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Scripture In Depth
Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul
June 29, 2014


There are very few critical historians today who would deny that both Peter and Paul suffered martyrdom in Rome. However, June 29 is not the date of their martyrdom. In fact, it is unlikely that they were martyred on the same day.

Some New Testament scholars would place the death of Paul at the conclusion of the two-year imprisonment with which Acts closes (about 62), and Peter’s death during the Neronian persecution in 64, a view that this commentator favors.

Why, then, June 29?

To quote P. Battifol, “The festival of the two apostles will be celebrated on the same day, June 29, not because this date is the anniversary of their martyrdom, but because it is the anniversary of the institution of a joint observance in their honor.”

Oscar Cullmann, the Swiss Protestant scholar, agrees, adding that the choice of June 29 was due to the earlier association of this day with the founder of the city of Rome, Romulus. This Christian observance in Rome began in 258.

Historically, it is difficult to connect the foundation of the church in Rome with Peter or Paul. There must have been Jewish Christians in that city before Claudius expelled all the Jews from Rome in 48 (see Aquila and Priscilla, Acts 18:2).

By the time Paul wrote Romans (ca. 56), there were both Gentile and Jewish groups in Rome (the strong and the weak of Romans 15). Apparently the former had arrived between the expulsion of the Jews in 48 and the death of Claudius in 54, while the Jewish Christians would have drifted back after Nero’s succession. This is what created the tensions that are discussed in Romans 15.

Galatians 2:7 states that Peter and Paul were recognized as the heads of the Jewish and Gentile missions respectively. In view of this, it may be claimed that Peter and Paul were indirectly responsible for the foundation of the Roman church.

Reading I: Acts 12:1-11

Herod Agrippa reigned over the tetrarchy of Philip (see Luke 3:1) from 37 C.E. and over Galilee from 39 C.E. He died in 44 C.E. For reasons that are not clear, Agrippa reversed the hitherto prevailing policy of the Jewish authorities toward the Aramaic-speaking Christians and persecuted them.

Presumably by now this was a move that was likely to make him popular. As a result, some of the leaders of the Aramaic-speaking Church were maltreated, James bar Zebedee was executed, and Peter was arrested (Acts 12:1-4).

All this serves as a preliminary to the story about Peter’s miraculous escape from prison, the first part of which (Acts 12:5-11) forms the ’s reading.

We have no other historical record of this imprisonment, and the circumstances of Peter’s escape follow a conventional pattern familiar in Hellenistic literature (see the similar story about Paul and Silas in Philippi in Acts 16:25-29). The self-opening door is a conventional feature of these miraculous escapes.

Anyhow, the picture that Luke portrays is that the Church prayed fervently for Peter during his incarceration, and the Lord delivered him by an angel. Peter remained completely passive throughout the escape—in a dream, as it were.

The main features of the story are pre-Lucan, but the picture of the Church at prayer, a favorite motif in Luke-Acts, and Peter’s final acclamation (Acts 3:11), which functions like the choric ending of the healing stories, will be redactional additions.

Here we find the theological content of the story: the fervent prayer of the Church furthers its mission. God had much for Peter still to do, right up to the time of his martyrdom, which we celebrate today.

Responsorial Psalm 34:2-3, 4-5, 6-7, 8-9*

This psalm occurs also on the fourth Sunday of Lent in series C and is commented upon there. Note that today the refrain, “The angel of the Lord will rescue those who fear him,” picked up from the fourth stanza, follows aptly upon the story of Peter’s miraculous escape in the first reading.

A cynic might ask, Where was the angel of the Lord when Peter was martyred at Rome? We may reply that the angel of the Lord was there then, too, to take Peter to heaven.

With the firm establishment of the community at Rome through the labors of Peter and Paul, their task on earth had been fulfilled.

Reading II: 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 17-18

See the thirtieth Sunday of the year in series C [indented below] for comment on this passage. The New Testament contains no account of Paul’s martyrdom. His farewell letter (part of which may be preserved here in an otherwise deutero-Pauline writing) is the closest we can get to any reference to his death (but see also Acts 20:18-36).

This reading has no direct connection with the other readings of this day but is the conclusion of the reading in course of 2 Timothy. Like the reading for the twenty-eighth Sunday of the year, it is part of the (possibly genuine) farewell letter of Paul to Timothy, into which the “Pastor” has inserted his Church order and defense against Gnosticism.

Paul has apparently been before the court once (the prima actio). It went favorably, but, as he poignantly laments, “All [that is, the Roman Christians] deserted me.” Yet Paul anticipated only death for himself. Nothing here about the hope of release that marked his former imprisonments.

Why did the Roman Christians desert Paul? The letter to the Romans suggests that they may not have been very keen on his version of the gospel anyhow, and they would hardly want to expose themselves unnecessarily in Nero’s court.

Before very long a dire persecution was to break out over the whole community. (The present writer’s chronology would place Paul’s trial and execution about 60, and the Neronian persecution in which Peter fell in 64, though other chronologies are possible.)

Despite the gloomy prospects, however, Paul is full of ultimate confidence: “Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness.”

Gospel: Matthew 16:13-19

See the twenty-first Sunday of the year in series A for comment [indented below]. This passage has been variously interpreted in the Church, so far as the continuance of the Petrine office is concerned.

The usual Protestant interpretation, which also has some patristic support, is that the “rock” refers to Peter’s faith, and that therefore this text lives on effectively in the Church’s continuing to confess Jesus as Messiah.

Eastern Orthodox and Anglicans have generally seen the continuity of the Petrine office in the collective episcopate. Of course, the traditional Roman Catholic position has always been, at least until Vatican II, that this text was intended from the start to be the Lord’s institution of Peter in that office which is still perpetuated in the papacy.

Since Vatican II, Roman Catholic scholars have put forward a more nuanced view that would see in this text the beginnings of a trajectory that was destined to lead eventually to the papacy, while Anglican and Lutheran scholars have been prepared to recognize under certain circumstances a role for the papacy in a reunited Church which would represent an acceptable implementation of this text.

Matthew has introduced considerable alterations into his Marcan source. The words “Son of the living God” are added to Peter’s confession.

In Mark, Jesus almost ignores Peter’s confession and enjoins the disciple to silence. He then proceeds at once to speak of the necessity of his passion. Peter protests and is met by the rebuke “Get behind me, Satan.”

Matthew has placed the prediction of the passion, Peter’s objection, and Jesus’ rebuke in a separate pericope following the confession. Instead, Jesus pronounces Peter blessed and gives him the name Peter, “Rock.”

Then comes a series of promises: the building of the Church on the foundation of Peter; the assurance that the powers of death shall not prevail against that Church; the promise of the keys; and the saying of the binding and loosing.

There seems to be a growing consensus that the original situation of these words to Peter was not in the earthly life of Jesus but in a post-resurrection setting; that the whole passage, verses 17-19, enshrines very early material going back to the Aramaic-speaking Church; and that the Rock on which the Church is to be built is Peter himself, not his faith, as some patristic and most Reformation exegesis has supposed.

But there is division among exegetes along confessional lines over the question of the continuation of Peter’s function in the Church.

Protestant exegesis sees the fulfillment of the saying about the Rock in the once-and-for-all role that played such a large part in the foundation of the Church after the first Easter and resurrection appearances (Cullmann), and sees the power of the keys and of binding and loosing as continued in the Church as a whole, though capable of being entrusted to particular officers by the community (Marxsen).

Anglican exegetes tend to agree with the Orthodox that the power of the keys and of binding and loosing is shared by the whole episcopate, though many of them would be prepared to allow the Bishop of Rome a special place in this collegial office. Catholic scholars naturally maintain that the Petrine office is vested in the papacy.

Nonetheless, it is significant that on all sides there is growing Christian awareness that one aspect of the Petrine office—witness to the resurrection—belongs to the events of the Christian beginnings and is therefore inalienable.

At the same time, its other aspects—keys, binding and loosing—continue in the Church. This continuity is a sign of the faithfulness of God.

Reginald H. Fuller


Copyright © 1984 by The Order of St. Benedict, Inc., Collegeville, Minnesota. All rights reserved. Used by permission from The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota 56321

Preaching the Lectionary: The Word of God for the Church Today
Reginald H. Fuller. The Liturgical Press. 1984 (Revised Edition),
pp. 548, 550-551, 517, 551-552, 161-162.

*Webmaster Note: Commentary on the Responsorial Psalm
is from the 1984 Revised Edition, p. 96.


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