PETER IN ROME?
The First Century — Clement Of Rome And Ignatius
Having examined the Biblical record regarding the likelihood of Peter’s sojourn at Rome, we turn now to the literary evidence with surprising results. While a close study of the New Testament does nothing to establish Peter’s residence at the Roman capital, and in fact leads to the opposite conclusion, the writings of the Ante-Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers lead with increasing certainty to the conclusions that Peter came to Rome at an early date (in the reign of Claudius), that he conducted his ministry there for twenty-five years, and that he died there in Rome, under Nero, on the same day as the Apostle Paul.
Let us now examine these writings as they occur in chronological order and see how it is that these conclusions came to be drawn by the early writer.
Clement of Rome
The first writer we must consider, closest in time to the actual events and in many ways the most trustworthy, is Clement of Rome, who wrote toward the close of the first century. It is probable that this is the same Clement mentioned by the Apostle Paul in Philippians 4:3 and that he later became the presbyter of the Roman Church. His First Epistle to the Corinthians has a note of truth and accuracy wanting in most, if not all, of the other post-canonical writers.
It is in the fifth chapter of his letter that he makes mention of the deaths of the Apostles Peter and Paul in this manner:
But not to dwell upon ancient examples, let us come to the most recent spiritual heroes. Let us take the noble examples furnished in our own generation. Through envy and jealousy, the greatest and most righteous pillars [of the Church, ed. note] have been persecuted and put to death. Let us set before our eyes the illustrious Apostles. Peter, through unrighteous envy, endured not one or two, but numerous labours; and when he had at length suffered martyrdom, departed to the place of glory due to him. Owing to envy, Paul also obtained the reward of patient endurance, after being seven times thrown into captivity, compelled to flee, and stoned. After preaching both in the east and west, he gained the illustrious reputation due to his faith, having taught righteousness to the whole world, and come to the extreme limit of the west, and suffered martyrdom under the prefects. Thus was he removed from the world, and went into the holy place, having proved himself a striking example of patience. [Clement of Rome, “The First Epistle to the Corinthians.” American ed. by A. Cleveland Coxe (Vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1950, p. 6), Chap. 5.]
It may come as a surprise to some readers to learn that this is, almost without exception, the first evidence given that Peter died at Rome! The usual inference is that we find in this passage reference made to the death of both Apostles by someone who is writing from Rome, thus associating their deaths with that city.
But let us notice carefully what the passage does and does not say. It does state that:
1. Peter died a martyr.
2. Paul likewise died a martyr “under the prefects.”
These prefects, or Roman governors, are thought by some to be Tigellinus and Sabinus in the last year of Nero. Others see the use of the term as general, denoting simply the witness born before the rulers of the earth. [ibid.]
The passage does not:
1. Make any reference to Rome
2. Make mention of Nero
3. Attempt to date Peter’s death, or
4. Describe the manner in which Peter died.
Clement’s testimony is a simple statement that records the fact that Peter died a martyr’s death, something that Jesus Himself predicted in John 21:18. As such, the statement is believable and not in conflict with any Bible verse or principle. It can be accepted in its entirety for what it says and does not say.
We cannot speak so kindly of Ignatius, the Bishop of Antioch, who lived in the last third of the first century and whose martyrdom at Rome is usually given about 110 A.D. Besides having what must be the greatest martyr complex ever recorded — his writings are an amplified death wish — he attacks Sabbath-keeping, the “Jewish law,” and Judaizing.
I quote below most of chapter four of his Epistle to the Romans to give the flavor of the passage which mentions Peter and Paul.
Suffer me to become food for the wild beasts, through whose instrumentality it will be granted me to attain to God. I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ. Rather entice the wild beasts, that they may become my tomb, and may leave nothing of my body; so that when I have fallen asleep [in death, ed. note], I may be no trouble to any one. Then shall I truly be a disciple of Christ, when the world shall not see so much as my body. Entreat Christ for me, that by these instruments I may be found a sacrifice [to God, ed. note]. I do not, as Peter and Paul, issue commandments unto you. They were Apostles; I am but a condemned man: they were free, while I am, even until now, a servant. But when I suffer, I shall be the freedman of Jesus, and shall rise again emancipated in Him. And now, being a prisoner, I learn not to desire anything worldly or vain. [Ignatius, “Epistle to the Romans,” American ed. by A. Cleveland Coxe (Vol. I, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1950; p. 75), Chap. 4.]
Clearly, he writes after the deaths of the two Apostles (a fact supported by history), but other than that there can be little more than speculation. The implication is that Peter and Paul gave the Romans to which he wrote commands in a special manner, thus linking Peter to the Roman Church, but in fact, the statement could be made of any of the New Testament Churches, for through their writings Peter and Paul as Apostles gave commands to all of them.
Once again, we must note that we do not find in this early record any direct mention of Rome, Nero, the time, place, or manner of Peter’s ministry or death. It is at best a passing reference to the two leading Apostles sometime after their deaths.
And as scanty and obscure as these two passages may be, they comprise the sum total of the written, extra-Biblical evidence within the first century of the actual events of the lives and deaths of the Apostles. Were we acquainted only with the Biblical record and these two bits of evidence, we would hardly imagine the sweeping and detailed conclusions that would be drawn by the later writers.