PETER AND PAUL IN ACTS
BY JEFF BRICKLE
From the standpoint of literature it is ironic that the piece that came to be called the Acts of the Apostles focuses primarily on the careers of merely two apostles, one of whom, Paul, was not even a member of the original twelve. Furthermore, the name of the first apostle covered in Luke’s second treatise, Peter, who stars in the Acts narrative from roughly chapters I through 12, is mentioned a mere (when compared to Paul) fiftyeight times. By contrast, the name of Paul, whose acts are chronicled from chapters 9 through 28, appears a startling 132 times; his Hebrew name Saul is encountered an additional twentytwo times.
This article discusses three questions pertinent to the composition of Acts. First, why the emphasis on these two figures to the exclusion of others, especially when early Christianity encompassed a wide range of personalities among its adherents? Second, how does Luke utilize these two characters in the structure of his composition? And third, why is there such a relative imbalance in Acts in the treatment that Luke affords to each of the two men?
Perhaps the best explanation for Luke’s focus on Peter and Paul in Acts is the key role the two men played in the missionary activity of the early church. Peter, who was entrusted with “the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” figures prominently as the apostle to the circumcised (Matthew 16:19; Galatians 2:8). Paul, on the other hand, commissioned “to bear [the Lord’s] name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15), according to his own self-designation became somewhat exclusively the apostle to the uncircumcised (Galatians 2:78). In addition to these roles, Luke consistently portrayed Peter as the lead spokesman for the early Christian disciples while Paul likewise delivered a host of speeches; at Lystra he was even mistaken for the messenger god Mercury or Hermes, owing to his role as the chief speaker (Acts 14:12). Both men served as evangelists, teachers, and miracle workers. Due to these factors, therefore, Acts portrays Peter and Paul as representative preachers of the gospel and, as a result, a great deal of the content of Acts centers around their respective ministries.
Second, it appears that Luke intentionally structured his work in such a way as to incorporate the ministries of the two apostles in a roughly chronological sequence: first Peter’s ministry, then Paul’s. It seems that Luke attempted to follow the geographical framework of Acts 1:8: “You shall be witness to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (NKJV). It naturally follows that Peter’s ministry would be covered first. Luke structured his narrative by highlighting the spread of the gospel from Jerusalem, to the surrounding areas of Judea, to Samaria, and finally to Rome.
Peter helped get the church off the ground, serving as its leader in its initial environs of Jerusalem and Judea (Acts 1-5). Later, he used “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” at Samaria (Acts 8) and Caesarea (Acts 10). Interestingly enough, when Luke was nearly finished with incorporating him in the narrative, the account of Peter trails off. “he departed, and went into another place” (Acts 12:17), and then Peter “went down from Judea to Caesarea, and there abode” (Acts 12:19). Except for a brief reappearance by Peter in chapter 15 (at the Jerusalem council), we do not hear from him again in Acts. Luke picked up the persecution, conversion, and ministry of Paul (Acts 7:58-8:4; 9; 11:25 ff) and commenced to trace his acts all the way to Rome, the capital of the known world (Acts 28).
But why, we might ask, the emphasis on Paul, whom John Gabel and Charles Wheeler called “the dominant single character in Acts,” over Peter?
First, it appears from the “we” sections of Acts (16:10-17; 20:5-21:18; 27:128:16), where Luke narrated in the first person plural, that Luke may have personally accompanied Paul during segments of his missionary journey. If so, this close association with Paul could account for some of Luke’s emphasis on Paul’s (over Peter’s) contribution to the spread of early Christianity.
Second, from his perspective, Luke may have felt that the chronicling of missionary activity “to the end of the earth” was more crucial for his purposes than the church’s early beginnings around Jerusalem; hence, the imbalance in emphasis. Luke may have been more concerned with where the gospel ended up-in the Gentile environment of Rome-than where it began, in a predominantly Jewish Jerusalem.
Third, and perhaps most important, Luke may have emphasized Paul because of Paul’s incredible intellect, character, and fervency. As Gabel and Wheeler pointed out: “Certainly [Paul] was a man of powerful mind and dominating personality, a man of vision and passionate conviction, selfless in his dedication to his cause and tireless in its pursuit, one without whom it is impossible to imagine the Christian religion today.” F.F. Bruce agreed with this evaluation of Paul when he noted, “the attractive warmth of [Paul’s] personality, his intellectual stature, the exhilarating release effected by his gospel of redeeming grace, land] the dynamism with which he propagated that gospel throughout the world, devoting himself single-mindedly to fulfilling the commission entrusted to him on the Damascus road … and labouring more abundantly than all his fellow-apostles.”” “Paul was not the only preacher of Christianity in the Gentile world of that day-there were some who preached it in sympathy with him and others who did so in rivalry to him-but he outstripped all others as a pioneer missionary and Continued on page 15
planter of churches, and nothing can detract from his achievement as the Gentile’s apostle par excellence.”
Whatever Luke’s reasons were for his various emphases in his work entitled The Acts of the Apostles, it is clear that he wrote with a basic purpose and outline in mind: to show how Christianity spread from “Jerusalem … to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). In crafting his literary piece, Luke chose Peter and Paul as his main, representative characters in carrying out this objective; he chose Paul in particular as the central figure in bearing the good news to Rome and the Gentile world.
THE ABOVE MATERIAL WAS WRITTEN BY JEFF BRICKLE AND PUBLISHED IN THE OCTOBER-DECEMBER 1993 ISSUE OF FORWARD NEWSLETTER. THIS MATERIAL HAS BEEN COPYRIGHTED AND MAY BE USED FOR RESEARCH AND STUDY PURPOSES ONLY.