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Was Peter the First Pope?

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[When the Bible became widely available in German] "It came as a shock of surprise to the reader to note that according to the Bible Saint Peter made mistakes and was rebuked accordingly, thus showing little sign than either he or his successors were infallible." — R. H. Murray, Litt.D. in "Luther and the Reformation"

by William P. Meyers

It seems like a simple question: was the apostle named Peter, the follower of Jesus in the Gospel, the first Pope?

People like simple questions and answers. So here is the simple answer: no.

Of course the Roman Catholic Church maintains that the answer is Yes. Most Protestant Christian denominations believe the answer is No, though some believe that Peter was the head of the Christian community after Jesus died.

The simple question can be broken down into three more difficult ones. What is the relationship of the city of Rome to the Pope? Are Christians supposed to be governed by the single man who is the Pope? And did the Apostle Peter emigrate to Rome and permanently establish the office of Pope there?

If the Pope is not tied to the city of Rome, then the leader of the Christian church in Jerusalem would be a more natural choice for Pope. After all, Jesus is not recorded to have visited Rome. Much of his teaching was in Jerusalem. He died and (if you believe the Gospel) was resurrected in Jerusalem. Why tie the leadership of the Church to Rome?

Jesus is recorded as saying a lot of things. Maybe he told his followers that Peter would be Pope and move to Rome. But there is no evidence of that in the New Testament. Further along I will go over the evidence in detail.

There is a tradition in the Roman Catholic Church that Peter was sent to Rome and died a martyr’s death there. According to the tradition he became the first bishop of Rome (unlikely, since Rome had a Christian community early on, that Paul wrote epistles to, and hence would have had a bishop long before Peter got there) and appointed a successor, who became the second Pope. But there is an amazing lack of evidence to support this claim.

What does the New Testament (which was chosen from among many reputedly holy early Christian documents by the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D.) have to say about Peter? In Matthew Chapter 4 we learn he was originally a fisherman named Simon. In Chapter 14 Simon walks on water with a little help from Jesus. In Chapter 16 Simon says Jesus is the son of the living God, and then Jesus gives him the nickname Peter (rock) and says “upon this rock I will build my church.” Apparently Jesus forgot to mention the words “in Rome,” when he says this. It is important to note that just five paragraphs later (16:23) Jesus said to Peter: “Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offense to me.” So if you want to take this literally Jesus built his church on Satan. The story is repeated in Mark Chapter 8:32-33.

It is seldom discussed by good Christians, but a literal reading of John 6:68-71 and 13:24-26 is that Judas, who betrayed Jesus, was the son of Simon Peter.

Later, when Jesus is arrested, in Matthew Chapter 26 and in Mark Chaper 14 Peter denies that he even knows Jesus; not exactly a sterling recommendation. Yet, strangely contradictory behavior is displayed in John Chapter 11, where Peter is the only disciple to defend Jesus with a sword, but afterwards the same story of denying knowing Jesus is told.

But it is likely that the four Gospels were written long after Jesus died, and continued to be re-written long after Peter died. An important source of knowledge of Peter is the Acts of the Apostles, where Peter plays an important role in the first twelve chapters, is mentioned once in chapter 15, but then is not mentioned again (there are 27 chapters total). Here Peter is portrayed as the head of the group: he is the one who facilitates picking a new apostle, tells the Jews that Jesus rose from the dead, and commands that Ananias and Sapphira be killed for their money (5:1-5). Miracles are attributed to him. In his last appearance in Acts (Ch. 15) Peter declares that one can be a follower of Jesus without being circumcised. In Galatians 2:11-14 Peter is portrayed as a hypocrite who only does what is right when publicly called out by Paul.

Finally there are two Epistles attributed to Peter in the New Testament. Apparently he was not much of a writer, or if he wrote more the followers of the Apostle Paul saw to it that the writings were destroyed at a later date. Regarding the Pope issue, of the two Epistles of Peter, has as its second-to-last sentence: “The church that is at Babylon, elected together with you, saluteth you; and so does Marcus my son.” Catholic apologists interpret this as a code for saying that Peter was writing from Rome. That just does not make sense. The most likely interpretation is that there was a Christian church in Babylon, which is much closer to Jerusalem than is Rome, and that they were sending salutations. The second reasonable interpretation is that Peter was living in or visiting Babylon. The equating of Babylon with Rome, while it was done (the Christians, like the Jews, wanted the Roman Empire to fall, as Babylon had fallen from power centuries earlier) often enough, is not likely to apply in this particular context.

If you look at early documents there is little or no support for the idea of Peter visiting Rome. Clement’s letter of the Romans to the Corinthians, written around 95 A.D., mentions Peter, but says nothing about his visiting Rome, being Pope, or dying in Rome. Clement admonishes: “For Christ is with those who are humble, not with those who exalt themselves over his flock.” Which seems to favor a less hierarchical formula for church organization than would later be established.

The main way we know that Peter was not the first Pope and bishop of Rome, and that he did not set up a centralized hierarchy to rule over the entire church, is that we know some of the history of the early church, and a great deal of Roman history. Until about 400 A.D. there was a great deal of prestige in being bishop of Rome, but there was just as much prestige in being a bishop of Jerusalem, Constantinople, or one of the earliest Christian communities like Antioch or Alexandria. The Papacy is clearly a pagan office, successor not to Jesus and Peter, but to the pagan pontiffs who presided over the ceremonies of Rome. Once the Christian religion became the Imperial religion in the 4th century A.D., the two offices must have been combined. Earlier claims of the Roman bishops were built upon, with notable proclamations of primacy by Stephen I and Damasus. However, the well-established churches of the eastern area of the Roman empire refuted these claims and eventually split with Rome to become Orthodox Christian denominations.

Like most of the original Apostles, Peter probably saw himself as a Jew who was a follower of a rabbi named Jesus. He was not the first head of the church; that duty fell to James the Just, in Jerusalem. He did not purposefully establish a line of succession.

The Pope is an invention of vain bishops of Rome who were imitating the imperial structure of the Roman Empire. The legend of Peter’s stay in Rome was created to lend credence to this assertion. Given the consistent stories of Jesus calling Peter a devil and Peter’s denial of knowing Jesus, even if Peter did live in Rome there is no reason to think that he established Rome as the permanent seat of a Christian dictatorship.

See also Has St. Peter ever been in Rome? by Otto Zwierlein