Peter was the most prominent of the Twelve Apostles, listed first in the
Gospels, and traditionally the first bishop of Rome. His original name was
Simon, but Jesus gave him the nickname Cephas [Aramaic, = rock],
which was translated into Greek as Petros [Gr. petra = rock].
Peter was a native of Bethsaida and the brother of St. Andrew; he was
married. He and Andrew, both fishermen, were called by Jesus to be
disciples at the same time as James and John, the sons of Zebedee. There
are several feasts of St. Peter in the West: St. Peter and St. Paul, June
29; the Chair of St. Peter, Apostle, Feb. 22; and St. Peter in Chains,
Aug. 1. A second feast commemorating the Chair of St. Peter (i.e., his
episcopal throne) was celebrated on Jan. 18 until abolished in 1960.
Peter appears throughout the Gospels as leader and spokesman of the
disciples, and Jesus most often addressed him when speaking to them. His
honored position comes out most clearly in two high points of Jesusí
ministryówhen Peter confessed Jesus to be the Christ and was told ďUpon
this rock I will build my churchĒ; and when he, together with James and
John, was chosen to see the Transfiguration. After the Last Supper he,
again with James and John, witnessed Jesusí agony in Gethsemane. When
Jesus was betrayed, Peter drew his sword to defend him, but denied him
later in the same night, as Jesus had predicted he would.
After the Resurrection, Jesus appeared by the Sea of Galilee and
charged Peter to "feed my sheep". The first chapters of the Acts
of the Apostles describe Peterís role as leader of the Twelve in the
election of a replacement for Judas and in the public declaration at
Pentecost. Much attention is given to Peterís miracles and to his
defense of Christianity; his deliverance from prison by an angel is a
celebrated incident. He was a leader at the council of Jerusalem that was
called to discuss the integration of non-Jews into the Christian
organization; his hesitation to accept them freely was rebuked by St.
Paul. A few facts of St. Peterís life are known from 2d-century sources.
He apparently left Antioch for Rome A.D. 55; there he died, head of the
local church, a martyr under Nero. According to traditional accounts he
was crucified with his head downward. From earliest times the Vatican hill
has been pointed out as the place of his martyrdom. Constantine erected a
church over the supposed burial place of Peter; in the 15th cent. work was
begun on a new, huge St. Peterís Church, built on the same location. It
is the principal shrine of Roman Catholicism. Excavation has yielded
remains of human bones at the site, but they cannot be identified as those
of St. Peter. There is a very ancient tradition, accepted by many
scholars, that the Gospel of Mark was written with St. Peterís help and
that it consists essentially of his memoirs. The epistles of Peter (see
Peter, epistles) are regarded by most critics as mistakenly attributed.
From earliest times Christians looked for leadership to the successors
of Peter as the bishop of Rome. However, whether this primacy should be
one of honor only (as held by the Orthodox Eastern Church) or of actual
rulership of the whole church (as claimed by Roman Catholics) is one of
the dividing questions of Christian history.