What happened to St. Peter? The short answer is that we don’t know. The long answer is more interesting. It is precisely the lack of authoritative information about St. Peter that enabled later Christians to develop competing legends about the final years of his life. In some cases, these differences are quite surprising, especially for modern readers used to associating St. Peter with the Roman Catholic Church and the Papacy. But not all of the ancient stories about St. Peter place him in Rome.
Why is there such an important discrepancy? And what, exactly, does the Orthodox Church teach about his final years? The last biographical mention of St. Peter in the New Testament occurs in the Acts of the Apostles (15). This chapter places St. Peter at a meeting of the disciples in Jerusalem. For biographers, there’s not much else to go on. Two ancient letters (1st and 2nd Peter), attributed to the Apostle, offer no information about him apart from a vague reference that sends greetings from “Babylon.”
The earliest written accounts of St. Peter’s post-biblical activity, known as “apocrypha,” date to the late second century A.D. Many of these stories are elaborate tales in which St. Peter is a heroic protagonist. Among the oldest surviving references to St. Peter in this material is a story that he traveled to Rome in order to combat the false teaching of a sorcerer named Simon. That story builds on material known from earlier writers. In Acts 8, for example, St. Peter had rebuked a man named Simon for trying to purchase the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Interestingly, Simon will reappear in almost every apocryphal account of Peter’s activities as a kind of arch-nemesis.
The Martyrdom of Peter and the Acts of Peter are apocryphal texts that exemplify this kind of dramatic encounter with Simon. In both accounts, St. Peter and Simon trade supernatural blows. In some versions, Simon dies and St. Peter’s demonstration of power leads to widespread conversion. Some writers place this quasi-duel in Rome. Then, they proceed to narrate St. Peter’s martyrdom there. In one account, St. Peter is killed by a group of angry Roman landowners because the saint has convinced their wives to adopt celibacy.
What is equally remarkable, though, is that not all of the ancient stories place St. Peter in the city of Rome. An alternate view is provided by a collection of texts known as the Pseudo-Clementines. These texts were written in Palestine by a variety of authors in the fourth century A.D. The collection contains homilies, supposedly preached by Peter; a treatise; and two letters. In all but one of the letters, the disparate writers see Jerusalem—not Rome—as the center of the Christian world. The texts themselves deal exclusively with the churches of Palestine and Syria.
For many of the same reasons that the Roman church would eventually emphasize the connections between St. Peter, Rome, and the Roman church, so too these other documents, the Pseudo-Clementines, emphasize St. Peter’s role in the foundation narratives of many Syrian and Palestinian communities. None of these apocryphal texts describe St. Peter as a bishop. Only a very few, moreover, describe him as having any relationship to the episcopal structure of Rome.
To be sure, there are some other second and third century sources (anti-heretical writings and letters) that do link Peter to the episcopal structure of the Roman Church. But it is important to emphasize that there was no single authoritative teaching in the Orthodox Church about what happened to St. Peter when he drops out of the historical narrative of the Book of Acts. We should not confuse legends and apocrypha with theological belief.
So where does this leave us? How does the Orthodox Christian reconcile the conflicting accounts of the end of St. Peter’s life that have circulated so widely? The answer lies in our hymnography. It is there, in the experience of communal worship, that Church offers its most authoritative means for communicating the significance of St. Peter’s life. And it is telling that the hymns of the Church provide no biographical information about St. Peter that is not contained in the New Testament. Indeed, for all of the hymns that the Church developed over the centuries, not a single one situates St. Peter in a historic space. For Orthodox Christians, the Liturgical commemoration of St. Peter is a celebration of his faith, his leadership, and—most significantly—his repentance.
George E Demacopoulos, Author of The Invention of Peter: Apostolic Discourse and Papal Authority in Late Antiquity (University of Pennsylvania Press). Director and Co-Founder, Orthodox Christian Studies Center, Fordham University. @GDemacopoulos