PETER IN ROME?
Few theological questions loom as important to Christianity in the West as that of the primacy of Rome as established by claims to the labors, episcopacy, death, and burial of the Apostle Peter at that city. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia:
The significance of Rome lies primarily in the fact that it is the city of the pope. The Bishop of Rome, as the successor of St. Peter, is the Vicar of Christ on earth and visible head of the Catholic Church. Rome is consequently the center of unity in belief, the source of ecclesiastical jurisdiction, and the seat of the supreme authority which can bind by its enactments the faithful throughout the world. The Diocese of Rome is known as the “See of Peter,” the “Apostolic See,” the Holy Roman Church, the “Holy See” — titles which indicate its unique position in Christendom and suggest the origin of its pre-eminence. [U. Benigni, “Rome,” Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911), XIII, p. 164.] (Emphasis mine throughout.)
This is how the Catholic Church sets forth the authority of its ruling city. As to the authenticity of its claims that Rome is the “See of Peter,” they further state:
It is an indisputably established historical fact that St. Peter labored in Rome during the last portion of his life, and there ended his earthly course by martyrdom . . .The essential fact is that Peter died at Rome: this constitutes the historical foundation of the claim of the Bishops of Rome to the Apostolic Primacy of Peter. [ibid., Vol. XIII, p. 748.]
Clearly the importance of the study of Peter at Rome, of his last acts, and whether or not he died at Rome cannot be overstated. It is perhaps the most important problem of the Christian Church. It is also one of the most ancient, having been probed and queried by scholars and theologians since even before the Protestant Reformation.
Cullmann, in a section devoted to the History of the Debate Whether Peter Resided in Rome, notes that:
. . . the question was first raised in the Middle Ages by Christians for whom the Bible was the sole norm, the Waldensians. We can understand why it was they who did so. As we have seen, the New Testament nowhere tells us that Peter came to the chief city of the Empire and stayed there. For the Waldensians, the silence of the Bible was quite decisive. [Oscar Cullmann, Peter — Disciple, Apostle, Martyr (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1953), p. 71.]
He then traces the debate from Luther to the Post-World War II era citing such notable Catholic and Protestant scholars as Eichhorn, Baur of Tubingen, Renan, Harnack, Lietzmann, Heussi, and many others. The history of the argument takes over seven pages to recount. [Ibid., pp. 70-77.]
In a more recent work, O’Connor summarizes the history into five pages, noting that even Catholic scholars such as Duchesne have expressed doubts about some of the particulars of Peter’s sojourn at Rome — namely, that he went there in the time of Claudius (circa 42 A.D.). [Daniel Wm. O’Connor, Peter in Rome (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969), p. 4.] And O’Connor, as a modern Catholic theologian, does not fail to note the importance of the study. He writes in his introduction:
It is not curiosity concerning the latter part of Peter’s life, his death and his burial, that prompts this work. . . . One point of importance in the problem lies in the relationship which exists between the coming of Peter to Rome, his martyrdom and burial there, and the question of the supremacy of the Roman See and the Roman Pontiff. [Ibid., p. xiii.]
If indeed the Apostle Peter conducted a considerable part of his later ministry at Rome and was martyred there, then the Catholic Church can make impressive claims to the historic foundation of the Roman Church. If he did not long minister there, and if there is no positive proof of his death and burial at Rome, then these claims are invalid and the historical grounds for the establishment and pre-eminence of the Roman Church must be called into serious question. Thus the implications of this centuries-old question have always been considerable and weighty.
It will be the purpose of this study to show that there is no positive proof linking the Apostle Peter to the City of Rome — neither in his establishment of, and ministry to the Roman Church, nor in the later literary evidence of legends and scanty records regarding his ministry and death. His “twenty-five year episcopate” can and will be shown to be an easily disproved theory. Traditions surrounding his death and burial will be seen for the vague and often contradictory legends that they are.
What we will see emerge is just the opposite of what one might have reason to expect. Instead of clear, impressive, and oft-repeated testimony of the earliest church historians, dwindling with the passage of long time to scanty references dimmed by antiquity, we find that the earliest records — those closest to the actual events — are the most vague, uncertain, and sparse, but that out of these scant notices evolves a constantly growing, increasingly precise and definite tradition that sharpens its clarity and certainty with the passing of time! The net result is that the historians of the fourth century speak with absolute certainly on matters that were unknown or unrecorded by the writers of the first and second!
The Method of Study
The method of the study will be to study available literary evidence in chronological order beginning with the Biblical record, on through the early writers and historians of the first through fourth centuries, both Greek and Latin. The Catholic claim is that:
St. Peter’s residence and death in Rome are established beyond contention as historical facts by a series of distinct testimonies extending from the end of the first to the end of the second centuries, and issuing from several lands. [J.P. Kirsch, “Peter,” Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911), XI, p. 748.]
We will carefully and in detail re-examine those very testimonies to see if they indeed answer the question beyond contention, or, if they do not indeed raise considerable questions and even suggest negative answers about Peter and Rome.