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Peter in Rome: Peter’s outstretched arms in John 21:18

In John 21:15-19, there is a powerful scene where Jesus and Peter are eating breakfast together. After failing Jesus by denying him three times in chapter 18, Peter is confronted by his Lord while sitting beside another charcoal fire. Jesus asks Peter if he loves him three times and exhorts him to feed his sheep, rehabilitating Peter and restoring him to his pastoral office. Jesus ends his exhortation with a cryptic remark that Peter used to feel free to dress himself and go wherever he wanted to in his youth, but that he would one day stretch out his hands to be girded by another person and lead to a place where he did not wish to go. The narrator clarifies that Jesus was expressing the way Peter would die to glorify God. In the early reception of this text, antique Christian scholars saw a clear reference to the crucifixion of Peter (see Tertullian, Antidote to the Scorpion’s Sting 15). There are three ways that this saying has been interpreted:

  • Rudolf Bultmann’s commentary on John (pp. 713-14) argues that it was a cryptic riddle that contrasted the free mobility of youth with the dependency of age.
  • C. K. Barrett’s commentary on John (p. 585) points out how other Christians interpreted biblical figures with outstretched arms as “types” prefiguring the crucified Christ, while the second volume of Ernst Haenchen’s commentary on John (p. 226-27) looks at comparable references in Greco-Roman literature to victims having their arms stretched out on a cross-beam. Other commentators see a reference to Peter’s martyrdom, but do not see the language as specific enough to denote crucifixion.
  • Timothy D. Barnes’ chapter in Peter in Early Christianity argues that Peter was dressed in a flammable tunic, positioned on a cross as a form of mockery, and burned alive.

Along with 2 Peter, this is another New Testament reference to Peter’s death and may hint at Peter’s crucifixion. However, there is debate among scholars over whether the epilogue in chapter 21 goes back to the original author of the Gospel or was added by a later editor or scribe and I will make a renewed case for the latter option in a forthcoming book I am writing on the Gospel of John. This epilogue may reflect some of the earliest traditions about Peter’s martyrdom in Rome.

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