Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Saint Peter in West Syriac liturgical tradition

(Indian Orthodox Herald) - The idea of the Primacy of the Pope set forth in the decrees of the first Vatican Council of 1870 is perhaps the most crucial subject discussed in the dialogues between the Catholics and the eastern and the Oriental Orthodox Christians. [E.g. XIth session of the Plenary of the International mixed Commission for the Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, Patmos, Greece, 16-23 October 2009 & XIIth Session in Vienna, 20 to 27 September 2010]

Since its promulgation, the Catholic theologians have defended it, quoting evidences from the biblical, patristic, canonical and liturgical sources, often reading into the texts a developed concept of primacy. The Syrian Catholic Bishop H.E.Cyril Behnam Benni [Arch bishop of Mosul 1861-92; Syrian catholic Patriarch 1892-97] an ardent defender of the Petrine primacy at the first Vatican Council of 1870, had made an impressive collection of Syriac sources, in order to support his arguments. For the past 140 years, Mgr.Benni’s work was never been the subject of a critical evaluation.

The West Syriac liturgical tradition acknowledges St Peter as the first among the apostles. Thus he is called ‘the chief of the apostles’ (risho d-slihe).The so-called Petrine texts (Math. 16:18-19; Luke 22:32; John 21:15-17) are often quoted in the prayers and hymns along with other New Testament allusions to St Peter. Thus the key words in the Catholic teaching on ‘Petrine Primacy’ such as ‘keys’, ‘faith of Peter’ and ‘rock’ occur in the Syriac liturgical texts.

Syriac tradition speaks of ‘the place of honour’ that St Peter occupied among the apostles. But he was never seen as ‘superior’ to his fellow apostles. The texts that speak of ‘the place of honour’ that St Peter occupied shall be understood in relation to numerous other passages thathighlight the ministry of the apostles and various ministers. Sometimes the encomium or eulogy of Peter is part of the poetical style of the prayers and other liturgical texts, which compare and contrast biblical figures precisely to meditate on the mystery of salvation and to praise God. In the Weekly Breviary Shehimo or the Book of Common Prayer the Evening (Ramso) and Morning (Sapro) have certain themes that recur: e.g. Mother of God, Saints, and Penitence, departed. Occasional references to St Peter appear under the section ‘Saints’, along with other apostles, especially with St Paul or St John the Baptist. A prayer of Monday evening provides the example:

“Simon the head of the apostles, and Paul the elect and John who baptized your Lord, be intercessors on behalf of the flock which you fed by the waters of faith, and lead it to pasture”. The main themes of the texts are not often St Peter and never his primacy. Let us quote a text from Monday Night Second Qaumo (Qaumo: A prayer said at one standing or in a stationary position; An order of prayers said while standing): “We remember Moses the fountainhead of prophecy and Simon, head of the apostles, and Paul the master-builder, who wrote to us in a letter to the Romans, that we should take part in the remembrance of the just, who loved God with all their heart; by their prayer and their petition may mercy be shown to us, halleluiah, may their prayer assist us.

Moses is the head of the Old, Simon of the New; both resemble one another and God dwelt in them. Moses brought down the tables of the Law, Simon received the keys of the kingdom; Moses built the earthly tabernacle, Simon built the Church, for the Old and the New, glory to you, O Lord, halleluiah, may their prayer assist us”. [The next two stanzas speak of the martyrs, St Stephen, George, Sergius, Kuriakose, Julitta, Shmouni and the forty martyrs]

The theme of Monday Night Second Qaumo is the saints. It is in that context that St Peter is remembered. Here the imagery of building the Church has been associated to St Paul as well as St Peter. In fact these two apostles appear together in a number of liturgical texts. Thus the fourth diptych speaks of “the exalted chiefs of the apostles St Peter and St Paul”. It shall be noted that the main goal of this diptych is not to teach the doctrine of the ‘primacy’ of these two apostles, but to commemorate the Mother of God, the prophets and the apostles, the preachers and Evangelists, the martyrs and confessors. Along with them St John the Baptist, St Stephen and St Peter and St Paul are commemorated. In the inaudible prayer that accompanies the fourth diptych, there is no reference to Peter and Paul. The prayer simply speaks of the ‘apostles’. In fact in the Syrian Orthodox anaphoras, the inaudible prayer that accompanies the fourth diptych does not mention St Peter by name. The Anaphora of Julius of Rome is an exception. The inaudible prayer reads:

“Remember O Lord, all the bishops, orthodox doctors of Your Holy Church who have already departed…. From Peter, the chief of the apostles until today”

This is an isolated example and cannot support the any argument related to the primacy of Peter. In the Anaphora of Abraham Nahshirtono (‘the Hunter’), the same prayer reads: “Remember O Lord, all those who have ruled over Your Holy Church from Mar Jacob until today” 6.

The Anaphora of the Twelve Apostles ( St Luke) speaks of “John the Baptist and Stephen the head of the deacons”. (also the anaphoras of St John Chrysostom and the Mkanashto)

The fourth diptych provides the key to understand the question of Peter’s position. The Blessed apostle Peter is commemorated as one of the leading figures among the saints, but not as their head. The ‘General prayer’ of the preparation rites (which commemorates “all those who, since the world began, have been wellpleasing to Thee from our father Adam even unto this day”) does not speak of Peter. A text in the liturgy of the marriage speaks Christ entrusting the care of the Church to St Peter along with St John: “When the heavenly Bridegroom betrothed the faithful Holy Church, he called Simon and John and entrusted her to both of them (aga’el w-yahboh lathraihun). He made Simon the steward of the House (rab baitho) and John the preacher (of the Gospel). He called them and commanded them: you shall guard diligently the (church) that I have purchased with my precious blood When the Malayalam translation was rendered into verses, the original sense was completely lost, which is often quoted by those who defend the doctrine of Petrine primacy.

St Peter in the Liturgical year

It is interesting to note that in the Syrian Orthodox liturgical year there is no feast of St Peter. The ‘chief of the apostle’ is commemorated along with St Paul on June 29. This is somewhat similar in Rome itself where Peter and Paul were commemorated together until later in Church history (in the Chair of St. Peter commemoration). In Orthodoxy the Chains of St. Peter are also commemorated. There are a good number of ancient Syriac calendars that have come down to us. None of them contains a feast of St Peter. There is even a feast of St Andrew, brother of St Peter (Nov. 30). There are feasts of St Thomas (July 3; Sept 10); John the Evangelist (Sept. 26; Oct 5; Dec. 15; May 8); Philip (Nov. 14), Simon the Zealot (May 10), Mathew (Nov 16), Judas (Jan 27). The New Testament figures such as Philemon (Nov 22), Timothy (Jan 21), Onesimos (Feb 15), Jason (April 28) are commemorated as apostles.. Even the Old Testament minor prophets are commemorated: Nahum (Dec.1); Habakkuk (Dec 2); Zephaniah(Dec.3).

In the earliest arrangement of the liturgical calendars, the most important feasts are placed closer to the feasts of Nativity and Epiphany. Thus the glorification of Theotokos (Dec. 26), the beheading of John the Baptist (Jan. 7) and the martyrdom of St Stephen (Jan 8), the oldest among the feasts of the saints are widely celebrated. According to a number of ancient sources, the feast of Jacob, brother of our Lord was celebrated on 28th December. The position of the feast of St Peter and St Paul outside this cycle is not without significance...
Complete article here.


  1. This article doesn't address that the evidence of St Peter visiting Rome is third century and not biblical. And St Peter's tomb was discovered on the mount of Olives in the 1950's: http://www.aloha.net/~mikesch/peters-jerusalem-tomb.htm

  2. The Bible does not say where St. Peter died, but the tradition of all the ancient churches (including Orthodoxy) is that he died in Rome. The ossuary of somebody named “Simon bar Jonah” was discovered there, the equivalent of “John Smith” today. It can’t be stated as a fact that these bones were St. Peter’s. Plus all the sites advertising this “recent” (60-year-old) find have an obvious bias against Catholicism.

  3. But that somebody, with the same name as St Peter, was a 1st century Christian (previous to the destruction of Jerusalem in 66 AD) according to the archaeologist's report by Bagatti and Milik (Catholic priests). I don't read Italian so my information comes from a secondary source: Jack Finegan's The Arch. of the the New Testament. Finegan is also a Catholic priest, so anyone wanting to avoid Protestant website's has options. Cheers.