Was Peter a False Disciple and Apostate?
On October 6 2014, Dr. Robert Gundry, a former professor and scholar-in-residence at Westmont College, delivered a Provost’s Lecture with the title: “Peter: False Disciple and Apostate According to St. Matthew.”
Dr. Gundry is a prominent and respected theologian in the Evangelical world and beyond. He is also well-known among the Christian community in Santa Barbara, and often praised for both his scholarship and his character. In the following article I’m going to disagree with many of Dr. Gundry’s points and his conclusion, but I recognize that I have little standing to do so. Like each of us, Dr. Gundry stands or falls before his own Master. Yet since I am a pastor in the community where he lives and where he has taught for so many years, several people have asked for my opinion of his lecture.
The lecture is available for viewing on YouTube, and I invite everyone to watch Dr. Gundry and make up their own mind about his points and conclusions:
I also received a recording of the follow-up questions and responses for that evening, not included with the YouTube video. I post the audio here for further clarification of Dr. Gundry’s thinking.
The Main Point
Dr. Gundry’s main point in his lecture is that Matthew presents the Apostle Peter as both a false disciple and an apostate – as an unredeemed denier of Jesus Christ. He recognizes that this different from how Peter is presented by Luke/Acts, by John, by Paul, and what we would gather from the two New Testament epistles attributed to Peter. Gundry emphasizes the idea we must let Matthew be Matthew, and not try to harmonize or inform our reading of Matthew with other New Testament sources.
Using Matthew alone, Dr. Gundry argues that the portrayals of Peter in Matthew – leaving out the other gospels completely – would lead to the belief of Peter as false disciple and apostate. He chiefly attempts to make his case by emphasizing Matthew’s description of Peter’s denial (Matthew 26:69-75). Here are some of the points of Gundry’s emphasis:
- In Matthew 26:70 Peter denied Jesus “before all” (a phrasing unique to Matthew). Dr. Gundry believes that the only reason Matthew could include this is to portray Peter as a false apostle and apostate, the one whom Jesus would deny before His Father in heaven (according to Matthew 10:33).
- Matthew also records that Peter denied Jesus with an oath (Matthew 26:72), and thereby falls short of obtaining the superior righteousness necessary the entrance to the kingdom of heaven (according to Matthew 5:33-37). Dr. Gundry calls this “inexcusable” on Peter’s part, and therefore (according to Matthew) “Peter has lost his chance for eternal life” and is the ultimate example of the person who receives the word on rocky ground – who springs up as a plant but then falls away (according to Matthew 13:3-23).
- Matthew 26:75 records that Peter “went out” (doubly emphatic in the original) setting Peter altogether outside, and he “wept bitterly” making him one of those who will weep and gnash their teeth in darkness outside the kingdom (according to Matthew 8:12, 13:42, 13:50, 22:13, 24:51, and 25:30). Dr. Gundry makes “bitterly” in Matthew equivalent to the gnashing of teeth.
In each of these, Dr. Gundry’s sense is that through his Gospel, Matthew tells us what kind of person is a false disciple and an apostate. Then in his careful portrait of Peter’s denial, Matthew tells us: “Peter fits the figure of the false disciple and apostate perfectly.” This combines with a repeated theme in Matthew, that false disciples may be among the kingdom community.
There was at least one significant objection that Dr. Gundry anticipated and sought to answer. Though Peter is not specifically named in Matthew’s post-resurrection account, Peter was (presumably) present among the 11 disciples who met with Jesus after His resurrection in Matthew 28:16-20, where they also received His commission. Gundry said this was of little significance, comparing it to the earlier commissioning of the disciples during the ministry of Jesus (Matthew 10) – where Judas was also present. Therefore for Gundry, it was of little consequence that Peter – another Judas in Matthew’s presentation – was present in Matthew 28:16-20.
With great respect and little standing, I strongly disagree with Dr. Gundry.
Gundry’s Problem with Matthew
If we accept the terms of Dr. Gundry’s analysis – that we can only look at Matthew and his presentation of Peter – it can still be demonstrated that Matthew did not leave Peter in the place of “false disciple and apostate.”
First, Matthew placed Peter at the forefront of the list of the disciples in Matthew 10:2, even specifically calling him “first.” For Dr. Gundry, this becomes an accusation; connecting with Matthew 19:30 (Many who are first will be last, and the last first) – so in Gundry’s mind, Matthew’s calling Peter “first” was actually a way to call him “last.” This is surely an unreasonable stretch, with two grave problems. First, this makes Judas first (despite Gundry’s protest that Matthew does not specifically call Judas last the way he called Peter first). Second, even if it did not make Judas first, it would make him before Peter – who, in Gundry’s mind, is the new last. There is no way to escape the conclusion that as Gundry understands Matthew, Peter is worse than Judas – a rather unsound conclusion according to Matthew or anyone else.
It’s also significant to note that in Matthew, Judas is defined by his betrayal of Jesus. Three times in Matthew Judas is referred to as the betrayer (Matthew 10:4, 26:25, 27:3). There is no corresponding identification of Peter as “the denier.” This certainly is not to say that Matthew did not record the fact of Peter’s denial; simply that Matthew didn’t regard the act as defining Peter the way that Judas was defined by his betrayal. Therefore, to say as Gundry said: “Just as Judas apostatized in deed, Peter apostatized in word” is to far overstate the matter, since Matthew did not title Peter as he did Judas.
According to Dr. Gundry’s pattern, we would say that in Matthew, Judas comes off as better and more repentant than Peter, shown by the placement of Judas’ return of the betrayal money (Matthew 27:3-10). Surely this is a wrong approach.
Dr. Gundry also builds much of his case on Peter going outside, in the darkness of night, and weeping. In Gundry’s approach this clearly connects Peter with those who will weep and gnash their teeth in darkness outside the kingdom. Yet there is at least one notable difference between the two (noted in the follow-up audio). In the eternal condemnation passages in Matthew, the condemned are cast into outer darkness. In Matthew 26:75, Matthew noted that Peter “went out and wept bitterly.” Matthew could have shaped his description to say that Peter was cast out, perfectly fitting what Gundry believes Matthew wanted to communicate, but Matthew did not. Either Matthew was not concerned to match the pattern as Gundry perceives it, or Matthew was more concerned with historical, factual accuracy than Gundry perceives. Either one argues against Gundry’s premise.
Most importantly, Dr. Gundry does not give nearly the credit he should to Matthew for his rehabilitation of Peter in Matthew 28. Gundry flatly said, “Matthew gives you no grounds for Peter’s rehabilitation.” I strongly disagree, based on Matthew 28:16-20. Upon examination, that text does strongly rehabilitate Peter, though in Matthew’s distinctive way.
First, Dr. Gundry’s dismissal of this argument lacks weight. He admits that Peter was among the 11 disciples who received Jesus’ word and the commission in Matthew 28:16-20, but argues this is of no great significance because Jesus also commissioned the 12 disciples in Matthew 10 and Judas was among them, and that Matthew in several places reminds us that there will be false believers among the community of God’s people. In response, we may consider that though Judas was among the 12 who received the commission in Matthew 10, he was not yet revealed as apostate at that time, whereas (in Gundry’s thinking) Peter was fully revealed as apostate when Jesus gave the commission to the 11 disciples in Matthew 28. As well, to argue that the commissioning of the eleven was no different than the commissioning of the disciples earlier in the ministry of Jesus – with Judas present – says that nothing transformative happened with respect to the disciples in connection with the death and resurrection of Jesus. In contrast, Matthew believed the work of Jesus on the cross was so transformative that he told of the strange incident of spontaneous resuscitation of Matthew 27:52-53. It does make a significant difference that Peter was commissioned after the death and resurrection of Jesus and Judas was not.
More pointedly, the text of Matthew 28:16-20 is a significant rehabilitation of Peter, even though he is not mentioned by name.
- Peter is present among the eleven
- Peter is obedient after the resurrection (obeying the command of Jesus to meet Him in Galilee, Matthew 28:10)
- Peter is among the worshippers of the resurrected Jesus
- Peter is among those who hear the word of Jesus’ authority
- Peter is among those who receive the Great Commission
- Peter is among those whom Jesus promised to be with them even to the end of the age
Additionally, Matthew recorded Jesus recognizing Peter as among “My brethren” in Mathew 28:10. Peter must have been among the My brethren told to go to Galilee, because He obeyed this word and was among them.
Some may discount Matthew’s rehabilitation of Peter because he is not mentioned by name in Matthew 28:16-20. In response, it can be suggested that Matthew had a deliberate purpose in clearly including Peter (describing the group of 11 disciples, to which Peter belonged) without mentioning him by name. Previously, Matthew recorded that Peter claimed a superior devotion to Jesus; that “Even if all are made to stumble because of You, I will never be made to stumble” (Matthew 26:33). Therefore, Matthew’s inclusion of Peter without specifically naming him is an appropriate reflection of his humility as a penitent following his denials of Jesus.
A more accurate understand of Matthew would say that the events of the death and resurrection of Jesus revealed the true apostate – and it was Judas, not Peter. Matthew’s portrayal of Peter is one who falters, but does not ultimately fail. He is one with the covenant community of the Messiah at the end of the story.
Gundry’s Problem with the Scriptures as a Whole
The weight of Matthew alone leads us to believe that Peter was not a false apostle or an apostate. However, perhaps the larger problem with Gundry’s approach is that he disqualifies reading Matthew in light of the Gospel of Luke, the Gospel of John, Acts, 1-2 Peter, or Paul’s letters. Gundry says, “Matthew isn’t Mark, Luke, John, or Paul, so Matthew’s take on Peter doesn’t have to agree with theirs, unless you hold to a certain view of scriptural inspiration.” I do hold to this certain view of scriptural inspiration Gundry dismisses, and I believe it is an important view for believers in general to hold.
While harmonization of the Gospels and other books of the Bible does present challenges, many regard these challenges as surmountable and preferable to the alternative: a Bible where different Biblical authors freely contradict each other, especially in matters of historical fact.
In general, it is far better to take the approach favored by the man who presently holds the Dr. Robert Gundry Chair for Biblical Studies as Westmont College. Dr. Tremper Longman III. In a YouTube video on a similar subject, Longman properly advises that we should not read the books of the Bible in isolation, but in dialogue with each other:
We should read the Bible canonically; read the individual book, but then read it in the context of the whole Bible. This is what Gundry does not do, and even feels is wrong to do.
Therefore, Dr. Gundry sees the Jesus presented by Matthew teaching that the way to righteousness superior to the scribes and Pharisees is by the simple performance of the individual. Therefore, in Matthew’s account Peter denied Jesus with an oath (Matthew 26:72), and thereby falls short of obtaining the superior righteousness necessary the entrance to the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:33-37). Gundry’s approach to Matthew sets the Gospel writer at odds with other New Testament writers on multiple vital subjects, not only the status of Peter.
Dr. Gundry does not seem to believe in a “certain view of inspiration” that sees the Scriptures as a whole, brought forth from one Divine Mind, with each book speaking to and informing the others. It is difficult to see how one can maintain that the Scriptures are inspired in their individual parts, but not in their collective whole – or how this can be perceived as a genuinely high view of inspiration.
At the end of it all, one is left with a question. If Dr. Gundry is correct and Matthew did present Peter as a false apostle and apostate – in contradiction to the clear rehabilitation testimony of Luke, John, and Acts – who is right, Matthew or the others? Who presents us the real story of Peter?
Dr. Gundry seems to suggest that this is a question that should not be asked. Instead of looking to the historical narrative of Scripture for factual accuracy, we should instead look for the author’s intended point. Gundry explained it like this, referring to how the Greek philosopher Aristotle (in Poetics) “defended the right of poets to engage in factual inconsistencies if those inconsistencies were necessary to make a desired point.” Gundry then added: “Truth is sometimes – not always, but sometimes – to be found on a different plane from the factual.”
This is a familiar and serious error. Presumably we should allow certain scholars determine the “sometimes” when a higher truth is based on historical fiction presented as factual; this allowance should not be granted. This thinking separates Christianity from its historical, factual basis, which was clearly the basis for New Testament faith (as in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 and many other passages).
Those who would harmonize the Gospel accounts and the collective books of the Bible have their challenge, but it is a challenge far preferred to that of finding a new foundation for a Christian faith detached from historical accuracy. It is fair to ask, “Who had it right – Matthew or Luke, John, and Acts?” If, in asking this question we decide that Matthew presented Peter in a factually inaccurate manner to make a theological or ethical point – this rightfully undermines our confidence in Matthew as a record of the life of Jesus. We don’t deny that there is nuance and flavor that both allows Matthew’s personality and intent as an author to be seen, but we deny that Matthew told tales to teach a point that did not cooperate with historical truth.
The words that Dr. Gundry believes prove this hyper-negative portrait come from Jesus in Matthew. Therefore, make no mistake: it isn’t Matthew who pronounces Peter as a false apostle and apostate; it is Jesus who says these things in Matthew’s Gospel. In this sense, Matthew’s estimation is Jesus’ estimation, and regretfully, Dr. Gundry leaves us with a rather confused Jesus.
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Thank you for taking the time to write this. It was thorough, thoughtful, and helped me as one who doubted into apostasy and now seeks to return to Christ.