In January we observe both the Feast of the Confession of Saint Peter and the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul. Then, at the end of June, we also observe the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul. What is the difference? Why are there two feasts in January and then the one in the Summer? The January commemorations recall profound and life-changing events in the lives of these two mighty men of God. The observance in the Summer commemorates their martyrdoms.
The famed Church historian Eusebius of Caesarea records that
“It is, therefore, recorded that Paul was beheaded in Rome itself, and that Peter likewise was crucified under Nero. This account of Peter and Paul is substantiated by the fact that their names are preserved in the cemeteries of that place even to the present day.” (Church History 2.XXV.5)
After listing several witnesses who verify these facts, Eusebius then quotes “Dionysius, the Bishop of Corinth,” (remember him from Acts of the Apostles 17:34) who wrote in his own Epistle to the Romans,
“You have thus by such an admonition bound together the planting of Peter and of Paul at Rome and Corinth. For both of them planted and likewise taught us in our Corinth. And they taught together in like manner in Italy, and suffered martyrdom at the same time.” (2.XXV.8)
It is not really remarkable that these two saints worked so well together. One would expect that two Apostles would be able to accomplish incredible feats for the Kingdom of God when they put their heads together. It is not remarkable, that is, until you realize how catastrophic was their dispute a few years previously.
After the death of Saint Stephen, when many of the Christians in Jerusalem scattered abroad to avoid persecution, St. Peter was summoned to preach to Cornelius the Centurion, a gentile. When Cornelius and his household accepted Jesus as the Messiah, the Holy Spirit fell upon them and St. Peter declared, “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47) Similarly, when ordained by the elders at Antioch, Saints Paul and Barnabas, along with Saint Mark, began what has become known as the First Missionary Journey. When rejected by the Jews in Antioch in Pisidia (in Asia Minor), the Apostles declared, “We turn to the Gentiles” and quoted the Prophet Isaiah we he declared, “I have set you as a light to the Gentiles, that you should be for salvation to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 13:46-47) The remainder of the First Missionary Journey is filled with accounts of gentiles becoming Christians.
Thus, Saints Peter and Paul were on the same page when it came to whether or not the Gentiles could become followers of Christ. There is no record that either Apostle attempted to make their new-found converts adhere to the Law of Moses. So when the two men found themselves together at the Council of Jerusalem (ca. 50AD), each man only affirmed the testimony of the other. Upon hearing the testimony of Saints Peter and Paul, Saint James the Just, the brother of Jesus, as the first bishop and ruling elder of Jerusalem, came to the conclusion that gentile converts to Christianity need not follow all of the Law of Moses. Instead, they would only need “to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood.” (Acts 15:20) The gathered assembly agreed with this decree and a letter conveying this message was sent to Antioch with Saints Paul and Barnabas as well as Barsabas and Silas, two men from Jerusalem.
According to Acts of the Apostles, there was never a conflict between Saints Peter and Paul and the subsequent conflict between Saints Paul and Barnabas arose over the issue of whether to take Saint Mark, who had failed them previously, along on their second missionary journey together. That, however, is not the same story which St. Paul himself reveals in his Epistle to the Galatians.
St. Paul suggests that St. Peter had come toAntioch and had mingled with the Jewish and Gentile Christians quite thoroughly until a conflict arose. St. Paul writes,
“Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed; for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision. And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy.” (Galatians 2:11-13)
St. Paul gives an account of just how articulately he presented his argument against St. Peter in the remainder of the second chapter of the Epistle to the Galatians, but never recalls the outcome of the conflict. We do know this, however: Saints Paul and Barnabas split up after this encounter and never went on another missionary journey together and St. Paul left Antioch and returned only briefly once more (Acts 18:22). On the other hand, Eusebius, as well as other sources, records that St. Peter ministered in Antioch for quite some time before moving on through Corinth to Rome, and regards him as the first Bishop of Antioch.
We do not really know the specific details of the conflict between Saints Peter and Paul at Antioch. But it is important to remember the words of Eusebius which were quoted earlier. “For both of them planted and likewise taught us in our Corinth. And they taught together in like manner in Italy, and suffered martyrdom at the same time.” We might even draw special emphasis that they taught together inItaly. Those who attempt to make much ado of the perceived conflict between Saints Paul, Peter (Cephas), and Apollos should recall that St. Paul informs the Corinthians that he “figuratively transferred” the conflict upon themselves “that none of you may be puffed up on behalf of one against the other.” (I Corinthians 4:6) We should also take note that St. Peter ultimately spoke quite highly of St. Paul. In his second epistle, St. Peter admits that the writings of St. Paul are among the Holy Scriptures when he writes,
“and consider that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation—as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures.” (II Peter 315-16)
Neither history nor Holy Scripture record the specific details of the disagreement between the two Apostles. Neither history nor Holy Scripture record the specific details of the reconciliation of the two Apostles, but we do know that they were reconciled and they that they served the Lord God mightily together in both Corinth and in Rome. We also know that, within a few months of each other, they each went to a martyr’s death under the Emperor Nero, St. Paul being beheaded while St. Peter was crucified upside down. In its inability to inform us history teaches us another lesson. The fight is not nearly as important as the reconciliation. The issues that drive us apart are not nearly as important as the work that we can accomplish together for the Kingdom of God. May we, like Saints Peter and Paul, have the grace to lay aside our differences, forgive the wounds of the past, and work together to further the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Almighty God, whose blessed apostles Peter and Paul glorified you by their martyrdom: Grant that your Church, instructed by their teaching and example, and knit together in unity by your Spirit, may ever stand firm upon the one foundation, which is Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.