The Life and Witness of Peter would be one of the first books I would recommend for students, pastors, and others interested in the life and legacy of the Apostle Peter. It is thoroughly readable, refreshingly conservative, and written by a brother whose interpretative posture has been benefited by the word he is handling. It is a humble, gracious, charitable reading of Peter in which the author clearly appreciates the truths he explores. This is not to say, however, that his work is not also academically robust and reflective of significant knowledge in numerous requisite disciplines (such as NT theology, systematic theology, the Greco-Roman world, and biblical theology). This is unsurprising given that Helyer has published such books as Exploring Jewish Literature in the Second Temple Period and perhaps more significant for the present work, The Witness of Jesus, Paul and John.
The warmth of his writing is noteworthy because in the field of Petrine studies, the Petrine material in the NT has been subjected to critical and quite clinical dissections for well over a century. Events pertaining to Peter in the Gospels and the Book of Acts have been treated as unreliable accounts, and the letters of 1 and 2 Peter sometimes dismissed altogether. Helyer declares in the preface that he considers not only the Gospels to be historically reliable, but also the Book of Acts, and most notably, even the letters of 1 and 2 Peter. As a result, and atypically, in Helyer’s work all of the NT sources pertaining to Peter are permitted to naturally inform one another. It is therefore an unusually rich reading.
The Life and Witness of Peter adopts a chronological approach for what is essentially a biographical work. That is, it traces Peter’s life chronologically rather than thematically, or through other grids that might excessively impose themselves on the texts. Accordingly, in chapter 1 provides a helpful background of Simon Peter the Galilean fisherman. Chapters 2 and 3 examine Peter’s early period in the Gospels. Particularly insightful are the highlighted similarities and differences between the four Gospel accounts. Chapter 4 describes “Peter and the Early Church” as recorded in the Book of Acts. References to “Peter in Paul’s Letters” are then examined in chapter 5. Though there is little to criticise in each of these chapters, I was somewhat perplexed by the weight Helyer gives to Hengel’s (in my view spurious) argument for a chronic, bitter rift between Peter and Paul (pp. 94–96, 102–3). This seemed a jarring intrusion in an otherwise convincing chapter. Chapter 6 introduces Peter’s first epistle followed by four chapters covering dominant theological themes from 1 Peter: “Peter’s Christology” (ch. 7); “Christ and the Spirits, Christ and the Holy Spirit” (ch. 8); “Suffering for Jesus” (ch. 9); and “The People of God” (ch. 10). Helyer deemed it worthwhile in chapter 11 to guide readers through the authorship debate of 2 Peter and to provide the reasoning, albeit briefly, for his view that Peter himself was responsible for its composition. Chapters 12 to 14 then examine “Theological Themes in 2 Peter,” “The Character and Destiny of the False Teachers,” and the “Eschatology of 2 Peter.” The final three chapters may be particularly helpful for students who have not looked far beyond the NT documents’ portrayal of Peter. The Church Fathers’ portrayal of Peter is surveyed in “The Rest of the Story: Tradition” (ch. 15), followed by accounts (often venerating Peter) in the pseudepigraphic writings of the second- and third-century AD (ch. 16). Chapter 17 provides an edifying conclusion that expresses well the essence of Peter’s life and legacy.
Helyer pitches his work at readers who may have little knowledge of Petrine and theological disciplines. The entry-level accessibility and readability of The Life and Witness of Peter will be deemed a strength by those new to Petrine studies, but potentially a weakness by those already familiar with the Petrine, NT, or biblical studies. For this reviewer, too much attention was given to retelling very familiar events from Peter’s life (rather than a short reference to the event) or explaining themes like “Messiah” from the OT that perhaps need not have been the job of this volume. This assumption of ignorance can have a numbing effect for those familiar with these events and themes. Helyer does however occasionally recapture and reward the attention of his readers with quite insightful comments sprinkled through these sections.
While more advanced readers could argue that breadth is provided at the cost of depth, there is a sense in which, by the end of the book, one feels a certain depth comes as a result of that breadth. That is, after a long journey with Helyer through so many moments in Peter’s extraordinary life, the reader feels deeply acquainted with the Apostle.
Helyer is clearly a most able scholar and teacher, and while this book is accessible to all, it does not avoid the tough questions. He manages throughout the book to simply, but not simplistically, explain and suggest sensible resolutions to a whole range of complex issues that surround the topics under discussion in the Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Petrine Epistles most specifically. As an introduction to Peter, it is deceptively perceptive and will enrich students and scholars alike.