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Who *Was* the First Bishop of Rome?

I continue from my post of yesterday, in which a reader asked about whether Peter was really the first bishop in Rome (that is, the first Pope).    In my next post I’ll deal with the question, also asked, about if we have any solid information about how Peter died (crucified upside-down??)


But who was the first bishop of Rome?  According to the second-century Irenaeus, it was a man named Linus, who was appointed to the office by Peter and Paul (Against Heresies 3, 3, 3).  In one place the father of church history, Eusebius, appears to agree with this, to some extent, when he says that “the first to be called bishop after the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul was Linus” (Church History, 3, 2); but here Linus is appointed not by Peter, but by someone else, after Peter’s death.  And to confuse things even further, just a few paragraphs later Eusebius phrases the matter differently, saying that “Linus … was the first after Peter to be appointed Bishop of Rome.  Clement again, who became the third Bishop of Rome….”  This makes it appear that Peter was the first bishop, Linus the second, and Clement the third.  And the tradition becomes yet more confused when we consider the writings of Tertullian from the early third century, who seems to indicate that Clement was not the third bishop of Rome, but the first – appointed by Peter himself (Prescription of the Heretics 32).

How is one to resolve this confusion?  It is worth pointing out that …

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A Peculiar Story of Peter’s Martyrdom
Peter: First Bishop (Pope) in Rome?



  1. Avatar
    fishician  September 17, 2018

    In the pseudo-Pauline letter of Titus it says, “For this reason I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city as I directed you…” I have read that a more accurate translation would be, “have elders appointed”, implying selection by the congregation rather than appointment by some other authority. Do you have an opinion on whether the early churches chose their own elders/bishops, or whether they were appointed by someone with authority of some sort? It seems impractical in the early days of small house churches for someone to go around appointing elders, but I can see that developing as the church became more institutionalized and authoritarian.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 19, 2018

      No, I don’t think so. The verb is active, “that you might appoint.” The leaders of the church are appointed by those who were appointed by the apostle.

  2. Avatar
    saavoss  September 17, 2018

    Looking forward to your next post (RE: the death of Peter). Hopefully you will include which what certainty we can identify the tomb or grave of Peter (Simon bar Jonah).

    • Bart
      Bart  September 19, 2018

      I’m afraid we don’t have any access to the tomb. There almost certainly isn’t one.

  3. Avatar
    petegoodlion  September 17, 2018

    Very interesting! I know this is off topic but here’s my question. Historically, which Christian philosophy is older, salvation by belief (faith) or salvation through works (deeds)? Or was it a matter of geography? Were Jerusalem Christians more likely to be saved by works and Greek Christians by belief? Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  September 19, 2018

      It’s very hard to say. Jesus himself seems to have thought that salvation came to those who followed the law of God in the way he wanted; Paul clearly thought that would not do it. It’s very difficult to know what others thought, since we have almost no clear evidence.

  4. Avatar
    forthfading  September 17, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    So is the tradition of Peter being the first bishop really just later Christians who lived under the new hierarchy looking back and concluding Peter must have been in this role? After all, he is the rock.


  5. talmoore
    talmoore  September 17, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, the development of the early church hierarchy has always seemed opaque to me. The only way I have been able to make sense of it is with a series of speculations. How close is the following to what you and other scholars think happened?

    The first Jerusalem “church” was headed by the “Twelve” who were called, in Hebrew, the Zeqenim — the “Elders” — within the movement, which was translated as “presbyters” by Greek speaking Christians (cf. Acts 11:30; 15:22). The churches outside of Jerusalem then sought to mimicked the perceived hierarchical organization of the Jerusalem church. The presumed leader of the Jerusalem church, James the brother of Jesus, possibly functioned like a chairman of the Elders. His title (possibly in Hebrew) might have been something like HaRo’sh, or “the Head,” which didn’t have an obvious direct Greek translation (like Zeqen –> Presbyter) so they simply translated it as Episkopos, or “Overseer” (seeing as how the “head” has eyes to oversee). And so in this way, the early churches were seen to model themselves on the Jerusalem church.

    But in all likelihood, the organizational structure of the Jerusalem church was much looser, with James as “bishop” only in the sense that he was the chief Elder, and not in the sense of the man in charge. That is, the Jerusalem church was probably much more democratic than the churches that would later follow outside Judea. After the Jerusalem church was effectively destroyed in 70 CE, the churches outside of Judea simply held onto this structure that they inherited from the Jerusalem church. How much of this makes sense historically?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 19, 2018

      I think something like that is completely plausible. The problem is that we simply don’t have sources of information that provide any firm guidance: it’s a huge gap in our knowledge.

  6. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  September 18, 2018

    Is it plausible that as the Roman Church grew in prominence and consolidated its influence over the other churches, the development of the tradition of Peter as the first Bishop of Rome came about as a means of justifiying their influence/power over the other churches?

  7. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  September 18, 2018

    A very interesting conclusion supported by your usual orderly examination of the evidence. Thanks. .

  8. Avatar
    mkahn1977  September 18, 2018

    So the Peter as first bishop was really a tradition meant to give legitimacy to the unbroken apostolic succession?

  9. Avatar
    John Murphy  September 18, 2018


    Please excuse my ignorance, but is Linus pronounced Ligh-nus or Lee-nus? Whenever I’ve read it, in my mind it has been ‘Lee-nus’; so, on the basis that I always mispronounce names and words from antiquity, if I had to bet, I’d go with the former!

  10. Avatar
    turtlepc  September 18, 2018

    Dear Dr. Bart Ehrman,

    Speaking strictly New Testament – those I know from the Catholic Church point to Matt. 16:18 where Jesus states “Peter – on this rock I will build my church” as a basis of the foundation of the Church and then draw their lineage from there. I think it is wrong to assume “upon Peter” when in fact it’s “upon this”… which is a what .. not a who… and to take it a step further in Matt. 16:13 the exchange is occurring in Caesarea Philippi… where Pan worship was the norm… Jews forbade going to Caesarea Philippi and sits at the foot of Mt. Hermon – against a large cliff known as the “Rock of the Gods” – because of the Pagan shrines carved into it and still to this day has a cave in the center named “Gates of Hades” – supposedly where Baal enters and leaves the underworld… the Shrine to Pan (half-goat, half-human – with a large erect phallus) was located next to this cave – worshippers would go there and engage in all sorts of debauchery (including sex with goats) – this was a wicked place… and I think why Jesus would have had this conversation with Peter at this location would be to let Peter know that faith in him (Jesus) and confessing him as the Messiah would be the foundation of the Church… not Peter – and that it would have been his job (among the other disciples/apostles) to go to where Pagans worshipped to preach the gospel. Jesus being sinless vs. Peter the sinful… it would be hard to imagine Jesus delegating the duties of being the foundation of the church – to Peter… Peter calls Jesus the living rock in 1 Pet 2:4… beyond any of this… would it not be erroneous to attribute Peter as the first Bishop (Pope) when Constantine didn’t convert the Roman Empire to Christianity until after the fourth century? Peter would have died in the first Century… and there’s nothing in the New Testament about Peter going to Rome and being executed… that’s just Church tradition as far as I know… Jesus passing the torch to Peter and then from Peter to the Pope as “authoritative leader” is tied to tradition – with no biblical backing.




    • Bart
      Bart  September 19, 2018

      It’s a play on words in Greek. Your name is Petros and upon this Petra I will build my church.

      • Avatar
        DrSammyD  January 31, 2019

        Is the assertion that Attic Greek made a distinction between Petra and Petros, but Koine Greek did not, correct? Would the author of Matthew have understood this? Or does this wording simply allow for both sides to be potentially correct?

        Catholics seem to be taking a victory lap on Joseph Thayer’s admission “there is no distinction in meaning between petros and petra in the Koine Greek of the New Testament.”

        Source: https://www.catholic.com/tract/peter-the-rock

        • Avatar
          DrSammyD  January 31, 2019

          I would think it depends on whether or not you think Jesus spoke these words or not. In Aramaic if Jesus had said “You are Kepha and upon this kepha I will build my church” would that not translate to in Greek “You are Petros, and on this petros I will build my church”? Only if Jesus had said something other than kepha the second time would there be a need to translate it “You are Petros, and on this petra I will build my church”.

          If it wasn’t heard in the Aramaic, then I can see the Greek author using Petros as a name and petra as the noun being synonymous.

          • Bart
            Bart  February 1, 2019

            Yes, that’s right. But you can’t build a church on a stone, only on a mass of rock. Petra=mass of rock. But Peter couldn’t be nicknamed that becuase the word is feminine in Greek.

        • Bart
          Bart  February 1, 2019

          No, it’s not correct. They are different words in Koine. But yes, they are very closely related. Petra refers to a mass of rock (like on a cliff); Petros refers to a stone. Matthew 16 is meant to be a word play. The whole point is that they are similar, not identical, words. For what it’s worth, the *name* Petros did not exist before Jesus gave his disciple Simon it as a nickname. He couldn’t call him Petra because that word is feminine. (In any event, he was speaking Aramaic, not Greek)

          • Avatar
            DrSammyD  February 1, 2019

            I’ve heard Kepha is a feminine noun, but when transliterating men’s names to Greek it was common to add an “s” to the end of names that end in an “a” or “ah” sound. e.g. Barabba => Barabbas, Yeshua => Yeshuas, Kepha => Kephas.

            Is the limitation on the Greek author to name him a masculine noun (if indeed Kephas is feminine)? John mentions the translation of Kephas is Petros. Is this a direct translation or indirect by first transliterating, and then changing the noun so that it’s masculine?

          • Bart
            Bart  February 3, 2019

            To give Peter a nickname required it to be masculine. Kephas is treated as a masculine noun. I’m not familiar with the term Yeshuas (only Yeshua). I’m not sure I can answer your questions about the Aramaic.

  11. Avatar
    Jayredinger  September 20, 2018

    With regard to the play on words in Matt. 16:18 is there an equivalent play on words in Aramaic?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 21, 2018

      Yes. There his name is Cephas and “rock” is Cepha.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  September 29, 2018

      Oddly, the pun on Peter’s name in Matthew 16:18 works even better in Hebrew than it does in Aramaic. That’s because the Hebrew word for “rock” (eben) and the Hebrew word for “I will build” (ebnah) not only sound similar, but are also etymologically related. In fact, if we attempt to back translated Matthew 16:18 into what could have been an original Hebrew quote, it could have been something like this:

      ואני אומר לך
      אשר אתה אבן
      ועל האבן הזה
      אבנה בניני

      wa-ani omer lekha
      asher atah eben
      wa-‘al ha-eben ha-zeh
      ebnah binyani

      “And I say to you
      That you are [a] stone (i.e. Peter)
      And on this stone
      I will build my edifice (i.e. church).”

      So you basically have three puns going on here. You have a pun between the name Peter (eben) and rock (eben), and the pun between Peter and rock with “I will build” (ebnah) and a possible pun between Peter, rock and build with building (binyan), i.e. “the church”.

      Now, is this just a coincidence? Or is the connection significant? Does this suggest a possible original? Who knows? Maybe we’ll never know. All I can say is, if it’s just a coincidence, it’s an awfully strange coincidence.

      • Robert
        Robert  October 1, 2018

        I very much like this retro-translation, I really do, but forgive me for pointing out that since it is indeed a translation it can’t really be considered a coincidence. Other words could be chosen, especially for ediface/בנין, which could not be translated with ἐκκλησία, at least not for a few centuries. Thus, for example, the early Syriac translation uses עדתא. The biggest issue, however, is that we know the original nickname was in Aramaic (כאפא) and not in Hebrew (אבן, also found in Aramaic targumin). You would have a better case if Simon bar Jonah had been given the nickname ‘Evan’ instead of ‘Kephas’.

  12. Avatar
    JayinHK  March 5, 2019

    Someone is quoting himself from Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene.

    I recognize this passage, because I cite it frequently in my writings. 🙂

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