Peter, you Rock!

One day, Jesus looked at his most outspoken disciple and said, “Peter, you rock!”

As an opening line, that makes sense in so many different ways that it doesn’t really make a point at all. It does open up a range of possibilities, however, and that is why it keeps coming back to my mind.

This spring, I am teaching a short course on the apostle, Peter. It’s a secular course, so it isn’t a “Bible study” even though all the information comes from the Bible. It isn’t a “literature study” either, to the extent that the phrase connotes a focus on the structure or the beauty of the language used. It is, rather than those, an exercise in “characterization.”

After many years of paying attention to suffixes, I have gotten sensitive to the -ize suffix. It is a version of the Greek izein, which means to make or do. It calls attention immediately to the fact that something has been done to whatever the root of the word is. Consider, for instance, the difference between “marginal” and “marginalized.” The latter term takes for granted that something—a topic or a person, for instance—had not been marginal and now it is. That is what ‘ize’ means.

What is a character?

A character is a construct. There isn’t one unless it has been “-ized.” There may very well have been a person named Simon to whom Jesus gave the nickname “Rock” but every writer who makes some narrative use of this person has to turn him into a character; and moreover, a character who will have the effect on the narrative that the writer wants that character to have.

It is not true, of course, that the historical person that his wife usually called Simon had no character. What is true is that no gospel writer has been content—nor should he be—to report on just what this character was. The character of Simon Peter, as Mark constructs it is distinctly different from the character of Simon Peter as Matthew constructs it. It is that process the -ize alerts us to. Mark has made Peter into the character his narrative needs and so has Matthew. But, of course, they are constructing different narratives and if “the character of Peter” is to do the work each narrative needs, then his character needs to be adapted to the needs of each narrative.

And, of course, they are.

There are other limitations at play here. Each writer has access to some common information and some different information. Peter is going to be the principal spokesman for the Twelve most of the time and that means that “who he is” will depend to a certain extent on what issues have to be dealt with by the spokesman. Each writer has a perspective of his own about just who Jesus was and what his ministry meant and that will be a part of the shape of the narrative. Finally, each writer has a particular audience in mind and the needs of that audience are taken into account as the narrative is put together.

So it makes no sense at all to ask what Peter was really like. We have at least five accounts. That counts two for Luke, who needs Peter to be one kind of person in the gospel of Luke and another person in the Acts of the Apostles. These characterizations are what we have to work with and they are not at all unanimous. On they other hand, they are not entirely discrepant. They are variations on a theme and we learn more if we pay attention to both the theme and the variations.

Let me offer two brief examples. Matthew and John need very different Simon Peters. If you looked at the narrative apart from the characters, you would say, “Well…somebody will have to have said that” or “Who is this rebuke by Jesus aimed at?” The character who is formulated—not “invented:” but “adapted”—is the answer to the “somebody” problem. It is Peter who is characterized.

In John

The central character among the disciples of Jesus in John’s gospel is called “the disciple Jesus loved” or sometimes, “the beloved disciple.” He is never named, but John needs to be sure that his preeminence is clearly seen, so in scenes where this disciple (BD) [1] and Peter both appear, BD must be clearly superior.

John achieves this by having BD at the foot of the cross as Jesus is dying, while Peter is not. When BD and Peter go to the empty tomb to see what they can learn, John says that Peter looked; he says that BD looked and believed. It is BD who is next to Jesus at the Last Supper, so any question Peter wants to ask Jesus has to be asked to BD who will ask it of Jesus on Peter’s behalf. Peter is, in John’s account, the classic “second disciple.”

In Matthew

But in Matthew, Jesus is a teacher and the ongoing guarantor of the curriculum is Peter, the head of the church. How did Peter get to be the foundation of the church in Matthew’s account? Well, how did there get to be a church in Matthew’s account? Matthew’s Jesus is a teacher and the church is the repository of the teachings. If there is an institution that will be the home of these crucial truths, then an order will need to be maintained and somebody needs to be responsible for that. That is why Peter is who he is in Matthew. That answers why; in the course, we are working on how. What experiences does Matthew give to Peter so that Peter as “head of the church” makes sense to us, the readers?

Well, Jesus called “the Twelve,” but there was an inner core of disciples as well and Peter was one of the inner core. Peter and the other two members of this group saw Jesus raise a little girl from death, which the Twelve did not see; Peter and the other two were there to see Jesus’ transfiguration; Peter and the other two were the closest to Jesus during his prayers in Gethsemane. Peter is the disciple who asks, or who has to field, the questions about how the church will work. Does Jesus pay the Temple tax? Ask Peter. How may times are we called upon to forgive? Peter has to ask. Jesus asks all the disciples a question and Peter is the one who answers it.

If Matthew is to build a character who can become the Rock on which the church is founded, then he has to give Peter the experiences that will cause us, the readers, to say, “Of course it would be Peter.” If we don’t say that then Matthew has not done his job.

I need to know a lot more about the art of characterization than I do now, but the great thing about this study of Peter is, for me, that now I know I need to know more about characterization. So…if you will excuse me, I have work to do.

[1] Being careful not to confuse him with the character BD in Doonesbury.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
This entry was posted in Biblical Studies. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.