Were St. Peter and the Other Apostles Celibate?

One of the common arguments against clerical celibacy is that St. Peter, the leader of the Apostles and the first pope, was married. After all, Scripture refers to his having a mother-in-law (Matthew 8:14-15), and St. Paul (referring to Peter by his original Aramaic name, Cephas) defends his Apostolic authority in a verse usually translated “Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a wife, as the other apostles and the brethren of the Lord and Cephas?” (1 Corinthians 9:5).

GotQuestions takes a pretty standard Protestant position in viewing these two sentences from the New Testament as proving that St. Peter was married during the Apostolic period, and that this invalidates the Catholic practice of celibacy:

From the fact that some of the disciples were married, we can conclude that it is right for ministers to marry and that the Roman Catholic doctrine of the celibacy of the clergy is contrary to apostolic example. Peter is claimed by the Roman Catholics to be the head of the church, and the Pope, according to their view, is the successor of this apostle. Yet they maintain that it is wrong for priests to marry. If that is true, why did not Christ at once reject Peter from being an apostle for having a wife? How remarkable that he should be set up as the head of the church and an example and a model to all who were to succeed him. But a celibate clergy is tradition and human law and is contrary to the New Testament (1 Timothy 3:2-5). [….] Finally, we can conclude that it is equally acceptable for missionaries to marry and to take their wives with them to the mission field. The apostles were missionaries and spent their lives in pagan nations as missionaries do now.

But let’s take a closer look at those passages, and find out what the New Testament really has to say.

Let’s start with Matthew 8:14-15: “And when Jesus entered Peter’s house, he saw his mother-in-law lying sick with a fever; he touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she rose and served him.” Two things jump out: first, while Peter’s mother-in-law is mentioned, no living wife is mentioned here, or anywhere else in the New Testament. In fact, we find no mention anywhere in the New Testament of any of the Apostles’ alleged wives. That’s a somewhat surprising omission. More surprising is the fact that Peter’s newly-recovered mother-in-law is the one who ends up serving Jesus in Peter’s house. If St. Peter has a living wife, where is she?

What about 1 Corinthians 9:5, then? Well, there are two important things to note. First, as Karl Keating and others have noted, the Greek is ambiguous. St. Paul refers to Peter and the others as having the authority to have an ἀδελφὴν γυναῖκα (adelphēn gynaika). The first word there is “sister,” understood in the spiritual sense. The second word means either wife or woman (you might recognize the gyn- prefix from English). So Paul is either saying that Peter and the others travel with believing wives, or that they travel with believing women who minister to them.

Why is that important? Because this verse allegedly describing Peter’s marital status comes from a passage that’s about finances and material compensation. Read the whole passage, and you’ll see why many scholars think it’s not a reference to wives at all (1 Corinthians 9:3-12):

This is my defense to those who would examine me. Do we not have the right to our food and drink? Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a wife [woman?], as the other apostles and the brethren of the Lord and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Who tends a flock without getting some of the milk?

Do I say this on human authority? Does not the law say the same? For it is written in the law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of a share in the crop. If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits? If others share this rightful claim upon you, do not we still more? Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.

So St. Paul is defending his right, as an Apostle, to be materially compensated for his work, even though he points out that he doesn’t actually make use of this right (Acts 18:3 reveals that Paul worked as a tent-maker). In the midst of this, he does one of two things. One theory, which most Protestants assume, is that he then makes a side point (that Apostles are also allowed to have wives, even though he doesn’t). But the other possibility is that he is pointing out a specific kind of material comfort: that there were believing women who took care of the Apostles, just as we hear about in Luke 8:1-3,

Soon afterward he [Jesus] went on through cities and villages, preaching and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Mag′dalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Jo-an′na, the wife of Chu′za, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.

These women apparently accompanied Jesus and the Apostles and “provided for them out of their means.” St. Paul points out that he has a right to such provision, but doesn’t make use of it, for fear that it would be an obstacle.

The strength of this second interpretation is that reading ἀδελφὴν γυναῖκα as about “believing women” taking care of the Apostles is that it’s coherent in the broader context of Paul’s argument… whereas the “believing wife” interpretation makes it a strange aside in a passage that isn’t about marriage at all.

Okay, so neither of the two “married Peter” proof-texts are as strong as they first appear. But are there any good reasons to believe that Peter was celibate? Yes, in fact. In Luke 18, after the encounter with the rich young man, Jesus proclaims, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Lk. 18:24-25). That then leads to this revealing conversation (Lk. 18:26-30):

Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?”

But he [Jesus] said, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.”

And Peter said, “Lo, we have left our homes and followed you.”

And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there is no man who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive manifold more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.”

That sure sounds like Jesus and Peter are talking about how Peter and the other Apostles have given up marriage and family to follow Christ. There are basically three interpretations of this passage: that Peter is referring only to leaving his home; that Peter means he has “put his wife away,” separating from his wife to leave home and follow Christ; or that Peter is a widower who has given up the possibility of remarriage.

Of these, the first one strikes me as the weakest since (like the standard Protestant interpretation of 1 Cor 9) it basically involves an unsignalled change-of-subject: Peter mentions to Jesus about how the Apostles have given up their “homes” to follow Him, and He responds by praising some other group of people for giving up house and family.

Admittedly, we’re not dealing with 100% clear evidence here in either direction. I think the balance of evidence suggests that Peter wasn’t living as a married man from his time as an Apostle forward, but had embraced celibacy along with the other Apostles; you might read the same evidence in the opposite direction. (Certainly, Peter was at least married at some point, since he had a mother-in-law).

It’s also important to point out that the Catholic Church doesn’t claim celibacy as a dogma. Whether the Apostles were married priests or not, there certainly have been (and are!) wonderful married priests in the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church in the West chooses to ordain to the priesthood only unmarried men who promise to live lives of celibacy (although even here, she makes exceptions for certain converts). If Jesus and St. Paul are right that this is the highest state of life (Matthew 19:10-12; 1 Corinthians 7:8-9, 32-34), the Church can hardly be begrudged for this preference. But while she has the right to do this, she doesn’t have the requirement to do so.

So we don’t want to exaggerate the evidence, or the importance of it. I’m not arguing that it’s 100% certain that the Apostles were celibates for the Kingdom (Mt. 19:12) or that this means that only celibates should be ordained. I’m just arguing that, surface appearances notwithstanding, the Biblical evidence points in the direction of Apostolic celibacy.

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