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Book Review: Simon Peter in Scripture and Memory

I've long enjoyed the work of Markus Bockmuehl. His commentary on Philippians and his monograph Seeing the Word are classics and deserve wider readership than they have garnered. The latter explains and defends Bockmuehl's method for studying historical figures and texts. He argues for the importance of reception history for understanding meaning. Simon Peter in Scripture and Memory: The New Testament Apostle in the Early Church represents Bockmuehl's attempt to carry out that approach on the historical figure of Simon Peter.

The books divides into three parts. The first is an overview of the canonical witness to the historical Peter. The second part, which comprises the bulk of the book, looks at the local memories of Peter from the late first and second centuries. The third and final part uses the results of the first two parts to shed light on two problems, one exegetical and one archaeological.

Bockmuehl begins part one with an observation and a challenge to contemporary scholarship. While a fair amount was written about Peter in the first two centuries CE, we know fairly little biographically and have no early insight into his death. While this may be true, Bockmuehl disagrees with the scholarly trend denying Petrine authorship of 1 Peter or any connection with the Gospel of Mark, any connection with Rome, or any real importance in the early church. The book, is primarily a defense of the last of these points, addressing the first three along the way. The first chapter contains a discussion of methodology. The key to understanding what happened is to look at what happened next and work backwards. Additionally, contemporaries are poor at evaluating significance. This is best done slightly removed from the time the subject lived. Thus Bockmuehl proposes that we look, cautiously, at collective memory. By attending to the text's implied readers and through effective history, Bockmuehl attempts to regain the historical Simon Peter. The second chapter of part one provides a summary of New Testament evidence concerning Peter. This is a synthetic picture aimed more at telling a story than a detailed analysis of each writing in the Newt Testament. Two major points worth mentioning are drawn out. One is that there is no rift between Peter and Paul. The second is that even if 1 Peter isn't "authored" by Peter it is strongly in character.

In part two Bockmuehl turns to local memory. First he discusses the Eastern portrait of Peter, focusing particularly on Syria. Bockmuehl begins with unique local memories and then proceeds through the relevant literature from the first two centuries. After looking at Serapion of Antioch, Ignatious, Justin Martyr, and some apocryphal literature; Bockmuehl gives significant space to the gospels of Matthew and John. While John does somewhat reduce Peter's importance in relation to the beloved disciple, Matthew views Peter as the authoritative bearer of tradition and teaching authority. Additionally, Bockmuehl argues for an early, pre-70 date for Matthew.

Part three gives a similar treatment to the Western Peter. In addition to texts he also looks into archaeological matters like the tomb of Peter. In all, he concludes that we have evidence of Peter's martyrdom in Rome dating back to the time of living memory and thus on the whole it probably reflects authentic tradition.

The last two chapters do more than simply 'tie things together.' Bockmuehl now utilizes the information he has gleaned to advance the discussion on two issues. First is the question of how Peter became a disciple and the second looks at the location of Bethsaida. Here, Bockmuehl knocks it out of the park. He asks the question of Luke/Acts, when did Peter "turn back" as Luke 22:32 implied he would after denying Jesus? Luke never explicitly tells us. We just see a Peter who has turned back. Bockmuehl suggests that Luke expects his audience to be able to supply that information and utilize it as background for their reading of the text. Thus, while Luke's intentions may be not directly available to us, if he communicated well, we may be able to interpret him via looking at how his earliest interpreters understood him.

This strikes me as the absolute correct way to approach the question. While Luke provided enough information for his original readers to understand his communication, we no longer have the same shared knowledge. Recourse to the original audience seems necessary. At the same time it differs from critical methods that ignore the role of authorial intention. It may not be directly discernible (although sometimes it is), but it often is indirectly. Much of biblical studies is spent examining background. That is very important research, but understanding background alone is insufficient. We need to examine the history of effects. In this work, Bockmuehl doesn't just tell us that, he demonstrates why. Life is now harder on the New Testament scholar. Works like this and of Larry Hurtado and others make clear that one cannot just dissect the text. Second century texts, inscriptions, and art are as much the domain of study as the New Testament itself.

Bockmuehl has given us an outstanding work. It's accessible, well documented, and moves the field of biblical studies forward by showing the promise that reception history has in aiding historical and exegetical study. It is my hope that more New Testament scholars utilize this approach. Additionally we've now got ourselves a very nice work on Peter that isn't afraid to take a stand on difficult questions and presents a full, but critical portrait of the chief of the apostles. Hopefully this work can spur on greater Protestant appreciation for the apostle. I'd strongly recommend Simon Peter in Scripture and Memory: The New Testament Apostle in the Early Church to any with an interest in Peter or hermeneutics.


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