Dr IAN ELMER…
Was Rome Really the See of Peter?
In May 1995, Pope John Paul II issued a extraordinary encyclical, entitled Ut Unum Sint ("May They Be One"), which sort to address the question of the primacy of Rome against the background of the modern ecumenical movement. What makes this letter outstanding is the fact that in it the Holy Father admits that the papacy, as it currently exists and functions, is a major obstacle to Church unity (Gleeson, 2003). He acknowledges the need "to find a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation". (95) He invites Christian leaders and theologians to engage with him "in a patient and fraternal dialogue on this subject, a dialogue in which, leaving useless controversies behind, we could listen to one another, keeping before us only the will of Christ for his Church" (96).
While some theologians and members of the hierarchy have taken up the challenge, John Paul's call for dialogue on the issue seems to have produced little positive result. One might even imagine that we have actually gone in complete retreat from such dialogue, especially when we consider recent documents emanating from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), such as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger's Dominus Iesus (2000) and the William Cardinal Levada's "Responses to some questions regarding certain aspects of the doctrine on the Church" (2007).
The later document questions whether "wounded" Protestant communities that fail to recognise the doctrine of Papal primacy can legitimately be called "churches". Does this document mean a return to the old "popular" axiom extra ecclesiam nulla salus ("outside the Church there is no salvation")? While the document specifically excludes this interpretation, it does make the claim the Catholic Church represents the "fullness" of what it means to be "Church" (cf Ratzinger, 2000: 17.2). Non-Catholic denominations are relegated to an inferior position whereby the "fullness of Church … still has to grow in the brethren who are not yet in full communion with it and also in its own members who are sinners" (Levada, 2007).
This view seems to be founded upon the assumption that the Catholic Church was founded by Jesus Christ and "enjoy[s] apostolic succession — the unbroken succession of bishops going back to St Peter", thereby forcing us to consider even our Orthodox brothers and sisters "lack something in their condition as particular churches … since communion with the Catholic Church, the visible head of which is the Bishop of Rome and the Successor of Peter, is not some external complement to a particular Church but rather one of its internal constitutive principles" (Levada, 2000).
While I have no argument with the basic thrust of these recent pronouncements from the CDF, I would like to explore the connections between Rome as the See of Peter, and the notion that the Bishop of Rome can claim to be Peter's successor. Both of these notions are the sort of issues that John Paul II indicated as stumbling blocks in the path towards greater ecumenical co-operation, if not reunification.
Was Peter the Bishop of Rome?
While popular tradition does place Peter in Rome, evidence to support such conclusions is lacking (Peregrinus, 2006).
There are a few clues from Paul's letters (Galatians and 1 Corinthians) that suggest that Peter did travel and, interestingly, he did so with his wife (1 Cor 9:5). This has led some scholars to suggest that Peter ministered as part of a husband and wife team — a practice that Paul implies was common, especially amongst Jesus' brothers and first disciples (cf. Prisca and Aquila in 1 Cor 16:19; Rom 16:3; 2 Tim 4:15). However, there is absolutely no reference to Peter being in Rome, let alone occupying the position of "bishop".
Paul, in writing to the Romans, never suggests that Peter had proceeded him to Rome or founded the community there. Indeed, given that he explicitly states that it was always his "ambition … not [to] build on someone else's foundation" (15:20), it seems unlikely that the Roman community had any "apostolic" foundation. It would seem, therefore, that the Roman Christian community was long and well established by the time Paul wrote his letter to Rome in 58 CE.
Paul speaks of having "desired for many years" to visit the Christians in Rome (15:23; cf. 1:11-13), whose reputation for faith has spread "throughout the whole world" (1:8). More-to-the-point, as we noted last week, Romans 16 seems to indicate that several members of the Roman community were Paul's friends and collaborators (15:3-16). However, the arrival of Paul's Law-free Christianity was probably a more recent development — which would account for the conflict between the "weak" Law-observant Christian Jews and the "strong" Law-free Christians to which Paul alludes in Romans 14:1-15:13.
Some further indications of the origins of both the Roman community per se and the conflict between Law-observant and Law-free may be found in the oft-cited report by the Roman historian Suetonius (Claudius 25:4), who relates how the Roman Emperor Claudius (41-54 CE) was forced to "expel the Jews from Rome because of their constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus (impulsore Chrestus)" (Dunn, 1988). Since it is generally agreed that Chestus must be taken as a reference to Christ it seems that there was in Rome, as early as the decade of the forties, a significant body of Jews who felt that the new Christian sect posed a serious threat to Judaism and Jewish faith-practice. What was the precise nature of this threat?
The most widely accepted view, best presented by Francis Watson (1986), is this controversy was merely an "inter-Jewish phenomenon", and that the contention concerned Jews who were divided over "the truth or falsehood of the Christian message," rather than over matters concerning Law-observance (93). Watson (1986: 97) argues that conflict over the Law could only have occurred later when, as a consequence of Claudius' expulsion of the prominent Jewish protagonists in the dispute, the Gentile constituency of Rome's Christian communities was left in the ascendant.
At that point, Watson (1986: 93) argues that Paul took advantage of the situation presented by Claudius' expulsion of the Jewish leaders of the Christian communities to win the now predominantly Gentile congregations to the Pauline camp. Watson points to the large number of people Paul can greet in Romans 16 whom Paul designates as associates and co-workers. This suggests, Watson argues, that Paul sent a contingent of missionaries to the imperial capital to clear the way for his own impending mission in the city.
On this understanding, Paul's sole purpose in writing to Rome was to encourage the returning Jewish Christians to sever their former ties to the Jewish synagogues and unite with the newly arrived Pauline Gentile mission (Watson, 1986: 141-146). And, remarkably, Paul makes no reference to Peter who, elsewhere, figures prominently in the Law-observant mission (cf. Gal 2:7). His name does not even seem to be used as a rallying catchcry for the Law-observant faction, as it was in Corinth (1 Cor 1:12; 3:22; 9:5). The last Paul seems to have heard of Peter was from a decade earlier, when Peter was still in Antioch (Gal 2:11-14). So when, if ever, did Peter get to Rome?
The Earliest Tradition…
The first indication we have that Peter made it to Rome is found in later apocryphal texts, especially the Pseudo-Clementine literature (which includes the so-called "Acts of Peter"). All other references to Peter in Rome seem dependent upon this apocryphal text and, therefore, scholars have long debated the historical reliability of the link between Peter and Rome — first raised effectively in the modern era by the great Pauline scholar, Ferdinand Christian Baur (1831).
It is not entirely beyond belief that Peter could have come to Rome after Paul's letter to Rome was written (58 CE), but the evidence drawn from the Pseudo-Clementines to support this assertion is extremely flimsy. The Pseudo-Clementines, erroneously attributed to Clement (author of one, possibly two, letters from Rome), are a loose collection of texts deriving from the heretical Christian-Jewish sect of the Ebionites. They are particularly notable for their strong anti-Pauline flavour and their support for the continuing validity of the Jewish Law for Christian faith-practice.
Peter is mentioned in many of these texts and they provide the only real support for the long-held tradition that Peter went to Rome. The link is made by other Church fathers as well, although many of these are extremely vague. The fullest account of Peter's ministry in Rome is found in Eusebius' 4th century Church History. However, most of these references can all be traced back to a single source, the "Acts of Peter", which seems to have been incorporated into the Pseudo-Clementines.
The "Acts of Peter" is a document that is first mentioned by the early church historians and from these clues scholars can establish that it was in circulation by the end of the 2nd century (Dunn, 1988). It depicts Peter entering Rome to do battle with Simon the Magician — a character known from Acts (8:9-24). However, in the Acts of Peter, Simon is clearly meant to be a veiled reference to Paul.
In this account Simon/Paul is portrayed as Peter's arch enemy, who claims apostolic status via a revelation and who preaches a Law-free Gospel. The two embark on an amazing miracle contest that culminates with Simon/Paul flying unaided through the air — but at the prayer of Peter, Simon/Paul is dropped and crashes to the ground, breaking his leg. Simon is defeated and the people turn back to Law-observant Christian Judaism.
This story became entrenched in the imagination of the early Church. Despite its obvious fanciful elements and its clear polemical intent, the story was appropriated by many of the Church Fathers to substantiate the claims of the Roman community to pre-eminence in the Church. Clement of Rome will dragoon the story into service to support his authority as the successor of both Peter and Paul (1 and 2 Clement). Eusebius, (HE 3:39:15) will combine this story with other fragments from the writings of Papias of Hierapolis (c. 120/130 C.E.) to substantiate the pedigree of Mark's Gospel as both Roman and Petrine (Elmer, 2007).
The pre-eminence of Rome probably emerged in early Christianity, not as a result of Peter's association with Rome, but because of its geo-political significance as the Imperial Capital. Already in Luke's Acts of the Apostles the city of Rome is seen as the destination of all the early evangelisation. Accordingly, the focal-point of Christianity shifts from Jerusalem and its Temple to Rome and the imperium. For Luke, a citizen of the Empire, it was Rome and not Jerusalem which was seen as the centre of the world. Ferdinand Baur (1831) was probably correct, therefore, in arguing that the tradition of Peter's visit to Rome is little more than a pious fiction of a later generation meant to mythically underpin Rome's historical claim to pre-eminence.
We can see this already with the two canonical letters attributed to Peter, which purport to be written from Babylon (an early codename for Rome). It is interesting to note that the author's companions are all people who were at one time co-workers of Paul, such as Mark and Silvanus (1 Peter 5:12-13). 1 & 2 Peter also function as "unionsdokuments" bringing together the two factions of early Christianity in Rome, from which other such "unionsdokuments" come — such as Mark's Gospel and the letters of Clement (Baur, 1831).
It is particularly the letters of Clement (as opposed to the Pseudo-Clementine literature) that link Peter, Paul and Rome together — although it does not specifically say they were in Rome when they were martyred (1 Clem 5:5-7). Paul did go to Rome — this much is certain from his letters. 1 & 2 Peter are the only canonical documents that suggest a link between Peter and Rome. Clement brings the two together in death, placing them together as martyrs whose blood fertilised the growth of the Church. Still, given that the authors of 1 & 2 Peter, as well as 1 & 2 Clement, were writing from Rome (and because of Eusebius' reliance on the Pseudo-Clementines that do specifically link Peter and Paul to Rome) we have the tradition that Rome was founded by both Peter and Paul — for which we also celebrate their feast days together in the Roman calendar (June 29th).
There appears to be a serious problem here. If the evidence suggests that Peter never made it to Rome and, therefore, the claim that Rome was Peter's See is little more than pious fiction, how can the Pope claim to be Peter's successor?
Separating the Traditions Linking Peter's Successor to Rome…
My understanding is that we should see the doctrine of the Primacy of Peter as distinct from the primacy of Rome, the first of which has precedence over the second. A quick overview of the Catechism, which is our best compendium of "official" teaching suggests that Peter's primacy exists apart from the location of Rome. Paragraph 522 holds that, although, "Simon Peter holds the first place in the college of the Twelve, Jesus entrusted a unique mission to him". Subsequent paragraphs go on to develop further this understanding of Peter as the "first among equals", deriving from a careful reading of Peter's role in the New Testament documents - especially in Matthew, John, and the Acts of the Apostles. Paragraph 523 tells us that "Jesus entrusted this authority to the Church through the ministry of the apostles and in particular through the ministry of Peter, the only one to whom he specifically entrusted the keys of the kingdom".
Interestingly, in the Catechism, the connection between Peter and Rome is not discussed in similar depth, but is rather assumed. Hence, paragraph 194 we find the following statement about the Apostles' Creed: "It is the ancient baptismal symbol of the Church of Rome. Its great authority arises from this fact: it is 'the Creed of the Roman Church, the See of Peter the first of the apostles, to which he brought the common faith'." Elsewhere, the Bishop of Rome is merely designated the successor of Peter (cf. 85; 877; 822; 892; 936).
Once again, we see here the manner in which we, as Catholics, read the bible out of tradition and, similarly, read tradition out of the bible. It demonstrates the wisdom of this balanced approach. Theologians throughout the Church's history have recognised that the primacy of Rome is a historical development of a living tradition that only partly reaches back into the first century. The Church recognises that the emergence of the pre-eminence of Rome had far more to do with the city's political significance than the Christian community there.
To question the historicity of the tradition linking Peter to Rome is not the same as questioning the Primacy of Peter. Peter's authority and, therefore, the authority of Peter's successor, the Pope, do not rest upon either Peter or his successor's locale. We need not quibble with the Papal claim to Petrine succession. Historically speaking, Peter did enjoy a pre-eminence by virtue of being the first leader of the Jerusalem Church, and then later in Antioch (after his Christian-Jewish faction took control of the Hellenists' foundation and Paul was forced to leave). The Papal "chair" could be relocated anywhere in the world. It merely remains in Rome as a historical circumstance rather than a necessary one.
I often feel sorry for Peter! Even from very early on in the life of the first Christian communities, his name seems to have been claimed as warrant for everybody else and their version of the Gospel. In Corinth there was a party whose factional cry was "I am for Cephas" against Paul and his companions. Even before this, at Galatia, the Judaisers seem to have claimed a connection to Peter and the Jerusalem Church. Why else would Paul find it necessary to recount in detail his early commerce with Peter, James and John? Yet a close reading of Galatians 2:11-14 suggests that Peter was easily swayed by stronger personalities, especially Jesus' brother, James.
In Paul's letters, Peter doesn't come across too well in Paul's estimation; Paul calls him a hypocrite and accuses him of not living in accordance with the Gospel (Gal 2:11-14). Still, Paul is keen to drive a wedge between the apostolic triumvirate headed by Peter and the Judaisers at Galatia, and stress that Peter never repudiated the Law-free gospel — indeed, James, Peter and John offered the right hand of fellowship. It is with good reason that the Roman church would latter claim Peter as their own - what better claim to authority could one have than to declare Peter as your first "bishop".
Reading through these early battles I can't help but think how much Peter sounds a lot like most bishops today, caught between warring factions who each want to claim allegiance to "tradition" via the magisterium represented by the "apostle". It is astonishing how little has changed in 2000 years. Every time I read Galatians, 1 Corinthians and Romans, I think of the many good bishops, priests and the Pope who must always try to walk the razor's edge without getting shredded. In this sense, Peter is the model of the episcopate and the papacy.
Bibliography and Further Reading:
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
©2007 Ian Elmer