Who were the followers of Jesus? For my next book in the REIGN OF GOD series, I’ve started researching the lives of Jesus’ most important disciples. Because great stories emerge from great characters, I’m creating personality profiles for the folks who would shape early Christianity. I’m starting with the most prominent of them all: Simon son of Jonah, a.k.a. Saint Peter, the “Rock”!
Simon Peter is one of the most defined characters in the Christian Bible, and a church giant. To be honest, I wasn’t really thrilled about him as a cast in my story, but after some weeks of research, the man that emerges in my imagination is quite interesting. This article summarizes my findings into a profile that will help me bring the character to life.
Life in Capernaum
Simon Peter’s parents were somewhat open-minded toward foreign fashions, as they gave one of their sons a purely Greek name: Andreas. While Shim’on is a good old biblical name, Peter’s original name might not have been Aramaic but Simōn, a classical Greek name. This is the option I chose for THE REIGN OF GOD.
Simon bar Yonah was from the town Bethsaida at the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Bethsaida was a mixed Pagan-Jewish village and highly Hellenized: there was a Roman temple, people who ate pork and spoke Greek. If Simon grew up there, how would contact with non-Judeans influenced him apart from remembering some Greek grammar? Did it make him more open or more intolerant? He probably had a very good knowledge of the local area which would have been useful for Jesus. At the time of Simon’s encounter with Jesus, he was already living in Capernaum, a few miles southwest of Bethsaida, probably commuting between Capernaum and Tabgha, which provided good fishing grounds during the winter season.
Why did he move there? Was it because Capernaum was better connected with trade routes and other fishing-related industries? Or was it for some personal reason? We learn that he lived together with his mother-in-law. Normally, a son-in-law would stay at home and let the bride move in, but in his case, it might have been the other way round. I imagine that his in-laws wanted him to be close for work, or they already had been neighbors.
We know nothing of his wife other than she must have been a local and that she accompanied Simon to his mission trips later, as Paul mentions in I Corinthians 9:5.
To be a husband Simon had to be at least 13 years old. For my story, I imagine him to be around 26, with his brother Andreas in his late teens. He surely had children. His whole family was likely part of the local fishing business.
Local Fishing Leader
Fishing was, of course, hard work, or as an Egyptian document of the era says: “The fisher is more miserable than any other profession,” because of the physical hazards and the high leasing costs involved. As a hard-handed, muscular laborer Simon was used to diving naked into the cold, black water at night to retrieve and adjust nets. A fisher was also a businessman, handling sales and transport of the catch. He surely was familiar with communities around the Sea of Galilee, knowing Magdala and Tiberias well. Apart from Aramaic, he might have known some rudimentary Greek, as just across the lake there were Hellenized towns and trade might have brought foreigners into the town. He was not literate.
Fishers had to work in teams, as operating even a small boat required a minimum four men plus skipper for a professional haul. Simon’s boat is featured repeatedly in the gospels. Luke 5:3 claims that it belonged to him which means he was a bit higher in the hierarchy of fishermen. Still not rich in any way! My guess is that he owned a small-sized boat large enough for fishing with a trammel net.
But could it be really his property? He might have gotten it through a loan from the local fishing rights broker or simply acted as skipper on behalf of his fishing cooperative (Gr: koinōnoi). It might have been an inheritance from his dad or father-in-law. In any case, working with Andreas and perhaps some in-laws on this boat, he regularly teamed up with the brothers Yochanan and Yaakob (John and James, partners—metachoi—of their cooperative in Luke 5:10), their father Zebida and the seasonal “hired hands” to catch barbel and tilapia at night.
Leading a small fishing crew, Simon would organize the work, tools, and catch, and also negotiate with the architelōnai—the broker in town who was leasing out royal fishing rights. He knew well the unfairness of the economic system: 30-40% of the catch would go to the broker/contractor, on top of the share for other tax and the trade middleman. A lot of drudgery for a bit of profit. I believe this experience made Simon keen-eared for Jesus’ message of a new social order. In John 1:41, he is shown as being in the proximity of John the Baptist, so he might have had interest and sympathy for his teaching prior to meeting Jesus.
From Skeptic to Fanatic
Simon was among the first disciples who Jesus called. He famously left everything “immediately” to follow him (Mark 1:18). Luke 5:1-11 describes the call to discipleship more plausibly: Simon is first impressed by Jesus’ teaching, then Jesus helps him catch a miraculous amount of fish. Simon is overwhelmed, calling himself a “sinner.” Jesus says: “Don’t be afraid. From now on, you will be fishing for people.” We also have the story of Jesus healing Simon’s mother-in-law from fever.
After all, Jesus was a close associate of John the Baptist, the famous prophet everybody was talking about! In the Gospel of John, Andreas had been a disciple of John earlier, and Simon hears about Jesus from him. In my book, this is what happens. Simon has to warm up to Jesus, but when he tips he’s fully on Jesus’ side, leaving “everything” to follow him.
It’s a consistency in his characterization: It’s hard to convince Simon to accept something new unless it’s repeated or verified by himself. This is reflected in the pattern of threefolds: Simon denies Jesus three times, is forgiven three times, etc. Later, he receives a revelation three times to open up the church to non-Judeans (Acts 10:9-16). Perhaps he is stubborn, or he is simply slow to understand. But once he is convinced, he commits. We subsequently see Simon’s growth as the disciple who is closest to Jesus. Jesus trusts him with driving him around the area, relying on Simon’s skills and knowledge and invites him to his inner circle (along with Yochanan and Yaakob).
Jesus gives Simon a nickname: Kepha, meaning “stone” or “rock.” It seems to match with Simon’s stubbornness, but it’s also Jesus’ way of assigning ill-fitting names to people: Simon is hot-tempered and shaky as a boat in the storm, not firm at all. Simon Kepha’s character development in the gospels progresses as a challenge of his commitment to become a firm disciple, the Rock on which the church is built upon…
The more I looked at Simon’s dedication to Jesus, the more I suspect the Galilean hothead was nursing hopes that Jesus would lead a messianic putsch. Witnessing his exceptional deeds and fearlessness, he got convinced that this fellow Galilean was on to something big.
A key moment happens midway in the Gospel of Mark. Jesus asks his disciples “Who do people say I am?” Only Simon dares to answer correctly: “You are the Anointed One.” At this point, he was already a spokesperson for the other disciples. Jesus praises Simon for his rare moment of divine enlightenment. However, when he goes on to predict his own suffering and death, Shimon gets irritated. He takes Jesus to the side to talk sense into him—now confident that he also has some spiritual understanding. Jesus famously answers, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” Matthew even has “You are a hindrance to me” after Peter urges “This shall never happen to you.”
Simon did believe that Jesus was a chosen leader, but more like a King David-type of warrior. As Jesus’ closest disciple, he felt confident to criticize Jesus in private, perhaps even pressure him to become a rebel leader.
Jesus’ harsh rebuke must have been a shock. As they were making their way to Jerusalem, Simon might have tried to regain Jesus’ trust by giving an extra effort to demonstrate his understanding and faithfulness. He sincerely wanted to be close to Jesus and serve him. However, the bravado Simon gained when he was in Jesus’ presence would also dissipate when he was on his own or in danger.
This shakiness is apparent in the events surrounding Jesus’ arrest: In his need to prove his loyalty, Simon boasted: “Even though they all fall away, I will not. If I must die with you, I will not deny you.” No wonder Simon attacked a Temple guard when Jesus was arrested, cutting his ear off, (where had he gotten that sword from?) and then followed the guards in secret to see what would happen. However, his cover got blown and after he had denied Jesus three times follows one of the most heartbreaking sentences in the Bible: “And he broke down and wept.” (Mark 14:72) This along with Jesus’ crucifixion is the absolute low point of his life and expresses Simon’s full human struggle.
Emergence as a Leader
Although Simon totally failed his master he emerged as the new leader of the early church movement. In the gospels and traditions, he is described as a powerful preacher, a healer and fearless miracle worker who could truly convince others. All these are signs that the simple fisher from Galilee was remembered as the legitimate successor of Jesus. Undeniable, his role and qualities as “fisher of men” loomed largely.
To me, this remarkable turn from “traitor” to “Pillar of the Church” hinges on Simon’s resurrection experience. With Jesus’ resurrection, everything changes. The once fearful loudmouth gains clarity, understanding, depth and spiritual power.
But initially, Simon was slow to accept the tale of Jesus’ comeback: Even though he was said to be at Jesus’ grave, he couldn’t believe Mary Magdalene’s report of her encounter with the risen Christ. He returned to Galilee where he had his own mystical appearance. This experience must have given him the sense of forgiveness and vindication that he had craved for after his betrayal.
Simon’s passion for Jesus was rekindled: He now preached what he had realized earlier: Jesus is the Messiah! He re-assembled The Twelve to get this message out. Together with the brothers Yochanan and Yaakob, he took leadership and acted as a judge and spokesman. Even after his persecution and flight from Jerusalem under Agrippa I in 42 CE, he still played a pivotal role until his death. And people would believe this, too. The fact that he was the first male disciple to whom Christ had appeared proved his importance.
Faithful to the End
The core questions of Simon’s life story seem to me the following:
1) How do you prove your loyalty/love?
2) How to recognize Jesus’ true identity?
Simon Kepha’s zeal in life was to serve Jesus, the Messiah, even before the crucifixion. The urge to be right and to vehemently defend Jesus’ identity carried over into his role as a church leader. In numerous early Christian writings, we hear the echo of conflicts between him and his rivals: Paul and Mary Magdalene, not to mention many ‘false prophets.’ I believe these conflicts around apostolic authority were never resolved during their lifetimes, and especially Simon’s jealousy of Jesus’ special attention for Mary Magdalene is something I believe started quite early.
His later life is of less interest for my book, but it’s clear that Simon went to Antioch and Rome where he was arrested and executed around the year 65. Even without a direct Bible passage about it, church tradition is quite strong. An allusion to his arrest and execution is found in John 21:18-19. His martyrdom brings the core questions of Simon’s life to a conclusion: he sacrificed his life for proclaiming Jesus the Messiah.
Portrait of a Zealot
Simon Kepha is a surprisingly fleshed-out character. There are many memorable anecdotes, quotes, and traditions about him which help chisel out a rough profile of his personality. In terms of Myers-Briggs personality type, he might have been somewhat of an ENFJ personality: extroverted, idealistic, outspoken, kind, and generous.
Simon is famous for loud-mouthed talking before thinking. When he lost confidence, he could be the opposite, not knowing what to say or sheepishly telling lies. John 13:6-11 alludes to Simon sticking to certain top-down hierarchies. He left everything to follow Jesus. Bart Ehrman summarizes it: “With Peter, it’s nothing or everything.” Though his motivation was questionable at first, he awakened to an extraordinary spiritual experience that knocked his mind to another level of religious zeal and self-confidence. “We must obey God rather than humans!” Taking up the mantle of prophecy and gathering a large following was not uncommon in ancient Israel, so this can’t be simply dismissed to the realm of legend. He was a changed man, attracting others into a new socio-religious movement.
He was also less concerned about Judean purity rules, as he invited gentiles to the faith (perhaps because Jesus did so, too?) or staying with an ‘unclean’ tanner (Acts 9:43).
Jesus must have seen qualities for selfless leadership in Simon before and tried to nurture and activate them as he made him a close associate. As Simon is remembered as healing people, he cared for and inspired others.
One aspect that I want to explore further in my next book is the role of Simon’s wife. I have the hunch that she might have given him a leg-up when he struggled with understanding Jesus’ message…
R. Alan Culpepper: John, the Son of Zebedee: The Life of a Legend
Bart Ehrman: Peter, Paul & Mary Magdalene: The Followers in Jesus in History and Legend
Everett Ferguson: Encyclopedia of Early Christianity
K.C. Hanson: The Galilean Fishing Economy and the Jesus Tradition
Mendel Nun: The Sea of Galilee and its Fishermen in the New Testament
There is a curious episode that Josephus records in Jewish Antiquities which some speculate speaks about Simon Kepha’s meeting with King Agrippa I. The passage is found in Book 19, Chapter 7, 4:
However, there was a certain man, of the Jewish nation, at Jerusalem, who appeared to be very accurate in the knowledge of the law. His name was Simon. This man got together an assembly, while the King was absent at Cesarea; and had the insolence to accuse him as not living holily: and that he might justly be excluded out of the temple, since it belonged only to native Jews.
But the general of Agrippa’s army informed him, that Simon had made such a speech to the people. So the King sent for him; and as he was sitting in the theater, he bid him sit down by him: and said to him with a low and gentle voice, what is there done in this place that is contrary to the law? But he had nothing to say for himself, but begged his pardon. So the King was more easily reconciled to him than one could have imagined: as esteeming mildness a better quality in a King than anger: and knowing that moderation is more becoming in great men than passion. So he made Simon a small present, and dismissed him.
It’s a weird encounter and a passage filled with riddles. Is this Simon the apostle, and the ‘assembly’ the Jerusalem church? Is the “small present” from Agrippa a bribe? I haven’t looked into the matter deeply but if Simon met with Agrippa in the year 41 or 42, this would add nuance to the picture we have of him…