A question from a reader of last week’s post on Transformation creates the focus for this week’s reflection.
He was kind but critical and quite surprised that I “as a good Catholic” could not acknowledge and accept that Jesus did indeed set up the papacy and that Jesus chose Peter “the rock” as the first pope.
The biblical citation my reader used of course was Matthew 16:18: “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my community and the powers of death will not prevail against it…” This text has, over the centuries, often been used by Roman Catholics as the scriptural basis for the Catholic understanding that the papacy was established by Jesus. (The greek word ekklesia here best translated as “community” has often been less appropriately translated as institutional “church,” something that came much later.)
Some historical background: Most scholars believe the Gospel of Matthew was composed between 80 and 90 CE. The author is unknown but wrote for a community of Greek-speaking Hebrew Christians located probably in Syria. The earlier tradition attributing this gospel to the Apostle Matthew is rejected by most contemporary scholars. Actually the names of gospel authors remained anonymous until the second century, when the Church Fathers sought to establish who, in their opinions, were probably the original authors. Matthew was apparently attributed as the author of this gospel because, more than any other gospel, it speaks of the disciple Matthew.
The author “Matthew” appears to have been a Hebrew Christian who wanted to emphasize that the Hebrew tradition should not be lost in a church that was becoming increasingly Gentile. When biblical scholars look at the text Matthew 16:18, they see not an historic Jesus statement but a creative theological reflection, written years after Jesus’ earthly ministry. The historical Jesus did not choose Peter to be head of the church. And it did not happen. The biblical author wanted to stress the pro-Hebrew-Christian belief of his community and used a creative Peter narrative as his tool.
In early church history, if Paul could be labeled “the Apostle to the Gentiles,” Peter could be called “the Apostle to the Hebrew Christians.”
What do we really know about Peter? When we look at the history and biblical testimony about the early apostolic community of Christians in Jerusalem, clearly the leader was James, the “brother of the Lord.” Yes Peter played a role in the Council of Jerusalem, around 50 CE. But James was in charge and James issued the definitive judgment that converts to Christianity did not have to be circumcised. Then, according to the Epistle to the Galatians, Peter went to Antioch. There he tangled with Paul, who rebuked him for treating Gentile converts as inferior to Hebrew-Christians.
Most scholars agree that Peter did end up going to Rome but he was never a bishop of Rome. Rome did not have a bishop until about the middle of the second century. There is in fact a broad consensus among scholars, including most Roman Catholic ones, that the church of Rome was led by a college of presbyters until well into the second century. And nowhere is there biblical or historical evidence that Peter founded the church of Rome. Before Peter and Paul would have arrived in Rome there were already Christian elders and house churches in Rome; but there was no central administrator. No bishop.
The Roman Catholic biblical scholars, Raymond Brown (1928 – 1998) and John P. Meier (1942), were emphatic in their book Antioch and Rome: New Testament Cradles of Christianity, (Paulist Press 1983): “There is no serious proof that he (Peter) 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.”
Despite its growing popularity, Christianity in Rome was often misunderstood and membership brought enormous risks. After the Great Fire of Rome in 64 CE, the Emperor Nero tried to divert attention away from his own failings. He used Roman Christians as an easy scapegoat. He had Christians arrested, tortured and executed. Some were crucified, some were thrown to wild animals, and others were burned alive. Although the New Testament does not tell us how Peter died, there is a strong tradition that he died by crucifixion between 64 and 68 CE during the reign of Nero, who was emperor from 54 to 68 CE.
One can understand historically that imperial Rome also became an important Petrine location not because Peter had been bishop of Rome but because he was an important martyr and a real link with the historical Jesus. By the second and third centuries, we see stories about Peter springing from historical suppositions, legends, and much creative imagination by people like Irenaeus of Lyons (died 202 CE). When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 CE, the Peter legacy and legends were expanded and took on Imperial importance.
Already during the reign of Constantine (272 – 337 CE) and under the influence of his relics-collecting mother Helena, Peter and legends about Peter were held in high regard. Helena no doubt was influenced as well by her reading of Matthew 16:18. Between 320 and 327, Constantine built a five-aisled basilica atop the early Christian necropolis that was purported to be Peter’s resting place. The first great acclamation of “Peter as a pope,” however, came from Pope Leo I, in the fifth century. Leo was pope from 440 CE until his death in 461 CE. He greatly contributed to the development of the doctrine of a papal Petrine succession based on his personal devotion to St. Peter.
The term “pope,” coming from the Latin word papa meaning “father,” was originally applied to all the bishops in Western Christianity. In 1073, however, Pope Gregory VII restricted its use to the bishop of Rome.
To conclude this reflection….l would agree that today one can understand the popes as successors of Peter in faith, witness, and ministry. One can also understand today’s bishops, Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and Protestant, as sharing in that same tradition. It is only with a bit of creative symbolic imagery, however, that one can really call Peter the “first pope.”
Sometimes we need to adjust old understandings based on better contemporary historical and biblical research.