What was the Apostle Peter like? The narrative I learned in Sunday school was that he was just a “dumb fisherman.” The image I absorbed was of a burly, manual-labor kind of guy, but not all that smart. If God can use a dumb fisherman, then he can use anybody. That’s the lesson we learned from Peter.
But was Peter really dumb?
I don’t think so. In fact, I think he was quite smart and articulate. He could still be impulsive (cutting off the guy’s ear) and misguided (wanting to build tabernacles at the Transfiguration) and cowardly (denying Christ). But I don’t think Jesus selected a dummy.
In reading Peter’s speech on Pentecost Sunday, I see a guy with a very good command of Old Testament scripture, who could put together a strong argument for Christ on the spur of the moment, and who could command a crowd’s attention. Of course, in Sunday school we were led to believe that this “dumb fisherman” pretty much just opened his mouth and out came this speech, compliments of the Holy Spirit. But while I won’t downplay the Holy Spirit’s role, I don’t think Peter was just a wind-up doll.
As I read other stories about Peter in Acts–at Solomon’s Colonnade (chapter 3), before the Sanhedrin (chapter 4), with Cornelius (chapter 10)–I see a smart man. He had a firm command of Scripture, able to quote relevant Scripture off the top of his head. And he was convincing as he spoke about Christ being the Son of God.
In Acts 10, Peter had a vision which involved extending salvation to the Gentiles. This was a fundamental, earth-shaking concept. Chapter 11 finds him in Jerusalem defending the idea in front of, no doubt, some very smart, educated people. But he held his own, and with the Holy Spirit’s help, they accepted this revolutionary idea. I’m sure Peter had to defend it in many other settings, too. Jews would not easily extend their “chosen people” identity to Gentiles.
Plus, he wrote two very good epistles, the first of which quotes Old Testament scripture rather extensively. He knew his stuff.
So no, I don’t think Peter was a “dumb fisherman,” any more than I think Jesus was just a “dumb carpenter.” I think Peter was a very smart fisherman.
I think of my Grandpa Welker. Just a “dumb farmer”? Not at all. Though he never went to college, Grandpa was one of the smartest guys I’ve ever known. He could talk to anybody about anything. Grandpa’s oldest son, my Uncle Marvin, is another very smart guy. You have to be smart to succeed in farming today. It’s a complicated business. Uncle Marvin never went to college, and I’m guessing that as a kid he hated school and wasn’t a very good student. But if you’re looking for native intelligence, Grandpa and Uncle Marvin have it.
In Jesus’ day, a college education wasn’t exactly common, and there wasn’t much need for book learnin’. It was a farming and fishing society, with lots of manual labor. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t smart people.
I think Peter was a smart and articulate guy, with a good dose of personal charisma thrown in, a natural leader. And that’s partly why Jesus picked him.