PETER IN ROME?
Where Peter Was
In closing his first epistle, Peter remarks, “The church that is at Babylon, elected together with you, saluteth you” (I Pet. 5:13). Instead of theorizing that Peter was at Rome for many long years managing somehow to escape everyone’s attention, why do we not simply accept the testimony of Peter himself that he was at Babylon? There is not the slightest reason not to do so despite the controversy on this point that has raged for centuries. Michaelis observes:
Commentators do not agree in regard to the meaning of the word Babylon, some taking it in its literal and proper sense, others giving it a figurative and mystical interpretation. Among the advocates for the latter sense, have been men of such learning and abilities, that I was misled by their authority in the younger part of my life to subscribe to it: but at present, as I have more impartially examined the question, it appears to me very extraordinary that, when an Apostle dates his epistle from Babylon, it should even occur to any commentator to ascribe to this work a mystical meaning, instead of taking it in its literal and proper sense. [Michaelis, as quoted by Adam Clarke, Clarke’s Commentary (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, n.d., Vol. VI, p. 838.]
As for those who would give this clear reference to his location a mystical interpretation as John later did in the 90s A.D., applying it to Rome, let us remember that Peter was writing in an epistle of Christian living exhortations, not deep prophetic symbolism, long before that allegorical meaning was understood.
Let us also recall the nature of Peter — that he was a practical man not given to allegories and mysteries in any of his preaching or writing and certainly would not resort to such language in the simple and straightforward close of a letter.
Babylon Did Exist!
Some have contended that Babylon had ceased to exist by the Christian era, but this runs contrary to well-established historical fact. Josephus, the notable Jewish historian who lived in the same time as Peter, makes frequent clear references to it in his Antiquities. Speaking of the high priest in the time of Herod (30s B.C.), he writes:
When Hyrcanus was brought into Parthia, the King Phraates . . . gave him a habitation at Babylon, where there were Jews in great numbers. These Jews honored Hyrcanus as their high priest and king, as did all the Jewish nation that dwelt as far as Euphrates. [William Winston, (translator), The Life and Works of Josephus, 15, 2, 2 (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, n.d., p. 445.]
Notice what substantial facts we have here. First, we may be absolutely certain that Josephus was not speaking in an allegorical sense for he links this Babylon to the Euphrates, the site of ancient Babylon. Next, he tell us that there were “Jews in great numbers” at Babylon, giving us the logical reason why Peter, the Apostle to the circumcision, was at Babylon — fulfilling his ministry and God-given commission.
Current archeological and historical research gives us an accurate estimate of what Josephus meant by “great number” of Jews in the Babylonian region. Neusner in his recent work, A History of the Jews in Babylonia, gives an estimate of the Jewish population of Babylon during the Sasanian period about a century after the dates of our study.
J. Beloch holds that Babylonia and Susiana held from six to eight million people, basing his estimate on a population density of 46 to 60 per kilometer. If the Jews constituted a tenth to an eighth of the local population, and that would be a conservative figure, then according to Beloch’s figures, there should have been from 600,000 to a million Jews in Babylonia and the surrounding territories. [Jacob Neusner, A History of the Jews in Babylonia (Leiden: E. L. Ball, 1966, p. 246.]
He concludes the section by stating, “Hence the Jewish population of Sasanian Babylonia may have been approximately 860,000 which would be regarded as a conservative estimate. [ibid., p. 250.]
Those who would have Peter in Rome have made mention of the fact that the Jewish colony of Rome, numbering at best a few tens of thousands, justified the presence of the Apostle of the circumcision. How weak that argument now appears in light of modern evidence proving that his Israelitish brethren in Babylon numbered about a million by conservative estimate!
Biblical Evidence or Christian Tradition?
In light of the evidence, how can argument be made against Peter’s being at literal, not mystical, Babylon? There is no proof to the contrary, and the Biblical facts and evidence overwhelmingly support it. Still, there is a stubborn resistance to accept the obvious. Note Cullmann’s line of reasoning:
It must be said, however, that it is not completely certain that the expression must here be understood in a figurative way. We cannot fully exclude the possibility that the long-famous ancient Mesopotamian city of Babylon was really meant. We know from Josephus and from Philo that this place was still inhabited in the New Testament period . . . So it has actually been assumed that on one of his missionary journeys Peter came to Babylon in Mesopotamia, or if not into the city itself, at least into the region of Babylonia, and wrote our letter from there. One cannot exclude this possibility. Nevertheless, it is not probable, and is not supported by later Christian tradition, which knows nothing of a missionary work of Peter in three regions. [Oscar Cullmann, Peter — Disciple, Apostle, Martyr (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1953), pp. 84-85.]
Let us analyze a bit further those statements. First, the possibility of a journey by Peter to the ancient city of Babylon cannot be ruled out as a clear possibility by this modern author, and certainly cannot be disproved. But he feels it would have been “improbable.” Why should it be improbable that the Apostle to the circumcision would journey to a known center of the Jews? It is not at all improbable when one remembers his commission.
But the reason the above author gives for its improbability is most interesting — not that it goes contrary to Biblical evidence or injunction, for it does not. It fits the scriptural account perfectly, but it is not supported by “later Christian tradition” which “knows nothing” of any such work by Peter.
It seems that some would hold that the “argument from silence” cannot be used in the case of Acts, Romans, and all of the Prison Epistles as proof that Peter was not at Rome, but they would like to use just such an argument from silence of far more scanty and suspicious “later Christian tradition” from the Parthian regions to prove that Peter was not at Babylon! And note that such inconsistent argument is the only “proof” to the contrary that is given. He gives us no real grounds for denying the logical inference that when Peter said Babylon he meant Babylon.
A Hostile Frontier — Barrier to Communication
Finally, we should further consider a few facts about this Parthian Kingdom from which Peter wrote. It is a little known and oft-overlooked fact of history that Parthia was a formidable military power that warred with the Roman Empire at this very time — the 60s A.D. — and successfully withstood the Roman generals sent by Nero to subdue it. Rome had to settle with “peace without conquest” in 62 after a thorough defeat at Rhandeia. [William L. Langer, An Encyclopedia of World History (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1962), p. 106.]
What this means to our study is that a hostile frontier separated the evangelistic territories of Peter and Paul, and that travel and communication no doubt posed real difficulties. This would readily account for why we read so little — virtually nothing — of Peter’s later ministry, because he was outside the Roman Empire while Paul and the first historian of the Church, Luke, were within its bounds.
The fact that the Scriptures are otherwise silent about Peter’s evangelistic work in the Parthian Kingdom proves nothing. In Titus 1:5, Paul mentions that he made an otherwise unrecorded visit to Crete, but we do not assume for a moment that because it is the only reference we have of that visit, that Paul really never was at Crete, that Crete ceased to exist, or that he meant spiritual, allegorical, or mystical Crete. Let us be equally willing to believe that when Peter said he was with the Church “at Babylon,” that he was indeed in that Parthian center of dispersed Jews, where he had every reason to be fulfilling his God-given commission, and not at Rome.