Several people have recently asked (in reference to that pop quiz I gave to my class this semester) whether it is in fact right that Peter was the first pope. I dealt with the question a few years ago, along with another interesting tradition about Peter. Here’s the question I got and my response.
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
If you were a member of the blog you would get five posts a week like this, with archives going back to 2012. It costs little to join, and every dime goes to charity. So why not? Click here for membership options 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.