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Peter: First Bishop (Pope) in Rome?

Today I move on to something else (I’ll get to the after life after more life).  Here’s an interesting question I received about Peter: the first bishop of Rome?



Is there any historical evidence that the apostle Peter was the first Bishop of Rome and that he was martyred upside down on a cross?



Ah, I get asked this one (or these two) on occasion.  I dealt with them both in my book Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene (which, by the way, was a blast to write).   First I’ll deal with Peter in Rome – which will take a couple of posts; then the question of his martyrdom.  Here is what I say about the first in my book


In some circles, Peter is best known as the first bishop of Rome, the first pope.  In the period I’m interested in for this book, however, there is little evidence to support this view. On the contrary, several authors indicate that Peter was not the first leader of the church there and certainly not its first bishop.  There are some traditions, however, that connect him with the Roman church long after it had been established.

Before examining these traditions, I should reiterate that there were other churches outside of Rome that claimed a special connection with Peter.  His importance to such churches is no mystery: if Peter was Jesus’ chief disciple and the first to affirm his resurrection, then any church that could claim him as their own would obviously improve its status in the eyes of the Christian world at large.  The church in Jerusalem itself could certainly make some such claim, as it is clear that in the beginning months of the church, soon after Jesus’ death, it was Peter who took charge and began the mission to convert others to faith in Jesus.  Some twenty years later the apostle Paul could still speak of Peter as one of the “pillars” of the Jerusalem church, along with John the son of Zebedee and James the brother of Jesus (Gal. 2:9).  As becomes clear from a range of sources, including Paul himself (e.g. Gal. 2:12), James was eventually to take over the leadership of the church in Jerusalem, possibly as Peter pursued his mission to convert Jews in other places. The second-century author Clement of Alexandria indicates that it was James who was the first bishop of Jerusalem (Eusebius, Church History, 2, 1).

We have also seen that Peter was present for a time in the large city of Antioch of Syria, where he had a confrontation with Paul over whether it was appropriate to abstain from eating meals with Gentile believers in view of the scruples of Jewish Christians who believed in the need to continue keeping kosher (Gal. 2:11-14).  A later tradition indicates that Peter was actually the first bishop there (Eusebius, Church History 3, 36).

Peter was also significant for the church of Corinth.  When Paul writes his first letter to the Corinthians, he is concerned that there are groups of Christians claiming allegiance to one Christian leader or another: some to him as founder of the church, some to Apollos as an apostle who came in Paul’s wake to build up the church, and others to Peter (1 Cor. 1:12).  There is nothing to indicate that this allegiance to Peter was because he too had come to visit the church: a fourth group, for example, claims allegiance to Jesus himself, and it is certain that he had never been there.  But it is clear that Peter’s reputation as the chief apostle made an appeal to him carry considerable weight.

These cities – Jerusalem, Antioch, and Corinth – contained three of the largest churches in the first two centuries.  All three claimed some kind of connection with Peter.  In a distant way, so did a fourth, the church of Alexandria, Egypt.  According to Eusebius, it was the apostle Mark who first went to Egypt and established the (very large) church there (Church History 2, 15).   This is the same Mark whom we met earlier as an alleged follower and secretary for Peter, and who, according to the second-century Papias, wrote his Gospel as a set of recollections that he heard from Peter’s sermons about the life of Jesus.  In other words, through his right hand man, Mark, Peter is also closely connected with the Alexandrian church.

And so, of course, is the fifth of the largest churches in early Christendom, the church in Rome.  We have seen a number of traditions already that presuppose that the church in the city of Rome was well established by the time Peter arrived there.  The second-century Acts of Peter, for example, begins by discussing Paul’s work of strengthening the church in Rome (is the assumption that he too came after it had started?) and his decision to leave to take his mission to Spain.  It is only because the vacuum created by his absence is filled by the agent of Satan, Simon Magus, that Peter is called by God to journey to Rome, to confront his sworn enemy.  Peter then, according to this tradition, comes into a situation in which there had already been a large number of converts, many of whom had fallen away.

If Peter did not start the church in Rome, who did?  As it turns out, our earliest evidence for the existence of a church in Rome at all is one of Paul’s letters, the letter to the Romans (written in the 50s CE).  This letter presupposes a congregation made up predominantly, or exclusively, of Gentiles (Rom. 1:13).  It does not appear, then, to have been a church established by Peter, missionary to the Jews.  Moreover, at the end of the letter, Paul greets a large number of the members of the congregation by name.  It is striking that he never mentions Peter, here or anywhere else in the letter.  Interpreters are virtually unified, on these grounds, in thinking that when Paul wrote this letter in the mid 50s CE, Peter had not yet arrived in Rome.

A later tradition found in the writings of the late-second-century church father Irenaeus, however, indicates that the church in Rome was “founded and organized by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul” (Against Heresies 3, 3, 2).  As I have just argued, this cannot have been the case – since in Paul’s own letter to the Roman church, he indicates that he had never yet been there (Rom. 1:13).  Irenaeus had a particular polemical point to make by his claim, for in his view, already here at the end of the second century, the church in Rome was the predominant church in the Christian world and its views of the faith were to be normative over all others.  And so naturally this most important of churches must have been “founded and organized” by the two most important apostles, Peter and Paul (who were seen, therefore, in contrast to other writings we have observed, as being in complete harmony with one another).  The reality is that we do not know who started the church in Rome.  It may well have been started simply by anonymous persons: since so many people traveled to and from Rome, it is not at all implausible that early converts to the faith (say, a decade or more before Paul wrote his letter to the Roman Christians in the 50s CE) returned to the capital and made other converts, and that the movement grew from there.


I will continue from this point on in my next post.  If you don’t belong to the blog, the only way to get all these posts — the way you’ve gotten this one — is by belonging.  We all want to belong.  Why not join?  It won’t cost much, you’ll get five posts a week, and every penny you pay goes to help those in need.  No one loses!  So why not?




Who *Was* the First Bishop of Rome?
Would the Disciples Die for A Lie? Proofs for the Resurrection.



  1. Lev
    Lev  September 16, 2018

    There are three early sources that claim the risen Jesus instructed his disciples not to leave Israel until 12 years have elapsed (Preaching of Peter: “After twelve years, go forth into the world so that no one may say, ‘we have not heard.'”, Acts of Peter “For whereas the twelve years which the Lord Christ had enjoined upon him were fulfilled.. ” and Apollonius “The Saviour commanded his apostles not to depart from Jerusalem for twelve years.”)

    Suetonius claims that Claudius expelled the Jewish Christians from Rome: “Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.” Josephus and Acts of the Apostles place this around the year 49. It seems unlikely that recent converts traveling back to Rome would have the necessary weight and authority to establish a church and contend with the resident Jewish population that caused so many of the disturbances that got them expelled by the Emperor. It’s more likely that such events could only have been instigated by an Apostle.

    From the above evidence, it seems likely that Peter went to Rome shortly after 42 and laid the foundations of the Church before moving on. I should imagine it was the gentile inclusion in the church caused the Jewish disturbances, and in the year 49 the Emperor had enough and expelled them. The gentile rump of the Roman Church remained and grew, but some Jewish Christians returned when the edict was lifted by Nero in 54. It is to this church that Paul writes his letter around 56.

    As you point out Ireaneus’ report of Paul laying the foundations of the Roman church is false, but perhaps Ireaneus mashed together two traditions? That Peter laid the foundations of the church, and Paul organised it? Thus for Ireaneus both Peter and Paul founded and organised the church, rather than one after the other.

  2. Avatar
    mkahn1977  September 16, 2018

    It sounds like the tradition was invented to boost up Peter’s authority, as well as those who preached/wrote in Peter’s name, going back to the “what you bind on earth I will bind in heaven…”

  3. Avatar
    Stephen  September 16, 2018

    How likely would it have been for there to be gentile converts in Palestine before the faith was actually exported?


    • Bart
      Bart  September 17, 2018

      Don’t know. In Acts the first gentile convert is Cornelius in chs. 10-11, but I don’t think the account is historical.

  4. Avatar
    forthfading  September 16, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I was taught (by an evangelical Christian college mind you) that Jerome taught the tradition of Peter being the first bishop then Linus. Is this correct or have any validity?


  5. Avatar
    godspell  September 16, 2018

    To the extent that Peter being the first Bishop of Rome is the argument for him being the first pope, I doubt that he was. The Papacy did not begin in earnest until Constantine. Before that, there was no basis for a central authority.

    But the Pope is the head of the Catholic Church, and the Catholic Church came from the loose network of religious communities that Peter was the defacto head of, even if he was never elected to any position of formal authority over them all. Even Paul recognized his primacy, though he often rebelled against it.

    It’s a bit like arguing who the first real King of England was. Lots of people say it was Arthur. Did Arthur even exist?

    Pop Quiz: Who was the first American President?

    Answer: John Hanson. Elected President of the Continental Congress, in 1781, under the Articles of Confederation.

    We like to think the lines of demarcation are clear, but when it comes to history, that’s almost never true.

  6. Avatar
    tonymaitland  September 16, 2018

    Paul’s letter to the Romans raises some very interesting questions:
    How does Paul know people in that church, by name. if he never was there?
    Who is the scribe (scribe??) who interjects a greeting along with Paul’s?
    Who wrote/composed this letter, Paul or the scribe?
    Why is it written in Greek. if the church members were Aramaic speakers?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 17, 2018

      1. Lots of people traveled to Rome; Paul knew a bunch of them; 2. Tertius, otherwise unknown. 3. Paul. Secretaries never composed letters like this. 4. The languages of Rome were Latin and Greek.

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    fishician  September 16, 2018

    Kind of ironic that Paul berates the Corinthians for aligning themselves under different leaders and yet that is exactly what the believers and churches proceeded to do.

  8. talmoore
    talmoore  September 16, 2018

    I’m assuming since you’re posting on the blog, Dr. Ehrman, that you weren’t adversely affected by the hurricane?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 17, 2018

      It circled around us — first from the east, then the south, then the west. Go figure. But htose poor communities that were nailed. Truly awful.

  9. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  September 17, 2018

    Thanks for answering my question! It amazes me how often unverified tradition becomes the prominent historical belief. It seems the office/position of Bishop was an early development within the Church. Was there a tradition within Judaism for such an office as Bishop or was it purely a creation of the early Church? Do such offices demonstrate that a professional clergy or hierarchical system also developed rapidly within the Church?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 17, 2018

      At the time of the rise of earliest Christainity, synagogues would typically have leaders (“the head of the synagogue”). But a large city — say, Rome, Alexandria, Antioch) did not have a single head over all the local synagogues in town.

      • galah
        galah  September 17, 2018

        The bishop of Rome sometimes goes by the title Pontifex Maximus, the same title used in the first century to describe the chief priest over Rome’s imperial religion. Was the “hierarchical system” that was developed by the church adopted from the Roman military, as some suggest?

        • Bart
          Bart  September 19, 2018

          The Roman title of Pontifex Maximus was not tied to the military but to the priesthood in Rome itself; the emperor had that title. I don’t know the exact history of how, later, it came to apply to the pope, I’m sorry ot say.

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    Sabina  September 17, 2018

    Peter is called to Rome” to a situation where there had already been a large number of converts, many of whom had fallen away”. What do you, Prof. Bart, believe would have been the biggest draw/benefit to these people to entice them to convert in the first place, and why do you suppose they fell away, or relapsed back into their prior beliefs/ forms of worship (or, perhaps, total disillusionment with religion)? It still was not the path of least resistance to declare one’s allegiance to Christ at that point in Rome, but was there any punishment/ punitive disincentive for apostates to think hard about falling away? Didn’t Rome already frown upon Christians as apostates from the civilly tolerated Hebrew religion,pre war?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 17, 2018

      I’m not saying that the Acts of Peter is giving the real historical situation — it’s all part of the fiction. Historically, what would have attracted people to the religion, was the great power that it could promise through the God of Jesus, who did miracles. I give an extended argument for this in my book The Triumph of Christianity. They would have fallen away if they became convinced that other gods were more powerful.

      • NulliusInVerba
        NulliusInVerba  September 18, 2018

        One might think they would have” fallen away” when the miracles stopped. And if the miracles didn’t stop, one might think there would be a better historical record of the miracles. Is there any way to reconcile such incongruity?

        • Bart
          Bart  September 19, 2018

          No, many Christians still today insist that the miracles continue (and that they can prove it)!

  11. Avatar
    HawksJ  September 17, 2018

    I know it varied from place-to-place and from year-to-year, but VERY roughly speaking, how big were these five ‘churches’ (of Corinth, Alexandria, Rome, etc) in the mid-to-late 1st Century; did they have perhaps a hundred members, several hundred, a few thousand? Also, was it one congregation per city or multiple per city, all considered part of the ‘Church of (blank)’?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 19, 2018

      It’s really hard to say. In my book Triumph of Christianity I give reasons for thinking that in 100 CE, there were somewhere between 7000-10,000 Christians in the world. There were far far more in the cities than in the country. I imagine there were more in Antioch, Corinth, and esp. Rome (not Alexandria) than other places. It’s very hard to put any numbers on them though.

      • Avatar
        HawksJ  September 20, 2018

        If that’s the case (7k-10k total, 50 or so years after Paul was writing), then it’s it would seem safe to say that none of the churches were in the ‘few thousand’ range in the latter third of the first century; and most be considerably smaller than that. On the other hand, if a few metro churches WERE that big, then that would mean that the movement was very much centered in the cities, and not widely distributed across the rural areas.

        That’s actually more specificity than I was expecting to get. Thanks.

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    Gary  September 18, 2018

    Is there any good evidence that any of the early Church Fathers (such as Clement, Ignatius, or Polycarp) had ever met Peter, John the son of Zebedee, or ANY of the original twelve?

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    zeus68  September 20, 2018

    How would Peter have started a church in Rome, or other places outside of Palestine if he was an illiterate fisherman who we presume only spoke Aramaic? The languages in Rome were Greek and Latin. Do we even know how he and Paul would have communicated? Paul was possible bi-lingual. We know he wrote in Greek. He has some Aramaic words in his writings, does that mean he spoke Aramaic? He was a Pharisee, does that hint that he would have studied the old testament in Hebrew and spoke that was well? Yet, we have nothing from Peter to indicates that he spoke anything other than Aramaic.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 21, 2018

      He certainly didn’t start the church in Rome. Other places? Maybe. I assume he must have had a translator?


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