No figure in the New Testament is more interesting and yet understudied than the apostle Peter. Despite his rash decisions, he follows Jesus from the beginning, acts as the ad hoc leader of the Twelve, and stands behind much of the Gospel traditions. A study on the apostle will bring the student to some of the most critical moments in the life of the early church. Yet in Acts he seems to fade into the background. In comparison to Paul’s thirteen letters, 1 and 2 Peter often are overlooked. In The Life and Witness of Peter, Larry Helyer presents the New Testament’s portrait of the apostle’s life and theology.
The first part of the book uses the Gospels, Acts, and portions of Paul’s letters to construct a historical narrative of Peter’s time with Jesus and in the early church. The most defining moment may be Peter’s confession along with Jesus’s response. For Helyer this becomes significant in Acts, where Peter plays a significant role in Pentecost, the conversion of the Samaritans, and finally the evangelization of Cornelius. Surprisingly, by the end of the first half of Acts, Peter fades into the background. The Pauline letters give a snapshot of Peter’s interactions with Paul, and Helyer admits that the relationship had some difficulties, but he relies on 2 Peter 3:15 to conclude that “Christian charity appears to have healed the deep wounds” (p. 103).
The second part of the book overviews the theology reflected in Peter’s letters. Helyer devotes a chapter to introductory issues for both letters—such as the authorship of 2 Peter—as well as the theological message of the books. The bulk of his work focuses on Peter’s Christology. In 1 Peter, Christology creates a pattern for discipleship. Believers should expect to suffer in the same way as Christ because they live in a hostile world. Despite rejection, the believer’s relationship with Christ provides an identity. In 2 Peter false teachers have denied Christ’s second coming, and this deficient Christology has led to moral decay. Peter meets the problem head on with a defense of the Parousia. Helyer leaves the issue of the false teachers’ identity hanging—are they Christians or not? They claim to be believers, but Peter’s language suggests that he does not see them as such. The question touches on the perseverance of the saints—perhaps a secondary issue for the letter, albeit an important one. Helyer ends the book with two short chapters discussing early Christian traditions and noncanonical works about Peter.
A number of books on Peter have cropped up recently, among which Helyer’s volume fits nicely. In his Saint Peter: The Underestimated Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), Martin Hengel shows the impact that Peter made within the early church. Hengel’s historical analysis focuses on how Peter is portrayed in the Synoptic Gospels, Acts, and Paul’s letters. Another recent book on Peter comes from Markus Bockmuehl, whose Simon Peter in Scripture and Memory (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012) presents an in-depth study of Peter from early Christian documents, both canonical and noncanonical. In comparison, the strength of Helyer’s work is his analysis of the Petrine letters, which both Hengel and Bockmuehl seem to sidestep. Helyer’s historical survey lacks the detail that Hengel and Bockmuehl offer, but this does not seem to fit his intended audience. At the end of each chapter Helyer provides a number of study questions and additional bibliography, which will help readers interested in further study.
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