Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Papism

Peter and the Keys to the Kingdom

Did the Apostle Peter actually go to Rome?

 By: University Prof.Emeritus Mr. Stergios Sakkos.

Source: Newspaper “Orthodox Press”, Issue Nos.1678-1680 (23/2/2007, 2/3/2007, 9/3/2007)


Part 1.

The Vatican’s recent communicatory rapprochements, both towards our Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate - which the pope had visited on the occasion of the Patriarchal Throne’s celebration of Saint Andrew’s Day (30th November 2006) – as well as towards the Church in Greece – whose archbishop had visited the pope (between the 13th to 16th December 2006) – have both brought to the forefront once again the fundamental papist claim which had led to their original secession from the Orthodox Church : the papist dogma regarding the primacy of the pope. This is supported by papists, on the basis of the decision of the 1st Vatican Council (1870), according to which, the pope is acknowledged as the vicar of Christ and His sole representative on earth; the leader and the visible head of the Church, in whose person the entire Church is summarized!

Judging by everything that the current pope (Benedict) said in Constantinople, he has made it evident that he has not in the least deviated from this decision. With the conviction that he is the successor of the Apostle Peter and in his desire obviously to project his prestige as the planet’s religious leader, pope Benedict said the following of the foremost Apostle who is regarded by the papists as founder of the Church of Rome and consolidator of papal primacy:

«Simon, before becoming an apostle and despite his human weakness, was named Peter, the rock upon which the Church was built. To him were also given the keys of Heaven».

Now, with God’s help, we shall be examining just how scripturally based these claims are, further along.

For the moment, I would like to inform our beloved readers that the papist view regarding the founding of the Church of Rome by the Apostle Peter is not merely ambiguous, but altogether unsupported historically. By the grace of God, I have been researching this topic for decades. I have studied it with due care and attention, and have studied it from its related sources as well as from international bibliography. To the theologians and all those who have a specific interest, I would recommend my two studies “Peter and Rome – Part A – The Testimony of the New Testament”, Thessaloniki 1989 and “The Babylon of Apostle Peter (1 Pet.5:13) – Part A – The Babylon of Egypt”, Thessaloniki 1993. It is my belief that in these difficult times that we are living in, all Christians should have some knowledge of the matter, given that the fullness of the Church of the Living God is the “pillar and the base of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). It is to this end that I am presenting here a summary of the conclusions that the above studies have reached.

Of course, on the detail of the Apostle Peter’s transition to Rome, hundreds of articles and books have been written. Nevertheless, the immovable basis on which this should be examined is the testimony of the New Testament, given that it was written at the time that the Apostle lived. Let us therefore browse briefly through these pertinent testimonies.

Starting from the Book of Acts of the Apostles, we notice that, apart from the Lord’s explicit reassurance to Paul that “…just as you have given witness of me in Jerusalem, thus must you also give witness in Rome....” (Acts 23:11), there are also other testimonies regarding Paul’s arrival in Rome (Acts 19:21-28, 13-16, 17-19, 30-31). We find no direct and positive witness however that Peter had gone to Rome. In fact, there are quite a few indications that – at least up to the time that the Book of Acts was written – it was impossible for Peter to have visited Rome; Rather, this Book’s testimony is indicative that from the very beginning, Rome was more likely to have been in Paul’s jurisdiction and care.

As for the activities of the Apostle Peter beyond Palestine, the Book of Acts informs us that , following his miraculous release from prison, the foremost Apostle appeared before the congregation of the brethren, who “upon opening the door, saw him and were amazed. Waving his hand at them to be silent, he narrated to them how the Lord had extracted him from the prison, and he said to them: ‘tell these things to James and the brothers’, and departing thence, he travelled to another place.” (Acts 12:17). The “other place” appears to have been most likely Egypt, which was the place that Jews always found refuge (see Gen12:10e, 46:5-7, Kings III 11:40, Jer.33:26, 21, Jer. Chapt.48-50, Matth.2:14).

From the words that the Apostle Paul had written in his Epistle to Galatians (2:7-9), it is made clear that a smooth collaboration existed between the Apostles Peter and Paul, as well as a mutual agreement between them that the former would work mainly in regions where the Jewish element prevailed, while the latter –Paul- would focus on “the gentiles” (2:9). A little further down (v.11-14), it clearly states that after the Apostolic Synod, Peter’s activities were in the climes of Syria and Palestine and therefore not possible that Peter had gone to Rome at that point in time.

Three times has the Apostle Paul mentioned Peter’s name in his 1st Epistle to Corinthians (1:12, 3:22 and 9:5). All three were merely honorary and friendly references. However, other details in this Epistle rule out the possibility that the Apostle Peter had actually visited Corinth, a stopover that would have logically facilitated his course towards Rome. Besides, when combining the information in 9:5 that Peter, like the other apostles, “walked about with his wife-sister (=sister in the faith)”, with the testimony of Gal.2: 7-8 (…7 but quite the opposite, seeing that I was entrusted with the gospel of the uncircumcised, just as Peter was with the circumcised, 8 Peter worked on the mission of the circumcised, and myself with the gentiles…), we can see that Peter at the time was itinerating through the regions of the Near East; in other words, Palestine, Syria and Egypt, therefore he was NOT in Rome.

A close study of the Epistle to Romans will completely refute the hypothesis that the Church of the imperial capital was linked to the Apostle Peter. The Apostle Paul’s admission that he was willing to “evangelize, where Christ had not been named” (Rom.15:20) is a powerful testimony that before him, no other apostle had ever preached in Rome.

By combining the contents of the Epistle with the relative testimonies in Acts, we are given to understand that the first germs of the faith were brought to Rome by the Apostle Paul’s disciples, from Asia and Hellas. They were the ones who propagated the faith among the gentiles and especially among the proselytes of Rome. This is how the local Church developed, which, however, was organized by the Apostle Paul’s collaborators, Aquilas and Priscilla, given that the Jews of Rome who had heard Peter’s kerygma during the Pentecost do not appear to have returned to their homeland afterwards.

In the so-called 1st and 2nd Epistles of the Captivity (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Hebrews, Philemon and Timothy 2) which, as we all know, were written in Rome, we encounter no mentions whatsoever of Peter and his association to the local Church. This inexplicable silence justifiably also becomes testimony that the Apostle Peter had never gone to Rome.

But, we have not exhausted all the testimonies of the New Testament. God willing, we shall continue with them, in Part 2.

Part 2.

The papist view that the Apostle Peter is the founder of the church of Rome is mainly based on information written in apocryphal texts and specifically, in the so-called Pseudo-Isidorian decrees. This is a collection of texts which was drafted in France during the 9th century and whose author remains unknown. These decrees aspired to the reinforcement of papist authority and were heavily utilized for its benefit, despite the fact that they are proven spurious writings.

Going back to the beginning of events, to the apostolic era during which the Apostle Peter must have presumably gone to Rome, we will continue to research the New Testament. We have already seen how, in the Acts of the Apostles, in the Epistles to Galatians, to 1 Corinthians, to Romans as well as in the 1st and 2nd so-called Epistles of the Captivity, there is no mention whatsoever of a visit to Rome by Peter. In our continuation of this browsing through the pages of the New Testament, we now arrive at the texts by the disciple of love: John the Evangelist.

There have been certain interpreters who have assumed that in John’s Book of Revelations - and specifically in the excerpt Rev.11:3-13 and 18:20 - there is supposedly a prophetic reference to the martyrdom of the Apostles Peter and Paul in Rome. As I have shown in my special study, “Peter and Rome – Part A – The Testimony of the New Testament”, Thessaloniki 1989, pages 75, 78, these assumptions are entirely unfounded. Throughout the entire Book, as stated from the very beginning, the evangelist expresses everything symbolically. The places mentioned therein – both “Sodom” and “Egypt” (Rev. 11:8) as well as “Babylon the Great” (Rev.18:2) - are symbolisms that do not relate exclusively to Rome. John does not refer to the deaths of Peter and Paul in Rome per se, but is more broadly implying the martyrdom of the Church, which perpetuates the crucifixional sacrifice of Her leader throughout the ages.

It is in John’s Gospel that we find preserved the original testimony regarding the end of the Apostle Peter. In one of the most idyllic appearances – on the Sea of Galilee – and pursuant to the restitution of Peter’s triple denial, the resurrected Lord informs him as follows: “Amen, amen I say to you, when you were younger, you girded yourself and walked wherever you wanted; but when you grow old, you shall stretch out your arms and another will gird you and will take you where you do not want. This, (John explains to us) He said, indicating the manner in which he was destined to glorify God.”

(John 21:18 -19). A similar prophecy regarding the manner of Peter’s death is also found in John 13:36. The only thing that both these excerpts reveal is that Peter was to die a violent and tortuous death, for the glory of God. As to where this execution was to take place, there is not even a hint; therefore, we have no reason to assert that Peter’s martyrdom took place in Rome.

I have left for last a testimony by the Apostle Peter himself. In closing his 1st Catholic Epistle, the apostle greets the recipients of the epistle, thus: “The church in Babylon greets you”. (1 Pet.5:13). Many theologians, and in fact papists, insist that “Babylon” is the Apostle Peter’s symbolic name for Rome, where he had supposedly written this epistle. This claim has also proved to be unfounded for many reasons, inasmuch as it makes no mention of the Apostle Paul’s name, even though the epistle is addressed to the Churches of Asia Minor which Paul had founded or had under his jurisdiction (see above book, pages 60-74). But also in the 2nd epistle which Peter had written in the same place and very soon after his 1st epistle, where he does mention Paul’s name and confirms his kerygma (2 Pet.3:16), it is not a notably warm mention. Now, given that, at the time Peter was writing his epistles the Apostle Paul had already undergone martyrdom in Rome, would it have been possible for Peter to be writing from Rome also, yet not addressing a single comforting word of consolation to them, for the loss of their teacher, who was so badly needed by those Christians of Asia Minor?

This unjustified silence has been evaluated as testimony that rules out the possibility that Peter’s 1st Epistle was written in Rome.

The “Babylon” referred to is the ancient Babylon of Egypt, which was located in the region of modern-day Cairo. This city, as I have shown (in my study, “The Babylon of the Apostle Peter – 1 Pet.5:13 - The Babylon of Egypt”, Thessaloniki 1993), was indeed a political, military, but also a Judean centre. It in fact possessed sufficient Christian tradition, which rightfully allowed the Apostle Peter’s “Babylon” to be acknowledged as being the Babylon of Egypt.

From this brief look at the pages of the New Testament it becomes obvious that the Apostle Peter had not visited Rome; not before, nor after, the so-called Apostolic Synod, neither during the time that Paul had written his epistles to the Romans, nor even when he had been brought to Rome in bondage, or during his imprisonment in Rome, until the time he wrote his last epistle.

Part 3.

The supposed visit in Rome by the Apostle Peter, as well as the founding and the administration of the local Church on which –as well all know – the papists have based their dogma regarding the pope’s primacy, cannot be supported by any testimonies in the New Testament. But even if we did accept as true the so-called “roman” (not ecclesiastic) tradition, which regards the foremost Apostle as the founder and first Bishop of the Church of Rome, is the pope really entitled to claim any primacy as the supposed successor of the Apostle Peter? Did Peter himself have such ideas about his person? Did he actually set himself apart from the other Apostles? A very brief look at the abundant scriptural testimonies will suffice to show us what the Apostle Peter’s place was, among the group of twelve Apostles. These testimonies, as perceived and interpreted by our Patristic tradition, do not ascribe –objectively- any kind of primacy to the Apostle Peter.

The extremely sympathetic, heroic and enthusiastic son of Jonas, brother of Andrew the “first-summoned”, must have been the eldest among the disciples of Christ. As an expressive and dynamic character, we can feel him move us and he quite often expresses us also, with the mood shifts that characterize him. He is discerned among his co-disciples for his spontaneity and his zeal. He often hastens to express something that all the others have in mind. But, we do not notice anywhere that the Lord had given him any special jurisdictions, just as He had not given any to the others of the twelve Apostles. All of them are “spiritual noblemen, ordained by God, not acquiring various nations and cities, but all of them being commonly entrusted with the entire world” as the blessed Chrysostom had said. The Lord had assigned to all of them in common the teaching and the ministering of the entire world, when He sent them forth with the instruction: “journey forth, and teach all the nations” (Matth.28:19).

When, at some point, Peter confessed the Lord’s divinity, he received the following, grand promise: “….and I say to you that you are Peter, and that on this rock shall I build My Church… and I shall give to you the keys to the kingdom of heaven and whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you shall unbind on earth shall be unbound in heaven…” (Matth. 16:18-19) This excerpt, which was also quoted by pope Benedict in Constantinople, has been inscribed in gold letters by the Latins, on the dome of the basilica of Saint Peter in Rome: «Tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo Ecclesiam meam… et tibi dabo claves regnis caelorum». But it is not the person of Peter that is being lauded here; what is being highlighted is Peter’s confession (revealed to him by God Himself), that Jesus Christ is God. A similar revelation had been given to Nathanael, who had likewise confessed: “…You are the Son of God…” (John 1:50), as had Lazarus’ sister, Martha: “…27 She said unto him, Yea, Lord: I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God…” (John 11:27).

The “rock” is that precise faith in the divinity of Jesus Christ; in other words, the “rock” upon which the Church is built - whose unique and irreplaceable foundation is the Person of the God-Man, our Lord - is NOT Peter, or any other person. “For no-one can place another foundation next to the existing one, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor.3:11, cf Ephes. 2:20), as the Apostle Paul will come to write. But even Peter himself was to proclaim that Jesus Christ is the “living stone” (1 Pet.2:4) and also stress that the faithful would be edified upon that very cornerstone, thus forming the spiritual edifice of the Church.

Obviously, other disciples also possessed Peter’s kind of faith. That is why the Lord assigned the exact same authority to them also: “Verily I say unto you, anything that you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and anything that you unbind on earth shall be unbound in heaven” (Matth.18:18). In fact, the Lord is observed repeating this same assignation and making it even more specific, after His Resurrection. He bestowed the Holy Spirit on ALL of His disciples, in order that that they be able to forgive sins, as ones directly commissioned by Him (John 20:22).

Without making any discrimination, the Lord promised all twelve disciples equally that during His Second Coming, “when the Son of Man will seat Himself upon the Throne of Glory, you also shall be seated upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matth.19:28). The Lord did NOT make any special discrimination in favour of Peter, to whom these words were actually addressed. The same promise is repeated in the prophecy regarding the celestial city described in the Book of Revelations, where we can see that “…the wall of the city with its twelve foundation-stones, and upon those are the twelve names of the twelve Apostles of the Lamb” (Rev.21:14).

The Apostle Peter himself was never conscious that he was superior to any of the other Apostles. This is why in the life of the first Church he decides nothing on his own. He introduces the issues to the corpus of the twelve, as do the others, and decisions are reached in common. We can observe this in the election of Matthias, who replaced Judas (Acts 1:15-26); in the settlement of the complaints by the Hellenists, over the election of the seven deacons (Acts 6:1-7); in the Apostolic Synod (Acts 15:6-29) and in numerous other instances that are described in the Acts of the Apostles.

Peter’s awareness of his equality to the other disciples is confirmed by the humility with which he unprotestingly accepted Paul’s admonishment in Antioch. Given that Peter’s behaviour was the cause of arrogance among the Christians originating from Judeans, “I confronted him to his face”, as Paul narrates. (Galat.2:11-14) “Paul berates and Peter tolerates and complies with the suggestion” says John the Chrysostom in admiration. That is how sanctity and the awareness of one’s sacred mission should be!

We observe the same kind of awareness in the Apostle Peter’s epistles, where he introduces himself as “a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ” (2 Pet.1:1). He introduces himself to his subordinate presbyters as “co-presbyter” (1 Pet.5:1). He acknowledges in the flock of the Church – in the simple Christians – that they “have obtained the faith that is equivalent to ours” (2 Pet.1:1) and he exhorts them: “…garb yourselves with humility…” (1 Pet.5:5).

This trust, of humility, is what the foremost apostle has bequeathed to the entire Church. He comprehends it fully, and our ecclesiastic tradition upholds it with precision, as eloquently said in the 6th century by a saintly and wise leader, Saint Anastasios I, Archbishop of Antioch, who indicated that this foremost shepherd, who tends to the lambs of Christ, is not based in Rome, or in Constantinople, or in Jerusalem, or in any other place – only in sacrifice and love. And that is what the following words of the Lord demand: “Do you love Me? Look after My sheep” (John 21:16). (see the book by S.N.Sakkos, “Ðåñß áíáóôáóßùí Óéíáúôþí”, Thessaloniki 1964, pages 85-86).

Whosoever embraces humility, according to the trust left by the Apostle Peter, is recognized as “great” by the Lord: The shepherd and the teacher prove themselves to be worthy successors and continuers of the Apostle’s history and genuine disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. The faithful are blessed and sanctified, and the Church reigns triumphant.

Translation by A.N.

Article published in English on: 1-8-2008.

Last update: 1-8-2008.