus came on the heels of Peter’s decleration that Jesus was “the Christ.” The long awaited Jewish Messiah. As soon as Peter declared this, Jesus said “you are Peter.” The greek word for Peter is Πέτρος pronounced Petros. It is a word that means hand sized rock or pebble. Christ then immediately followed this by saying “and upon this rock I will build my church.” The greek word for rock in this passage is πέτρα pronounced petra. It means boulder, rocky ground or cliff edge. The difference between the two is significant, and Christ was making a strong visual contrast between the man Peter and the “rock” on which the Church would be built. Evangelicals believe that the rock on which Christ would build the church was people’s belief that He was the Messiah. Faith in the Christ. And Peter had just been the first to publicly declare Jesus to be the Christ. So evangelicals would advise people to read Matthew 16:18 as follows:
“you are Peter, and upon [the fact that I am the Christ] I will build my church”
Evangelicals will point to the totality of the New Testament and the teachings of the earliest church fathers to demonstrate that faith in Christ was THE cornerstone, or “petra” on which Christianity was founded. Not Peter or his “papacy.” Peter himself only wrote 3 of the 27 books of the New Testament (1 & 2 Peter, Jude) whereas Paul authored at least 13 (approximately 50% of the New Testament!) The New Testament’s historical records of the first Church is entitled the book of Acts. The main figure in Acts is Paul, not Peter. Acts’ description of the origin of foreign evangelism and the fashion in which Christianity went “global” shows Paul as the man who spearheaded the movement while Peter remained in Israel. So of all the men involved with early Christianity it is evident Paul is a better candidate than Peter for the title of “foundational rock.” A fact which presents another challenge to catholic assumptions as to the interpretation of Matthew 16:18.
Catholics argue that because Christ spoke Aramaic and not greek, we have to look at the Aramaic words, not the greek. The two Aramaic texts of Matthew, the Peshitta and Old Syriac texts, use “kepha” to refer to both Peter and the “rock” upon which Christ promised to build His Church. So in the original language that Christ spoke, He is recorded to have used no distinction between Peter and the “rock” upon which He would build His Church. The evangelical answer is that the earliest non-Aramaic versions (i.e.: koine and classical greek) do make a distinction. And that even in the Aramaic, the same word can be used to mean different things. In other words, Christ was making a play on words even though He did not use different words. Something obviously understood and picked up by the early transcriptions into greek. Which is why they use the flexibility of their language to say “petros” vs “petra.” Aramaic does not offer two words for rock, but the greek does. And because it has classically been understood that Christ WAS making a distinction, the earliest non Aramaic languages use different words to point this out.
Evangelicals will further argue that to point to this single verse and completely reverse the totality of Scripture is a gross violation of the principal of context. Verses need to be digested by looking at other verses. The more we read of the Old and New Testament, the more ludicrous it becomes to believe that after the entire Levitical priesthood and its labourious sacrificial system had been shadowing Christ the Perfect Sacrifice for over 1400 years, and that all the apostles (including Peter) wrote strictly about this Sacrifice as the sole salvation of men, that Christ was “sneaking in” a mere man as having major importance in the foundation of His Eternal Church. Peter’s confession of Jesus as the long awaited Christ is THE highlight of this portion of Matthew 16 and it immediately preceeds verse 18. “And upon this rock” is obviously Christ confirming Peter’s answer of two verses ago. And this confirmation of “faith in Christ” as THE Christian message follows perfectly what the entirety of Scripture declares, that upon CHRIST and Christ alone will God build the Church.
Church tradition is the only source of information on Peter’s later life. According to the Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, the early Christian writer Hegesippus recorded that Nero was planning to kill Peter in order to falsely blame and punish Christians for the Great Fire which had destroyed Rome. Peter’s disciples begged him to flee Rome and as Peter ran he was supposedly encountered by Christ. Shocked and in awe, Peter fell to his knees, asking what the Lord was about to do. To which Christ supposedly replied “I’ve come to be crucified again.” Christ was coming to accomplish what Peter was not willing to do. Peter than supposedly turned himself in and begged to be crucified upside down, feeling unworthy to die as Christ did.
What Can a Christian learn from Peter’s life?
Perhaps the greatest lesson we can learn through Peter is that Christ is long suffering and graceful. No doubt Christ’s heart ached to see Peter falling asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane. No doubt it wounded Christ to see His chief apostle abandon Him when the Romans and Jews began to beat and execute Him. Yet Christ pursued Peter after the Resurrection and restored him to leader of the early Church. It is better to be passionate than passionless. Yet our zeal should be tempered with knowledge. Because our flesh can be used to courageously act for God. But then it will turn around and betray us at the crucial moment. We are to run our sanctification and evangelism on the Spirit’s power, not that of our own strength.