Home > Early Christianity, History > Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History and Legend

Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History and Legend

Bart Ehrman, author of the highly popular Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code and Lost Christianities, here takes readers on another engaging tour of the early Christian church, illuminating the lives of three of Jesus’ most intriguing followers: Simon Peter, Paul of Tarsus, and Mary Magdalene.

What do the writings of the New Testament tell us about each of these key followers of Christ? What legends have sprung up about them in the centuries after their deaths? Was Paul bow-legged and bald? Was Peter crucified upside down? Was Mary Magdalene a prostitute? In this lively work, Ehrman separates fact from fiction, presenting complicated historical issues in a clear and informative way and relating vivid anecdotes culled from the traditions of these three followers. He notes, for instance, that historians are able to say with virtual certainty that Mary, the follower of Jesus, was from the fishing village of Magdala on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (this is confirmed by her name, Mary Magdalene, reported in numerous independent sources); but there is no evidence to suggest that she was a prostitute (this legend can be traced to a sermon preached by Gregory the Great five centuries after her death), and little reason to think that she was married to Jesus. Similarly, there is no historical evidence for the well-known tale that Peter was crucified upside down. Ehrman also argues that the stories of Paul’s miracle working powers as an apostle are legendary accounts that celebrate his importance.

A serious book but vibrantly written and leavened with many colorful stories, Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene will appeal to anyone curious about the early Christian church and the lives of these important figures.

Even though this book is not about the folk-singing trio of the 1960s, Peter, Paul, and Mary, I’d like to begin by making reference to them and one of their best-known songs:

If I had a hammer, I’d hammer in the morning,

I’d hammer in the evening all over this land;

I’d hammer out danger, I’d hammer out a warning,

I’d hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters,

All over this land.

Peter, Paul, and Mary burst onto the folk music scene in an apocalyptic moment in American history. In the early 1960s, the Cold War was heating up. Nuclear proliferation was moving apace on both sides of the Soviet-U.S. divide.

Schoolchildren throughout the country were being drilled to hide under their desks if a nuclear bomb exploded over their cities. And the American involvement in the war in Vietnam was just starting—soon to become a real “apocalypse now,” to use the term later coined for the Francis Ford Coppola film. On the home front, the civil rights movement was at its height, racial violence and desegregation were tearing apart communities, and it was not at all clear how the tensions would come to be resolved. It was a time of danger, a time of warning of worse yet to come, and a time to turn from war, hatred, and oppression to love, all over the land.

At the end of their popular song, after singing of a hammer, a bell, and a song, the trio unpacks their meaning:

It’s the hammer of justice, it’s a bell of freedom,

It’s the song about love

Between my brothers and my sisters,

All over this land.

In the context of the 1960s, when hard social issues of poverty, oppression, racism, sexism—not to mention the international clashes of power and dominance— confronted us all, the folk singers pled for a return to the humane: justice, freedom, and love.

As it turns out, matters were not so different in the first Christian century in Roman Palestine. It too was a time of international political domination and imperialistic expansion, a time of class division, oppression, hatred, violence, and war.

Into that world there appeared the predecessors of our 1960s folk singers. These were prophets, who had a word from above addressing the ills of their world. One of them—far and away the best-known to us today—was Jesus of Nazareth. He also had a message of justice, freedom, and love. Like other Jews of his day, Jesus maintained that the evils of this world were caused by cosmic powers opposed to God and his people, who were wreaking havoc here on earth. These powers brought pain, misery, and suffering; they were responsible for wars, epidemics, droughts, famines, violence, oppression, and hatred. But their days were limited. Jesus believed that God was soon to reassert his power over this world and overthrow the forces of evil, to bring in a new kingdom on earth, a kingdom of God, in which there would be no more injustice, violence, pain, or suffering. God himself would rule supreme, and people would live the lives of paradise.

Jesus had numerous followers who adored him and committed themselves to his message. After his death, they took the message further afield, proclaiming that it was through Christ himself—now raised from the dead and exalted to heaven—that this future kingdom would be brought to earth. Three of these followers were named Peter, Paul, and Mary.

These three may well have been the most important of Jesus’ followers: Simon Peter, his right-hand man during his public ministry, the leader of the twelve disciples; the Apostle Paul, the greatest missionary and theologian of the burgeoning Christian church after Jesus’ death; and Mary Magdalene, his closest woman follower, the one who first recognized that he had been raised from the dead, and was therefore, arguably, the first Christian.

Peter, Paul, and Mary are significant not only because of who they actually were, as historical figures of the first century, but also because of how they were remembered in later centuries as legends sprang up about them, legends that were often assumed to be “gospel truth” by those who heard and told them. During the first three hundred years of Christianity—which will be my focus in this book—Peter was widely known as one who could do spectacular miracles leading to massive conversions to the faith. He was said to have the power to heal the sick, cast out demons, and raise the dead. Some of the stories about him will strike modern readers as more than a bit bizarre—as when he raises a smoked tuna fish from the dead in order to convince his onlookers of the power of God, or when he deprives a maleficent magician of his power of flight over the city of Rome, leading to the magician’s crash landing and death.

Paul as well had legends told about him as a great miracle worker whose handkerchiefs and aprons could be taken to the sick to restore them to health and who baptized a talking lion that later refused to devour him when he was thrown to the wild beasts in the arena. Paul in particular came to be known as a great advocate of asceticism, preaching that eternal life would come to those who abstained from the joys of sex, even if married. Modern readers may find it surprising that this message resonated among many ancients, some of whom abandoned their marriage bed in exchange for a more blessed existence in the hereafter. Mary Magdalene herself came to be known for her sex life—or at least for her previous sex life, as stories began to circulate that she had been a prostitute whom Jesus reformed and who then shared an unusually intimate relationship with him before his death. Later legend sent her to France as one of the first missionaries to Western Europe.

None of these stories about Peter, Paul, and Mary is historically accurate. But that does not mean they are unimportant. The people who retold these stories—and those who heard them—believed them to be accurate portrayals of the past. What is more, they told these stories because they expressed so well their own beliefs, concerns, values, priorities, and passions. If we are interested not only in the lives of the original followers of Jesus but also in the lives of those who told stories about them in later times, there is no better place to turn than the stories circulating about Peter, Paul, and Mary.

Some scholars would argue that we ourselves are not so different from the storytellers of the ancient world—that when we recount what happened in the past, we too do so not merely to show what really happened but also because what happened is important to us today for our own lives. That is to say, at the end of the day, no one has a purely antiquarian interest, an interest in the past for its own sake. Instead, we are interested in the past because it can help us make sense of the present, of our own lives, our own beliefs, values, priorities, of our own world and our experience of it. If this view is right—and I happen to think it is—then, strictly speaking, there is no such thing as a “disinterested” study of the past: all of us who study it are in fact interested in it for how it can help us think about ourselves and our lives.

This “interested” approach to the past was certainly the one taken by the ancient people who recounted the stories about Jesus’ early followers. They told these stories not merely in order to convey objective facts about what had happened, but also because these stories meant something to them—whether the stories were, strictly speaking, historically accurate or not. Among other things, this means that modern historians have a two-pronged task. On one hand, we try to determine, to the best of our ability, what actually happened in the past: what did Peter, Paul, and Mary really say, do, and experience? At the same time, we explore how the past came to be remembered by people who later talked about it and told stories about it—even when these stories were not historically accurate.

Somewhat ironically, it is often easier to know how the past was remembered than to decide what actually happened. Indeed, it is sometimes impossible to separate the legend from the history, the fabricated accounts from the historical events, despite our best efforts. The most unfortunate aspect of history is that it is gone forever. Once something happens, it is over and done with, and while there may be traces of past people and events, these traces are always incomplete, partial, slanted, vague, and subject to a range of interpretations. Historians do their best to reconstruct past events based on surviving evidence, but history is not an empirical science that can establish high levels of probability based on assured results obtained by repeated experimentation. History is as much art as science.

To a large extent this is because our sources of information are so problematic. Can we trust the ancient source that says that Peter raised a smoked tuna fish to life? How would we know? Another source indicates that his shadow could heal the sick when he passed by them on a sunny day. Is that true? Yet another source indicates that he raised a Roman senator from the dead by speaking a word in his ear. Did he really do so? Some of the stories of Peter’s miracles are found in the writings of the New Testament, while others are found in books outside the New Testament. Does the historian accept what is found in Scripture as being historically accurate and what is found outside of it as inaccurate? On what grounds? We have a number of writings that claim to be Peter’s: 1 and 2 Peter in the New Testament, the Gospel of Peter and the Apocalypse of Peter outside of it. Do we know whether he wrote any or all of these books? Or should we take seriously what the New Testament book of Acts says, that Peter was in fact illiterate and couldn’t write at all?

These are just a few of the problems we face when trying to know what Peter was really like and what really happened during his life. Analogous problems attach themselves to Paul and Mary. Doing history is not an easy matter. This is not to say that it is unimportant. On the contrary—speaking as a historian who does this for a living—knowing about the past matters. It matters whether the Khmer Rouge practiced genocide in Cambodia. It matters whether the experiment with communism in Eastern Europe succeeded. It matters whether weapons of mass destruction were discovered in Iraq. And it matters whether Jesus actually existed and whether his followers did the things that our sources indicate they did. And so we should do our best to know what happened in the past—whether in the recent past with the destruction of New Orleans and the rather feeble efforts on the part of the government to deal with the crisis, in the slightly more distant past with our country’s waffling over how to deal with crises in Rwanda or Bosnia, or in the far distant past with the causes of the fall of the Roman Empire or the rise of the Greeks— or the life of the historical Jesus.

At the same time, as I have been suggesting, history is not the only thing that matters, and separating history from legend is not the only interesting and important exercise that scholars perform on our surviving materials. For history is not simply a matter of separating the historical kernel (what really matters) from the legendary husk (what can be discarded). In part that’s because, as I’ve indicated, the people who told and retold the stories—of New Orleans, of Rwanda, of Julius Caesar, of Jesus, or of Peter, Paul, and Mary—did not themselves often distinguish between historical fact and legendary imagination. Historical memories, later embellishments, legendary expansions, and pure fabrications were all told and retold because they related truths, beliefs, views, and ideas that Christians wanted to convey and to which they responded.

We should see what these truths, beliefs, views, and ideas were, by examining the stories that survive. And so our study of Peter, Paul, and Mary will consider both historical fact and legendary embellishment, together. We will ask what we can learn about these followers of Jesus as real, historical figures, what we can know about who they were, what they did, what they believed, what they taught, how they lived. At the same time we will ask about them as legendary figures who came to play such an important role in the imaginations of those who embraced the Christian religion, at its very foundations, before it became the religion of the Roman Empire and, eventually, the most important social, cultural, political, economic, and religious institution in the history of Western civilization.


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