Sunday, 28 August 2016

Simon Whom He Surnamed Peter - Part 25

For the next weeks, my Sunday postings will be a transcript of the book "Simon Whom He Surnamed Peter" by the Jersey historian, the Reverend G.R. Bailleine (1873 – 1966).

Most of Balleine's books are either currently in print - as for example his History of Jersey - or online in the form of PDF versions. This book is not, so this is something different. As well as being a Jersey historian, Balleine was also a priest in the Church of England, and Ministre Deservant at St Brelade's Church for a time.

The Martyr's Crown
by G.R. Balleine

PETER worked with success for perhaps eighteen months, and Tertullian refers to `those whom Peter baptized in the Tiber'. Then storm-clouds gathered. In 65 plague swept through Rome, claiming 30,000 victims. This no doubt reawakened the cry, `The Gods are angry!'

In 66 Nero, who had fled from the plague, returned in a bad temper. The building of his Golden Palace had stopped for lack of funds. His expedition to find Dido's treasure had returned empty-handed. In a fit of rage he had kicked his beloved Poppaea, and she had died. Rumours of revolt were spreading. A hurricane devastated Campania. Something must be done to placate the Gods. And what better scapegoats could be found than the detested Christians?

According to Clement of Alexandria one of the first to be arrested was Peter's wife, the staunch old Jewess, who had welcomed Jesus to her cottage in Capernaum, and had been her husband's helpmate through all his missionary work. They say that Peter, when he saw his wife led out to death, rejoiced that she was homeward bound, and called her by name very encouragingly, `Remember the Lord.' The story is so simple that it may be true. A romancer would surely have invented something more dramatic. Peter had written to Pontus, `The more you share Christ's sufferings, the more you will rejoice, when His glory is revealed.' This was probably what he meant by `Remember'!

Next comes the Quo Vadis legend. There are several versions. The Apocryphal Acts of Peter, written about 16o, says that Xanthippe, one of Nero's court ladies, sent him warning that his hiding-place was known. `The Brethren urged him to escape. "Shall I desert my post?" he asked. "Go," they said, "that you may still be able to serve the Lord." So he yielded saying, "I will disguise myself and go." But at the city gate he saw the Lord about to enter Rome, and asked, "Lord, whither goest Thou? (Domine, quo vadis?)." He replied, "To Rome to be crucified." "What," cried Peter, "crucified again! Then, I will turn and follow Thee." And the Lord ascended into Heaven.' This story is not incredible. Peter was a visionary, much influenced by visions. If he was doubtful whether his flight was right or wrong, this would be just the state of mind to induce a vision.

The story was told by many early writers, but with different explanations. To some Christ's words were a rebuke. Those who desert their post `crucify the Son of God afresh'. To others it was a call to a higher duty than obedience to the rule, `If you are persecuted in one city, flee to another.' Rome would not be won till Christ was crucified again in the person of Peter.

That Peter was martyred is certain. In 96, only thirty years after it happened, Clement of Rome, a survivor of the massacre, wrote that Peter had `contended unto death'. All contemporary records, however, of his end have vanished. This is not unprecedented. A vast number of ancient books have vanished. Of the three contemporary Roman historians of the period, Fabius Rusticus, Cluvius Rufus, and Pliny the Elder, not a line survives. Of Tacitus' Histories only one manuscript escaped destruction.

And in 303 Diocletian ordered a world-wide destruction of Christian documents, which has left wide gaps in our knowledge of early Church History. In the Roman Mass worshippers still say they revere the memory of twelve martyrs, whose names are solemnly recited. These must have been famous in their day; but the learned Jesuit, Professor Jungmann, in his Missarum Sollemnia admits: `There is considerable doubt about the last five.

From the viewpoint of historical truth little more can be established than their names.' And even of Peter the story of his death can only be reconstructed from traditions.

Clement, our best witness, wrote from Rome; and he attributes Peter's arrest to `jealousy (dia.Zelon)'. This is an ugly word. He is warning the faction-rent Church in Corinth what harm party-jealousies can do. Jealousy led Cain to kill Abel, Joseph's brethren to sell him as a slave, Saul to lay traps for David. Through `jealousies' the `vast multitude' lost their lives under Nero, and `through wicked jealousy' Peter had `endured many torments and gone to his place of glory'.

This is susceptible of only one interpretation. The trouble at Corinth was not the jealousy of the heathen, but of rival Christian groups; and jealousies of this kind had evidently been responsible for the death of Peter. The Roman Church before this had been blamed for its dissensions. Paul had rebuked its `rivalry and. envy', and the way some preached Christ `out of party-spirit'. Perhaps at this time a militant group, foaming with rage against Nero, despised Peter's pacifism.

We do not know who was guilty; but thirty years later Clement could state as a well-known fact that Peter had been betrayed by the jealousy of fellow-Christians. His form of martyrdom was crucifixion. This was universally believed in the second century, and is implied in the Fourth Gospel (xxi. 18), for what other form of death requires the victim to stretch out his hands and be bound?

The Apocryphal Acts of Peter add a strange detail, `He was crucified head down-wards, having himself desired this.' This became the accepted tradition, repeated by orthodox Fathers of the Church like Origen and Ambrose; and the fact that the writers of the apocryphal books were puzzled to explain it shows that they did not invent it. One makes Peter say, `Crucify me head downwards, for the Lord said, "Except you make the top the bottom, you shall not know the Kingdom".' Another said, `Christ hung feet downwards, because He came down from Heaven, and Peter feet upwards because he was going to Heaven.' Not till Jerome (about 360) do we meet the explanation that later became popular,

`He said, "I am not worthy to die like my Lord".' The difficulty lay in the idea that Peter chose this position. This form of crucifixion was not unheard-of. Seneca reports that he had seen some years before `crosses on which men hung head downwards'. Nero's septic humour may well have tried to rob death of all dignity by treating Peter thus. The unexpectedness of this detail sounds as if it might be true.

The Apocryphal Acts also state that Peter was martyred in Nero's garden on the Vatican, the scene of the former massacre; and their topography is probably more reliable than their hagiography. They do not hesitate to invent fantastic miracles; but, when they state where Peter died, they would repeat the current Roman tradition. They would lose the confidence of their readers if they contradicted the prevailing belief. The Vatican in those days was a rural district outside the city. It contained a steep, vine-covered hill, the Mons Vaticanus, and a valley at the foot, the Vallis Vatican, where Nero had his private garden. Here was his circus, an oval race-course for chariot-racing, which could be flooded and made a naumachia, a lake on which gladiators could fight from rafts.

Nero's garden was a conspicuous spot; and, if Peter died there, it would not be forgotten. This became the universally accepted tradition in Rome. An early version of the Acts ('not later than 200', says James) reports that the cross was placed `at the place called the naumachia beside Nero's obelisk on the Vatican'. Another version says, `by the obelisk between the two turning-posts'.

If he was executed in the Emperor's garden, his death must have formed part of a public spectacle. Nero's blase boon companions looked for more exciting entertainment than the death of an elderly Jew. That cross was probably a minor detail in some brilliant pageant. In his imperial box Nero sat betting with gaunt Tigellinus, while by the ancient obelisk, that once, with our 'Cleopatra's needle', in Moses's day had guarded the Temple of the Sun in Egypt, Peter hung dying in excruciating agony.

Truly a tragic death! In Galilee he had dreamed that he would see God's Kingdom a reality and earth purged of evil. Buoyed up by that hope he had carried the Good News from land to land. He knew now what his Master's warning had meant. Those who would not follow to the cross need not follow at all. What had this untiring life of strenuous work accomplished?

Strange results followed from it, as our Epilogue will show. But its chief practical result was to have spread through East and West the facts of the life of Jesus, as we find them in Mark's Gospel. Paul had broadcast deep ideas about divine redemption, but Peter told the concrete facts about the Galilean Carpenter, without which theology would be mere speculation. In addition to this, if the view taken in the previous chapters is correct, we can credit Peter with three epoch-making achievements.

When the problems raised by the Gentile converts threatened to split the Church, Peter's common sense had checked the schism that seemed inevitable. He had planted his message from Jewry to Jewry right across Asia Minor, and thus built up Churches which became the strongest in early Christendom. His crowning triumph had been to rebuild the Church in Rome after the great slaughter, and leave a team of trained disciples to carry on his work in the strategic centre, to which Europe, Africa, and Asia were going to look for guidance. A servant who had done this might without presumption hope to hear his Lord's `Well done!'

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