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Peter: First Bishop of Rome?

The Catholic and Orthodox churches both claim that Peter was the first bishop of Rome. Both have theological doctrines that rest upon this claim. They use this claim to help establish apostolic succession–the idea that the lineage between the original apostles and the current church remains unbroken. This is an especially important issue for Catholics who claim that Peter was not merely the first bishop of Rome but the first Pope, the sole leader of the Christian church. But what evidence is there that the historical Peter held such a high ecclesiastical position in Rome? It turns out that there is none. In fact, there is evidence to the contrary.

The earliest evidence that we have as to the existence of a church in Rome is the letter Paul wrote to them sometime in the mid 50’s. In that letter he indicates that it is a church primarily (exclusively?) made up of Gentiles (1:13) and thus it seem unlikely that Peter—the apostle to the circumcised—was the founder. Even more telling is the list of Christians Paul mentions at the end of the letter. Out of the twenty of so Christians he greets, he does not mention Peter. In fact, he doesn’t mention Peter anywhere in the entire letter. This is not something you would expect if Peter was the founder and leader of that church. In the late second century, the church father Irenaeus claims that the church in Rome was founded and organized by “the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul.” This is unlikely, however, seeing as Paul himself claims in his letter to never have visited the Roman Christians (1:13). There is little reason to assume Peter had either.

The fact of the matter is, we have no idea who founded the church in Rome. However, this doesn’t exclude the possibility that Peter arrived later and was eventually given the role of bishop. Is there evidence that this happened?

Polling Our Sources

According to Irenaeus (c. 180), the first bishop of Rome was not Peter but someone named Linus who had been appointed by both Peter and Paul. Shortly afterward, Tertullian (c. 200) tells us that it was actually Clement who was the first bishop, appointed by just Peter. A century later, Eusebius (c. 325) tells us that Peter was the first bishop of Rome and it was only after his death that Linus and then Clement became his successors. It’s clear that there is not universal agreement on this issue among the early church leaders. So what do our earliest sources tell us about this issue?

All of our early evidence points to a situation in the early Roman church in which there was no one leader. As mentioned before, Paul himself does not write to any one person but to the entire congregation. Forty years after Paul’s letter, there was a letter—entitled 1 Clement—composed by Roman Christians to the Christians in Corinth. It is assumed within Clement that the leaders of theses churches are not particular individuals but a group of individuals called presbyters. This seems a bit odd if these churches already had bishops.

Furthermore, sixty years after Paul the bishop of Antioch, Ignatius, writes a series of letters to the churches around the empire. In six of them he presupposes that a bishop presides over those churches. But when he writes to the Roman church, he does no such thing. Instead, he speaks to the entire congregation, never mentioning any one leader of the church.

Lastly, consider another document, cited as scripture by both Irenaeus and Tertullian, written after the life of Ignatius entitled the Shepherd of Hermas. Hermas was a Roman Christian living around the middle of the second century. It is interesting that in this document we find that Clement—the supposed bishop of Rome—is actually some sort of foreign correspondent for the church. Furthermore, Hermas speaks not of a single bishop who holds sole authority over the congregation but of presbyters and bishops (plural).

Let’s return to the question at hand: is there evidence that Peter was the first bishop of Rome? First, there is no agreement among the church fathers of the second, third, and fourth century that Peter was the first bishop. Irenaeus seems to flat out deny it and not until Eusebius do we hear it explicitly. Second, there is no evidence from Paul that Peter was the first bishop. Finally, and perhaps most telling,  there is no evidence that the Roman church even had a bishop until the later half of the second century. Thus, Peter could not have been the first bishop of Rome precisely because there was no bishop of Rome until one hundred or so years after his death.

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