I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not in the top 1 percent of pastors for Bible memorization. Some people out there know every verse by heart, and the appropriate chapter and verse number. Not I. I know the broad strokes pretty well, but I can easily get stumped by the smaller stuff. For example, I played an old Bible Trivia game with my wife a few months back (more fun than it sounds, I swear), and one of the questions was about Samson violating his nazarite vows by eating honey out of a dead lion corpse. I had no memory of this happening and was thoroughly grossed out (if any of YOU break a promise to God by eating honey out of a dead lion corpse, I will judge you so hard, and not just for the promise-breaking). I’d still give myself maybe a 6.5 or 7 out of 10 on the pastor Bible memory scale, but on the whole, I rely on looking stuff up rather than just knowing it.
But this… this threw me.
Did you know Peter had a WIFE??? And this isn’t some lame, click bait title that refers to some apocryphal (non-canonical) book to get to a crazy conclusion. It’s in the New Testament:
When Jesus came into Peter’s house, he saw Peter’s mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever. He touched her hand and the fever left her, and she got up and began to wait on him.Matt 8:14-15, NIV
How do you get a mother-in-law without a wife? You don’t. You need a wife to get a mother in law. This isn’t a one-off story either. It’s also recorded in both Mark and Luke.
Another passage that seems to confirm the rumor is 1 Corinthians 9:5:
Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas?NIV
Why would Paul specifically reference Peter (the Greek translation of the Aramaic name Cephas) to prove that he has the right to get married unless Peter was actually married and traveling with his wife? It’d be a pretty poor example otherwise.
Historically, there’s only one person I’ve ever heard someone talk about Peter’s wife: my mom. She brought it up to me a handful of times when we were chatting, and I always just nodded my head and smiled thinking, “ok, mom, whatever you say…” I’d never heard it in church. I’d never heard it in seminary. It’s just not all that popular to talk about! Probably because Peter’s wife never actually appears in the Bible. She’s just referenced indirectly. Nevertheless, it seems like a pertinent detail to me! My whole mental image of Peter is changed if he had a wife!
Looking around, it’s pretty rare to see someone challenge that Peter was married. Obscure though the reference in the Gospels may be, it is largely accepted as a legitimate translation. Peter was married. The bigger question in the tradition doesn’t seem to be “was Peter married,” so much as “was Peter’s wife alive at the time of the Gospels?”
There isn’t a ton of evidence to make things clear. We have the verses from earlier, and then we have a few references from the Church Fathers. Clement of Alexandria writes:
They say, accordingly, that the blessed Peter, on seeing his wife led to death, rejoiced on account of her call and conveyance home, and called very encouragingly and comfortingly, addressing her by name, “Remember thou the Lord.” Such was the marriage of the blessed and their perfect disposition towards those dearest to them.Clement, The Stromata, Book VII
This is where things are a bit murky. Eusebius references Peter’s wife as well, but uses Clement’s citation to do so:
Clement, indeed, whose words we have just quoted, after the above-mentioned facts gives a statement, on account of those who rejected marriage, of the apostles that had wives. “Or will they,” says he, “reject even the apostles? For Peter and Philip begat children; and Philip also gave his daughters in marriage. And Paul does not hesitate, in one of his epistles, to greet his wife, whom he did not take about with him, that he might not be inconvenienced in his ministry.”Eusebius, Church History III.31
Eusebius’s source is of especially poor quality, not only because it’s a secondary reference, but also because he references Paul having a wife. Paul directly writes that he is unmarried in 1 Corinthians 7:8. Certainly not a slam-dunk of a source, which leaves our primary patristic source as Clement.
Clement is a relatively controversial source to have. He was the teacher of Origen, a wildly popular Christian teacher and theologian in the early church, but he was anathematized (declared no-good) after his death for a variety of theological oddities, such as the belief in the existence of human souls before human birth and belief in potential of souls to be saved and fall again after death. The Alexandrian school of the early church was famous for their thinkers, but they were also heavily influenced by native Greek philosophy. They adopted its best pieces to develop their theology, while publicly rejecting other popular pieces that they saw as competing with the Gospel. It’s only natural that Alexandrians like Origin and Clement thought in ways that seem jarring to us today. Clement was also venerated in the Roman Catholic church until the 16th century when he was removed from the calendar by Pope Clement the VIII for being too controversial (or because he wanted to the top Clement in Church history and he had to dethrone this guy to get there). Either way, Clement is famous enough to have clout, but also controversial enough to raise an eyebrow.
The evidence for Peter’s wife being dead hinges on her absence in the Bible. If he’s married, where is his wife? Why isn’t she there? At minimum, she ought to be with her sick mother, right? Fair point. Unfortunately, it also has to contend with the 1 Corinthians reference. I regularly found the attempts to dismiss that passage clumsy. Some commentators said that “wife” didn’t actually mean wife in that context. Whenever I hear someone try to get clever with translations, I settle the matter by looking at the different translations in the most popular Bibles. NIV? Wife. NRSV? Wife. ESV? Wife. NASV? Wife. You get the picture. The lone outlier is the King James Version, which says “a sister, a wife,” which still comes across to me as a Shakespearean attempt to say “a sister in the faith aka a believing wife” given the context. In any case, I’ll take the legion of Bible translators that worked on all these versions over lone wolves that swear they have better translation skills. But there’s still the big question, “If Peter is married, why are there so few references to his wife?” That’s something I can’t answer.
I suppose the evidence could lead in either direction, depending on how you think. It’s not like this is a hill anyone really needs to die on. Peter’s marital status is not doctrinally crucial. The Scriptures were not written to illuminate Peter’s love life.
I stumbled down this whole rabbit hole last week after I found a reference to her in Martyrs Mirror (the Anabaptist martyr collection from last week’s entry). It portrayed her as an early martyr for the faith and illustrated the devotion to God that both of them had in their marriage. Personally? I love the idea. Not only is the evidence reasonable enough for my tastes, but I love the possibilities it brings to the table. It adds another woman in the apostolic era worthy of respect. It adds a married man among the disciples. They support each other in the faith, even through pain and suffering. I love it! Hopefully that excitement isn’t outweighing my logic. I totally acknowledge that the evidence is a little scarce for a figure as public as Peter. But even if I’m wrong and Peter was a widower, I think the story of Peter’s wife has so much to offer. It gives us a picture of a man that wasn’t just passionate about Jesus; he was someone who was alive! He lived! He loved! He lost! That is so human, and a human faith is one that grows deep roots in our souls. I hope that this little journey helps me share the story of the first generation of Christians in a more human way.