Roman Catholics believe Peter established the church at Rome, served as its first pope, and was eventually martyred there. This faith claim is not based on Biblical evidence. It is elusive “tradition” which posits Peter (and Paul) established the Roman Church in the early 40’s. Peter is said to have remained in Rome for twenty-five years, preaching the Gospel, and eventually writing the epistles of 1 and 2 Peter. Some versions of this twenty-five year period include Peter’s travels, with Rome serving as his “home base” when he wasn’t on missionary trips or attending church councils. Other versions have Peter going to Rome shortly after the Jerusalem council in 49 AD, and then returning to Rome just prior to 60 AD. Yet another version has Peter going to Rome one time only: towards the end of life during Nero’s reign.
Despite the differences and lack of unanimous agreement in these reports, the Catholic Encyclopedia states, “[W]e may conclude that Peter labored for a long period in Rome. This conclusion is confirmed by the unanimous voice of tradition which, as early as the second half of the second century, designates the Prince of the Apostles the founder of the Roman Church.”
Catholic apologists run into some dire problems when trying to square up any of these traditions with the Biblical information. It’s no wonder that Catholic Answers states,
“Admittedly, the Bible nowhere explicitly says Peter was in Rome; but, on the other hand, it doesn’t say he wasn’t. Just as the New Testament never says, ‘Peter then went to Rome,’ it never says, ‘Peter did not go to Rome.’ In fact, very little is said about where he, or any of the apostles other than Paul, went in the years after the Ascension. For the most part, we have to rely on books other than the New Testament for information about what happened to the apostles, Peter included, in later years.”
The tradition though should at least square with the Biblical facts. True, there are no explicit verses or contexts in the New Testament establishing Peter ever being in Rome. In the handful of times the word “Rome” appears in the New Testament, Peter is not linked to it in any way that would substantiate Catholic claims. The historical information given by the Bible documents Peter’s ministry in Palestine and Syria. When Paul wrote to the Roman Church, there is not even a hint or allusion to Peter being its bishop, nor is there any evidence that Peter founded the church with Paul. Similarly in the epistles written by Paul from Rome, any information linking Peter to Rome is absent. In Romans 1: 8-13, Paul indicates he hadn’t yet been to Rome. Romans 15: 20-24 clearly contradicts the tradition that Paul founded the Church at Rome with Peter.
Scholars date Paul’s letter to the Romans around 58 A.D. Factoring this in the timeline of Peter’s twenty-five year Roman episcopacy, Peter would have been in authority at Rome for approximately sixteen years. Peter would have been well established. Search through Paul’s letter to the Roman church, and you will find no greeting or reference to Peter. While it is true that simply because no mention of Peter is made by Paul does not prove he was not in Rome, the absence of these references present some practical problems. the Jesuit scholar Joseph Fitzmyer has stated,
“Paul never hints in Romans that he knows that Peter has worked in Rome or founded the Christian church there before his planned visit (cf. 15:20-23). If he refers indirectly to Peter as among the ‘superfine apostles’ who worked in Corinth (2 Cor 11:4-5), he says nothing like that about Rome in this letter. Hence the beginnings of the Roman Christian community remain shrouded in mystery. Compare 1 Thess 3:2-5; 1 Cor 3:5-9; and Col 1:7 and 4:12-13 for more or less clear references to founding apostles of other locales. Hence there is no reason to think that Peter spent any major portion of time in Rome before Paul wrote his letter, or that he was the founder of the Roman church or the missionary who first brought Christianity to Rome. For it seems highly unlikely that Luke, if he knew that Peter had gone to Rome and evangelized that city, would have omitted all mention of it in Acts.” [Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., Romans, A New Translation with introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Bible Series (New York: Doubleday, 1993), p. 30].
Despite these problems, some Catholics will actually argue for positive Biblical evidence for Peter in establishing the Roman church. There are two primary verses used. This entry will focus on the first, Acts 12:17.
“But he, beckoning unto them with the hand to hold their peace, declared unto them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. And he said, Go show these things unto James, and to the brethren. And he departed, and went into another place.”
In Acts 12, we read that King Herod had “arrested some who belong to the church”(v.1). Included in this detention were James and Peter. What follows is the account of Peter’s miraculous escape from prison. After being released by an angel, Peter went to the home of Mary (the mother of John). Peter described his miraculous escape to those praying for him in Mary’s house. Peter’s last words to these believers that evening were, “Tell James and the brothers about this.” And then Luke records the crucial words: “and then he left for another place” (v.17). Some Roman Catholics identify “Another place” as Rome. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes, “[B]y “another place”, Luke meant Rome, but omitted the name for special reasons.” What these “special reasons” are, the Encyclopedia does not explain. However they do mention it is within the realm of possibility that “Peter made a missionary journey to Rome about this time (after 42 A.D.), but such a journey cannot be established with certainty.”
Part of the tradition states that Peter ministered in Rome for twenty-five years. This requires Peter to have arrived in Rome around 42 AD. Act 12:17 records events just previous to this date. This verse though, is only utilized by Roman Catholics holding to the tradition that Peter (and Paul) established the Roman Church in the early 40’s. There are other Roman Catholics who hold to the tradition that Peter founded the Roman Church towards the end of his life. Which tradition then, is correct? No definitive statement has ever been put forth.
In part two, we’ll look at the second popular proof-text used by Roman Catholics to establish Peter in Rome, 1 Peter 5:13, “The church that is at Babylon, elected together with you, saluteth you; and so doth Mark my son.” Is “Babylon” a code-word for Rome? Has Rome infallibly explained this verse?