Larry R. Helyer, The Life and Witness of Peter, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012), 329 pages.
I would like to thank IVP Academic for providing me a review copy.
I have always felt something of an affinity for the apostle Peter, and not simply because we share the same name. His (often) foolhardy enthusiasm makes him one of the more “real” characters in the NT, and perhaps even in the Bible—a point Helyer himself makes. Peter loves his Lord, but he also always seems to do the wrong thing. Luther once said that we ought to “sin boldly” and if there was ever someone who lived up to that advice, it was Peter. He rebukes Jesus, after just confessing him as the Christ and Son of God (Matt 16:13–23)! (At least he had the good sense to do it privately). He insists on staying on the Mount of Transfiguration. He walks on water, only to sink. He refuses to allow Jesus to wash his feet. He hastily cuts off the ear of the high priest’s servant. He denies Jesus three times. And yet, it is hard not to admire Peter’s spirit, his reckless abandon at trying to do the right thing. There is more than a little commonality between Peter and me, and I hope it includes the good as well as the bad. So it was with eagerness that I got Larry Helyer’s book on Peter.
The book has essentially four parts. Chapters 1 through 5 discuss what we know about Peter from his historical context (chapter 1), the gospels (chapters 2 and 3), the book of Acts (chapter 4), and Paul’s epistles (chapter 5). These chapters provide a good overview. Chapter 1 is especially interesting, though there wasn’t quite as much new information as I was hoping. This has less to do with any fault of Helyer’s, and more to do with the paucity of sources from that time. Still, Helyer does a very good job discussing what we can know about Peter’s upbringing, social and geographical context, family life and connections, and vocation. Because of the lack of information, Helyer is forced to speculate occasionally, but when he does, he is careful and clear. His conclusions seem reasonable and he notes when there is less confidence on some point.
Chapters 6 through 10 are essentially commentary on the book of 1 Peter and the main themes within it. Chapters 11 through 14 do the same for 2 Peter. These chapters do little to contribute to our picture of Peter the historical figure, so if your interests are solely biographical, they could be skipped. Nonetheless, Helyer does a good job introducing these book and the themes within them, and he does note when particular themes stand out against what we know of Peter’s story (e.g., the theme of suffering in 1 Peter vis-à-vis his denial of Jesus to save himself). In chapters 6 and 11 Helyer discusses issues of dating and authorship, among other introductory questions, and comes to the traditional conclusion that Peter did, in fact, write both books. His discussions on this point are fair and careful. It was gratifying to see that he came to the traditional position, and defended it well.
Chapters 15 through 17 are titled, “The Rest of the Story,” with respective subtitles, “Tradition,” “Legends about Peter,” and “Peter’s Legacy.” Again, Helyer exhibits his characteristic care when evaluating the veracity of the various traditions and legends about Peter. He notes that there is a fairly big gap between most of our sources and the actual events, but he does the best he can to adjudicate. For example, he judges that Peter was probably killed in Rome and that it is possible, though not certain, that he was crucified upside-down. In chapter 16, Helyer surveys the apocryphal and pseudepigraphical books ascribed to or about Peter (e.g., The Gospel of Peter).
One of the surprising features about this book is that there are discussion questions at the end of each chapter, along with a “for further reading” section. I say surprising, because the book is written at a fairly high level. Helyer has numerous footnotes, discussion of academic debates, and interaction with the Greek (albeit transliterated). The chapters are fairly short (~15 pages), which would be conducive to a Bible study or book discussion group, though it would have to be a fairly educated and motivated group of lay-people.
On the whole, I enjoyed this book. Peter is an interesting character and Helyer does a good job with the material that he has. His discussions of 1 and 2 Peter really made me want to go back and re-read them and see how the themes played out in the books. I was gratified that he defended the evangelical positions, and did so with charity and erudition. That being said, this was a fairly slow read. The middle two sections seemed to take a while to get through, though that may be because I was mostly interested in Peter, the person, not the books. I was also disappointed to see that he never seemed to consider the possibility that the imminent destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 might have been at the forefront of Peter’s mind and have therefore explained some of the passages that appear to suggest that Peter expected Jesus’ “Second Coming” to happen in the near future. Helyer, like many evangelicals who don’t give any consideration to that point, stumbled quite a bit when discussing that point. The critical scholars who argue that the apostles had a mistaken belief that Jesus would return soon have the upper hand, unless one sees a number of Peter’s judgment and “coming” texts as looking forward to the destruction of Jerusalem. That is a minor point, though, and shouldn’t detract from the value of the work as a whole.
I think this would be a great book for any pastor preparing a series on 1 or 2 Peter, or who wants to give his exposition of the Gospels a little bit more color. It would also be of value to anyone with an interest in Peter as a person. It is accessible to lay-people, provided they are not intimidated by a few transliterated Greek words and the occasional academic discussion.