PETER IN ROME?
We have examined the Biblical and literary record for evidence of the Apostle Peter at Rome. We have sought an authoritative, well-substantiated link with the actual events of the later life of the Apostle, but the search for footprints scarcely turns up shadows and, what was hoped to be proof, under careful examination proves to be little more than a clue.
The introduction to Foakes-Jackson’s work draws an interesting comparison between the lives of the Apostles Peter and Paul:
St. Peter and St. Paul stand forth in solitary grandeur as the leaders of the ancient Church. To us, most of the Christian Apostolic leaders are but names. Peter and Paul are living men to this day. But Paul’s is the easier life to write, and the attempts to do so have been innumerable. We can trace the journeys of this indefatigable missionary from one city of antiquity to another; we can be thrilled by the adventures of his varied career; we can read his letters, and feel after the interval of centuries the influence of his personality. When we come to Peter it is otherwise. Till we examine the records we imagine that we know him; but experience only makes our actual knowledge diminish. We are amazed to discover that so little real information has survived regarding the man whom Jesus chose as the leader of the Twelve Apostles, who subsequently appears as their chief in the foundation of the Christian Church at Jerusalem, and also in the earliest preaching of the Gospel to the Gentiles. It must strike every student that, whereas the unanimous voice of the Church from the first acknowledges and reverences St. Peter as the founder of the Roman Church, when we search for a strictly historic proof of even his having ever visited Rome, we have to acknowledge that it is wanting. [F.J. Foakes-Jackson, Peter: Prince of Apostles (New York: George H. Doran Company, 1927), p. vii.]
Competent and learned scholars make such admissions, yet it is interesting to note how many find the tradition attractive nonetheless. “It is difficult to suppose that so large a body of tradition has no foundation in fact” is the way the escape clause usually reads. And while that may be true, it does not constitute proof. Attractive conclusions, it must be remembered, can be false. And there may be explanations beyond the obvious.
All this is not to say that Peter never was at Rome for the evidence, while not supplying proof for the positive, does not give us grounds for so negative a conclusion either. The author does not seek to prove that Peter was never at Rome nor even that he may have died there, for those are both possibilities. This thesis does seek to show, however, a thorough examination of the available evidence that there is no positive proof linking Peter with Rome.
The burden of proof is upon those who make weighty claims about Peter’s life and death in that city, and use those claims as the authority for the foundation of a great religion. To show that those claims are not well-founded and historically proved, is sufficient.
Tradition or Theory?
Some will still argue that we must in some way account for the tradition. But do we, in fact, have a genuine tradition? Ramsay challenges that fact in his work, The Church in the Roman Empire. After reviewing the evidence (particularly Clement’s ordination by Peter) and suggesting that Peter may have lived beyond the time of Nero, he writes:
The tradition that he [Peter] died under Nero is not a real tradition, but an historical theory, framed at the time when the recollection of the true relations between the State and the Christians had perished . . . . [W. M. Ramsay, The Church in the Roman Empire (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1893), pp. 283-284.]
A true tradition? No. An “historical theory”? Yes! That is a good way to describe what we see evolve before our eyes in the record of Peter at Rome.
But who would have framed such a theory? And why? Perhaps an equally good word would be “explanation.” Who would have devised such an explanation and why?
Need for Peter in Rome?
Could it be that there was a definite need for such an explanation or theory on the part of some? If so, this would account for the fact that the evidence all goes one way. Perhaps what we have is not a true tradition, the original details of which are revealed one by one with the turn of the centuries, but rather an explanation, justification, or “theory” that goes in the name of fact, the details being safely added long after the true facts had been lost or forgotten.
In the literary evidence we may not be witnessing a true tradition coming to light, but a false legend being created because of the need for such a fable.
What if only one Peter had ever been in Rome after the establishment of a religious tradition based on his stay there? And what if time and circumstances proved him to be an imposter — a Simon the Magician who took to himself the name Peter? Would there not then immediately rise the need to find at Rome a true Peter upon whom to rest that tradition if it was to be perpetuated? False religious leaders of that early period may have been eager to make their theory fit the facts rather than acknowledge that their authority stemmed from the wrong Peter.
The point of setting forth this possibility is not to prove that such a dark conspiracy took place, but to offer a possible explanation for the evolving Petrine tradition. While such a legend may have had its original roots in truth, we must also allow that they may have been just as deeply rooted in error. And while the literary evidence may have been set forth as helpful additions to a true story, they may also have been added by men who were strongly motivated to preserve what was already in their day a well-established religious system.
Failure to discover a true apostle of God named Peter in the city which became the seat of their activities would have proved fatal, which is to say that theirs may have been the best kept secret of the ages!
We know, if only from the contradictions, that not all of the story is true. Other portions can be proved to be false. If all of the facts were known, is it possible that the entire theory would prove a monumental hoax spawned about the time of the outpouring of the apocryphal literature, the middle of the second century, or before?
Biblical and literary scholarship has demonstrated that we must not be gullible and unsuspecting. “Prove all things,” we are exhorted, “hold fast that which is good” (I Thes. 5:21).