Today is the Solemnity of St. Peter and St. Paul. Both of these great Saints have other Feast days (The Chair of St. Peter is celebrated on February 22 and the Conversion of St. Paul is celebrated on January 25), but it is appropriate that their primary feast day is together. Not only are St. Peter and St. Paul the pillars of early Christianity, but they represent a diversity of background and opinions that are crucial for the vibrancy of Christianity.
It is an example of God’s strong sense of humor that he picked St. Peter and St. Paul to build the foundations of the early Church. No mere human would have picked such unlikely candidates. St. Peter was an educated, peasant fisherman from a backwater Roman province who would go to the heart of Rome and become the first leader of a movement that is still the largest organization in the world 2,000 years later. St. Paul was part of a strict sect of Judaism that insisted on following every letter of the Mosaic law who would eventually argue against the Church leadership to overturn much of the Mosaic law. St. Peter was a man of action who had a history of backing out when things got tough prior to the Resurrection. Tradition holds that St. Paul had a meek personality with a speech impediment but his ideas form a major part of the New Testament. Christ certainly chose an odd couple of start his Church.
Peter represents that part of the Church which gives it stability: its traditions handed down in an unbroken way from the very beginning. Peter is the rock, the structures which help to preserve and conserve those traditions, and the structure which also gives consistency and unity to the Church.
Paul represents the prophetic and missionary role of the Church. It is that part of the Church which constantly works on the edge, pushing the boundaries of the Church further out, not only in a geographical sense but also pushing the concerns of the Church into neglected areas of social concern and creatively developing new ways of communicating the Christian message. This is the Church which needs to be constantly renewed.
St. Peter: Leader and Man of Action
St. Peter, originally named Simon, was a native of Bethsaida, near Lake Tiberias. Peter was the son of John, and worked, like his brother St. Andrew, as a fisherman on Lake Genesareth. Andrew introduced Peter to Jesus, and Christ called Peter to become a disciple. We know little else about Peter’s background, social class or education but like Jesus and many disciples, he was likely from a poor family with little formal education. The Gospels portray Peter as being a very human figure, a man of action wanting to do the right thing, but frequently missing the message (criticizing Jesus for saying that he had to suffer) or lacking faith. This dichotomy between wanting to be a bold man of courage to fleeing in the face of danger continued through the crucifixion, with his cutting off the ear of the slave of the high priest to Peter’s denying Jesus and fleeing at the end.
After seeing the risen Christ, Peter’s entire worldview changed. Peter began to understand the meaning of Christ’s message and boldly assumed the leadership mantle that Jesus had given to him. Tradition holds that Peter established the Church in Rome before suffering martyrdom. The death of Peter is attested to by Tertullian at the end of the 2nd century, and by Origen in Eusebius, Church History III. Origen wrote: “Peter was crucified at Rome with his head downwards, as he himself had desired to suffer.” This is why an upside down cross is generally accepted as a symbol of Peter, who would not have considered himself worthy enough to die the same way as his Savior.
St. Paul: Intellectual and Mystic
Unlike St. Peter, St. Paul appears to have been well educated and very conversant in the Greek culture of the time. St. Paul was likely born between the years of 5 BC and 5 AD. The Book of Acts implies that Paul was a Roman citizen by birth, more affirmatively describing his father as such, but some scholars have taken issue with the evidence presented by the text. He was part of devout Jewish family in the city of Tarsus—one of the largest trade centers on the Mediterranean coast. It had been in existence several hundred years prior to his birth. It was renowned for its university, one in which students could receive a superior education. During the time of Alexander the Great, Tarsus was the most influential city in Asia Minor.
Stoicism was the dominant philosophy there. In addition to his becoming steeped in Orthodox Pharisaic Judaism, his early life in Tarsus allowed him to learn “Classic Greek”, Greek philosophy, and Koine Greekwhich was the lingua franca of the Roman Empire, spoken by the common people.
Unlike St. Peter who was a close confidant of Jesus, St. Paul never met Christ prior to his Resurrection. During Jesus’ life, Saul (Paul’s name prior to his conversion) was a devote Pharisee, who preached and practices devotion to the Mosaic law. After Jesus’ death, Saul persecuted Christians as heretics who, in his way of thinking, were disobeying the law and blaspheming God. In a startling encounter, which ranks as one of the greatest turning points in human history, the Resurrected Christ appeared to Saul on his way to Damascus to persecute Christians there. After this appearance, Paul led a new life as the Apostle to the Gentiles.
Paul was a visionary and a mystic. Paul maintained the continuity between Christ and Abraham, Moses and the prophets. He would rely heavily on the training he received concerning the law and the prophets, utilizing this knowledge to convince his Jewish countrymen of the unity of past Old Testament prophecy and covenants with the fulfilling of these in Jesus Christ. However, he also appreciated that God becoming Incarnate was the ultimate revelation that overturned many of the details of the Mosaic law.
Paul also drew on the language and thoughts of the Greek culture to effectively preach the Gospel. In his letters, Paul reflected heavily from his knowledge of Stoic philosophy, using Stoic terms and metaphors to assist his new Gentile converts in their understanding of the revealed word of God. His wide spectrum of experiences and education gave the Paul the tools which he later would use to effectively spread the Gospel and to establish the church solidly in many parts of the Roman Empire.
Perhaps most profoundly, Paul was a deep mystic. His first personal experience with Christ came after the Resurrection. This personal experience, supplemented by a deep prayer life, provided Paul with the vision for the future Church. For Paul, Christ was not only a peasant in Nazareth, he was the Omega of all creation. Paul gave Christ a cosmic significance. In his speech the Athenians as recorded in Acts, Paul stated that Christ was the one “in Him we live and move and have our being”. In the first letter to the Corinthians, Paul described how all believers are part of the Body of Christ. These concepts, as well as well as concepts from Johannian literature such as the Logos, were the scriptural basis for Teilhard de Chardin’s concept of the Divine Milieu.
Christian tradition holds that Paul was beheaded in Rome during the reign of Nero around the mid-60s.