Jesus's twelve companions were instrumental in spreading his teachings and the Christian religion after his death.
Last updated 2011-06-21
Jesus's twelve companions were instrumental in spreading his teachings and the Christian religion after his death.
Nobody knows for sure just how long Jesus' ministry, teaching and travelling throughout the Holy Land, lasted. Some say three years, others as little as one. That Christianity grew, after such a brief inception, into the world religion we know to today is testimony to the power of the message Jesus preached. But it is also due to a much simpler and often over-looked fact. He had more than a little help from his friends.
Jesus chose his closest followers very carefully. He needed people he could trust to send out his message and to continue the work when he was no longer around to lead the nascent Christian movement. They were Jesus' most familiar allies and companions, but what do we really know about the lives and personalities of the twelve disciples?
We know that Jesus recruited from the community he grew up in, an environment with a simple but mixed economy where jobs were specialised and survival was all-important. At least four of the disciples, James, brothers Peter and Andrew and John, were fisherman whose livelihood consisted of taking their boats out onto Lake Galilee to catch fish such as sardine and carp. It could be a hard existence at times. They may have had to take out loans to pay for equipment and had to hand over much of their catch in taxes to the Roman authorities who held considerable political and economic power over the entire region.
The paying of taxes may well have been a source of tension between the fishermen and the local individuals the Romans employed to perform the unenviable, but highly lucrative, job of collecting the taxes. By choosing one such tax collector, Matthew, as part of his close following, Jesus may have brought together a volatile combination of forces. Matthew's fellow disciples would have had to wrestle with difficult emotions when dealing with someone they would have been accustomed to treating with suspicion.
They may well have been other factors to upset the group dynamics of Jesus' team. The brothers James and John, also known as the 'sons of thunder', appear, according to the biblical account, to have had short, even violent, tempers. They also coveted the idea of being Jesus' deputies, which could have provoked disquiet amongst the other disciples.
Despite all the potential problems they faced, somehow the Jesus movement managed to pull together in the same direction. They were sent off, probably in small groups, to preach and to perform, on a smaller scale, many of the miraculous things Jesus did. They healed people of physical and psychological illness, perhaps utilising the reputation of their remarkable leader to gain the acceptance and belief of converts.
They suffered great hardships and dangers in a region controlled by Roman authorities, who had a nasty habit of brutally snuffing out political rebellions and messianic movements. They would have left the comfort of their family homes to hit the road, often sleeping rough and relying on the hospitality of locals for food and shelter. Travelling from village to village in Galilee and beyond to Jerusalem, they may have encountered bandits on solitary mountain tracks.
It was a difficult existence. There must have been arguments, jealousies and in-fighting along the way but the disciples were held together by the power of their charismatic and determined leader. They may not have always understood what his message was and their faith may have wavered at times but all of them, apart from the tragic case of Judas, stuck with him until his death.
After Jesus' crucifixion the disciples were left rudderless and disorientated but his appearance to them and the intensely motivating events of Pentecost rallied their spirits. From this point they found the strength to push forward with keeping Jesus' message alive carrying Christianity through the Near East and beyond. They may have started out as a modest group of everyday fisherman, local officials and artisans, but they went on to become the driving force, keeping alive a small religious movement which flowered into a world religion.
Peter is remembered by Christians as a saint; the fisherman who became the right-hand man of Jesus himself, the leader of the early church and a father of the faith. But how much of his fascinating story is true? How much do we know about the real Peter?
Of all the disciples that Jesus chose we know most about Peter. He is one of the most carefully described characters in the New Testament, and yet the picture we have is a composite from various authors at various times and there are still many things the Bible does not tell us. However, there are other sources of evidence now available that can take us closer than ever before to the historical Peter. Great insight can be drawn from modern science, archaeology and countless other ancient texts, many of which have only come to light recently having been lost for centuries.
The Bible tells us that Peter was a fisherman by trade and that he lived in the village of Capernaum on the shores of Lake Galilee. Early in three of the gospel accounts there is a story of Jesus healing Peter's mother-in-law, which clearly implies Peter had his own house and that it accommodated his extended family. All these details are historically plausible but recent archaeology has been able to support them with hard evidence.
Excavations in Capernaum have uncovered the remains of a synagogue and several houses, one of which could be the very house of Peter himself. The original structure is a series of rooms around a central courtyard, easily big enough for a large family. Scholars agree they may never know for certain if it is the home of the apostle but it is clear that the site was venerated very early on by Christian believers. The evidence shows that the family home became a public meeting place and several shrines were subsequently built on the site. Today a Catholic church stands over the ruins.
However, the house is not the only significant find in the area. In 1985 after several years of drought, the water level of Lake Galilee had dropped and one day two walkers saw a very distinctive shape in the mud. Archaeologists uncovered the remains of a boat, amazingly preserved since its use on the lake before the 1st century. The boat was partly made of expensive, imported wood and was so big that it would have needed at least 12 people to handle it. For the first time archaeologists had a precise idea of the type of boat Peter owned; the one that transported Jesus and his disciples.
Life was undoubtedly far from easy in first-century Galilee; the land was occupied by the Romans, taxes were high and labour was hard. However, both the house and the boat can help to dispel the romantic notion that Peter was a humble fisherman from a rural backwater. Galilee was in fact a strategic part of the Roman Empire and Capernaum and the surrounding settlements were centres of commerce where at least two languages were spoken. Could it be that Peter was not in fact a poor fisherman but a businessman with his own boat, hired help and a family to feed?
Whatever Peter's life was like before, it was turned upside down by Jesus. The story goes that Jesus called Peter to follow him and Peter did not hesitate; he left everything and embarked on an incredible journey of discovery. In fact one could say that Jesus altered his very identity, for it was Jesus that changed his name from Simon to Peter. This was a hugely significant nickname, for in every language other than English Peter means 'The Rock'. Jesus appointed Peter as the rock on which he would build his church but the character revealed in the gospels seems far from stable, so did Jesus really know what he was doing?
In many episodes throughout the gospel narratives we get a great insight into Peter's character.
One stormy night the disciples were battling against the waves as they crossed the lake. As dawn was breaking they saw Jesus coming out to them, walking on the water. They were terrified, thinking it was a ghost, but Peter asked Jesus to call him out onto the lake with him. Peter took a few steps towards Jesus on the water but fear and doubt then made him sink. Peter is remembered in this episode for his lack of faith but, as commentators point out, although he failed he was the only one to try.
On another occasion Jesus asks his disciples who they think he is, Peter is the one who says "You are the Messiah". In Matthew's account Jesus commends Peter's observation; it seems the penny has finally dropped! But just moments later Peter receives Jesus' sharpest rebuke "Get behind me Satan!" because he tries to dissuade Jesus from the path of suffering and death. Peter shows he does not fully understand the nature of Jesus' Messiahship. Throughout the gospel narratives Peter seems so near and yet so far from understanding Jesus' message and yet he is consistently portrayed not only as one of the chosen 12 but as one of Jesus' most intimate group of three or four.
Peter is the spokesperson for the disciples but frequently says the wrong thing at important moments. He is constantly asking questions and is not afraid to argue with Jesus. He is rash, impetuous and even foolish at times but he is never slow to pledge his absolute loyalty to his master. However, he was not to know how much this would be tested.
One night in Jerusalem, after Jesus asked his friends to pray with him in a garden, Peter fell asleep. Moments later, Judas arrived with a mob from the temple to arrest Jesus. In John's account Peter lashes out with a sword and cuts off the ear of High Priest's slave. This may have been the act of a man protecting his friend but if Jesus had been preaching peace, what was Peter doing carrying a sword? Peter got it wrong again. Jesus is arrested and the disciples scatter but Peter follows at a distance.
Earlier that same evening Jesus had predicted that Peter would deny him three times before the cock crowed. Peter was adamant that he would remain loyal. Now, as Jesus faced a sham of a trial, Peter stood in the shadows of the High Priest's courtyard and three different strangers recognised Peter and accused him of being one of Jesus' companions. Each time Peter denied it vehemently and just then, a cock crowed.
The cockerel became a defining symbol throughout centuries of Christian art and this episode became one of the most famous of Peter's story. Scholars believe that Peter would have reached hero status by the time the gospels were written and history has a tendency to write about its heroes in a good light. The fact that Peter's denial remained so foundational to the narratives underlines the authenticity of the whole story.
For Peter in that courtyard, it must have seemed like the end of the line. He had let his master down, Jesus was sentenced to death on a cross and the movement was over... but that was not the end of the story.
The gospels say that in the following days an incredible event took place. Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to his followers. The accounts differ as to what happened in those days but from the earliest sources Peter is listed as the first male witness to the resurrection. Whatever the precise nature of his encounter with the resurrected Jesus, the result was that Peter was transformed from a scared and dejected failure into the leader Jesus had predicted at the outset.
The opening chapters of the Acts of the Apostles show Peter working miracles, preaching boldly in the streets and in the temple and standing up fearlessly to those who had condemned Jesus just days before. The number of believers grows enormously and it is Peter who leads them with authority and wisdom as chief of the apostles.
From such unpromising beginnings it now seemed that Peter had indeed become the rock of the church but in actual fact his leadership was soon contested. Midway through Luke's account in the Acts of the Apostles it is clear that the man known as James the brother of Jesus, and not Peter, is leader in Jerusalem; a fact that is often overlooked by readers of the Bible. How or why Peter is superseded we are not told but scholars suggest James had a greater religious pedigree that gave him a better standing with the Temple authorities. Or perhaps, if James really was a relation of Jesus, it was only natural for him to succeed his brother. Whatever the reason, it is clear that Peter defers to James' authority.
Yet the power struggle was not just two-way; Paul was taking the message all over the Mediterranean and setting up churches wherever he went. It is clear that on one occasion Paul and Peter had a major disagreement and Paul calls Peter a hypocrite for siding with James. Peter seems to be caught between two extremes with sympathy for both; James believed that anyone who became a Christian must subscribe to the Jewish customs; Paul believed that no obstacles should be placed in the way of non-Jewish converts. It was an issue that could have split the fledgling church, perhaps it was Peter's stance that held the movement together.
Considering Peter's prominence in the Acts of the Apostles, it is remarkable that he completely disappears from the narrative halfway through. So what happened to Peter, where did he go and where did he die? There are a few clues from Paul's letters that he did travel and, interestingly, he did so with his wife. This has led some scholars to suggest that Peter ministered as part of a husband and wife team and that the role of women has been deliberately diminished over history. However, the details of Peter's later life cannot be found in the Bible: one must look elsewhere.
The word 'apocryphal' means 'hidden away' and is used to describe literature that contains similar material to the Bible but which was not included in the canon. Most of these writings were condemned by the church as heretical and dangerous but used in the right way they can give scholars a great insight into biblical characters and their environment.
Peter is mentioned in many of these ancient texts and they provide a great deal of support for the long-held tradition that Peter went to Rome. The Acts of Peter is a document that is first mentioned by the early church historians and from these clues scholars can establish that it was in circulation by the end of the 2nd century. It depicts Peter entering Rome after Paul had left and rescuing the church from the influence of one Simon the Magician. Simon is mentioned briefly in the New Testament and is almost certainly a historical character. In this account he is portrayed as Peter's arch-enemy. The two embark on an amazing miracle contest that culminates with Simon flying unaided through the air - but at the prayer of Peter, Simon is dropped and crashes to the ground, breaking his leg. Simon is defeated and the people turn back to Christianity.
Some believe this literature is merely pious fiction but others believe there is a skeleton of truth that is further support to the traditions of Peter in Rome. It is certainly plausible that Peter went to Rome; after all, it was the capital of the greatest empire the world had ever seen, so if the message took root there it would reach every corner of the known world.
However, although it may have been a strategic location, Rome was certainly not a safe place to preach a new message. Tradition has always maintained that Peter was martyred in Rome, crucified upside down so as not to be equated with his master. The written accounts of this event are detailed but relatively late. The strongest evidence lay unchecked for centuries, right under the noses of the Vatican.
The magnificent basilica that now stands in the centre of Vatican City was built to replace the original structure built by Constantine, the first Christian emperor. Constantine's basilica was a remarkable engineering feat: his men moved a million tonnes of earth in order to create a platform for the structure and yet there was a flat plot just yards away. Constantine went to such lengths because he believed that this was the very spot where Peter was buried, on the side of the Vatican Hill. This tradition remained strong throughout the ages but without concrete proof. Then in 1939 routine alterations under the floor of St Peter's unearthed an incredible find.
Archaeologists discovered a whole street of Roman mausoleums, highly decorated family tombs of both pagans and Christians dating to the early centuries AD. They asked for papal permission to dig towards the high altar and there they found a simple, shallow grave and some bones. It took years for these bones to be analysed and the anticipation grew but the results were bizarre and disappointing. The bones were a random collection consisting of remains from three different people and several animals! But this was not the end of the saga.
Years earlier, one of the Vatican officials overseeing the dig removed some bones from a niche above the grave for safe keeping after the team had gone home. Amazingly no one gave them a second thought until one of the experts asked whether there had ever been anything found in the niche. These bones were then analysed and the tests showed they were the remains of a man in his 60s or 70s and of stocky build. Yet perhaps even more revealing was the fragment of graffiti-covered plaster discovered next to the bones. The words were incomplete but could read petros emi, which means 'Peter is within'. It could be that the remains of Peter the apostle had finally been found.