So let me give you some context. I was watching my preacher this morning talk about Peter the Apostle and his story through the gospels. Some of the information my preacher was sharing was new, stuff I had not heard before, but I was sure was probably well sourced if I would take the time to look it up. I have no trouble with my pastor’s conclusions, we all need Jesus to be saved, and we are better following Him than following the Church.
So as I began my investigation into some of these novel pieces of Peter’s background, I was excited at this new dimension of the Apostle, a man perhaps denied the opportunity to become a learned man and later a Rabbi because of a presumed 1) lack of opportunity (due to family misfortune, i.e., death of his father), b) lack of scholarly aptitude, or perhaps c) lack of financial resources in the family. I envisioned a bitter, yet committed family man, not unlike a George Bailey from “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Simon (Peter) seemed a man resigned to his fate as a fisherman. He wanted to go off to college, but had to support his family. He was smart, world-wise, and a leader among his peers, but bitter because life had passed him by. And the true greatness he desired would never be his. He is like the high school football star that never left town and works at the Seven Eleven.
However, as my preacher explained this scenario, he hinged it on an understanding necessary to this conclusion, that all Jewish boys undertake a similar educational path. This path was described briefly as an elementary education ending at 12, where most kids get off the education train to learn a trade. Smarter kids are selected to continue to age 16, where only the brightest pursue a career following a rabbi, kind of like a Master-Padawan relationship in Star Wars. However, this was presented without a source, forcing me to delve into the internet for possible support for this idea. The idea of Peter jilted at the spiritual altar was emotionally appealing to me, as was the second chance offered by Jesus to “Follow Me” and become the spiritual leader he wanted to be.
In the Mishnah, Avot 5:21, Rabbi Judah ben Toma (presumably 2nd cent.) formulated a similar pattern of education, without reference to Rabbis and mentoring.
“He used to say: At five years of age the study of Scripture; At ten the study of Mishnah; At thirteen subject to the commandments; At fifteen the study of Talmud; At eighteen the bridal canopy; At twenty for pursuit [of livelihood]; At thirty the peak of strength; At forty wisdom; At fifty able to give counsel; At sixty old age; At seventy fullness of years; At eighty the age of “strength”; At ninety a bent body; At one hundred, as good as dead and gone completely out of the world.” (https://www.sefaria.org/Pirkei_Avot.5.21?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en)
While not exactly the same, it seemed to fit the general pattern presented by my pastor. But when I did some more digging, I found that this scheme had been modified to fit what my pastor had taught this morning by a Michigan pastor, Ray Vander Laan of “That the World May Know Ministries” as his source for how Rabbis selected their students and how students advance in their faith. (https://www.thattheworldmayknow.com/rabbi-and-talmidim).
Of even greater interest, I heard my pastor speak of Peter’s intention to become like his Rabbi Jesus when it came to walking on the water. He said that walking on the water was Peter’s attempt to be more like his Master. He also said that Jews believed the water was the abyss, the home of the dead, so that Jewish people would not have been surprised to see a ghost walking on the water. I had heard of neither of these ideas before, yet, when looking at Vander laan’s website, I found both of these ideas in this article: https://www.thattheworldmayknow.com/when-storms-come-article.
Is that a problem? Perhaps, because Vander laan is often quoted as saying that Jewish culture and thought have to be understood before we can understand the Bible, i.e., we need secret, specialized knowledge to understand Scripture (see source below). That’s a form of Gnosticsm, an ancient second century heresy among the early Christian Churches. This one is a bit more insidious, since the information sounds biblical. Worse that in order for you to understand it correctly, you have to take Vander Laan’s word on it, since he doesn’t correctly cite his sources.
I am troubled that my understanding of the text requires knowledge of first century rabbinical instruction to be understood correctly. I don’t mind such knowledge being available to inform my understanding, however, when it is crucial to understanding a text, but that makes the Bible insufficient for faith and practice, does it not?
There are more strong echoes of Vander laan (and even Rob Bell) in this teaching. In addition to Peter’s reasoning for walking on the water, Vander laan is also known for teaching that all the disciples were teenagers, except for Peter, who was likely 20. This idea can be found here: https://www.thattheworldmayknow.com/to-be-a-talmid The fact that this repeated by my pastor this morning made me question where he was getting his sources. I don’t fault the man, it just makes me question the veracity of some of the background information he digs up. Like I said before, I agree with His conclusions, just not how he gets there.
So in essence, for this reconstruction of Peter’s life to be fleshed out, I must take this secret knowledge to gain a better understanding. Now it may be true. But sadly, I don’t have enough solid support to make it so. In fact, the education and literacy of children in first century Galilee is still a matter of debate, and under much discussion. Archaeology is only now corroborating some of this information, and only sparingly.
If I want to believe that Peter was a Rabbi school reject, that’s on me. If I teach that, then I cross into dangerous territory. I can’t prove it, only suggest it. All of that to say this: I think we know more about Peter than any other disciple. We can speculate about his life experiences all we want, but none of that changes this one fact: Peter witnessed a risen Lord, a resurrected Jesus, and that changes everything for him.
Today, we may observe that one week after Easter, Jesus appeared to Thomas, removing all doubts he had about the Lord. Something Jesus said that say ought to resound in us, “Blessed are those who do not see, yet believe.”
God help my eyes to see the risen, living Lord, not with eyes of flesh, but eyes of faith. Help me to be emboldened as Peter was to glorify the name of Christ and lift Him up wherever I am. Thank You Jesus for saving me. In Your Name I pray, Amen.
A couple articles I found of interest on this subject, the first describing Ray Vander laan and some of his false teachings, the second a concise form of this rabbinic education both taught by my pastor this morning and by Vander laan.