Review

Upon This Rock: A Biography of Saint Peter

Close-up of Tears of St. Peter (ca. 1590), a 79.5 x 102.4 cm oil on canvas by El Greco (1541-1614), located in the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Oslo.

Photo: Nasjonalmuseet/Høstland, Børre.

Tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo Ecclesiam meam: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church.” (Matt 16:18)

The history of the Church begins with a play on words—perhaps the play on words that will have had the greatest impact on the history of the Western world. 

The historian Christophe Dickès is a French specialist in the history of the Holy See and a connoisseur of the Vatican’s secrets. He is notably known for his Dictionnaire du Vatican et du Saint-Siège published by Robert Laffont in 2010, and for his book-length essay Ces 12 papes qui ont bouleversé le monde, published by Tallandier in 2015. 

He has just published a completely new work, a biography of the apostle Saint Peter that is both precise, clear, and extremely well documented, which should have a prominent place on all bookshelves. The subject, the apostle Peter, is both extremely banal and unexpected, since the figure of the founder of the Church of Rome is in fact profoundly misunderstood. Hence the subtitle of his book: “the mysterious and the obvious.” 

Following his previous works, Christophe Dickès’ interest naturally turned to the man who was at the origin of the construction of the power of the popes. Dickès is a believer and does not hide it—he has taken several positions in recent weeks in defense of the traditional rite attacked by the motu proprio Traditionis Custodes—but he has been guided in his undertaking by a true historian’s approach: seeking to understand the causes. The person of Saint Peter and his destiny are the primary cause of the pontifical power installed in Rome and of which the Catholic Church today is the heir. 

In Catholic culture, the figure of Saint Peter is often contrasted with that of Paul. But in fact, Saint Paul is much better known than Peter. Paul was an intellectual who left behind many writings, which is not the case with Peter. He remains difficult to access, even though he is cited 154 times in the holy texts—the most cited character after Jesus. The challenge for the historian of antiquity lies in access to sources. This is even more true when, for a character like Peter, most sources have the status of holy books. The sources of Peter’s history are of course the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, but they are also the fine arts and archaeology. After more than a century of excavations and research, the house of Peter was finally uncovered in Capernaum in Galilee in 1968. Dickès also looks back at the exciting saga of the two excavation campaigns led by Pius XII under St. Peter’s Basilica to pinpoint the exact location of the apostle’s tomb—a presence that remained putative for centuries. 

Dickès’ investigation into the character of Peter presents the apostle in a new light. Social history takes over from faith to help define the profile of a fisherman from Palestine in the first century on the shores of Lake Tiberias. Through this prism of analysis, the Gospels allow us to say, for example, that Peter belonged to the lower middle class. He was wealthy enough to own a boat for up to fifteen people and was the head of a kind of small cooperative, where Jesus Christ went to “fish” for the future apostles. 

Dickès sifts through all the texts that believers think they know in order to extract the quintessence. We by incidence learn from Saint Paul that Saint Peter was married, since he preached with his wife. Beyond the prosaic existence of the man from the shores of Lake Tiberias, a deeper questioning appears in this biography. Why did Peter, a small fisherman boss, choose to follow Jesus one day, unknowingly embarking on a path that would lead him to the heart of the Roman Empire? 

The figure of Peter, who stands out in the Gospels, is the meeting point of the testimony of history and the testimony of faith. Peter evolves throughout the narrative bequeathed by the Apostles. He is no longer satisfied with the Mosaic faith, but his commitment to Christ is not the result of a comfortable certainty. He is in essence the one who navigates between the evidence of faith—illustrated in the profession of Caesarea Philippi—and doubt, with the episodes of his denials finely analyzed by Dickès who combs, with the rigor of the historian, through the testimonies of this central scene in the life of Peter. The author links Peter the figure of the rooster, the famous one that crowed three times on the night of Holy Thursday to Good Friday; the rooster who is also the emblem of the Roman god of medicine, Aesculapius, who defied Zeus by raising the dead; the rooster who announces the light of the sun ready to rise, as a metaphor of divine mercy and redemption by the Savior, which draws tears from the sinner Peter who betrayed him. In the baptism rite, the initiate is immersed with water three times, as a ritualization of death to self, rise to new life in Christ, and cleansing from sin. The number three is also in memory of Peter’s denial and the rooster who crowed three times.

Les Larmes de Saint Pierre (ca. 1612), a 141×178 cm oil on canvas by Fra Juan Bautista Maíno (1581-1649), located in the Louvre.

 

The book is particularly rich concerning the relationship between Peter and Rome. Contrary to what one might think, it appears that neither Peter nor Paul were present for the foundation of the first Christian community in Rome. But it had grown so influential that by 64 A.D., during the reign of Nero, it was accused of having played a role in the burning of Rome. It was in the wave of persecution that followed the fire that Tradition places the terrible martyrdom of Saint Peter. 

But the story of Peter does not end with his death. Pontifical power continued to be built around the person of Peter—what we will call the pontifical primacy, which is to be distinguished from the Roman primacy, because the one predates the other. For Dickès, pontifical primacy, 

rests above all on the very special place that Simon Peter enjoys in the Gospels. … The texts make Peter the first witness of the Resurrection, the leader of the Jerusalem community and the spokesman for the disciples. It is only in a second stage that the primacy will be attached to the Church of Rome, perceived as inseparable from the death of the two apostles. 

In this biography, which is both very thorough and enjoyable to read, Dickès succeeds in bringing us incredibly close to the apostle Peter, who, before being the founder of the Roman Church, is the one who par excellence opened the way by receiving the forgiveness of Jesus Christ. Saint Peter is truly a man of mystery—why did Jesus entrust the Church to him, the sinner, the traitor? But such a conundrum should give consolation, since no one more fittingly embodies the unity of all believers, Jews and Gentiles, from Capernaum to Rome through Jerusalem, that is so consistent with Christ’s desire to draw all humanity to Him.

Hélène de Lauzun studied at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. She taught French literature and civilization at Harvard and received a Ph.D. in History from the Sorbonne. She is the author of Histoire de l’Autriche (Perrin, 2021).

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