The Apostle Peter: Damned Apostate?
In his most recent book, seasoned and respected New Testament scholar, Robert H. Gundry, presents the bold thesis that the Gospel of Matthew presents the Apostle Peter as an apostate who is irredeemably damned: Peter: False Disciple and Apostate according to Saint Matthew (Eerdmans, 2015; publisher’s online description here).
Most readers of Matthew by far (to put it mildly) have judged that the text presents Peter prominently and, largely, favourably. Indeed, Matthew 16:13-20 has typically been seen as bestowing upon Peter a particularly positive significance and role. In Roman Catholic tradition, this text has been proffered as a biblical basis for the primacy of Peter and, by extension, the Pope as Peter’s successor.
Protestants, on the other hand, have tended to see the “rock” upon which Jesus says he will build his church as Peter’s confession that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (v. 16). In influential studies by Protestant scholars such as Oscar Cullmann or Martin Hengel, however, the text is taken as giving Peter a leadership role that was confined to his own time, giving no direct basis for a direct “succession” in the Papal office.
For readers of any persuasion, however, the thesis advanced in Gundry’s book will come as something of a shock. Gundry insists that, just like Judas Iscariot, the Peter of the Gospel of Matthew is presented in a very negative light as a total and final failure. Other scholars might hesitate to defend such a view, given that it appears that no one previously in the 1900 years of reading of Matthew has advocated it. But Gundry is undeterred, giving scant quarter to any objection, and defending his thesis at every turn in the discussion.
His approach is first to examine every reference to Peter in Matthew in chapters 1-5, and then discuss places where he alleges that Matthew deliberately omitted reference to Peter (chapter 6). Then, Gundry sets this view of Peter in the context of Matthew’s well-known emphasis on true and false discipleship (chapter 7) and on persecution as a threat to disciples (chapter 8). In Gundry’s argument, Peter in Matthew is the prime example of the “tare” that is to be uprooted from the true plants, and is the poster-boy of the disciples who fail under opposition. A blog-posting doesn’t permit the space to engage Gundry’s discussion of all the many passages he addresses. Suffice it to say that in a good many instances his discussion fails to convince.
In method, Gundry’s analysis is a application of “redaction criticism,” in this case examining what are often very small differences in wording of passages shared with Mark in particular, thereby to contend that these differences signal an implicitly unfavourable picture of Peter. Gundry is relentless in pressing for a negative treatment of Peter in practically every one of the numerous texts discussed. So, for example, Matthew’s form of the angelic command to the women at Jesus’ empty tomb (28:7) has them sent to Jesus’ “disciples,” whereas Mark (16:7) has the women sent to “his disciples and to Peter.” Gundry contends that this omission of Peter reflects Matthew’s view of him as a failed disciple who isn’t among the disciples who are restored. If you’re already inclined to Gundry’s view, you could take this “omission” this way, I suppose. But if you require more overt evidence, Gundry’s claim will likely seem dubious, or at least requiring more basis.
Similarly, Gundry reads the reference to Peter as “first” in the list of the twelve apostles in Matthew 10:2 in light of the sayings elsewhere in Matthew that “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first” (19:30; cf. also 20:16). So, Gundry contends, Matthew’s reference to Peter as “first” isn’t positive, but is simply another hint that he is to be rejected.
But in this latter text isn’t it worth noting that Matthew specifically identifies Judas Iscariot as the one who handed Jesus over (10:4), with no equivalent statement about Peter. So, if Matthew similarly wanted to make Peter an apostate, why didn’t he make it as explicit? Why all the supposedly veiled and subtle character assassination that Gundry has to explain for us in this passage and others, and that has eluded previous readers for so long, when it is clear that the author of Matthew knew how to label someone overtly as a “baddy” when he wanted to do so? One might even judge that, if Gundry is correct, the author of Matthew is one of the most spectacularly misunderstood and unsuccessful authors of all time.
Again, Matthew 16:13-23 is obviously the crucial text for any view of Peter in Matthew. Uniquely, Matthew seems to most readers to have Jesus congratulate Peter over the divine revelation given to him about Jesus (v. 17). Gundry, however, strives to to downplay this by urging that Jesus’ statement is a criticism of Peter, that he required divine revelation. But how is “makarios” (“blessed”) a rebuke? In the same passage Peter is also personally given “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” and authority to “bind” and “loose” upon the earth (v. 18, note the second-person singulars in these statements). Gundry attempts to sidestep this by erroneously claiming that the Matthean “Great Commission” (28:16-20) extends this binding/loosing authority to “all the other apostles . . . Judas Iscariot included.” Matthew 28:16, however, refers to the “eleven” as given the Great Commission, reflecting Judas’ prior betrayal and suicide (27:3-10), and so implicitly including Peter among those remaining apostles who are restored and given the Commission.
But the only potential difficulty with his thesis that Gundry seems to grant is the early tradition that Peter suffered martyrdom as a follower of Jesus in the 60s. This leads Gundry to propose that Matthew was written “prior to the mid-60s” (101). If, as most scholars hold, Matthew knew and used Mark, this would require an astonishingly early date for the latter, yet there is no reference to this matter. This could seem a classic example of allowing a hypothesis that itself requires substantiation to serve as a basis for a major reconstruction of the literary history of these writings. As I say, “bold” if nothing else!
But surely the potential problem with Matthew supposedly constructing a picture of Peter as an irredeemably damned apostate didn’t commence with his martyrdom. By all indications, Peter had acquired a widely-known stature as a leader in the young Jesus-movement much earlier than that. For example, Paul’s oft-cited statement that he spent a fortnight with “Kephas”(a.k.a. Peter) only a few years after the revelatory experience that changed him from opponent to proponent of the gospel about Jesus (Galatians 1:18) surely reflects Peter’s early and wide recognition as a prominent figure, as do the other references to Peter in this epistle.
So, how did the odd notion supposedly occur to the author of Matthew that it was credible, useful and appropriate to portray Peter (albeit implicitly) as a damned apostate? To be sure, the Gospel of Mark presents Peter as collapsing in shameful denial (14:66-72), contrasting this with Jesus’ exemplary steadfastness in the interrogation by the temple authorities (14:55-65). Matthew (26:69-75) follows Mark’s lead, echoing the scene where Peter denies Jesus in the courtyard, while Jesus is arraigned. In Mark and Matthew, Peter’s failure functions as a stark warning for the original readers who might face arraignment for their faith. Moreover, Mark (14:26-31) and Matthew as well (26:30-35) present Peter’s collapse, and the failure of the other apostles, as foretold by Jesus. But both writers (including Matthew, at least to most readers) also picture the failed apostles, except for Judas Iscariot, as restored collectively in encounters with the risen Jesus.
In short, it was apparently “safe” for these authors to portray the failure of the apostles because they were restored. And it was safe to portray in such explicit terms Peter’s failure in particular because he was well known as having been included among those to whom the risen Jesus appeared, and so among those charged with leadership in the Jesus-movement. That is, a portrayal of Peter’s failure wouldn’t have been taken as the last word about him. And to judge from Matthew’s “reception history,” that is how it was understood from as far back as we have any evidence.
Gundry urges “an unblinking exegesis of the Petrine passages in Matthew” to “overcome interpretive and ecclesiastical traditions and the attractiveness of a Peter who offers us a mirror image of our flawed but redeemable selves” (108). Who could object to “unblinking exegesis”? But, in fact, as clearly is the case at every point in Gundry’s discussion, his thesis requires him to make judgements and posit things that aren’t actually explicit. That is, he has to urge an interpretation, an inference, in every instance. And much more is required, in my view, to make plausible the inferences that he urges. For, as I’ve indicated, the favourable “ecclesiastical traditions” about Peter actually seem to have begun quite early, and spread quite quickly and widely. So, I repeat: Under what plausible circumstances would the author of Matthew have hoped to make credible a picture of Peter as a damned apostate? Gundry’s very brief register of what he calls “possibilities” (102-3) hardly suffices.
It is interesting that among the assumptions that Gundry itemizes as undergirding his study, there is no reference to the kind of readers to whom Matthew was likely directed, who they likely were and what their previous knowledge about Peter may have been. Granted, initially, they may have been (as he urges) “first-time auditors” of Matthew; but it is most unlikely that they didn’t already have a view of Peter as a prominent figure and early leader in the Jesus-movement. That is, these “first-time auditors” likely knew very well that Peter wasn’t in fact a failed apostate. So, how could Matthew have hoped for any “traction” with such a picture of him?
Also, given that Judas Iscariot explicitly serves in the Gospels as the iconic failed disciple, the unredeemed apostate, what further need was there for Peter to model this fate? It would seem a bit redundant! Moreover, is there any confirmatory evidence of some party in the early Jesus-movement that had it in for Peter, and so would have welcomed trashing him in this manner? None that I know of.
In sum, despite the vigor with which Gundry argues his case, I find that it lacks in historical plausibility and proceeds too heavily on debatable inferences. Gundry seems to me to impute into the treatment of Peter in Matthew an intent that is, to put it gently, hardly obvious. For a recent and wide-ranging collection of studies on Peter, the following: Peter in Early Christianity, eds. Helen K. Bond & Larry W. Hurtado (Eerdmans, 2015; publisher’s online description here).
 Oscar Cullmann, Peter: Disciple-Apostle-Martyr. A Historical and Theological Study, 2nd ed.,trans. F. V. Filson (London: SCM, 1962); Martin Hengel, Saint Peter: The Underestimated Apostle, trans. Thomas H. Trapp (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010).