BMCR 2021.10.55

The early reception and appropriation of the apostle Peter (60-800 CE): the anchors of the fisherman

, The early reception and appropriation of the apostle Peter (60-800 CE): the anchors of the fisherman. Euhormos: Greco-Roman studies in anchoring innovation, volume 1. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2020. Pp. xvi, 342. ISBN 9789004425675 €116,00.

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

This volume is the result of a collaborative research project between the volume’s editor, Roald Dijkstra, and Dr. Dorine van Espelo entitled “Popes and expressions of Roman power: Anchoring religious politics in periods of change (200-800 CE)” and a subsequent Ph.D. masterclass entitled “Peter, Popes, and Politics: Expressions of power in the late antique and early mediaeval world.”[1] For this volume, Dijkstra assembled a group of accomplished scholars to examine St. Peter as an anchor in the early Christian and late antique world, and the various authors’ mastery of their equally varied topics is on display. Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.

Though the apostleship and legacy of Peter was interpreted in sometimes contradictory ways by early Christians through methods such as developing ecclesiastical institutions such as the late antique papacy, the historicity of Peter’s life was only superficially questioned in the first several centuries of Christianity, and so the reception of the apostle by early Christians is just as important as the determination of the identity of the historical Peter. This volume, as the vanguard volume of the Anchoring Innovation project, contextualizes Peter as an “anchor” for ecclesiological, political, and artistic developments from the first to the ninth centuries. “Anchoring” is at the center of a new research concept by Dutch classicists and was explained by Ineke Sluiter in a 2017 article.[2] For this volume, Dijkstra explains anchoring as a concept “claiming that innovations have higher chances of success when they are successfully embedded – or anchored – in something known and familiar” (p. 4). In each chapter the authors of this volume briefly explain how anchoring relates to their particular topic and usually set out further connections in their conclusions. The overall argument of the volume would have been helped by an explicit and systematic explanation of how readers should distinguish the newer concept of anchoring from the long-established scholarly concept of syncretism, which has often been applied to early Christianity and appears synonymous with anchoring in various parts of the volume. I am not convinced that readers who are unfamiliar with Sluiter’s article, which itself is not always clear on the distinction, would necessarily understand the editor’s broader points.

The volume is divided into four sections, which are then further divided into related dyads. The first section contains two conceptual introductory essays and then each subsequent section contains four essays. In the first section, “Anchoring the Apostle: the Volume and Its Concept,” Dijsktra, as the editor, provides a theoretical introduction to the volume, its authors, and its conceptual basis, while offering an overview of the topics and source materials. This is where a stronger distinction between anchoring and syncretism would have been most helpful. Dijkstra’s introduction inaugurates a volume that is strongly cross-referential, which makes tracking topics throughout the volume a straightforward exercise. Olivier Hekster follows with an essay demonstrating and analyzing the concept of anchoring in the context of the Roman imperial and religious rule that provided the backdrop for the primitive and early Christian churches.

The second section, “Anchoring the Authority of Peter,” analyzes the role of Peter as a source of power and legitimation. John R. Curran’s and Thomas F.X. Noble’s essays focus on the use of Peter in the early stages of the process of the transformation of the bishop of Rome into ‘the pope.’ Curran examines the development of Peter in the specific context of “those who oversaw the religio of Rome” (p. 43), on whose terminology and authority Christians based their developing conceptions of Peter. He argues that anchoring provides a more meaningful basis for understanding the later appropriation of the title of pontifex maximus than the teleology with which the title is generally approached. In a manner reminiscent of Caroline Goodson’s approach to Paschal I,[3] Noble uses inscriptions, the Roman love of which is uncontested, to argue that the late antique papacy used strategically placed inscriptions as a means of expanding papal authority over the city of Rome and thereby over the burgeoning Christian church as a whole. Markus Bockmuehl and Régis Burnet explain the tensions between the construction of Peter by imperial and Jewish authorities on the one hand, and local communities on the other. Bockmuehl uses early Christian apocrypha related to Peter, especially the Gospel of Peter and the Acts of Peter, to “query and problematize” (p. 82) the use of the apostle as a legitimator of both imperial authority and resistance to persecution by said authority. Burnet uses a similar set of Petrine apocrypha (but including the Apocalypse of Peter) to examine the appropriation and differing interpretations of Petrine authority by “communities of the margin” (p. 99) to either exert or resist centralized control. The overlapping themes and sources in these two essays are valuable, but make for redundant reading.

The third section, “Anchoring Peter in Art and Poetry,” analyzes the ways in which representations of Peter participated in a new, Christian style while continuing to operate in their traditional Roman milieu. Jutta Dresken-Weiland and Markus Löx offer a literal life-and-death analysis of Peter, focusing on the physical representations of his later life and the material evidence of his death respectively. Dresken-Weiland uses images of Peter in early Christian art (strongest in discussions of Peter’s arrest and his water miracle), arguing that these images do not rely on pagan tropes and so reveal the process of “local storytelling” (128) in the construction of the image of Peter. Löx contextualizes images of Peter’s passio with other martyrial images and argues that Peter’s representations more closely parallel Christ’s than those of other martyrs, as torture and suffering were replaced by themes such as the Dominus legem dat, which Dresken-Weiland also discusses. Mark Humphries and Carl P.E. Springer analyze the ways in which Roman poets modified longstanding poetic tropes in presenting Peter. Humphries has the most delightful opening in the volume, stating that “[o]n 21 April 348, nothing happened” (p. 172). 21 April was the annually celebrated traditional foundation date of the city of Rome and its transition to a non-event was a marker in the transition from the civic Romulus/Remus foundation legend to a Christian Peter/Paul foundation legend, which Humphries argues is marked clearly in the hymnic poems of Prudentius. Springer counters the oft-cited idea that Sedulius’ Paschale carmen was merely rhetorical grandiloquence, arguing that it was instead a representative of the Latin tradition of ‘translating’ Greek works into Latin (though he argues that the idea of ‘translation’ should be loosely construed) and that the translation of the Gospels into a biblical epic helped to anchor Peter to the early inhabitants of Rome.

The fourth section, “Anchoring the Cult of Peter,” examines the ways in which Peter became embedded in the religious life of the city of Rome. In this section, the organization into dyads breaks down considerably. Annewies van den Hoek examines second-century Christian texts (such as 1 Clement, Tertullian, and Irenaeus), some of which name both Peter and Paul as bishops of Rome, and argues that there were strong attempts by Latin and Greek speakers to reduce the influence of Paul and Peter (respectively), while still attempting to preserve the concordia apostolorum. There is some use of the epigraphic evidence found in the catacombs, which ties this chapter to the next one, but the assertion that such evidence “[i]s virtually a public opinion poll” (p. 211) needs more defense. Kristina Friedrichs examines the conscious use of Petrine images in architecture such as Old St. Peter’s, St. Paul’s, and the early memorial on the Via Appia Antica as an anchor for the development of Petrine, and therefore papal, authority within the Roman Church. To this end, she is one of only two authors here (Noble being the other) to make meaningful use of the Liber Pontificalis, the oft-debated early medieval papal text throughout which Peter is a red thread. Alan Thacker uses the cult of Peter and the concordia apostolorum as a lens through which to analyze the development of martyr cults in Rome and the ways in which both the established senatorial aristocracy and the burgeoning ecclesiastical government promoted these cults to develop Christian sources of authority, albeit for their own partisan purposes. Els Rose examines Latin liturgical documents such as the Sacramentarium Veronense and the Missale Gothicum to argue that the liturgy was instrumental in the development of the Petrine cult, though the liturgical developments were stronger outside Rome than inside.

Overall, this is an informative volume, though I have two minor critiques to join my comment about syncretism above. First, I would have preferred the editor—and all editors—to have used a consistent format in the arrangement of text and translation in the various chapters. While not a critical factor, it was nevertheless difficult to maintain a reading rhythm in several essays of this volume. Second, many of the chapters present their theses in passive ways, making them difficult to follow. Most instructors would not have accepted such thesis statements from students; more active descriptions of their arguments would greatly help readers. That having been said, this volume does make important historiographical contributions about the development of religious figures in a changing urban and political environment. The conceptual basis of anchoring can serve well as a model for studies ranging from the reception of religious texts to the developing role(s) of institutions in urban life and the Anchoring Innovation series seems poised to produce volumes of equal historiographical importance.

Table of Contents

Roald Dijkstra, “Peter, Popes, Politics and more: the Apostle as Anchor,” pp. 3-25.
Olivier Hekster, “Ruling through Religion? Innovation and Tradition in Roman Imperial Representation,” pp. 26-40.
John R. Curran, “From Petrus to Pontifex Maximus,” pp. 43-57.
Thomas F.X. Noble, “The Multiple Meanings of Papal Inscriptions in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages,” pp. 58-80.
Markus Bockmuehl, “Attitudes to Jewish and Roman Power in the Gospel and Acts of Peter,” pp. 81-98.
Régis Burnet, “Peter, the Visionary before the Pope: Early Receptions of the Apostle in Marginal Communities,” pp. 99-112.
Jutta Dresken-Weiland, “The Role of Peter in Early Christian Art: Images from the 4th to the 6th Century,” pp. 115-134.
Markus Löx, “The Death of Peter: Anchoring an Image in the Context of Late Antique Representations of Martyrdom,” pp. 135-171.
Mark Humphries, “Romulus and Peter: Remembering and Reconfiguring Rome’s Foundation in Late Antiquity,” pp. 172-187.
Carl P.E. Springer, “Sedulius’ Peter: Intention and Authority in the Paschale carmen,” pp. 188-199.
Annewies van den Hoek, “Peter without Paul: Aspects of the Primordial Role of Simon Peter in an Early Christian Context,” pp. 203-230.
Kristina Friedrichs, “The Architectural Appropriation of the Apostle Peter by the Early Christian Popes,” pp. 231-249.
Alan Thacker, “The Cult of Peter and the Development of Martyr Cult in Rome. The Origins of the Representation of Peter and Paul as Martyrs,” pp. 250-276.
Els Rose, “Anchoring the Rock: the Latin Liturgical Cult of Peter in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages,” pp. 277-292.


[1] The proceedings of the masterclass, titled Anchoring Sanctity, can be retrieved from the Anchoring Innovation website. Though the masterclass is not a part of this review, the papers are widely varied in theme and source material, and are helpful on a number of topics. I highly recommend that readers examine the website.

[2] Ineke Sluiter, “Anchoring Innovation: A Classical Research Agenda,” European Review 25.1 (2017): 20-38.

[3] Caroline Goodson, The Rome of Pope Paschal I: Papal Power, Urban Renovation, Church Rebuilding and Relic Translation, 817-824 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).