Was Peter the First Pope?

My intention is not to make a theological critique of Peter as pope but rather a historical one. Having said that, I am a protestant Christian and so I do have some theological opinions on the matter. I am just putting my bias on the table.

Roman Catholics and protestants debate the meaning of Matthew 16:18.

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

PeterI actually do not see the question of whether the rock is Peter or the confession he gave in the preceding verses as being relevant to the question at hand.

Even if Peter the individual was the rock on which Jesus would build his church, that does not mean that Peter was the first of many popes.

Of course, there was nothing like the modern idea of a pope then or for many years after this. The most we could discuss would be if Peter was the first bishop of Rome, as that is what a pope really is, the bishop of Rome.

I believe there are good traditions placing both Peter and Paul in Rome at some point and that they were both martyred in that city. But was Peter considered to be the bishop of Rome? No doubt, Peter was considered a man of authority, being one of the pillars of the church (along with James and John). See my podcast episode on the Pillars.

But that does not mean that Peter was the bishop of Rome. That type of idea does not appear to some time later. We start to see this thought developing with Irenaeus. Two passages are relevant.

[T]he very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. …

The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate.

You can read these passages in context here.

When it comes to Irenaeus’s claim that Paul and Peter founded the church at Rome, he is simply wrong. It is clear at the end of Acts, when Paul arrives in Rome that there is already a Christian community. When Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, he had not yet visited Rome. Nor is there any indication that Peter was already there.

Most scholars believe that the Roman church began when Jewish visitors from Rome became followers of Jesus on the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem (Acts 2). They brought back their faith and the Roman church began as predominantly Jewish, only later adding a Gentile component.

What role Peter had at Rome cannot be said. There may have been someone in the role of a bishop before he got there. There is no contemporary evidence that Peter was a bishop. His role as an apostle, which generally was based on the itinerant model rather than the settled bishop model, may have been enough.

Did Peter and Paul appoint Linus as bishop of Rome? Perhaps. We cannot know. But there is no contemporary or even near-contemporary evidence that special authority was being passed on from Peter to Linus. Surely Peter had appointed many leaders over his ministry. Why would Linus have a special role?

This is not meant to be an attack on the papal system. But we should be aware that the concept of Peter as the first pope is a theological statement and not one based on good historical evidence. People are welcome to accept this on faith if they so choose.

Origen of Alexandria

I find Origen of Alexandria to be one of the most interesting of the early church fathers. He has his issues and had some strange ideas, including the idea that Satan would be saved. Origen never became a saint (in the Roman Catholic understanding) and is considered a heretic by some. Still, there is no denying that he was a brilliant theologian and Bible scholar.


Council of Nicaea in 3 1/2 minutes

One of the most important events in church history was the Council of Nicaea. But what happened there? This video will give a quick overview of what happened.


A Short Biography of St Augustine

One of the most influential theologians of all Christianity is Augustine of Hippo. Roman Catholics and Protestants look to him for inspiration. Even non-Christians who are interested in the history of philosophy take Augustine seriously.

But what do you know about him? This short video provides some of the basic information for who Augustine was.


Why I Read the Church Fathers

Church FathersI have been reading through the Ante-Nicene Church Fathers (church fathers before the Council of Nicaea). As a history podcaster, that might not surprise you. However, I started reading the Church Fathers long before I considered a church history podcast.

Why would I read the Church Fathers?

There are traditions within Christianity that heavily rely on the Church Fathers. However, I’m a Baptist and Baptists are not known for their interest in patristics. In fact some Protestants act as if Christianity jumped from the Apostle Paul to Martin Luther.

While I don’t give the same authority to the Church Fathers as I do the Bible, I find reading their writings to be quite rewarding.

As a person living two thousand years after the time of Jesus, it is good to read from those much closer to the events. Many of these knew people who knew the apostles. Their reading of the Bible can be helpful to us.

These Church Fathers were also trying to integrate their faith into their cultural context. At this point, Christianity was not yet a legal religion, much less the official religion of the Roman Empire. What areas could be compromised and what could not?

It is interesting to read about the reactions to and against philosophy. Some brought the philosophical training over, baptized it and used it for the church. Others, such as Tertullian, warned that Jerusalem had nothing to do with Athens.

Some of the earliest Christian writings were in the area of apologetics. These Christians responded to other religious views and expressed why they believed Christianity to be true.

We also see how they wrestled with what would become orthodox Christianity. Was Jesus only man, only God or both God and man?

While many things have changed in the past centuries, in other ways things are quite similar. Our post-Christian world has much in common with the pre-Christian society of the Church Fathers.

I would encourage you to read the Church Fathers and learn from their teachings.