PETER IN ROME?
The Fourth Century — Eusebius, Lactantius, And Jerome
We come now in our study to the time when the traditions concerning Peter and Rome assume their most definite and precise form. The “Age of Shadows,” as Hurlbut calls the earlier times, surprisingly becomes an age of light and clear vision into the matters which were before obscure.
It is from the beginning of this century that we have the positive statements of that most illustrious of all church historians, Eusebius. We also have Eusebius’ Latin contemporary, Lactantius, and later, Jerome. We will complete our study with these writers, inasmuch as with them the evolution of tradition regarding Peter and Rome takes its final form.
It is Eusebius who is the first to make any attempt to date Peter’s activities at Rome. Interestingly, he gives us both a beginning and ending date in general terms. The first, he tells us, was a result of Simon Magus’ activities in Rome. Speaking first of Simon, Eusebius writes:
And coming to the city of Rome, by the mighty co-operation of that power which was lying in wait there, he was in a short time so successful in his undertaking that those who dwelt there honored him as a god by the erection of a statue. [Eusebius, Church History, trans. by Arthur C. McGiffert (Vol. I, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1952; p. 115), II, 14, 5.]
He then introduces Peter:
But this did not last long. For immediately, during the reign of Claudius, the all-good and gracious Providence, which watches over all things, led Peter, that strongest and greatest of the Apostles, and the one who on account of his virtue was the speaker for all the others, to Rome against this great corrupter of life. He, like a noble commander of God, clad in divine armor, carried the costly merchandise of the light of the understanding from the East to those who dwelt in the West, proclaiming the light itself, and the word which brings salvation to souls, and preaching the kingdom of heaven. [Ibid.]
It is upon this statement that the twenty-five year episcopate of Peter is based. Jerome refines this, as we shall see, to be the second year of Claudius until the fourteenth and last of Nero — that is, from 42 to 67 A.D.
The dating of the Apostle Peter’s coming to Rome has now been utterly abandoned by all scholars including even modern Catholics. Duchesne’s cautious criticism earned him the censure of the Church at the turn of the century, but O’Connor’s exhaustive work of 1968 clearly states that Eusebius confused Peter with Simon Magus, who no doubt did come in that year. [Daniel William O’Connor, Peter in Rome (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969), p. 10.]
Zahn is equally emphatic that it was Simon the Magician, not Simon Peter, who came at that early date:
Eusebius was not the only writer — perhaps he was not the first one — who was led by the Acts of Peter, through the combination of the tradition of Simon Magus’ residence in Rome under Claudius with the tradition of Peter’s martyrdom in Rome under Nero, to assume a long Roman Episcopate of Peter. Once it had arisen and become current, the story lost all connection with its source. [Theodor Zahn, Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1953), Vol. II., p. 169.]
It is sufficient to say that no modern author would attempt to maintain Eusebius’ claim as to Peter’s coming to Rome in the reign of Claudius. It stems clearly from confusion with Simon Magus and cannot be justified in the light of Biblical truth or modern scholarship.
Martyrdom Under Nero
Eusebius’ recording of the deaths of Peter and Paul at the hand of Nero is quoted below in its entirety in view of its importance:
When the government of Nero was now firmly established, he began to plunge into unholy pursuits, and armed himself even against the religion of the God of the universe. To describe the greatness of his depravity does not lie within the plan of the present work. As there are many indeed that have recorded his history in most accurate narratives, every one may at his pleasure learn from them the coarseness of the man’s extraordinary madness, under the influence of which, after he had accomplished the destruction of so many myriads without any reason, he ran into such blood-guiltiness that he did not spare even his nearest relatives and dearest friends, but destroyed his mother and his brothers and his wife, with very many others of his own family, as he would private and public enemies, with various kinds of deaths. But with all these things this particular in the catalogue of his crimes was still wanting, that he was the first of the emperors who showed himself an enemy of the divine religion. The Roman Tertullian is likewise a witness of this. He writes as follows: “Examine your records. There you will find that Nero was the first that persecuted this doctrine, particularly then when, after subduing all the east, he exercised his cruelty against all at Rome. We glory in having such a man the leader in our punishment. For whoever knows him can understand that nothing was condemned by Nero unless it was something of great excellence.” Thus publicly announcing himself as the first among God’s chief enemies, he was led on to the slaughter of the Apostles. It is, therefore, recorded that Paul was beheaded in Rome itself, and that Peter likewise was crucified under Nero. This account of Peter and Paul is substantiated by the fact that their names are preserved in the cemeteries of that place even to the present day. It is confirmed likewise by Caius, a member of the Church, who arose under Zephyrinus, bishop of Rome. He, in a published disputation with Proclus, the leader of the Phrygian heresy, speaks as follows concerning the places where the sacred corpses of the aforesaid Apostles are laid: “But I can show the trophies of the Apostles. For if you will go to the Vatican or to the Ostian way, you will find the trophies of those who laid the foundations of this Church.” And that they both suffered martyrdom at the same time is stated by Dionysius, bishop of Corinth, in his epistle to the Romans, in the following words: “You have thus by such an admonition bound together the planting of Peter and Paul at Rome and Corinth. For both of them planted and likewise taught us in our Corinth. And they taught together in like manner in Italy, and suffered martyrdom at the same time.” I have quoted these things in order that the truth of the history might be still more confirmed. [Eusebius, op. cit. (pp. 128-130), II, 25, 1-8.]
Here for the first time we have the assertion that “Peter likewise was crucified under Nero.” We are offered not the slightest proof, only Eusebius’ word for it, and as we have already seen regarding the coming of Peter to Rome, Eusebius’ word is not infallible! The more familiar one becomes with the notable historian, the more one is tempted to conclude that on occasions Eusebius guessed at some of his answers.
Let us also note that the quotations that follow from Caius and Dionysius have nothing to do with Nero! Eusebius simply makes the statement on his own authority without a shred of evidence or proof.
Caius’ proofs concern the cemeteries of Peter and Paul, which he terms “trophies.” What Caius meant by “trophies” is much disputed. [Oscar Cullmann, Peter — Disciple, Apostle, Martyr (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1953), p. 118.] The word means “victory memorials” in the Greek and could refer to simple memorials as well as graves, or the place of execution with no reference to interment.
Cullmann makes most interesting observations about the “martyr relics” in the passage below:
We should also emphasize that in the first century not the slightest trace of a cult of martyr relics can be found. The first testimony to that we find only about A.D. 150, in the Martyrdom of Polycarp. In view of the expectation of the end of the world in the immediate future, a concern for relics clearly constitutes an anachronism in thinking of the sixth decade of the first century, especially in those terrible days of persecution under Nero. [Ibid., p. 119.]
How true! The preservation (indeed, adoration) of the relics of the martyrs was not a product of the first century, but that such a relic would have found its location in the garden of Nero on Vatican Hill does seem preposterous in the extreme. We are forced to conclude that this was an invention of a later time.
Beside the validity of the cemetery tradition, let us take notice of whom Eusebius quotes for proof, and whom he does not quote. The authors he cites are late. Caius is an ecclesiastical writer of the third century whose personal history is veiled in obscurity. Dionysius of Corinth is somewhat earlier, but as noted before, his conclusions reflect changes in the original story.
Eusebius was well acquainted with Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Irenaeus, and Justin Martyr (of Rome), but these he does not call upon for evidence. He prefers the later writers, one of whom makes mention of “trophies” of the Apostles, both of whom assert Peter and Paul “laid the foundations” and “planted” the Church at Rome, a fact already disproved.
Obviously Eusebius was faced with the same problem of historians since his day — the earlier authors could not be used as proof of what Eusebius sought to prove, least of all that Peter died under Nero, or little else in practical fact.
Justin Martyr’s complete silence on the whole subject of Peter and Rome is noteworthy for three reasons: (l) that he wrote prolifically from Rome itself; (2) that he wrote early in the second century (his death is given at 165); (3) that he mentions Simon Magus three times without a single mention of Peter or a confrontation between them, before Nero, etc. [F. J. Foakes-Jackson, Peter: Prince of Apostles (New York: George II. Doran Company, 1927), p. 154.]
Arguments from silence, while they may be inconclusive, do cause us to ask searching questions. One especially worth asking is: Why do we not have more facts from earlier sources closer to the site of the traditions? It does appear suspicious that we must wait for those further removed in time and space to fill in the details, and then with remarkable precision!
67 or 68?
But we have seen no mention of the exact year of Peter’s martyrdom in our quotations from Eusebius. How is it then that he is credited with putting his death in the fourteenth year of Nero’s reign? The answer, significantly, is that in his Church History, Eusebius makes no attempt at dating the event. He does so only in his Chronicle. Zahn’s analysis shows great insight:
In his Church History, Eusebius refrains from making any more definite chronological statement, except to say that Paul’s death, as well as Peter’s, falls in Nero’s reign. . .
In his Chronicum, also, Eusebius shows that he has no more exact tradition at his command . . . . Eusebius himself knows no more than what he says, namely, that Peter and Paul died under Nero, and does not intend that 67 shall be regarded as the year preceding that Linus succeeded Peter as bishop of Rome. It was only his way of looking at the history, according to which the slaying of the Christians was the climax of Nero’s crimes, that caused him in his Chronicum to place the persecution of the Christians at the end of that emperor’s reign. [Theodor Zahn, Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1953), II, pp. 77-78.]
This author feels it would be unproductive, if not impossible, to pinpoint the year of Peter’s death based only upon Eusebius’ evidence — or the lack of it. That “Eusebius himself knows no more than what he says” is very likely, indeed. In Church History, he says Peter and Paul died under Nero and even that statement goes unproved. One might go so far as to ask if Eusebius really knew all that he said — especially when we reflect on his statement about Peter’s coming to Rome in the reign of Claudius.
Eusebius as a historian was not without his faults. McGiffert calls attention to one of these in his introduction to Eusebius’ work:
In the third place, severe censure must be passed upon our author for his carelessness and inaccuracy in matters of chronology. We should expect that one who had produced the most extensive chronological work that had ever been given to the world, would be thoroughly at home in that province, but in truth, his chronology is the most defective feature of his work. The difficulty is chiefly due to his inexcusable carelessness, we might almost say slovenliness, in the use of different and often contradictory sources of information. Instead of applying himself to the discrepancies, and endeavoring to reach the truth by carefully weighing the respective merits of the sources, or by testing their conclusions in so far as tests are possible, he adopts in many cases the results of both, apparently quite unsuspicious of the confusion consequent upon such a course. In fact, the critical spirit which actuates him in dealing with many other matters, seems to leave him entirely when he is concerned with chronology; and instead of proceeding with the care and circumspection of an historian, he accepts what he finds with the unquestioning faith of a child. There is no case in which he can be convicted of disingenuousness, but at times his obtuseness is almost beyond belief. An identity of names, or a resemblance between events recorded by different authors, will often be enough to lead him all unconsciously to himself, into the most absurd and contradictory conclusions. [Arthur C. McGiffert, “The Life and Writing of Eusebius of Caesarea,” The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1952), I, Chap. 3, 3, pp. 50-51.]
Therefore, let us not be too eager to have Eusebius decide for us, once and for all, the chronological questions of our study.
How Historical is Eusebius’ History?
The sum of the matter is this: Eusebius’ statements as to Peter going to Rome and later dying a martyr’s death there under Nero in the year 67 or 68 (depending on which version of the Chronicum is cited) were seen by many — especially in earlier times — as proof positive that these facts were so, for they rested on the testimony of that great ecclesiastical historian.
But a closer examination shows:
1. that his statement regarding Peter’s coming to Rome under Claudius is a palpable error that has not met the test of time, scholarship, or Biblical evidence;
2. that the sources he quotes for proofs of his assertion that Peter died under Nero err in the latter half of their testimony by saying Peter founded and planted the Roman church, which testimony runs contrary to Biblical truth;
3. that these same sources say nothing of Nero or the time or manner of Peter’s death;
4. that these sources are both late and obscure;
5. that those sources closer to the actual events in time and location are not, and cannot be cited inasmuch as they do not substantiate the tradition that Peter died in Rome under Nero.
While we may acknowledge that Eusebius says Peter was crucified in Rome under Nero, it would surpass the bounds of credulity to state that Eusebius proves that important theological point, for the proof of that claim is sorely wanting. While recognizing fully the development of the tradition of Peter at Rome, this author would call attention to the absence of positive, historical evidence — solid proof — that the legend is true.
Lactantius and Jerome
The Latin writers of the fourth century round out the development of the Petrine tradition and are quoted below.
Lactantius (260-330), Of the Manner in Which the Persecutors Died:
His Apostles were at that time eleven in number, to whom were added Matthias, in the room of the traitor Judas, and afterwards Paul. Then were they dispersed throughout all the earth to preach the Gospel, as the Lord their Master had commanded them; and during twenty-five years, and until the beginning of the reign of the Emperor Nero, they occupied themselves in laying the foundations of the Church in every province and city. And while Nero reigned, the Apostle Peter came to Rome, and, through the power of God committed unto him, wrought certain miracles, and, by turning many to the true religion, built up a faithful and stedfast temple unto the Lord. When Nero heard of those things, and observed that not only in Rome, but in every other place, a great multitude revolted daily from the worship of idols, and, condemning their old ways, went over to the new religion, he, an execrable and pernicious tyrant, sprung forward to raze the heavenly temple and destroy the true faith. He it was who first persecuted the servants of God; he crucified Peter, and slew Paul: nor did he escape with impunity; for God looked on the affliction of His people; and therefore the tyrant, bereaved of authority, and precipitated from the height of empire, suddenly disappeared, and even the burial-place of that noxious wild beast was nowhere to be seen. [Lactantius, Of the Manner in Which the Persecutors Died, trans. by William Fletcher (Vol. VII, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1951; pp. 301-302), Chap. 2.]
Jerome’s statements on Peter in Lives of Illustrious Men differ slightly:
Simon Peter the son of John from the village of Bethsaida in the province of Galilee, brother of Andrew the Apostle, and himself chief of the Apostles, after having been bishop of the church of Antioch and having preached to the Dispersion — the believers in circumcision, in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia — pushed on to Rome in the second year of Claudius to overthrow Simon Magus, and held the sacerdotal chair there for twenty-five years until the last, that is the fourteenth, year of Nero. At his hands he received the crown of martyrdom being nailed to the cross with his head towards the ground and his feet raised on high, asserting that he was unworthy to be crucified in the same manner as his Lord . . . . Buried at Rome in the Vatican near the triumphal way he is venerated by the whole world. [Jerome, Lives of Illustrious Men, trans. by Ernest C. Richardson (Vol. III, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1953; p. 361), Chap. 1.]
And later speaking of Paul, Jerome adds, “He then in the fourteenth year of Nero on the same day with Peter was beheaded at Rome for Christ’s sake and was buried in the Ostian way. [Ibid., Chap. 5, p. 363.]
So we see that with Jerome we have the complete tradition. Now after the passing of over three centuries since the actual events, we are given all of the facts:
1. Peter came to Rome in the second year of Claudius to oppose Simon Magus;
2. He continued there twenty-five years until the fourteenth and last year of Nero;
3. He was crucified at Rome upside down at his own request;
4. He was martyred on the same day as the Apostle Paul.
This fourth point is uniquely Jerome’s and makes for a nice closing embellishment to an oft-embellished story. One doubts that he had any more difficulty adding this final touch than any of the earlier writers had in sketching in the broader strokes of the Peter-in-Rome legend.