The Primacy of Peter According to the New Testament and Historical Fulfillment


by R. E. Aguirre


The aim of this short paper is to review the importance and ecclesiological role that Peter plays in the New Testament. Coupled with this insight are numerous interpretive difficulties. However, these interpretive problems find their origin not in the clear testimony of the New Testament but rather in the theological presuppositions brought to the text by the reader. A way through this hermeneutical impasse is to consider how history via the Church’s general opinion concerning the Petrine text has unfolded, perfectly accomplishing the Scriptures.1

Primacy of Peter in the New Testament

In the Gospel accounts the distinction of Peter among the twelve Apostles is clear and unavoidable. He is the first disciple called by Jesus in Mark 1:16 and Matthew 4:18.3 Peter is always listed first in the “apostolic roll-calls.”4 Remarking on Matthew 10:2 and especially Matthew’s use of “πρωτος Σιμων,” W. C. Allen in the old standard on Matthew5 observes,

It can only mean that Peter was the most prominent amongst the members of the Apostolic band; cf. 16:17-19.6

Peter acts as the spokesman for the twelve.7 He is sometimes already seen in a representative/leadership role,8 frequently plays a unique role (though not always a perfect one9 in foundational ecclesial narratives.10 Peter’s role in the great foundational pericope (Matthew 16:13-19) of course in this regard cannot be underestimated.11 This serves as only the briefest account of Peter’s distinctive status as seen in the Gospels.

Nearly all New Testament surveys on the Gospels or monographs on their theologies (especially Matthew) would bear out the notability of Peter’s place in the narratives. It has been said that among the ancient Christians one could not tell an adequate story of Jesus’ life without mentioning Jesus’ use of Peter to draw out important lessons. In the book of Acts, a theological chronicle of the earliest events and history of the post-resurrection Church, Peter plays a prominent leadership role which would have been especially telling to those first century audiences.12 Peter is repeatedly seen as addressing the people13 and exercising the power to “bind and loose” which was given to him by Jesus as recorded in Matthew.14 Peter’s very shadow is seen to be able to heal the sick.15 Remarking on Acts 5:15 and the healing shadow of Peter, P. J. Gloag in the old standard work on Acts,16 states confidently,

It is evident that in the early part of the Acts and especially in this passage a preeminence is given to Peter. Here the other apostles sink into the shade and Peter is brought forward as working miracles, so much so that a miraculous virtue is ascribed…. We do not know how this preeminence can be denied; and certainly we must not permit ourselves, from dogmatic views on the subject, to attempt to explain it away. 

Similar to the Gospels, Peter is always listed first in the apostolic listings,17 and regularly seen playing unique rolls in the narrative of the early Church.18 Relating to Peter’s primary position in the listing of Acts 1:13, Joseph Fitzmyer in the prestigious Anchor Bible series19 comments,

Peter is not only the first Apostle named, but becomes in Acts the spokesman for the others. Even when he is paired with John, the latter is always the silent partner (1:15; 2:14, 38; 3:1, 3-4, 6, 11-12; 4:8, 13, 19; 5:3, 8-9, 15, 29;8:14, 20). Peter is the sole actor in 9:32-43; 10:5-46; 11:2-13 and delivers an important address as the Jerusalem “Council” (15:7). 

Such unambiguous details concerning Peter in the New Testament writings have led to the common view among the specialists over his captaincy of the early Church.20 All such statements however must be tempered with the fact that the New Testament knows no full blown teaching of “Petrine Papal Primacy,” in the manner in which it was later codified by Catholic dogmatic pronouncements.21 On the other hand, what is undeniable is that the NT evidence assumes some special role of Peter in the earliest primary sources. What has been explosive is how this material is interpreted.22

Principle of Historical Fulfillment

As I have stated above the purpose of this paper was not to give an in-depth defense23 of the Petrine Papal Office as such but simply to bear witness to its indisputable generation across the subsequent centuries as it unfolded beyond the times of the New Testament. This natural understanding and growth of the Church, through patient reflection of the Biblical texts, manifested itself brilliantly throughout the centuries. This awareness is the supreme fulfillment of the exercise of leadership in which Peter was the exemplar of in the New Testament.24

It is my view that the consistent Christian who takes the Word of God seriously cannot help but stand in awe at the way these types of texts were played out in later centuries. Such historical developments are a strong credit to the predictive powers of Jesus Christ our Lord and the illumination of God the Holy Spirit in the minds of the first Christian authors. It is a prime example of what Karl Adam called the “Messianic consciousness” of Christ. The pericope of Matthew 16 in interconnection with the person of Peter will eternally stand as a beacon of the principle of historical fulfillment. The predictive saying over the person of Mary in Luke 1:48 is another classic example. We can forever be stuck squabbling over the minutiae behind the Greek underlying these passages and miss the forest because of a few trees. Or we can stand back, take a deep breath and appreciate the wonderful forest that God has constructed over the course of His History.

I have called this historical unfolding of New Testament extracts the “principle of historical fulfillment.” In short what it entails is the idea that certain New Testament excerpts presuppose historical actualization. An example is Luke 1:48, a text in which we are assured that every generation thence forth will call Mary “blessed.” The historical issue in this is clear: how has history accomplished this prophecy? The answer could be found in any standard history of dogma which properly explains Mariology. The difference between this principle and the question of ‘development of doctrine’ is the fact that I am emphasizing simply the historical progress as it stands or how it has concretely unfolded. The exploration over whether this progress is valid or not (the question of development of doctrine) is another matter. I do not wish to enter into a discussion over the historical maturation of the Roman Papacy (or the question of its superiority over rival Christian claims, i.e., Protestantism) for this would take me far beyond the intended scope of this paper. The historical record is simple and speaks for itself; for the first thousand years of the Church’s existence the Roman Church gradually gained prominence mainly through the authoritative witness of the patristic fathers, Church Council’s and official pronouncements – all of which were in turn based on the Petrine texts of the New Testament. In the second millennium and beyond into the third, the single largest Christian body in the world (Roman Catholic) continues to hold to the dogma that the Petrine texts of the New Testament are best fulfilled in the office and person of the Bishop of Rome, i.e, the Pope. This is another example of the principle of historical fulfillment. []

For the sake of space and precision I will be concentrating on the data that is given about Peter in the Gospels and Acts, the principle works that highlight the growth (Acts) and the foundational teaching (Gospels) of the early Church. For an excellent yet critical discussion that exposes the presuppositions behind the usual line which argues that in John’s Gospel (in contrast to the Synoptics) Peter is viewed in a negative light when in fact John sees Peter as an intimate colleague of John and indeed its “inspirational founding member of the Johannine community” see Bradford B. Blaine, Peter in the Gospel of John: The Making of an Authentic Disciple (SBLAB; SBL, 2007). Also for a positive reading of Peter in the Fourth Gospel see R. Alan Culpepper, “Characters,” in Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel (Fortress, 1983). The cumulative weight for the special recognition of Peter thought the entire New Testament is undeniable; (Matthew) 4:18; 10:2; 14:28-29; 15:15-16; 16:16, 18, 22-23; 17:1, 4, 24, 26; 18:21; 19:27; 26:33, 35, 37, 40, 58, 69, 73, 75; (Mark) 1:16, 29; 36; 3:13-16; 5:37; 9:2; 10:28; 11:21; 13:3; 14:33; 16:1, 7; (Luke) 5:3-11; 6:14; 12:41; (John) 1:35-44; 6:68; 13:6-37; 18:10-27; 20:2-6; 21:2-21; (Acts) 1:13-15; 2:14-38; 3:1-12; 4:8-19; 5:3-29; 8:14-20; 9:32-43; 10:5-46; 11:2-13; 12:5-18; 15:7; Galatians 2:7; 1 Peter 1:1; 2 Peter 1:1). []

Protestant commentator John Nolland in the respected NIGTC series, The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Eerdmans, 2005), p. 179 notes on our text, “That Peter is the first called accords with the prominence he is given in the larger telling of Matthew’s story.” David L. Turner in the recent entry on Matthew in the Protestant Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), p. 136 comments with a keen eye on this text, “It is not coincidental that Peter is the first disciple who responds to the call of Jesus, since Peter is prominent throughout Matthew, especially in 16:13-28.” []

Mark 3:16; 14:33 etc; Matthew 17:1 etc; Luke 6:14 etc. []

Matthew (ICC; 1902), p. 100. []

A. Plummer, An Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Matthew (London: Paternoster, 1910) concurs, “He not only put Peter first, as all do, but he specifically calls him ‘first’ (πρωτος), which would be superfluous, if it did not mean more than first on the list. It indicates the preeminence of Peter.” (p. 147). D. A. Carson writing in the Matthew entry for the conservative Protestant series Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 1:237 is characteristically sagacious in noting here that ‘first’ “…probably does not simply mean “first on the list,” which would be a trifling comment…More likely it means primus inter pares (“first among equals”).” R. T. France in his excellent (Protestant) commentary on Matthew, The Gospel of Matthew (NICNT; Eerdmans, 2007), p. 378 opines on our verse, “In specifying that Peter is “first” Matthew reflects not only that he was the first to be called, but also his prominence throughout the story as leader of the group, which will be strongly underlined in 16:17-19.” Protestant scholar Michael J. Wilkins in The Concept of Disciple in Matthew’s Gospel: As Reflected in the Use of the Term Mathetes (SNT 59; Brill, 1989), pp. 201-02 states on our passage, “Almost all commentators agree that standing at the head of the list, πρωτος is redundant and superfluous unless it acts as a true adjective and describes Peter himself; i.e., gives him some kind of “first-place.” Wilkins goes on to cite as examples, Albright and Mann, Matthew, p. 117; Allen (which I cite above); A. B. Bruce, “Synoptic Gospels,” p. 158; Carson (which I cited above); Fenton, Matthew, p. 151-52; Grundmann, Matthaus, p. 287; Meier, Matthew, p. 104; Plummer (which I cite above); McNeile, Matthew, p. 131; Tasker, Matthew, p. 106. []

Mark 1:36; 16:1 etc. [ 

E.g. (Matt) 14:28; 15:15; 17:24 (where the tax collectors approach Peter alone for questioning, they understood well that he acted as representative for the Apostles when Jesus was absent); Matthew 18:21; 26:33 etc; Mark 9:2; 16:7 etc; (Lk) 5: 3- 11; 22:32; 24:34 etc; (Jn) 6:68; 10:11; 21:15-19 etc. []

Peter’s faults are well known and they are often manifest in these very critical verses which are meant to highlight his initiatory lead among the twelve (e.g., Mark 8:33; 9:2-13; Matthew 14:31; 16:23; John 13:6-11 etc). The reason for such disclosure is clear, namely to show that Peter is far from perfect (and to contrast Jesus’ perfection) as well as to juxtapose Peter’s weakness, timidity and misunderstanding (prior to Jesus’ resurrection) with his noticeable strength, courageousness and biblical expositions (post resurrection). []

Mark 8:27-30 etc; (Matt) 14:28-31; 16:17-19; 17:24; 27; etc; Luke 5:1-11 etc; John 1:41 (on Peter’s unique position in the early tradition via John 1:41 see Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Massachusetts: Henrickson, 2005), pp. 1:475-79; cf. John 13:6-11; 21:15-19 (on this pericope in John, Keener (2005), p. 2:1235 remarks, “Peter certainly remains one of the most prominent disciples throughout the Fourth Gospel…It also may provide a model for other church leaders (cf. 1 Peter 5:1-2).” For another excellent discussion of John 21 in correlation with Peter and his leadership role in the early Church see Michael Labahn, “Peter’s Rehabilitation (John 21:15-19) and the Adoptions of Sinners: Remembering Jesus and Relecturing John,” in John, Jesus and History, Volume 1: Critical Appraisals of Critical Views (SBL, 2007). Petrine leadership as the motif behind John 21:15-17 is ably summarized in “The Growth and Making of John 21,” in W. S. Vorster and J. E. Botha, Speaking of Jesus: Essays on Biblical Language, Gospel Narrative and the Historical Jesus (SNT; Brill, 1997). cf. G. S. Sloyan, John (Interp; John Knox, 2009), p. 230. []

For a brief article that summarizes (even Protestant) modern consensus on the “rock” of Matthew 16:18 as referring to Peter see R. E. Aguirre, “‘Πετροs’ in the Triple Tradition: Matthew 16:18 in Particular,” Paradoseis Journal 2 (2009). Of special note in this Matthean pericope are the “keys” given to Peter with the power to “bind and loose” which motif has a rich backdrop in the rabbinic literature for governmental powers. This power is also given to the college of the Apostles (Matthew 18:18). This corporate authority is beautifully carried out in Acts 15. Since I have explicated in the paper cited above the virtual unanimous consensus in NT scientific literature concerning the identification of the “rock” with Peter here I will only add the testimony of perhaps the most rigorous commentary to be written on Matthew to date, that of the triple volume entry in the new ICC series by W. D. Davies & D. C. Allison. After an excellent and comprehensive discussion surrounding nearly all the exegetical problems surrounding the pericope they conclude that the best view is that which associates “the rock” with Peter (ad loc). []

The entire first half of Acts (1-14) is dominated by the person of Peter plainly with a literary concern on the part of Luke to communicate Peter’s leadership. Consider Peter’s position from texts such as (Acts- 4:8; 5:29; 15:7). From ch 14 on Paul takes center stage with the equally clear literary purpose to transmit the spread of Christianity throughout the then known world. []

Acts 2 etc, which perspicuously involves his principal position in the early Church. []

Acts 5 ff. []

Acts 5:15. []

Acts (ICC; 1870), 1:181-182. Furthermore, contra those scholars (mostly Protestant) that deny that Peter’s shadow actually healed and was only the crowd’s misunderstanding and ignorant opinion that it could, Gloag argues that the Greek implies that Peter’s shadow actually effected healings and cites (Matthew 9:21-22; Acts 19:12) as examples where physical objects healed the crowds. But not all Protestant commentators deny the efficacy of Peter’s shadow, see F. F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), p. 109; G. Schneider, “επισκιαζω” EDNT. 34. []

Acts 3:1; 8:14; etc. []

Acts 1:15; 9:39 etc. []

The Acts of the Apostles: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New York: Doubleday, 1998), p. 214. []

The now classic collaborative effort (Protestant / Catholic) concerning the New Testament’s witness to Peter’s “primacy” is that of R. E. Brown, K. P. Donfried and John Reumann, eds., Peter in the New Testament (Minneapolis, 1973). For Catholic academic statements concerning Peter’s preeminence in the New Testament see Heinrich Fries, Fundamental Theology (Catholic University of America Press, 1996); Pheme Perkins, Peter: Apostle for the Whole Church (T&T Clark, 2000); Rudolf Schnackenburg, The Gospel of Matthew (Eerdmans, 2002); Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew (Sac Pag; Michael Glazier Books, 2007); for Protestant evaluations which conclude for Peter’s special role among the Apostles see O. Cullmann, “πετρα,” “Πετρος,” TDNT; S. J. Grenz, Revisioning Evangelical Theology: A Fresh Agenda for the 21st Century (IVP, 1993), p. 178; J. D. G. Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit: A Study of the Religious and Charismatic Experience of Jesus and the First Christians as Reflected in the New Testament (Eerdmans, 1997), p. 125 ff. are but a few examples. []

This is not to say that such historical developments were erroneous but that the New Testament writings were not written to prove a full feathered doctrine of Petrine Papacy. Such a concept came in time and with the Spirit’s guidance in God’s people, reflected already in seed form in the New Testament and fully realized through the centuries. For a good succinct discussion of these issues see Daniel J. Harrington, The Church According to the New Testament: What the Wisdom and Witness of Early Christianity Teach Us Today (Sheed & Ward, 2001). []

This is where the age old conundrum comes in, namely to what extant do our theological preconceptions drive our reading of the New Testament (and the patristic literature as well)? An example is an Eastern Orthodox treatment of Peter’s “primacy” in the New Testament which gives a good overview of the NT particulars but gives a radically different conclusion; Peter is not given any special kind of prominence over the other Apostles in the New Testament nor in the earliest patristic records, Veselin Kesich, “Peter’s Primacy in the New Testament and the Early Tradition,” in The Primacy of Peter: Essays in Ecclesiology in the Early Church (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1992). In the Protestant secondary literature as well there exists an immense rejection of any form of Petrine Primacy in terms of the way it is codified in official Roman Catholic dogma based on the New Testament. []

For standard Catholic defenses of Roman Papal Petrine Primacy throughout the ages see for example; Joseph Ratzinger, “Primacy, Episcopate, and Apostolic Succession,” in The Episcopate and the Primacy (Freiberg: Herder, 1962); Kenneth Baker, Fundamentals of Catholicism, Vol. 3: Grace, the Church, the Sacraments, Eschatology (Ignatius, 1983); Hans Urs von Balthasar, Office of Peter and the Structure of the Church (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1986); Stephan O. Horn, “The Petrine Mission of the Church of Rome: Some Biblical and Patristic Views,” Communio 18 (1991): 313-21; Klaus Schatz, Papal Primacy: From its Origins to the Present (Liturgical, 1996); Stephen K. Ray, Upon This Rock: St. Peter and the Primacy of Rome in Scripture and the Early Church (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1999); Francis A. Sullivan, From Apostles to Bishops: The Development of the Episcopacy in the Early Church (Paulist, 2001); Adriano Garuti, Primacy of the Bishop of Rome and the Ecumenical Dialogue (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2004); Adrian Fortescue, The Early Papacy: To the Synod of Chalcedon 451 (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2008). []

See further on this historical fulfillment as divinely guided historical contingency most recently in Richard J. Neuhaus, Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth (Basic Books, 2007). Ecclesiastical historical development in all its forms (theological, governmental, etc) is a valid deduction from the New Testament’s promise to divinely guide the fledgling Church (John 16:13-15). Peter’s responsibility to defend and “feed” this Church is likewise given by the same author (John 21:15-17) and there is no good reason to presume that this mandate was only given to Peter alone since by the time these words were written in the Fourth Gospel most likely the martyrdom of Peter was a past event. Again, the earliest patristic fathers understood this text as referring to those who would later hold the same leadership positions in the Church (the bishops) and their responsibility to guard the flock from heresy, contra Cullmann’s influential work Peter: Disciple, Apostle, Martyr which moved to argue that Peter’s special position among the college of the Apostles did not transfer down to anyone but died out with him. For an early Catholic critique of Cullmann’s position see Otto Karrer, Peter and the Church: An Examination of Cullmann’s Thesis (New York: Herder and Herder, 1962). []

I would like to close with some words of appreciation for the contributors at Called to Communion. They have given us all a great site that is committed to a scholarly and orthodox Catholic standpoint on various issues concerning the Church today. []