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??)
SO, 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 when Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, he gives no indication that there is any single leader of the church there. Just as there were not single bishops over any of the churches that Paul addressed in his letters in the 50s CE. More telling still, some sixty years after Paul we have another letter written to the church in Rome, this time by the soon-to-be-martyred Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch, who has been sent under armed guard to face the wild beasts in the Roman forum.
Even though Ignatius presupposes that there are single bishops in each of the other six letters that he writes (for example, to the Ephesians and the Smyrneans), when he writes to Rome he does not presume this at all, but instead speaks to the entire congregation, never mentioning any one person in charge of the church.
Who Was the First Bishop of Rome: Solving the Mystery
Somewhat before Ignatius’s time, and soon thereafter, we have two writings from Christians who actually resided in Rome. Both attest to a situation in which the Roman church was not under the leadership of a single individual, the bishop. The book of 1 Clement was written some time in the mid 90s CE. This is some thirty years after Peter’s death, which the author knows about and mentions (1 Clement 5:4).
The letter was allegedly written by that very Clement that later tradition was to call the Roman bishop. Yet it seems to assume that the churches at that time were run not by individual leaders, but by a board of presbyters. The letter, in fact, is addressed to a situation in Corinth in which the presbyters had been ousted from office in some kind of church coup. The Roman Christians (not a “bishop”) write to try to redress the situation by having the older presbyters reinstated in office.
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