History of Saints Peter and Paul Day

greco, el sts peter and paul

Saint Peter and Saint Paul, by El Greco (1587-1592)

HISTORY OF SAINTS PETER AND PAUL DAY

June 29 marks the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul. It is a liturgical feast also called the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul.

 

Why Not a Separate Feast Day for Each?

Each of these men is a major figure in the history of Christianity, and each is a significant contributor to the writings of the New Testament.

Wouldn’t you think they’d each get their own feast day?

In some places and at some times, they’ve each had their own celebration of sorts:

  • The Feast of St. Paul’s Conversion is on January 25
  • The Feast of the Chair of St. Peter is on February 22

 

But this feast day recognizes their common martyrdom in Rome.

“One day is assigned for the celebration of the martyrdom of the two apostles. But those two were one. Although their martyrdom occurred on different days, they were one.”  – St. Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 295

 

Tradition and Patron Saints

Allow me to digress for a moment to make a point; it will give perspective to the summary at the bottom of this section. During the early church era, the importance of a city was tied to the “patron saint” of the church there. The closer the saint was to Jesus or the original disciples, the more prominence it granted to a city. Saints often become the patrons of places where they were born, died, or had been active. For example, according to tradition, among the original Apostles:

  • St. John was the bishop of Ephesus and did not die as a martyr but was tortured and exiled.
  • St. Mark died in Alexandria, Egypt; then his bones were moved to Venice.
  • St. Thomas was martyred in Chennai (Madras), India.
  • flag of scotland.svg

    Flag of Scotland

    St. Andrew, Peter’s brother, died in Patras, Greece. His bones were then transferred to Constantinople, Scotland, and other European cities. “St. Andrew’s Cross,” depicting the manner of his crucifixion, adorns Scotland’s flag.

  • St. James, the brother of John, was martyred in Jerusalem and is reputedly buried at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, Spain – home of the famous Camino de Santiago Pilgrimage.
  • St. Philip was buried in Hierapolis, Turkey; then his remains were moved to Constantinople.
  • St. Bartholomew (Nathanael) brought the Gospel of Jesus to Armenia and India (or Ethiopia), where he is revered to this day.
  • St. Matthew (Levi) ministered in Judea and was martyred in Ethiopia. His body is purportedly buried beneath the Cathedral of Salerno, Italy.
  • St. Jude (Thaddeus) also ministered in Armenia, Palestine, Syria, and Mesopotamia. Tradition holds that his body was moved from Beirut to Rome and placed at St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome.
  • St. James (son of Alphaeus) died in Jerusalem or Egypt.
  • St. Simon (the Zealot) may have ministered in Russia, Africa, the Middle East, or Roman Britain. Several competing traditions describe his martyrdom’s whereabouts.
  • Judas Iscariot, you already know about his death and burial in Potter’s Field, Jerusalem.

 

Of all these locations, Rome was unique in that it had two major patron saints who ministered there:

Both Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome.

Could this have been one of the reasons for Rome’s primacy among the other churches in the early church?

 

What Was the Connection Between Peter and Paul?

While space does not permit even a short biography of either, it can be said that the two men did know each other and met in Jerusalem and Antioch.

 

Who was Peter?

pope peter pprubens

St. Peter, by Peter Paul Rubens (1610-12)

 

Simon (or Simeon), son of Jonah, a fisherman, was one of the first disciples called by Jesus. This was his Hebrew name, but Jesus gave him another name, as we shall see.

Simon was outspoken, a leader, and impetuous. He answered Jesus’ question of:

“Who do you say I am?”

with the inspired reply,

“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus said:

“…You are Peter (Petros) and upon this rock (petra) I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven…”

Despite Peter’s subsequent denial of Jesus during the later trial, he was restored to Jesus, who charged him to:

“Feed my sheep.”

384px crucifixion of saint peter caravaggio (c.1600)

Crucifixion of St. Peter, by Caravaggio (1600-01)

 

The New Testament Acts of the Apostles describes Peter’s early ministry.

Tradition holds that he ministered in various parts of Jerusalem and Galilee before traveling to Rome – as suggested by 1 Peter 5:13 and early Church Fathers’ writings. Between AD 64 and 68, he was martyred by inverted crucifixion by Emperor Nero, saying he was “not worthy” to be crucified in the same manner as Jesus.

Two of the New Testament books are attributed to him, and he influenced the writing of the Gospel of Mark.

 

 

Who was Paul?

rubens apostel paulus grt

St. Paul, by Peter Paul Rubens (1611)

 

Saul of Tarsus was a Pharisee and Hellenistic Jew who was a party to the persecution of Christians. While traveling to Damascus, where he might arrest Christians to bring them “bound to Jerusalem,” he saw a blinding light at midday. He fell to the ground and heard the voice of the risen Jesus asking him:

“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”

When Saul asked about the identity, he learned

“I am Jesus whom you are persecuting”

Blinded, he continued to the city, where he was healed. He learned from a disciple in Damascus that he was to carry Jesus’ name to:

“the Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel.”

After that, he began to preach about Jesus as the Son of God in the local synagogue. In his missionary journeys, he’d first preach to the Jews in the local synagogue, and when they refused, he’d preach to the Gentiles.

Thereafter, he was called Paul. Unlike Peter, this is not likely a name change. He was probably originally called Saul Paulus, reflecting a Jewish first name and a Latin name reflecting his Roman citizenship.

 

The second half of the Acts of the Apostles describes Paul’s journeys to Jerusalem, the Eastern Mediterranean, Asia Minor, and the Balkan Peninsula. He was arrested and tried in Jerusalem but appealed to Rome, as was his right as a Roman citizen. The Acts of the Apostles tells of his sea journey to Rome.

 

mamertine copy

Interior wall of Mamertine Prison, off the Roman Forum. Sts. Peter and Paul’s names at the top

 

He was likely imprisoned, at least temporarily, in the Mamertine Prison near the Roman Forum. Peter, too, has his name listed on the wall of that prison. Paul was later under house arrest in his own rented house in Rome (Acts 28:30–31) and may have been released to travel to Spain but was imprisoned again under Emperor Nero, who sources suggest knew him personally.

Paul could not be subjected to the brutality of crucifixion because he was a Roman citizen. Instead, Paul was beheaded on the Via Laurentina in Rome. Tradition says after the beheading, Paul’s head bounced three times, and a fountain sprung up in each spot. The Church of Paul at the Three Fountains is one of the oldest churches in Rome.

 

330px decapitación de san pablo simonet 1887

The Beheading of Saint Paul, by Enrique Simonet (1887)

 

Over a dozen of the New Testament books have been attributed to Paul. Some were written during and between his journeys, some while he was imprisoned through the aid of an amanuensis.

Of particular note was his letter to the Christians in Rome before he went there. The Book of Romans is his longest epistle. In it, Paul explains his desire to come there, hopefully on his way to Spain, and what he intends to share with them. It’s widely considered his masterpiece, both sublime and breathtaking theologically.

 

“Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”

“The righteous shall live by faith.”

  • John Wesley was converted by reading Martin Luther’s introduction to Romans.

 

 

Are There Churches of Saints Peter and Paul?

450px petrus et paulus 4th century etching

Peter and Paul with Chi Rho. 4th century

 

Yes, lots. These are very popular names for churches, predominantly Roman Catholic churches. Protestants don’t usually venerate saints, except perhaps on St. Valentine’s Day (when you don’t have to be in love), St. Patrick’s Day (where you don’t have to be Irish), or Halloween (All Saints’ Day, where you don’t have to be Christian). The church name that is even more popular, by at least an order of magnitude, is St. Mary. If you put them all together, you get Peter, Paul, & Mary.

 

  • The German Reformer Martin Luther was baptized the day after he was born – on St. Martin of Tours Day – in Eisleben at St. Petri-Pauli Kirche.
  • Saints Peter and Paul Church, in San Francisco, is located in the Italian neighborhood of North Beach.
  • It is one of almost 30 such named churches in the US.
  • There are over 50 such named churches in the UK.
  • Croatia and Italy each have half a dozen.
  • Poland has at least 5.
  • France, Germany, Philippines, Romania, Russia, and Turkey each have at least 3.
  • Canada, Czech Republic, Estonia, India, Ireland, Lithuania, and Serbia each have at least 2.

 

What About St. Peter or St. Paul Churches?

The previous accounting above does not even consider churches named after the saints individually. Here are just a couple of notable ones:

  • St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican, is the largest Catholic Church in the world. Tradition has it that a church was built upon St. Peter’s burial site on Vatican Hill. In the 4th century, Emperor Constantine the Old St. Peter’s Basilica there, and its current appearance is from the 15th century.

    1920px basilica di san pietro in vaticano september 2015 1a

    St. Peter’s, Rome

 

  • St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, is an Anglican cathedral that dominated the city’s skyline for over 300 years. The original church site dedicated to St. Paul dates to AD 604.

    st pauls aerial (cropped)

    St. Paul’s, London

 

 

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
billpetro.com

 

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About billpetro

Bill Petro writes articles on history, technology, pop culture, and travel. He has been a technology sales enablement executive with extensive experience in Cloud Computing, Automation, Data Center, Information Storage, Big Data/Analytics, Mobile, and Social technologies.

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