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Peter and Paul

In the late Roman period, the apostles Peter and Paul became symbolic founders of the empire, but the New Testament depicts them more as rivals with competing concepts of Christianity.

Ivory belt buckle from Castellammare di Stabia
Belt buckle of Peter and Paul

According to tradition, Romulus and Remus were the hero-twin founders of pre-Christian Rome, but the rise of Christianity in the fourth century required that Peter and Paul replace them as the hero-twin founders of the new Christian Rome. However, there was a problem with this transition.

On the one hand, there was a confrontation between Peter and Paul at the Syrian city of Antioch over whether a community of both Christian Jews and Christian non-Jews (Gentiles) should all observe Jewish kosher food rules or not. Here is Paul’s report on the dispute:

Until certain people came from James, he [Peter] used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.  (Gal 2:12-13 NRSV)

This is strong language. Paul accuses Peter of being two-faced: abiding by Jewish dietary laws when pressed by his fellow Jews but freely ignoring them when in Gentile company. After writing this, Paul went westward to the Aegean and stayed away from James, Peter, and Barnabas until he had to return to Jerusalem with the collection for James’ community—the Poor —in Jerusalem (Rom 15:25-32, Acts 21:17-26).

On the other hand, Peter had rather negative comments on Paul. They are not as harsh in terms of name-calling, but they criticize Paul’s letters in a sweeping manner:

So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures. (2Pet 3:15-16 NRSV)

We know that the historical Peter did not write this text, but still, “Peter” returns the criticism of Gal 2:12-13 in a tit for tat within the present New Testament. How, then, could fourth-century Christians reconcile Peter and Paul to become the hero-twins of Christian Rome?   

In 2007 the Kimbell Art Museum in Forth Worth, Texas, had a fascinating exhibit, Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art. One of its themes was Apostolic Succession, and two fourth- or fifth-century artifacts show how Peter versus Paul became Peter and Paul. The objects are part of an “image campaign” that begins in the book of Acts and picks up force with Pope Damasus I, who sought to raise the profile of the Church (and the papacy) in fourth-century Rome.

The first item is an ivory belt buckle. It shows Paul to the viewer’s left and Peter to the right rushing toward one another and into a full embrace. Peace, reconciliation, and apostolic harmony are fully established.

The second item is my own favorite artifact on this theme. It is a bronze hanging lamp in the shape of a ship under sail. It shows Paul standing in the prow piloting the ship, with Peter seated in the stern at the tiller. Together, they are guiding the church through the sea of life. But this is my question in reply to the boat metaphor: Who is the more important, the one piloting or the one steering?

  • John Dominic Crossan

    John Dominic Crossan is an emeritus professor from DePaul University and author of numerous popular books on Jesus and the New Testament world.