The phrase to rob Peter to pay Paul means “to take something from one party and give it to another, especially if the two are closely associated with one another.“ Similar phrases include to borrow from Peter to pay Paul or to unclothe Peter to clothe Paul. The phrase is commonly used to describe the transfer of a financial debt from one party to another.
It is unclear where the phrase to rob Peter to pay Paul originated, but according to English folklore, the phrase was popularized in response to an event in Westminster, England, in the 1500s AD. On December 17, 1550, Westminster Abbey was officially deemed a cathedral by the Anglican Church, giving it a unique and privileged status. However, ten years later, the diocese of Westminster was dissolved, and the abbey was absorbed into the diocese of London. After this, many of the abbey’s assets were seized and repurposed to St. Paul’s Cathedral for repairs. Because Westminster Abbey was originally dedicated to Saint Peter, it was said the Anglican Church had “robbed Peter to pay Paul.”
It is also possible the phrase to rob Peter to pay Paul developed more naturally over time rather than in response to a specific event. Both Peter and Paul start with the letter P, so there is natural alliteration. Both Peter and Paul were apostles and key figures in the early church. And, in more traditional churches, Peter and Paul have the same feast day (June 29).
The phrase to rob Peter to pay Paul is not found anywhere in the Bible. The Bible does record a time when Peter and Paul were at odds with one another (Galatians 2:11–21). Peter had begun separating himself from Gentile believers when in the presence of some legalistic Jews. Paul rebuked Peter’s behavior and called out his hypocrisy for perverting the gospel message of unity. However, these events do not reflect the meaning of the phrase “to rob Peter to pay Paul” as most use it today. There is no biblical account of anybody robbing Peter to give to Paul, whether it be something financial, material, or anything else.