Defending the Faith: Why was Peter in Rome?

Published: Thursday, June 12 2014 5:00 a.m. MDT

Updated: Wednesday, June 11 2014 5:12 p.m. MDT

Simon was born in the small village of Bethsaida at the north end of the Sea of Galilee more than 2,000 years ago. His father’s name was Jonah, and his mother’s name is lost to history.

Bethsaida’s name (“House of Fishing”) suggests its main industry. Except during religious festivals, when so many sacrificial animals were slaughtered that prices were discounted — obviously, nobody had a refrigerator — meat was expensive in first-century Palestine. So fresh, smoked and pickled fish was a vital protein source, and fishing was a solid trade.

Simon and his brother Andrew took up the trade as well, presumably following their father. Eventually, they formed a partnership with the two sons of Zebedee, James and John. And they did well. They owned their own boats and may have had a few employees. At some point, Simon moved to another tiny shoreline town nearby, Capernaum, where the likely foundations of his small house have been located.

Had he simply followed the path of his ancestors and neighbors, Simon would have grown old fishing on the lake. He might perhaps have walked the 120 miles to Jerusalem once or twice at festival season, roughly six days each way. He would have been completely forgotten at least 18 centuries ago.

Roughly four decades after the two sets of brothers established their lakeside fishing business, just after nightfall on July 18, A.D. 64, a fire started in a crowded Roman neighborhood near where the Coliseum now stands. Rome was mostly built of wood then, and, fanned by a hot summer breeze, the flames spread rapidly. They burned for a full week, destroying 10 of the city’s 14 districts.

The Emperor Nero was trying to avoid the summer heat at his lavish villa in the seaside resort of Antium (modern Anzio), his birthplace, when the news arrived. He hurried back to direct the firefighters and provided makeshift temporary housing for scores of thousands displaced by the disaster. But then his massive ego kicked in. The destruction of most of Rome had provided him an opportunity, as he saw it, to redesign the city more to his liking, with more marble and with an enormous new imperial palace very near where the fire had started, surrounded by a huge park featuring a 120-foot-tall statue of himself.

Resentful rumors began to circulate that Nero had set the fire deliberately. So he settled on a strange new sect called “Christians” as his scapegoats. Nobody knows how many of them died — thrown to wild beasts at the circus, crucified, doused with oil and set aflame to illuminate Nero’s parties — in the horrific persecution that followed, but early Christian sources testify without dissent that Simon, who, by this time, was known as the apostle Peter, had come to Rome and that he was among Nero’s victims. There is, in fact, a strong case to be made, based upon excavations beginning in 1940, that his tomb is located precisely where tradition has long claimed it to be — directly under the high altar of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City — and even that his very bones have been identified.

Simon Peter’s apparent martyrdom in Rome poses a powerful challenge, and not merely to historians.

“He was known throughout the world,” wrote the chronicler Eusebius two and a half centuries after Simon Peter's death, “even in the western countries, and his memory among the Romans is still more alive today than the memory of all those who lived before him.”

How did Simon become famous? Why was he executed by imperial decree? For that matter, what brought this seemingly quite commonplace Galilean tradesman to Rome at all? A native speaker of Aramaic, he may have possessed some Greek. But Rome’s language was Latin, of which he probably knew relatively little. What led him to the world’s largest city — in his day, a pagan metropolis of a million inhabitants — from the backwater Jewish village of Capernaum (estimated population 1,500)? Ancient travel was uncomfortable and dangerous, hardly a vacation, and, being in his mid to late 60s, Simon was quite old for his day.

Plainly, something transformed the ordinary village fisherman Simon of Bethsaida into the courageous, far-traveling, world-historical apostle Peter. It can transform us, too, if we allow it.

For very readable accounts of the excavations beneath St. Peter’s Basilica, see John Evangelist Walsh's “The Bones of Saint Peter” (1982, 2011), or Thomas Craughwell’s shorter, more sketchy “St. Peter’s Bones” (2013).

Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs www.mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson and speaks only for himself.

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