December 7, 2023

Prime Apostles Peter and Paul

June 29

Ss. Peter & Paul are described as an ‘apostolic odd couple.’ The New Testament clearly shows them in strong disagreement over the teachings and direction of the early Church. Although contemporaries, in fact their histories only rarely intersected. They came from decidedly different backgrounds, traveled in different circles, and principally shared in common the fate of martyrdom at the hands of the emperor Nero between 64 and 67 A.D. Yet, today they are honored together as the ‘Prime Apostles Peter and Paul.’

Peter’s original name was Simon, but in view of his future place in our Church, Jesus changed his name (to ‘Kepa’ or ‘Rock’ in Aramaic, which translated to ‘Cephas’ or ‘Petros’ – ‘Peter’ in Greek). He was an illiterate fisherman from Galilee (68 miles or a four-day walk to Jerusalem) who was told by our Savior “You are the Rock, and upon this rock I will build my church.” (Matthew 16:18). “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you will bind on earth it shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you will loose on earth it shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19).

Among Peter’s first ‘official’ acts following the Crucifixion and Resurrection (which scholars have variously dated to 29-33 A.D.) was to preside over the election of Matthias to replace the betrayer Judas (Acts 1:15-26). He delivered the first sermon on Pentecost (Acts 2:14-40), and is believed to have remained in Jerusalem until he was forced to flee the persecution of Herod Agrippa, who ruled Judea from 41-44 A.D. (Acts 12:1-19). Sometimes called the Apostle to the Hebrews, he briefly visited Antioch, Syria, home to a large community of both Jewish and Gentile believers thanks to the efforts of Paul and Barnabas, and where the faithful were first called Christians (Acts 11:19-26). Soon, Peter’s missionary work took him to Rome, where he preached until his martyrdom. He is often credited as being a primary source for the Gospel written by Mark, one of his early disciples.

Saul was a Roman citizen born in Tarsus (now southern Turkey). He was educated as a child in Jerusalem by the celebrated Rabbi Gamaliel and was a member of the Pharisees (Philippians 3:5), who because of their strict interpretation of Mosaic law were particularly zealous in persecution of the new Church. But, following his miraculous conversion on the road to Damascus around 34 A.D. (Acts 9:1-19) he became a leading champion for the new faith, now referring to himself as Paul.

Following a long retreat to Arabia (to prepare himself for the work ahead, but also perhaps to escape from the Jews who had now turned against him (Galatians 1:17 and Acts 9:20-20), he undertook three extended missionary journeys, from Asia Minor in the East, to the ‘Limits of the West’ (Probably Spain). He founded many churches, becoming known as Apostle to the Gentiles, and wrote at least 13 letters or epistles during the period between 52 and 64 A.D. The last (probably Timothy) were written during his final imprisonment in Rome. Scholars disagree as to whether the Gospel of Luke and Acts were actually written by Paul’s companion by the same name or by another follower of the Apostle. It is generally accepted that Paul’s letters were in circulation for many years prior to the appearance of the four written Gospels.

The burial tombs of Peter & Paul in Rome were well known and documented by the end of the first century. Tertullian in the late second century wrote that Peter was crucified on Vatican Hill, while Paul was beheaded and buried on the Ostian Way. In 1950 a tomb was located beneath St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. During an excavation there in the 1960’s bone fragments were found and concluded to date from the first century, causing Pope Paul VI to declare them likely to be those of the Apostle Peter. In 2006 a sarcophagus was discovered beneath the altar of the basilica built for Paul, and in 2009 Pope Benedict announced that carbon 14 dating by archaeologists verified that bone fragments found inside belonged to someone who lived in the first or second century.

Peter and Paul ‘bumped heads’ on occasion, in Antioch (Galatians 2:11-14) and later at the first council of Jerusalem in 49 or 50 A.D. (Acts chapter 15), and afterwards appeared to have gone in separate paths. Yet, together they are revered for the central roles they played in the foundation of the early Church.

While Peter and Paul probably did not die on the same day, their deaths came to be celebrated together on June 29. St. Augustine wrote “The passion of the most blessed Apostles Peter and Paul has consecrated this day for us. We are not speaking of some obscure martyrs. Their voice has gone forth into all the earth and their words to the ends of the world. These martyrs had seen what they preached. They followed the Truth, they professed the Truth, and they died for the Truth…. “One day of suffering for the two Apostles. But, they, two, in spirit were one; even if they had suffered on different days they would still be one. Peter died first. Paul followed.” (St. Augustine, Sermon 295).

“O Leaders of the Apostles and Teachers of the universe, implore the Master of all creation to grant peace to the world and great mercy to our souls” (Troparion)

“O Lord, you have received the steadfast Preachers of the divine truth, the first among Your Apostles, into the enjoyment of Your good things and repose, for You have accepted their sufferings and death before any other sacrifice, the only One knowing the hearts of men.” (Kontakion)