Peter: Facts and Suppositions


22 September 2016

Another historical reflection? A somewhat annoyed reader asked why I am getting “bogged-down with so much history.”

I am sorry some find it boring or annoying. I am convinced that good history clarifies our human understanding today and builds a more humane and rational road into tomorrow. And this is particularly true when it comes to religious and ethical issues. 

Roman Catholics, for instance, have long maintained that the Bishop of Rome – the pope – is a successor of Peter the Apostle. Contemporary historians and biblical scholars would say the issue, however, is complex. One needs to make some important distinctions. When it comes to Peter, we are dealing with biblical texts, a bit of history, and a fair amount of legend and historical imagination. Perhaps, today, we have more Petrine questions than answers. 

Simon Peter was a fisherman from Bethsaida. When he met Jesus he was about eighteen or nineteen years old, married, with probably one or more children. His parents had named him Simon or Simeon, but Jesus gave him a new name, a sort of nickname: Cephas, “the rock” in Aramaic and Peter in English.  

Clearly Peter was seen as a key leader among the group of apostles and disciples. In all of the Synoptic Gospels, Peter is named first in the lists of the apostles (Matt 10:2-4; Mark 3:16-19; Luke 6:14-16); the same is true for the book of Acts (see 1:13). This is reaffirmed in the post-resurrection narrative inserted into the Gospel of Matthew (Matt 16:18) that Peter is the rock on which the “ekklesia” the congregation of Jesus’ followers is built. (Later as Christianity becomes much more institutionalized the word “ekklesia” gets translated as “church.”) Some exegetes would say that the rock on which Jesus’ congregation is built is not Peter but Peter’s confession of faith: “You are the Christ the Son of the Living God.” (Matt 16:17)  

Nevertheless, Matthew says nothing about Peter’s apostleship being passed down to future successors. Nor is there any indication that Jesus was establishing a permanent apostolic see for future bishops. As I stressed last week, the historic Jesus did not lay down any blueprint for ecclesiastical structures. 

When we look at the history and biblical testimony about the early post-Resurrection apostolic community of Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, clearly the leader was James the “brother of the Lord.” Peter played a role in the Council of Jerusalem, around 50 CE. Then according to the epistle to the Galatians 2:11, Peter went to Antioch. There he tangled with Paul, who rebuked him for treating Gentile converts as inferior to Jewish Christians.  

There is a tradition that Peter and Paul went to Rome and were put to death at the hands of Nero probably between 64 and 68 CE. According to an old legend, he was crucified upside down; and other folklore fills out the details of Peter’s life and death in Rome — his struggles with the magician and father of heresy, Simon Magus, his miracles, his attempted escape from persecution in Rome, and a flight from which he was turned back by a reproachful vision of Christ, the ‘Quo Vadis’ legend. 

By the second and third centuries, we see stories about Peter springing from unquestioned historical suppositions, legends, and much creative historical imagination by people like Irenaeus of Lyons (died 202 CE). In the New Testament, for instance, we have two epistles attributed to him: 1 Peter and 2 Peter. Most scholars, however, have concluded that Peter was not the author of these two epistles. According to the Roman Catholic biblical scholar Raymond E. Brown, 1 Peter should be dated to between 70 and 90 CE, clearly after Peter’s death. No biblical authorities defend the Petrine authorship of 2 Peter, which is believed to have been written by an anonymous author in Rome about 150 CE. 

Contrary to what some think, neither Peter nor Paul brought Christianity to Rome. Before they would have arrived, there were a number of elders and house churches in Rome; and there was no central administrator. No bishop. At some point Peter may have been one of these elders. We really do not know for certain; but Catholic and Protestant historians would stress that Peter was never a bishop of Rome. Raymond Brown, again, and John P. Meier, from the University of Notre Dame, are emphatic in their book Antioch and Rome: New Testament Cradles of Christianity, (Paulist Press 1983): 

“As for Peter, we have no knowledge at all of when he came to Rome and what he did there before he was martyred. Certainly he was not the original missionary who brought Christianity to Rome, and therefore not the founder of the church of Rome in that sense. There is no serious proof that he was the bishop, or local ecclesiastical officer, of the Roman church: a claim not made till the third century. Most likely he did not spend any major time at Rome before 58 CE when Paul wrote to the Romans, and so it may have been only in the 60s and relatively shortly before his martyrdom that Peter came to the capital.” 

Peter’s bones:     Between 320 CE and 327 CE, Constantine the Great built the first St. Peter’s Basilica on top of an early Christian burial site that was purported to be Peter’s final resting place. Since at least the ninth century the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome has held in its reliquaries what are believed to be the heads of Peter and Paul. Between 1939 and 1949, a Vatican archaeological team uncovered a complex of 2nd and 3rd century mausoleums under the foundations of the current St. Peter’s Basilica. They found a small niched monument built into a wall from around 160 CE. Bones found there, believed to be those of Peter, were put in a safe place. Years later Pope Paul VI was informed about the belief that these remains were those of St. Peter. Bone testing revealed that the remains were of a sturdy man from around the time of Peter.

On June 26, 1968, just a month before releasing his birth control encyclical Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI announced that the relics of St. Peter had been discovered. Moving ahead to the current pope, on November 24, 2013, these relics were held up by Pope Francis and publicly displayed during the closing of the “Year of Faith.” Peter’s bones? Possibly. Will we ever know for sure? Possibly; but I doubt it.  

Peter the pope:     Although, especially after Constantine and the influence of his relics-collecting mother Helena, Peter and the memory of Peter were held in high regard in Rome, historians are in general agreement that Peter was never pope. 

The first great acclamation of Peter as a pope came from Pope Leo I, also known as Saint Leo the Great, who was pope from 440 CE until his death in 461 CE. Leo the Great greatly contributed to the development of the doctrine of a papal Petrine succession based on his personal devotion to St. Peter. By the 400s CE the bishop of Rome had gradually become understood as the chief patriarch in the Western church; but only as “the first among equals,” along with the other patriarchs, who by the way were also called “popes.” 

Pope Leo I pushed Roman papal authority into a new realm. In 451 at the Council of Chalcedon, after Leo’s teaching about the two natures of Christ was proclaimed, the bishops participating in Chalcedon shouted out: “This is the faith of the fathers … Peter has so spoken through Leo.”  

As I mentioned last week, after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West in 476 CE the bishop of Rome became tremendously powerful, as he took on the rituals, pageantry, and organizational structures of the earlier Roman emperors. 

Yes, one can understand the popes as successors of Peter in faith, witness, ministry, and leadership. One can understand many bishops, Catholic and Protestant, sharing in that tradition, as successors of the apostles. It is only with a bit of creative theological imagination, however, that one can call Peter the first pope. 


 

8 thoughts on “Peter: Facts and Suppositions

  1. Once again, many thanks, Jack. for trying to bring truth and understanding on the subject of the foundations of Christianity. It is vital that all Jesus followers know the correct history of “The Way.”

  2. Jack, I’m loving your history lessons on Church beginnings. Please don’t stop. We need these truths. I’ve read some, but wonder if you have a reading list of important books on Church history?

  3. Jack – words can’t express the gratitude I feel for you sharing your love and passion in setting the record straight re our historical RCC. Your narrative truly has Pulitzer Prize winning stuff…thinking not too many historical theologians can shake out the esoteric BS and enlighten the common pew folks like you do. God knew what s/he was doing when ordaining you with this noble calling.

    Cheers! Jim B.

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