For the first part of his life, he was a small fish in a big pond. A member of a disadvantaged minority, he lived in the obscurity of a backwater province in the mighty Roman empire.
But when he started following a traveling rabbi, he was projected far beyond his little world—not just into the pages of history but into the hearts of all who have also become disciples of Jesus Christ.
The story of the man who began life as “Simon son of John” and ended it as Peter “the Rock” is rich with dramatic contrasts. Even today, the ruins of the Galilean fishing villages that he once called home seem light years away from the magnificence of St. Peter’s Basilica, which was built to honor the site of his martyrdom and, as archaeological findings seem to confirm, of his burial.
Simon the Fisherman. St. Peter began life as Simeon, or Simon in Greek, growing up in the village of Bethsaida on the northeast side of the Sea of Galilee (Mark 1:16; John 1:44). His father’s name was John (his mother’s is unknown), and though he may have had numerous siblings, we know only about his brother Andrew.
Since Bethsaida had a mixed population of Jews and non-Jews, it is likely that Simon spoke not only Aramaic but also Greek, which was the common language uniting the many peoples within the Roman empire. Though “uneducated” by scholarly standards (Acts 4:13), he may also have learned some Hebrew in order to understand the Scriptures in their original language.
Jewish families in the Galilee area were basically pious, adhering to Judaism’s fundamental beliefs and to practices such as observance of the Sabbath and of ritual purity laws. Thus, upon turning thirteen, Peter would have joined in the annual Bethsaida-to-Jerusalem caravan for the seven-day Passover celebration. And well into adulthood, he could assert that he had never eaten anything “profane or unclean” (Acts 10:14).
Archaeological excavations begun in 1987 in Bethsaida—which is Aramaic for “fishing town”—have yielded more than a hundred fishing artifacts from the first century: hooks, bronze and iron needles for repairing nets and sails, anchors, and stone and lead net weights. In 1986, a first-century fishing boat was discovered and salvaged intact from the lake and is now on display in a shoreside museum.
Such findings fill out the Gospel picture of a fisherman’s life. In Mark 1:16, Simon and Andrew are throwing out their weighted casting nets, a good way to catch the Kinneret sardine which still today accounts for half the catch from the Sea of Galilee. In Matthew 17:27, Peter’s hook-and-line fishing probably snags a bottom-feeding carp called a barbel. The miraculous catch of “large fish” in John 21 was most likely accomplished with a dragnet—a seine set up as a vertical wall about a hundred yards from the beach and then hauled into shore by two teams of men.
Fishing was rugged work, requiring stamina for all-night expeditions and physical strength for wielding nets, rowing twenty-five-foot boats, and staying afloat in the sudden violent storms for which the Sea of Galilee is known. While we have no photographs to show us what Simon looked like, we can be sure that he was muscular!
Peter the Disciple. At some point, Simon and Andrew relocated to Capernaum (Mark 1:29), a village of between 600 and 1500 people on the Sea of Galilee’s western shore, and joined with another set of fishermen-brothers, James and John (Luke 5:10). Perhaps Simon married a woman from Capernaum (this is where his mother-in-law lived: Mark 1:30). Or perhaps the idea was to be closer to Magdala, which was a center of the fish salting industry.
Capernaum was not a community of the wealthy. Streets were narrow and houses small, with walls of black basalt fieldstones and roofs made of beams and branches covered with packed mud. Like his neighbors’ homes, Peter’s had one large room and several smaller ones clustered around shared courtyards used for cooking and other household activities.
It was on an ordinary work day, some time after settling in Capernaum, that Simon and his three fishing partners heard and accepted that fateful call: “Follow me” (Mark 1:16-20). Scripture doesn’t tell us how Peter combined family life with this surprise vocation, nor how his friends and relatives responded. We can assume, however, that he gained his wife’s support, since she later accompanied him on missionary journeys (1 Corinthians 9:5).
What all four Gospels do underline is that Peter was the most prominent of the disciples. He was a privileged witness at the transfiguration, the raising of Jairus’ daughter, and Jesus’ prayer at Gethsemane. It was probably his house that served as Jesus’ base of operations when he was “at home” in Capernaum (Mark 2:1; Matthew 4:13).
Jesus confirmed Simon’s position with a name change and a declaration that he would build his church on “Peter,” the “rock” (kepha in Aramaic), and would give him the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” and the power of “binding and loosing” (Matthew 16:18-19). He commissioned Peter to strengthen the other apostles (Luke 22:32) and to imitate him in loving service and self-sacrifice—to “feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17).
Self-confident and enthusiastic, outgoing and outspoken, Peter had the qualities of a natural leader. Initially, though, he was more like shifting sands than like rock! He was daring enough to attempt a walk across stormy waves and to profess undying loyalty, but in both cases he vastly overestimated his strength (Matthew 14:28-31; Mark 14:29-30, 66-72). In one breath, he professed Jesus’ true identity; in the next, he revealed total incomprehension about his mission and earned himself a stinging rebuke (Mark 8:29, 32-33).
These few episodes are typical of the New Testament portraits of Peter. Throughout its pages, the Bible makes no attempt to hide Peter’s flaws and failures. Instead, they stand out in high relief, as if to show us a leader we can relate to—a flesh-and-blood person who was fitted for his high calling only as he repented of his proud self-reliance and admitted his desperate need for God.
Peter the Apostle and Martyr. Perhaps the most crushing blow to Peter’s self-image came on Holy Thursday, when he discovered himself capable of a truly base betrayal. Surrounded by a suspicious crowd, he denied three times that he had ever known Jesus. Peter’s sense of failure at such a crucial moment could have propelled him along the same suicidal path as Judas. Instead, he was driven to throw himself on God’s mercy. What must he have felt when the risen Jesus appeared to him first—apparently assuring him that he was forgiven, and reaffirming his special call (1 Corinthians 15:5)!
The first fifteen chapters of the Acts of the Apostles, as well as various New Testament epistles show Peter wholeheartedly fulfilling his calling as the leader of the young church. He presides over the choice of another apostle, delivers the first great missionary speech at Pentecost, performs the first healing, and prays with new Christians to receive the Holy Spirit. As the church’s head, he pronounces sentence on the dishonest (Acts 5:1-11; 8:14-24). Persecuted and imprisoned for his bold preaching, he is miraculously delivered. Here was a “pillar” of the Jerusalem church—the apostle whom Paul especially wanted to meet after his own conversion (Galatians 1:18; 2:9).
Though St. Paul is considered the “apostle to the Gentiles,” it is Peter who, through a vision, was guided to receive the first group of non-Jews into the church. This was a significant and potentially divisive move, but he defended it so persuasively that it became accepted policy and radically changed the face of the church forever (Acts 10:1–11:18). In his last appearance in Acts, where he seems again to be representing the missionary outreach of the Jerusalem church, Peter makes another successful case for embracing non-Jewish converts (Acts 15:7-11).
According to ancient tradition, Peter spent his closing years as the head of the church of Rome, possibly after visiting new churches in Corinth, Antioch, and elsewhere in Asia Minor. Then, around A.D. 64, during the reign of Nero, he was put to the final test. This time he did not deny Jesus, but willingly accepted martyrdom. Tradition has it that because he did not feel worthy of imitating Jesus in his death, Peter asked to be crucified upside down.
Walking with Peter. A late second-century writer pictured a scene in which Peter has one last resurgence of temptation. He is walking down the Appian Way, fleeing Nero’s persecution, when he encounters Jesus heading the other way, into the city.
“Quo vadis?” Peter asks, surprised. “Where are you going?”
“I am going to Rome to be crucified,” says Jesus.
And Peter, understanding that Jesus is about to die in his place, chooses obedience one last time. Turning on his heel, he heads back to the city to meet his death.
Though it may be legendary, this touching story dramatizes the fact that the most significant change of course in the life of this “catcher of fish”-turned “catcher of men” was not the one that led him from the Sea of Galilee to Rome. It was his inner journey of transformation from a self-confident man to a humble disciple, from one who was convinced of his own strength to one who learned that he could only please the Lord as he learned to draw strength from Jesus, his beloved Master.
If we are looking for a traveling companion for our own journey, we can hardly do better than to take the hand of the chief apostle, who both literally and figuratively walked the same road that Jesus did. Peter shows us how to respond to our inevitable stumbles and falls along the way: by accepting the grace to pick ourselves up, stick close to Jesus, and exchange self-reliance for trust in God.
Louise Perrotta is a prolific writer and former features editor for The Word Among Us.