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2. St Peter the Apostle |
The unpromising Peter takes over

St Peter the Apostle is drawn from Chapter Two, beginning on page 39, of Volume One, The Veil is Torn of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

The man who denied Christ three times becomes his fearless witness before officialdom and the people

St Peter the Apostle - The unpromising Peter takes over

St Peter the Apostle - The unpromising Peter takes over
In an episode reminiscent of their Master’s miracles, Peter and John healed a crippled beggar at the Temple gates. A crowd gathered quickly as news of the healing spread. Characteristically, Peter then took the opportunity to admonish the onlookers for their failure to have recognized the Messiah whom God had raised up “to bless you in turning every one of you from your wickedness.” At once furious and alarmed, the Temple authorities arrest the two disciples. Here, they are led away.

On a quiet stone-paved alley just outside the Zion Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City stands an unadorned, two-story stone building, dwarfed by the tower and dome of the adjacent Dormition Abbey. From the doorway on the alley, a set of steps leads to the second floor of the building. Passing a guard reading his Hebrew newspaper, the visitor proceeds into a renovated room, twenty-five by twenty-five feet, whose gothic arches and stained-glass windows testify to its origins as a twelfth-century Crusader church. Arabic inscriptions on the walls evidence its subsequent history as a mosque. Visitors shuffle through, some stopping to pray aloud or sing with others in their tour groups.

Almost no archeologist would unreservedly agree with twelfth-century pilgrims and twenty-first century visitors, however, that the building stands on the site of “the Upper Room,” scene of the Last Supper, the place where fifty days later the Holy Spirit descended and empowered the Christian Church to spread the message of Jesus Christ to the world.

Still, whether at this very place or at another not far from it, something powerful and strange certainly occurred on that Jewish feast called the Pentecost, on or about the year a.d. 31. Those who were present told a gripping story. First they heard a terrific rushing sound, like a mighty wind, filling the whole house. As they looked around in astonishment, each could see what they would later describe to the best of their abilities as something that was essentially indescribable. It was as though tiny “tongues of fire” rested over the head of each man, they said. And when they tried to speak, words from languages none of them knew fell from their lips.

Some people later scoffed, saying the whole bunch must be drunk. But others who heard them–Parthians and Medes and Elamites and Asians and visitors from many other nations who were present for the feast–recognized the languages as their own and were astonished to hear and understand, in the fluent outbursts from these ordinary Galileans, praises of the works of God. As for the speakers, they found the experience eerie and wonderful–the most exciting thing that had happened to them, ever.

Whatever it was that took place in that room that day, it completely transformed the tiny circle of very frightened men and women who had cowered there after the crucifixion of their leader, the

Nazarene, Jesus, who they now said was not only the Messiah, but a Messiah risen from death: alive. Intellectually, scholastically, socially and above all ecclesiastically, they were a collection of nobodies. And not even Jerusalem nobodies; most of them came from Galilee, a rustic backwater. Now, out of their hideout on that future quiet alley they poured, advancing upon the Temple–fearless, fervid, and imbued with a message that most of the Temple’s officialdom definitely did not anticipate and would not want to hear.

Even the Temple itself failed to intimidate them, though the mere bulk and soaring stone of its walls, the grandeur of its decor, was obviously calculated to intimidate everybody. Chief among its integrities was its sheer permanence. It had stood for 545 years. No one could conceive that in another thirty-nine, at the hands of the overwhelming forces of Rome, it would be utterly destroyed.

The Temple site, holiest area in the holy city of Jerusalem, had been chosen by King Solomon himself when in about 960 b.c. he built the first temple there, as a home for the cherished Ark of the Covenant and a center for Jewish worship. Solomon’s temple was demolished around 586 b.c. by King Nebuchadnezzar, who razed the entire city of Jerusalem as well and carried the Jews off to his own land, Babylon. When the Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem in 538, they began building the second temple on the desolate site of the first, and though the new temple was declared complete in 515 b.c., it endured the successive waves of non-Jewish domination that followed the surrender of Jerusalem to the great Macedonian general Alexander. Jewish rebels seized Jerusalem again in 167 b.c. and once more dedicated the Temple for worship.

Then came Herod the Great, appointed king of Judea in 37 b.c., twenty-five years after Rome conquered the Holy Land and declared it a “client state.” Herod, a half-Jew, won his position by serving as advisor, mentor and confidant to Julius Caesar and his imperial successor Octavius Augustus, founders of what had by now become the greatest empire the world had ever known. On their behalf Herod ordered unflinchingly whatever slaughter or carnage the preservation of peace and good order seemed to require. The massacre of the infants at Bethlehem, marked and mourned as villainy by Christians for the next two thousand years, was an undistinguished incident in his sanguinary record.

Not for nothing, however, is he known to history as Herod “the Great.” Once he was installed by the Romans as puppet king of the Jews, his spectacular redevelopment program changed the face of the Holy Land. But his mightiest achievement was his magnificent expansion and adornment of the Temple at Jerusalem, an architectural triumph that would astonish the world.

With huge cut stones weighing as much as fifty tons, he bent the rule that the Temple area could not be broadened, creating a massive stone platform that buried the form of the mountain upon which it sat.

A section of Herod’s platform would survive into the twenty-first century.1

All of this history was known, of course, to Peter and the others as they approached the Temple, still deeply stirred within by what had happened to them in the Upper Room, their conviction strengthened by Peter’s strong confidence and impulsive resolve. Recognized by the group as their senior spokesman (and by Catholic Christians as the church’s first pope), Peter was certainly one of the two central figures in the tumultuous events that were about to unfold. To future generations, especially those with twenty-first-century sensibilities, he would seem an unlikely leader. He was a fisherman when he joined Jesus, and the Gospel accounts make clear that he was impetuous and hot-tempered, quick to assert his opinions and just as quick to recant them when rebuked. Worst of all, shortly after Jesus’ arrest, a badly frightened Peter had flatly and repeatedly denied any connection with him, pretending to know nothing whatever about him. Even after the Resurrection, Jesus’ last words on earth to Peter were an admonition.2

Despite these flaws, Peter also had his strengths. He had spent his life as a commercial fisherman, and no one who has seen a commercial fisherman at work would be surprised at Peter’s taking this leadership role. Even with the technology of the twenty-first century, commercial fishing is no job for the faint of heart. Demanding and dangerous, it requires steady nerves, raw courage, great physical strength, and an ability to act decisively and instantly when conditions demand. And those conditions were far worse in the first century. Much of Peter’s life had been spent on the open water in tiny boats, dwarfed by the elements, spray-drenched, sails flapping wildly in wind, waves convulsing his vessel. His home town, Capernaum, like every fishing village in the world, ancient or modern, mourned with tragic frequency the drowned, the maimed and those who went to work and were never seen again. Such was fishing and such was Peter, the improbable spokesman for this most improbable group of men (see sidebar, opposite page).

His voice, so often in the past raised above the roar of wind and crashing water, now resounded over the throng of curious spectators surrounding and following the apostles. “Jews and all you who live in Jerusalem, understand this,” he cried. “Give me your attention!” Puzzled, the crowd fell silent. “These men are not drunk, as you assume–it is only the third hour of the day!”

Carefully, methodically, the big fisherman, his hands callused, laid before his listeners a version of biblical prophecy. Had they read, he asked, the prophet Joel?

“And it shall happen in the last days, says God,

I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,

so that your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,

so that your young men shall see visions,

so that your old men shall dream dreams ….

And I will cause wonders to happen in the heaven above,

and signs on the earth below.” Acts 2:17-183

What they had seen and heard in and around the Upper Room, Peter said, had nothing to do with drunkenness. Rather, he boldly declared, it was unmistakable evidence that the ancient prophecies were coming to pass–in their own time, before their very eyes.

And what it meant was this: Jesus, the man whom they had seen crucified and whose death some among them had cheered, was in fact alive, “both Lord and Messiah.”

Instead of reacting in rage, hooting him down or pelting him with stones, the crowd responded to Peter’s explanation in a curious manner. After all, with their own eyes and ears they had witnessed something unusual and powerful. “They felt a deep grief in their hearts,” the writer Luke says in describing the emotion that swept through the crowd at Peter’s words. “They said to Peter and the other apostles: ‘What shall we do, brothers?’” Peter’s answer was simple and direct. “Repent and let each of you be baptized, calling on the name of Jesus, the Messiah, that your sins may be forgiven, and then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

And on that day, about three thousand followed Peter’s instruction, were baptized, and joined the apostles’ fellowship. Their faith, based as it was upon what they had seen happen in their city and in and around the Upper Room, spread rapidly. They were well liked by the people in Jerusalem, Luke reports, and their numbers continued to increase. And for their meetings of instruction and worship, they naturally gathered where their religious assemblies had always been held: in the great Temple. Though Gentiles were barred from all but the Temple’s outer court–indeed, violations of that rule were punishable by death–these followers of Jesus and Peter were Jews, and therefore entitled to use the Temple for the worship of God.

Inside the Temple walls were a series of courtyards, each more restrictive than the last. Like the Gentiles, women had their own area or court, outside the Court of Israelites and the Court of Priests. The main sacrificial altar loomed before the entrance to the holy central shrine, which was divided inside into two sections separated by a curtain. In the first section, the priests made preparations twice daily, for the morning and evening sacrifices. Beyond the veil and the curtain, in the room known as the Holy of Holies, the Ark of the Covenant was said to be present still. Only the high priest was permitted to pass through the veil separating the Holy of Holies from the anteroom, only once a year, and always aware that a misstep could result in his death.

The Temple bustled with activity from dawn to nightfall, and not just religious activity. Every adult male among the eighty thousand Jews who lived in Jerusalem year-round was required, under the ancient laws, to pay a yearly Temple tax of one-half shekel each. (The value of a shekel remains obscure, but according to the Old Testament book of Exodus, thirty shekels was the price of a slave.) There were also freewill offerings, publicly applauded bequests and gifts, wood offerings for the sacrifices, and periodic fund-raising drives for special needs. In the Temple treasury sat trumpet-shaped containers into which worshipers could drop coins. (One such worshiper was the widow celebrated in Mark’s Gospel, who gave just two small coins–the “widow’s mite.” Jesus, seeing what she had done, remarked that by giving all that she had, she had contributed far more than the wealthiest donor.) The annual cash flow, supporting the work of thousands of priests and other personnel and funding the rest of the staggering overhead costs, had long before made the Temple an important commercial center. Bankers kept monies on deposit in the Temple–the fourth book of Maccabees speaks of private fortunes held there for safekeeping.

Much of the Temple’s commerce arose in support of religious ceremonies, in particular the unending rounds of animal sacrifices that occurred there each day. Bulls, calves, sheep, goats, and birds were sold on the premises. So many animals were brought to the Temple for sacrifice that the entire livestock industry in the area around Jerusalem was said to be devoted to that purpose.

Thousands of priests, along with their Levite guards and assistants and hosts of others, were required to keep all of this going. Each priest served a week’s duty in the Temple, at the rate of about seven hundred priests a week on a twenty-four-week rotating schedule, with as many as eighteen thousand priests from Jerusalem included in the rotation. During their one or two weeks of service each year, they were entitled to keep some of what remained of the sacrificial animals, particularly hides, which could be sold to boost a priest’s income. Under ancient law they were also entitled to offerings specifically collected for their income, but many priests lived in poverty. Although the taxes and offerings were scripturally required, not all were paid, and there were huge expenses to meet besides the priests’ salaries.

The sacrifices began at dawn, with the solemn killing and butchering of a lamb by priests bedecked in white linen and sashes decorated with flowers of crimson, purple and blue. Sacrificial ceremonies continued throughout the day, accompanied by singing and cymbal-crashing. In addition to the communal rituals, there were privately funded sacrifices, paid for by individuals or families grateful for spiritual favors, seeking benefits, or fulfilling religious vows. A second lamb would be sacrificed on behalf of the community as a whole each evening, just before conclusion of the daily service.

Though ceremonies were conducted with reverence, the din raised by hundreds of men at work and hosts of animals in captivity and distress was deafening. Smoke rose from the burnt offerings, the sweet odor of wood flames and roasting flesh mingling with the stench of incinerated bones and hair, settling heavily over the city. An unending river of blood, coursing from the beasts’ carefully slit throats, flowed away through an elaborate system of sewers and sluices, above and below ground.

Despite the slaughterhouse motif, or perhaps because of it, the atmosphere in and around the Temple was lively, charged with excitement, even joyful. Excited and exhausted pilgrims of all ages and descriptions arrived on foot, meeting other travelers, reuniting with family members, setting up camp around the city, singing and praying and weeping happily. During the great pilgrimage festivals–Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread in the spring, the Feast of Pentecost seven weeks later, and the Feast of Tabernacles in autumn–as many as two hundred and fifty thousand visitors would descend upon Jerusalem, all under holy obligation to offer Temple sacrifices, as singers sang and pipers played. Drawn by the bustle and commotion, and eager to see or be seen by the swarms of worshipers, were scholars, soldiers, merchants, beggars, tourists, prophets and pickpockets, jostling each other daily on the Temple platform, in what one modern scholar described as a Judean version of London’s Hyde Park Corner.

In mid-afternoon, Peter and John and the others–not yet known as “Christians,” and not yet feared or despised by the Temple hierarchy–approached the thirty-five-acre Temple complex, intending to worship with the other Jews. Surrounded by fellow beggars at the entrance known as the Beautiful Gate was a crippled man who called out to them, appealing for alms, a handout. Much of the population of Jerusalem was dependent upon charity, and the Temple was the center of various formal and informal means of aiding the poor. Peter studied this particular beggar intently, recognizing him as a familiar figure–a man who, aged about forty and unable to walk, was carried daily to the gate by his friends. But there was something unusual about his fierce, desperate appeal that day. John, too, stopped and looked at the man. Suddenly, Peter spoke: “Look at us!”

The man struggled eagerly to sit up, hoping that he was about to receive a good-sized donation. Instead, Peter said something quite remarkable: “I have no silver or gold, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, walk!” And with that, he reached down, took the man by his right hand, and pulled him up.

The writer Luke, trained as a physician, describes what happened to the man next: “Immediately his feet and ankles were strengthened.” He leapt to his feet, testing them cautiously at first, walking about tentatively, and then he began “walking and leaping and praising God.” All of this happened in full view of the crowds in the Temple area. The man, who had spent much of his life begging at the gate, was well known to the Temple’s faithful who now saw him leaping about like a child. It was astounding.

Overcome with emotion, the man clung to Peter and John as they entered the Temple, its magnificent gold-covered facade glowing in the afternoon sun. Joining the crowd funneling into the area, the disciples and their new follower climbed a broad stairway up to the entrance gate, entering as others who had already completed their business in the Temple exited from a smaller gate, slightly to the west. Peter and John had been intent on worship, but the excited company around them grew larger as word of what had happened spread. They reached an area known as Solomon’s Colonnade before they were so surrounded by onlookers that they could go no farther.

Once again, Peter took matters into his own hands, addressing the astonished crowd. “Why do you marvel at this, or why do you stare at us as if we had by our own power or holiness enabled this man to walk? The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus…. Through faith in his name, Jesus’ name has given strength to this man, whom you see and know, and the faith that is called out by (Jesus) gave this man the full use of his limbs, as you can all see.

“… Repent therefore, and turn, so that your sins may be wiped out.”

The commotion soon attracted the attention of Temple officials. A group of priests, the Temple commander, and some of the Sadducees approached them aggressively, pushing through the mass of people, seizing Peter and John and pulling them out, placing them formally under arrest, and locking them up for the night. Still, what had happened that day could hardly be denied by those who had seen it. Peter’s gripping explanation of the meaning of the man’s healing, combined with his urging that they change their lives and follow in the way of Jesus, had a profound effect. Luke calculates that the number of men in the assembly of Peter grew to about five thousand that afternoon.

On the following day, the high priest Annas assembled the seventy-member council known as the Sanhedrin to consider what should be done about the growing disruption in their midst. The aristocratic Sanhedrin wielded power not only within the Temple and Judaism, but also in the general government; it was designated to administer both Jewish law, for which it was the final court of appeal, but also, to some extent, civil and criminal law as well.

The Sanhedrin included a number of Sadducees–members of a party within Judaism that regarded any reference to bodily resurrection as blasphemously unacceptable under the traditions and beliefs handed down to them from Moses. They were strict in their Temple observances, and they enforced severe penalties on any who slipped. Also among the Sanhedrin was a strong force of Pharisees, Jerusalem’s other major party. Though “pharisaical” would later come to mean strict, hypocritical, and straitlaced, the Pharisees of the early first century were far more lenient than the Sadducees, allowing the rules to be bent under certain circumstances rather than rigidly applied. The Pharisees therefore enjoyed much greater popular support. A third faction, the scribes, were scholars and theologians, guardians and interpreters of Jewish tradition. Because they were highly respected, scribes were often appointed to important offices, both religious and public. None of the factions represented in the Sanhedrin was inclined to take lightly a potential threat to the traditions and order observed in the Temple, and they were firmly resolved to find out what this sudden wave of mania meant and to determine how to deal with it.

After spending the night in captivity, Peter and John were hauled before the Sanhedrin for questioning, and along with them, the guards brought the man who had been healed. The first question put the Sanhedrin’s concern about the disciples succinctly: “By what power or by what name have you done this?”

Once again, it was Peter who rose boldly to the occasion. “If today, because of a kindness to a sick man, we are asked by what means he was cured, let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel, that it is through the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom you crucified, but whom God raised from the dead–it is through him that this man stands before you cured…. And there is no salvation through anyone else. For there is no other name under heaven given to men through which we must be saved.”

The answer astonished the learned company. Peter and John were both mere fishermen from the back country, uncouth, unqualified, unlearned in the fine points of the Law. Did they not realize whom they were addressing in such brazen terms? They were also known to have been among the followers of Jesus before his execution. And here before them was another man, standing bolt upright, walking under his own power–the same man who had languished for years outside the Temple. Some, no doubt, had occasionally dropped a few coins in his palm.

They briefly dismissed the trio from the hearing and tried to figure out what to do. It was a delicate problem. Word of the miraculous healing had already spread far and wide, and there were many eyewitnesses. Issuing an official denial that the thing had ever happened was certainly not an option. The best they could hope to accomplish, they decided, was to threaten Peter and John severely, order them not to talk about any of this, and especially not to mention the name of Jesus, anymore.

Satisfied with this plan, they called Peter and John back and forbade them to preach about Jesus, to talk about him or even to mention him. Their pronouncement, however, singularly failed to impress the accused. They owed, they replied, a duty to God in regard to this incident, and that duty superseded their duty to obey the Sanhedrin. Put simply: “We cannot refrain from speaking of that which we have seen and heard.”

This willful refusal to accept the Sanhedrin’s authority amounted to open rebellion, but by the very nature of their positions, those who sat on the council were keenly attuned to political reality. They knew that all of Jerusalem was abuzz about what had happened, and that many had attributed it to God. Imposing punishment on those at the center of it would not sit well at all. Not for the moment anyway. The frustrated officials once again ordered John and Peter to keep quiet and, seeing no other choice, turned them loose.

After reuniting with the others, Peter and John related all that had happened, including the Sanhedrin’s declaration that they were to stop talking about Jesus. They then led the group in prayer, the prayer recorded by Luke as the first communal prayer of the Christians, ending with this plea: “Now today, Lord, take notice of (the rulers’) threats, and grant that your servants may speak your word with all boldness, in reaching out your hand in healing, and making signs and deeds take place through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”

As they prayed, they remained uncertain about what all of this meant and whether they were on the right track. But they received confirmation in an unmistakable way. What seemed a powerful earthquake shook the ground and rattled the building, and to the apostles it could mean only one thing: God had heard their prayer, and would answer it.

As with any group of people that gathers for a common purpose, the apostles faced immediate, practical needs for organization. By this time, the vacancy created by Judas Iscariot’s suicide had been filled. At the behest of Peter, the number of the Twelve had been restored, prior to Pentecost, by the simple expedient of narrowing the eligible candidates down to two and then drawing straws. Matthias was chosen to take Judas’s place. (Partly because Matthias is mentioned only once in the New Testament–on this occasion–some would argue later that the apostles had jumped the gun and made the wrong choice, and that Christ had already chosen the real successor, whom he would reveal on the road to Damascus.)

Those who had come to believe wanted, naturally, to remain with others of like mind. That created the need for some kind of ongoing structure to take care of the basic, physical needs of the growing assembly. Glad to be part of the movement, many of those who owned land or other property sold it and gave the money to others who needed it. One man, Joseph Barnabas, set a particularly striking example, selling a field that he owned, bringing the money to the apostles, and laying it before them at their feet.

Meanwhile, the group had to contend with the usual foibles of humanity. There are always those who jockey for position and prestige, watching the others carefully for clues as to what they can do to gain attention and favor. Two such members of the infant church were Ananias and Sapphira, a married couple. Having jealously observed the warm regard in which Joseph was held after his sacrificial contribution of the proceeds of his land to the group, they determined to obtain the same status for themselves. After all, they, too, owned a field. They sold it, and they received quite a bit of money–too much money, really, to give it all away, they decided. They would keep some of it back, and the amount they gave to the apostles would still be impressive, would still exalt their standing, while they would not run the risk of having no funds for themselves should all of this collapse and throw them back on their own resources. Ananias, therefore, took only part of the money with him when he imitated Joseph and brought the cash to Peter, laying it at his feet.

Peter, however, had been watching Ananias, and he immediately became suspicious. Instead of praising the gift, he questioned Ananias sharply, asking him outright if, indeed, he had turned over all the profits from the sale as he claimed. When Ananias assured Peter that the entire sum was before him, Peter recognized it as a bald falsehood: “Why did Satan fill your heart so that you lied to the Holy Spirit and put some of the money for the land aside for yourself? Was it not yours as long as you owned it? After it was sold was not the money yours to dispose of? Why did you decide in your heart to act so? You have not lied to men, but to God.” Under Peter’s rebuke, Ananias suddenly collapsed, falling to the ground. When others rushed forward to help him, they found that he was dead, and they were gripped with fear. They quickly wrapped his body, took it out, and buried it.

Three hours later, Ananias’s wife, Sapphira, came in, unaware of her husband’s fate. Peter asked her the same questions: Had they sold the land for so much? Yes, she said. Had they brought all the money to the apostles, as they said? Yes. So Peter dashed Sapphira’s hopes for acclaim and prominence as well: “How can you two have agreed to put the Spirit of the Lord to such a test? Listen, you can hear the footsteps of the men who have just buried your husband coming back through the door, and they will carry you out as well.” And, just as her husband had done, Sapphira collapsed before Peter and died. The men who had buried Ananias came in, took her out, and buried her beside her husband.

The stark fear experienced by those who witnessed the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira was rooted in a belief by some of the disciples that they would not die before Christ returned to earth and gathered up his people. Here, though, they had seen two members of the congregation fall dead before them–and that raised the possibility that others might die before the second coming as well. Besides having it impressed upon them that punishment follows disobedience to the Holy Spirit, the apostles found themselves wondering who if any of them would make it through to the end, and what would happen to those who did not.

In defiance of the Sanhedrin’s orders, Peter and John continued to gather with the others at the Temple, usually in Solomon’s Colonnade as before. There they continued to attract attention, but by now other Jews had heard of the arrests and the strict instructions imposed by the Sanhedrin, and were wary of being associated with the energetic rebels. In general, though, Luke reports, the people held them in respect. And soon, once again, others were joining them, crowds of men and women, many bringing members of their families who were sick and placing them on beds and cots along the path that Peter customarily took, in the hope that his shadow, or just his presence, would heal. And healings took place, followed quickly by widespread reports of these miraculous events, so that Jerusalem was quickly awash in travelers from other towns, bringing their sick and afflicted for help.

All of this was observed by members of the Sanhedrin with a mixture of concern and disgust. These simpletons, mere peasantry, were creating a continual disturbance, upsetting respectable visitors, distracting the worship, becoming a veritable magnet for confusion and trouble. Talk was useless, a group of Sadducees decided. It was time to act. They suddenly seized all twelve apostles and arrested them publicly. That, they concluded, would be that.

It wasn’t. That night, as the Twelve huddled behind bars, a strange thing occurred. A figure appeared among them–living, certainly, but not human. What they remembered most was its blinding brilliance. They concluded it was an angel. Powerfully, the figure pulled on the prison door which instantly swung open, the heavy bolts flying. Then the figure spoke. They were not to return to their homes. They were not to flee the city. They were to proceed forthwith to the Temple, and resume their witness to Christ. Thrilled, frightened, dumbfounded, they obeyed.

Meanwhile, the high priest had convened the Sanhedrin. The question before the council, he said, was the disposal of the prisoners. They were now at last in custody. Things had gone well. All twelve had been arrested without incident. It remained to decide…. Abruptly the meeting was stopped. A disturbing report had just come in from the prison. Somehow all twelve prisoners had escaped. No one knew where they were. It was simply inexplicable. Every precaution had been taken. Guards posted, doors bolted. There must be some explanation for this. But what?

Then, as the meeting dissolved into bewildered disorder and baffled members pressed for detail, another messenger burst into the chamber. Where the Twelve had gone was no longer a mystery, he announced. They were standing, brazen and defiant, as they always did, in the midst of the Temple, openly telling people about Jesus and urging them to follow the way of life he had proclaimed.

For the second time, the commander of the Temple and his deputies went out and escorted the apostles back before the Sanhedrin. Luke makes the point that they were brought by persuasion, not force, because the people were clearly on the apostles’ side and the arresting officials feared that they themselves might be stoned. The high priest sternly rebuked the Twelve, reminding them that the Sanhedrin had expressly commanded them not to teach in Jesus’ name. They had ignored that commandment, not only filling Jerusalem with their teaching, he said, but seeking “to bring this man’s [Jesus’] blood upon our heads.”

Replied Peter: “One must obey God rather than men.” What he and the others were teaching, he said, they could not deny because they had witnessed it with their own eyes.

Thrown into an uproar by the apostles’ intransigence, some members of

the Sanhedrin wanted them executed immediately. One man, however, a well respected Pharisee and teacher of the Law whose renown would live long in the future Judaism, took the floor. His name was Gamaliel. After sending the apostles out, he said to the other members of the council: “Beware of these men, whatever you intend to do.” There had been other movements in which people claimed to be “somebody,” he said. He cited two recent cases–that of a man named Theudas who had about four hundred followers, and that of another man named Judas of Galilee who also had a large following. After these men died, Theudas by execution, their flocks were scattered, and their teachings quickly lost all favor with the public. The Sanhedrin should therefore let Peter, John and the other apostles alone, the practical Gamaliel said, “for if this design or this work comes from men it will be destroyed, but if it comes from God you cannot destroy them.”

Having seen the favor with which the public had received the apostles and their teachings, the Sanhedrin followed Gamaliel’s advice, although they did order the men beaten and told them once again that they were not to speak in the name of Jesus.4 Then they let them go.

Despite the beatings, the apostles were at least free. They were also, Luke says, “glad that they had been held worthy of disgrace for the sake of his name.” And they continued to teach and talk about Jesus, proclaiming him the Messiah, in their homes and in the Temple.

Meanwhile, they must contend with their own growing pains as a group. In any movement, especially one experiencing rapid development, tensions and factions are inevitable, and there was no exception for the followers of Jesus’ teachings. Two groups, identified by Luke as “Hellenists” and “Hebrews,” emerged. The members of both groups were Jews, but they were divided by language and culture. The Hebrews spoke Aramaic,5 which is thought to have been Jesus’ primary language though he also used Greek and Hebrew. The Hellenists were Greek-speaking, and many of their customs drew from the Greek tradition as well. The Hebrews may have seen the Hellenists as too compromising and may have favored Aramaic as more patriotic or appropriate. Whatever the source of division, it became a sore point, and the Hellenists repeatedly complained that their widows were being shortchanged by the Hebrews in the daily division and distribution of food and property.

Finding themselves so occupied in matters of internal politics that their mission of preaching Jesus’ message was impaired, the apostles called a general meeting. They needed administrators, they said, to handle such disputes and thereby give them time to carry out their work of prayer and ministry. Seven “reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom,” would be appointed to that task. The community agreed with the proposal, and seven were selected to serve as “deacons,” from the Greek word diakon, a servant or waiter. First among them was one named Stephen who fit the bill precisely: He was “filled with faith and the Holy Spirit.” Named with him were Philip, who would become a noted evangelist to the non-Jewish world, along with Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas of Antioch–this last man a Syrian convert to Judaism. Their names suggest that all seven were Hellenists, and they may even have been the leaders of the Hellenist group. Having found a solution to the problem of the Hellenist widows, the apostles were able to pursue their evangelistic mission with even greater success, and the numbers of the faithful continued to increase.

Stephen, in particular, was a forceful and charismatic leader, “filled with grace and power,” Luke says, and “working great wonders and signs among the people.” Opponents of the movement, and doubters, attempted to debate with him, but “they could not withstand the wisdom and the spirit with which he spoke.” Irritated and embarrassed, they decided to try to stop him. They did

so by reporting to the Jewish leaders–falsely–that they had heard Stephen publicly blaspheming both God and Moses. They pressed this trumped-up case with such energy that they finally succeeded in having Stephen arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin.

At his hearing, witnesses came forward to swear under oath, while twisting and misrepresenting his words, that Stephen “never stops saying things against [this] holy place and the Law.” They had even heard him claim, they said, that the dead Jesus whom he worshiped would soon destroy the Temple and change the very customs that had been handed down to them from Moses. Having heard the charges against him, the Sanhedrin allowed Stephen to speak in his own defense. He had already proven himself to be a compelling debater, and he rose to the challenge. As he began, his face shone with conviction, Luke says, “like the face of an angel.”

Stephen’s speech to the Sanhedrin marked a crucial turning point in the movement that would come to be known as Christianity. He drew a connection between the ancient rites of the Temple and the new order of things brought by Jesus, offering the new as the fulfillment of the old. While the rites of the Temple were in their time essential, it was absurd to suggest that God, the creator of the universe, would dwell solely in a building made by human hands. He quoted Isaiah: “What kind of house can you build for me? says the Lord, or what is to be my resting place? Did not my hand make all these things?” The Most High, Stephen declared with authority, “does not dwell in houses made by human hands.” The assertion directly challenged a continuing role for the Temple as the center of God’s power and the only proper place for worship to occur.

But Stephen did not stop there. Carefully summarizing crucial events in Jewish history from the time of Abraham and the patriarchs to the building of the first Temple by Solomon, he emphasized Israel’s repeated rejections of men who would, after their deaths, be hailed as prophets. “You stiff-necked people,” he said. “…You are just like your ancestors. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They put to death those who foretold the coming of the righteous one, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become. You received the law as transmitted by angels, but you did not observe it.”

This was more than enough for the infuriated members of the Sanhedrin. “They ground their teeth at him,” Luke writes, but Stephen went on, adding to the insult by staring upwards intently, his face still shining with absolute confidence, and declaring that he saw above him “the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

At that, all pretense of a fair trial failed. Without reaching any formal decision or pronouncing a verdict, the angry officials rushed upon Stephen and ordered him carried out of the city, determined to stone him to death. Four methods of capital punishment had been prescribed, historically, in Jewish law and custom: stoning, burning, strangulation, and beheading. Under the Romans, the Jewish administrators had lost most of their authority to determine and punish capital offenses, except for cases of blasphemy against the Temple. Though the outcome of his trial was unjust under Jewish law, Stephen’s attack on the continuing sanctity of the Temple could not have been clearer. Moreover, the Jewish people were under solemn obligation to stamp out evil in their midst by capital punishment when it was required–or to be punished for their failure to do so.

The Old Testament laid out in detail the procedure for stoning, and if Stephen’s executioners followed it to the letter they would have taken him outside the city, as required, to forestall the pollution by a corpse within the walls. They would have stopped at an open field that was scattered with stones of the proper size and heft–not too large to throw, but heavy enough to inflict fatal injury. As Stephen’s captors stripped him, a group of witnesses would have been appointed and charged with two duties. Understanding what they were about to do, they would have removed their cloaks and laid them aside, then approached Stephen, who was still standing, and laid their hands on his head. That symbolic action was followed by the witnesses’ second obligation: They would be the first to throw stones, and therefore they would be held responsible if the execution later turned out to be wrong.

The remaining details of Stephen’s execution can be inferred from Luke’s record. He offered no resistance. His executioners picked up rocks from the ground and hurled them at him. As the first stones struck Stephen’s body, he raised his arms involuntarily. Once the witnesses had completed the ceremonial stoning, the rest of the crowd joined in to finish the deed, pounding him with stones, opening cuts in his flesh and bruising his face and head. Bleeding heavily as the stoning continued, he cried out: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” and fell to his knees under the hail of rocks. The brutal pummeling went on. Then in a loud voice, he cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” With that, he lapsed into unconsciousness and died. Finally seeing no sign of movement in his battered body, those in the crowd let the last stones drop from their hands, and walked slowly back towards the city. The disciples recovered the corpse and buried it in great sorrow.

Stephen thus became the first Christian martyr. His unflinching sacrifice is still commemorated in the names of thousands of Christian churches, schools, cathedrals, monasteries and hospitals around the world.6

Standing beside the pile of cloaks shed by the witnesses, another young Jew had watched Stephen’s execution with keen interest. His expression indicated a fierce hatred for this sect, a resolve to exterminate it and its threat to the whole mission of Israel and its people. The disciples knew little about him, except that his name was Saul.

This is the end of the St Peter the Apostle category article drawn from Chapter Two, beginning on page 39, of Volume One, The Veil is Torn. To continue reading more about St Peter the Apostle from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at