Michael Grant, “Saint Peter: A Biography”

When you think about it, if you take the New Testament seriously, or even are just trying to decide whether to take it seriously, you would want to know something about not only Jesus but also these men:  Paul, Peter, and James.  These three were authors of the New Testament and also involved in the formation of the early church (John probably belongs in this category, too, since he’s certainly an author and may well have played a leadership role as well).  So I was eager to read this biography.

Michael Grant is a classicist who is well-respected and has written many popularizations (including biographies of Jesus and Paul), but he’s apparently not a believer — at least, he is at pains to say that a historian must ignore anything supernatural.  He also finds fault otherwise with Scripture, but concludes that Apocrypha and other nonscriptural sources are worse.  And he says Mark is “one of the most surprising and original works that has ever been written” (30-31); he also praises Luke’s “superior sort of language,” its “literary Hellenistic Greek,” and the author’s “ingenious capacity for arrangement and meaningful simplification.”  He adds, “Indeed, the character of the work has been greatly admired and described as ‘sunlit’. We seem almost to see a poet writing prose ….”  And nonbeliever or not, Grant is an admirer of Peter and all he accomplished.

There’s this key passage (100):

   Is it really credible that Peter believed in these Appearances, when they were not in the realm of historical happenings?  Yes, I believe it is, in the heated atmosphere of the time, alight with miracles and visions, and rendered more emotional still by the apostles’ recent loss of their Master.  Indeed, Peter’s subsequent leadership was largely based on that belief, which he caused others to share.  We, for our part, are at liberty to imagine that this Appearance was a delusion, and so, to the rational mind, it has to be.  But if so, it was a delusion which nevertheless proved uniquely responsible for creating, in the long run, a world-wide movement of belief, thus influencing the entire subsequent development of history.

Apropos my opening paragraph in this post, Grant also includes a useful short biography of James (139-43), and a plausible scenario (129-30) regarding what happened after Peter’s attempt to compromise with Paul (the gist is that first Peter was the principal Christian starting around Pentecost, then there was a period of joint Peter-James-John leadership, and with James then becoming the principal leader because Peter’s attempt at compromise undermined his credibility in Jerusalem).

On pages 163-65, Grant “conclude[s] with a personal view” of Peter, beginning with the observation that it’s odd the Gospels “have such a poor opinion of him,” but that Jesus’ choice of him as His “principal apostle” was vindicated when Peter rallied and led the believers after the Crucifixion.  Grant is sympathetic to the way Peter played the “unwelcome, unpopular part” of “mediator” between Paul and “envoys of James,” and concludes that “it seems likely that Peter made his way to Rome and became one of the martyrs of Nero’s persecution.”

And here’s the book’s last paragraph (166):

   … As I pointed out at the start, Peter is one of the most significant people who has ever lived, and it must surely be worthwhile to bring together whatever facts can be known about him.  Peter was significant for two reasons, both of which I have discussed in some detail, and both of which remain firmly fixed in the historical picture.  In the first place Jesus chose him as his principal helper; the man who was assigned that remarkable honour and responsibility must have been very far from negligible.  Second, after the appalling event of Jesus’ Crucifixion, it was Peter who collected his disheartened followers together and formed them into a Christian community.  This was a tremendously difficult task, and the person who was able to do it must have exercised an extraordinary influence.  Moreover, unless Peter had done this, Jesus’s endeavors would never have survived.  Paul could not have achieved this without Peter’s work immediately after the Crucifixion; and so, without Peter, there would have been no Christian Church either in the subsequent centuries or today.