THE CHIEFS OF THE APOSTLES
Fr Dimitri Cozby
The month of June is rounded off by the commemoration of the Apostles Peter and Paul. The Church has given them the common title “The Chiefs of the Apostles” and a combined feast day in recognition of their common mission of establishing Christ’s Church and guiding its early growth. In almost every other way, however, the lives and characters of these two men reveal more contrasts than similarities. Indeed, on one occasion at least they violently disagreed in public on an important issue (see Galatians 2:11-16).
Saint Peter was one of the original twelve apostles chosen by our Lord to witness His ministry and hear His teaching. “Peter” was not in fact his name; that was Simon. Christ Himself gave him the nickname “Cephas” (“rock” in Aramaic); “Peter” is the Greek translation of that name. Among the Twelve Peter held a special place; he was one of the first four called and a part of the inner circle of whom Christ singled out for particular attention (for example, Matthew 17:1; Mark 13:3).
In origin Peter was a Jew from Galilee, the northern part of Palestine. As such he grew up with little contact with pagans; those whom he did encounter were viewed by him and his countrymen as intruders in the Promised Land. As a result he was probably more comfortable among his fellow Jews than with Gentiles, and this perhaps accounts for his decision to concentrate his mission efforts on his own people.
Before being called by our Lord, Peter was a fisherman. He owned his boat in partnership with his brother Andrew and two neighbors, James and John. The two sets of brothers worked in their boat, probably hiring others to help them, then sold their catch in the local markets. They were thus a combination of common laborers and small businessmen, like some in trades even today who may own their shop and employ others but also work along with them. Unlike most non-Jews of his class Peter could probably read and write. Jews had a fairly high literacy rate, having been taught to read the Scriptures in the synagogue. His education did not extend much beyond basic literacy, however; certainly he was no intellectual.
The Gospels and Acts give us a glimpse of Peter’s personality. The picture which emerges is of an impetuous and strong-willed man. He possessed great self-confidence, which often got him into trouble. When, for example, Peter sees the Lord walking on the water, he rashly asks if he can walk out to Him on the lake. When his faith wavers and he begins to sink, however, Christ has to rescue him (Matthew 14:23-33). We find another example of over-confidence at the Last Supper as Peter impulsively asserts that Christ will not come to harm because he will defend Him: “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death” (Luke 22:33). Only a few hours later, as we well know, Peter is hiding in shame having denied three times that he even knows who Christ is. Christ certainly knew Peter’s faults, how impulsive and head-strong he was. But our Lord also knew that these weaknesses, when curbed and controlled by faith and spiritual maturity, would make Peter the strong leader that the Church needed in its earliest days. Christ also recognized another trait which is evident in Peter’s actions in Acts: his respect for his colleagues in the Church’s leadership and his wisdom in deferring to them in decisions. In this Saint Peter set the pattern for collective leadership and conciliar government which Orthodoxy has followed ever since.
Saint Paul was a Jew like Saint Peter, but from Tarsus, a city in what is now southeastern Turkey. He thus grew up in two cultures, the Jewish religious faith of his family and the Greek secular culture of his city. His ministry as a Christian apostle reflects his background. He spoke first to his own people, the Jews of the Diaspora (that is, outside Palestine). But he always has an eye, as well, on the conversion of the pagans around him. Like most Diaspora Jews, Paul was always conscious of the predominately pagan nature of his world and of its need for the Gospel. He, more than any other, was responsible for opening the Church to non-Jews.
Paul also had two names, reflecting his two cultures. His Jewish name, Saul, may reflect his family’s pride in their origins; they were of the tribe of Benjamin, and the Old Testament Saul, the first king of Israel, also sprang from that tribe. The name by which the apostle is better known is his civil name.
His family was likely wealthy. They were Roman citizens as well as citizens of Tarsus, and such honors were not for the poor. His family’s resources provided him the advantage of a good education. He was familiar both with Greek learning (he can quote Greek poets, for example) and with Jewish theology (he studied in Jerusalem under rabbi Gamaliel, a member of the Sanhedrin). He was an intellectual, and his studies earned him membership in the Jewish religious elite, the Pharisees, before his conversion to the Gospel. After conversion he devoted himself to spreading, explaining, and defending the Faith through his missionary journeys and through his letters to the church’s he founded and cared for. The letters are an especially important part of his legacy. They make up a major portion of the New Testament and earn him the distinction of being Orthodoxy’s first great theologian.
Saint Paul’s career was full of controversy. His work among the Gentiles aroused the hostility of those who thought the Faith should remain merely a sect of Judaism. Paul was impetuous and strong-willed, quick to defend himself and his work. He was more likely to quarrel with opponents than was Peter. Yet Paul was also the great exponent of unity in the Church and of love as the bond which holds her together.
Saints Peter and Paul both met their end by martyrdom in Rome during the persecutions instigated by the corrupt Emperor Nero. Different as they were in background and personality, they both made a unique contribution to the Church in its earliest days. Now both stand before us as examples to inspire us as we continue their work of spreading and building up Christ’s Church.