Martin Hengel — Saint Peter, the Underestimated Apostle

When I was at Durham, I would often hear the faculty members refer to the work of Martin Hengel with such respect and admiration. Durham had/has a tie to Tuebingen and our faculty maintains close relationships with many folks there. (I never got a chance to pay a visit to Tuebingen, which I regret.)

I must confess that I have read many bits and pieces of Hengel’s work, but until now I had not read a whole book – cover-to-cover. I see now why he is hailed as such a master historian and theologian! In this book, Saint Peter: The Underestimated Apostle, Hengel treats the subject of this great figure with intensity, precision, and wisdom.

As for the motivation,

I chose the title Saint Peter: The Understimated Apostle because I believe that the historical and theological importance of the fisherman from Bethsaida has been generally underestimated within both evangelical and Catholic exegetical circles. Furthermore, he is generally studied in order to harmonize him in his relationship with Paul. (p ix)

The book covers a number of important topics and texts, but central is Matthew 16:17-19. Hengel is convinced that this Dominical declaration is a Matthean redactional insertion, and it does not go back to Jesus himself (p 3). It has a place in Matthew’s literary purposes at the end of the first century. That does not mean, for Hengel, that Peter’s importance was merely fictional. Rather, “It could indeed be possible that his later role as leader in the post-Easter age further strengthened his original importance as a follower and disciple of Jesus and suppressed the mention of the names of the other apostles” (29).

One way that Hengel tries to rehabilitate the image of Peter in modern church life and the academy is to take a fresh look at the “Antioch incident” found in Galatians. Afterall, Hengel points out, we only get one side of the story (Paul’s) and we are not told how Peter responded to Paul’s rebuke – if we assume he apologized, that is a pretty big assumption. Hengel searches for a reasonable rationale for Peter’s actions. Rather than acting pompously, selfishly, and in ignorance about the entailments of the Gospel, perhaps we can see Peter’s decision more generously. Hengel wonders where Peter’s actions represent ¬†an attempt

“to maintain the unity between missionary communities outside of Eretz Israel and Jerusalem itself, which was under threat. He had to take into account the sharpening of the Zealot’s nationalistic tendencies in Palestinian Judaism from the 40s on, a situation that was becoming more threatening all the time, which included increasing persecution of Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, a situation that became severe enough ten years later so as to reach a highpoint with the stoning of James and other leading Jewish Christians as “lawbreakers” (p. 65).

One thing Hengel tries to do is get a sense for what Peter actually taught and believed – something, I admit, I never really thought about. Who has ever heard a lecture on Peter’s theology? Hengel looks especially to the speeches of Peter in Acts – a reasonable place. For those who might argue that the speeches are Luke’s theology and not Peter’s Hengel responds:

Would he who was so zealous in assembling the significant traditions about Jesus not have asked about what Peter himself taught and even asked the apostle and adapted from that teaching certain “archaic” emphases, which are so typical of him? (p. 85)

I think Hengel is on to something, but it strikes me, then, all-the-stranger that he is so quickly and easily dismissive of using the Petrine epistles as sources for Peter’s theology (see p. 12). Hengel’s reasoning is that Peter, as a Galilean fisherman, was probably not literate and could not have been able to write such sophisticated letters. So how do you account for his persuasive preaching and impressive teaching? Hengel reasons: “When simply giving a speech…Peter must also have been one who was empowered by the Spirit, but certainly in his mother tongue, Aramaic. His Greek would thus possible have been sprinkled with some errors, “exotic” to the extent that it was influenced by Semitic thinking” (p. 13). If the Spirit can inspire great speaking, can he not inspire great writing (especially when a trained amanuensis was almost certainly involved)? I think at least 1 Peter needs to be given a little more weight than Hengel permits.

In any case, such an interesting book -one that has elevated the importance of both Peter (as apostle) and Hengel (as theologian) for me. I leave you with these words at the end of the book

…Peter was…a theologically powerful thinker, an impressive proclaimer, and a competent organizer; otherwise, he would not have played such a unique role within the circle of Jesus’ disciples, in Jerusalem, and later as missionary to both Jews and Gentiles, and he would not have been able to achieve a unique position (101)