Archive for November, 2009

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.

Miracles? What Are They?

11/11/2009 8 comments

I have been posting quite a bit on the topic of miracles lately (cf. Why Miracles Are Beyond Historical Analysis and Peter and Miracles) so I decided I might as well set out a brief account as to what I actually think miracles are.

What Miracles Are Not

It might be easiest to start by saying what I think miracles are not. Miracles are not simply events that contradict our current laws of science. Laws of science are, by their very definition, regularities. They are laws because they seem to hold universally (everywhere and at all times). But because we can not be everywhere and at all times, these laws of science are generalizations. In other words, there is no contradiction is saying that they may not hold everywhere and at all times. It is completely possible that they could occasionally cease to function properly (a sort of natural glitch).

Secondly, it should be noted that our laws of science will always be our current laws of science. In the same way that it is possible that such laws may not always function properly, it is possible that there are natural laws unknown to us that are at work alongside our current laws or that even supersede them.

If either of these scenarios were to come about–either our current laws of science glitch or some unknown law is at work–there could be events that take place that appear to be a miracle. Objects might start floating, they might start rapidly changing shape and composition, or the injured may be healed (someone’s gun shot wound heals in a matter of minutes). From all appearances, such events may be described as miracles. And suppose that all further investigations conclude that these occurrences are best explained by either the fact that (1) some unknown law was at work or (2) that our current laws of science glitched (there were no parlor tricks involved).

In this case, few people would say that an event that is caused by the existence of unknown natural laws constitutes a miracle. That would mean that experiments verifying the possibility of time-travel before the time of Einstein could have been considered miracles. More generally, it would mean that miracles are (or can be) determined by our ignorance. This is not a property that miracles are usually thought of as having. I am looking for the metaphysical description as to what miracles are apart from our own epistemological awareness.

Furthermore, it is my contention that natural glitches alone also do not constitute a miracle. A natural glitch in our current laws may simply be how the world occasionally works. It may be a completely natural phenomenon. If an object starts floating because gravity stopped working, that is not a miracle. It has a perfectly natural explanation (gravity stopped working). And herein lies the clue to the first part as to what I think miracles are.

What Miracles Are

Miracles are events that have (in principle) no natural explanation. In other words, if an event is solely caused by  natural forces, it is not a miracle. This includes all natural forces inside and outside the universe. For instance, if an event in our universe is solely caused by an interaction with another universe, that is also not a miracle. It would be helpful to note here that when speaking of “natural forces” in and outside of the universe, I mean those forces that are impersonal. They have no intelligence, no consciousness, no will, no agency. An event caused by the interaction between impersonal forces is therefore not something I think we can call a miracle.

Because I define “natural” as in “natural explanations” and “natural forces” such that it covers all cases in which impersonal forces interact with each other in and outside the universe, this leaves room for only one other type of force and explanation: an unnatural or supernatural (or personal) one. And this is, again, where miracles come into play. Miracles are events that are partially or completely caused by supernatural forces: some sort of divine, intelligent, conscious being(s).

Thus, my definition of miracles looks something like:

First definition:  Miracles are events that have (in principle) no natural explanation.

Second definition: Miracles are events that are partially or completely caused by supernatural forces.

Both are different ways of stating my case. The first concentrates on “explanation” whereas the second concentrates on “causation.” They may in fact be corollaries of each other, but I won’t go down that road here.

Some Implications

One of the implications of all this is that miracles (supernatural events) and natural events are empirically indistinguishable. The only way to distinguish between them is to determine what the cause of the event was. And doing as much may forever elude us. Of course, all I am doing here is merely repeating what epistemological skeptics have noted for a few thousand years (appearance and reality are empirically indistinguishable). None of this is to say that we can’t distinguish between miracles and natural events using other non-empirical means (like whether or not an event that appears to be a miracle fits coherently with a particular worldview). In other words, there is a way to talk about probabilities of causation.

Another implication is that there may be thousands or millions of miracles that happen everyday that go completely unnoticed. Every time I drop a cup on the ground, it falls because of the force of gravity. But it is possible that, as  medieval society believed, that it drops to the ground (at least some of the time) because God causes it to. Whether gravity or God, it drops to the ground. But one is a miracle, one is not. We just can’t distinguish between them because of our epistemological limitations.

Peter and Miracles

What seems more probable? That Peter, the chief apostle of Jesus, (1) healed the sick by having his shadow fall upon them or (2) made a dead fish resurrect from the dead? Silly question, I know. But millions of people believe the first miracle and no one believes the second. That may seem quite bizarre. But it makes sense when you come to realize that the first miracle is found within a Christian source that is now part of the orthodox canon. This source is the Acts of the Apostles (5:15). The second miracle is found within a Christian source not part of the canon. This source is the Acts of Peter, which tells us that in order to prove to the people that he was a minister of God, Peter gave a sign by raising a fish from the dead. Apparently the demarcation between probable and improbable miracles lies within the decision as to what books are deemed sacred and which ones are not.

Of course, an apologist is going to respond by saying that the Acts of the Apostles is an earlier source and thus more historically reliable than a later source like the Acts of Peter. This is true. The Acts of the Apostles was written approximately fifty or more years after the events that they narrate whereas the Acts of Peter was written one hundred or more years after the events that they narrate. However, this seems to be a weak argument if one wants to establish that one miracle was an historical event and the other was not. I think most of us would agree that, a priori, the choice between Peter’s shadow healings and a resurrected fish is a toss up. And I don’t think that when we come to find out that one of the miracles is contained within a source  fifty or sixty years closer to the life of Peter than the other source, that we would suddenly feel compelled to believe the one miracle and not the other. After all, do Christians actually believe the one miracle and not the other because of a difference of fifty or so years? I doubt it. (See my post on Why Miracles Are Beyond Historical Analysis for a more extensive discussion on why historical arguments cannot establish miracles).

The fact of the matter is, neither source in which these miracles are reported is an historical document. Neither was written for the sole sake of relaying historical events to later readers. The authors of both had their own theological motives and purposes for writing. Both show us what later Christians believed about the acts of Peter (and others). Both show legendary development. That one was written earlier than the other only serves to show that the events relayed in them were traditions held by some earlier Christians as opposed to some later Christians. It certainly does not show that one was historically correct and the other not. Some traditions had developed after fifty years, some more after one hundred years.

To complete the comparison, it should be noted that both sources may contain some historical events and traditions that actually go back to the apostles themselves. With regard to this last point, Christians obviously believe this about the Acts of the Apostles. But they should also believe this about the Acts of Peter, even if less so. Why? Because Catholic and Greek Orthodox Christians (perhaps Protestants as well) believe that the death of Peter came by way of an upside-down crucifixion. The father of church history, Eusebius, reports this in the fourth century. But our earliest account of it is contained within the Acts of Peter. Apparently then, the Acts of Peter is not completely historically unreliable. So why the easy dismissal by Christians of its other events and teachings? My guess is that theological considerations and not a desire for historical accuracy reigns supreme here (or just ignorance as to the existence of the New Testament apocrypha).