Ever wonder why so many churches—including the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in the Vatican, and the Cathedral-Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia, are dedicated to two saints who were, during their lifetimes, as much as odds as they were? Or why we commemorate both saints on the same day?
If you consult the websites of any of these churches, you will read that both men were “pillars of the Church,” both were martyred at Rome within days of each other, etc. Which is all true. But I believe there is more going on.
After bringing Christianity to the Greek-speaking cities of Ephesus, Corinth, Philipi, and Thessaloniki, Paul came into conflict with the Jerusalem church, which taught that Gentile converts must observe the laws of Moses and be circumcised. Paul saw this teaching as an onerous burden to lay on the new converts, arguing that God had given them the Holy Spirit while they were yet uncircumcised. Paul considered the expectations of the Judaizers the pre-eminent threat to his doctrine of salvation through faith in Christ.
When Peter and Paul met at Antioch, the sparks flew. And when Paul found that even his old traveling companion Barnabas sided with Peter against him, he and Peter had a falling out from which scripture records no healing.
As Paul describes it in his Letter to the Galatians:
When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group, The rest of the Jews joined in this charade and even Barnabas was drawn into the hypocrisy. –Galatians 2:11-13
After his vision and subsequent witness to the Spirit being given to Gentiles in the household of Cornelius the centurion (Acts 10:9-48), Peter testified at the Council of Jerusalem, essentially admitting that Paul had been right.
My brothers, you are well aware that from early days God made his choice among you that through my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness by granting them the Holy Spirit just as he did us. He made no distinction between us and them, for by faith he purified their hearts. Why, then, are you now putting God to the test by placing on the shoulders of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they. —Acts 15:7-11
Consequently, James the brother of Jesus issued what has become known as the Apostolic Decree:
It is my judgment…that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. —Acts 15:19-20
But there is no record of Peter and Paul, and their partisans, ever reconciling.
During a time when the early Church was trying to establish its identity and foster unity in the midst of often hideous persecution, it makes perfect sense that, almost immediately after their deaths, the Church began to associate Peter and Paul in the popular imagination. If you want the followers of two influential people to stop fighting, the obvious thing to do is to depict them as fellow-travelers and co-pillars of the Church.