Peter Paul Rubens. St. Peter. c. 1611. Oil on canvas.
Hi. I am sorry that I’ve been such an absentee tenant lately, but I’ve been swamped in the mud bog of my thesis. Today has been a new day of positive meetings with my professors and friends, so I hope and pray I can put some step back into it.
I am thrilled by the election of Pope Francis to the See of Peter, and already love him dearly. Even many Protestants have been caught up in the worldwide excitement that he has elicited (SatelliteSaint has some thoughtful words on “that feeling”) — for both better and worse. While many, with the rest of Christendom, have been filled with great joy and fascination, others, as if to actively reject and deny that joy, have seized the opportunity to lash out in scorn and prejudice and carve even deeper the sad divisions in the Body of Christ.
Consequently, I have been having some random apologetic discussions here and there, and today I wrote a brief response (inspired by this post) to some common objections I’ve often heard from Protestants with regard to the Apostle Peter’s ministry in Rome as its first bishop — the foundations of the papacy. Since I’ve already written it, and thought it a direct and concise argument, I thought I’d share it with you.
Saints Peter and Paul (between 1605 and 1608), by El Greco.
Scripture clearly states that Christ called Peter to be the Apostle to the Jews, and Paul to be the Apostle to the Gentiles (Galatians 2:7–9, 2 Timothy 1:11, Romans 15:16–18). Therefore Peter would never have become bishop of Rome, a city of Gentiles.
Peter’s primary calling was to the Jews, just as Paul’s primary calling was to the Gentiles. But Peter’s ministry was not limited or restricted to the Jews, any more than Paul’s was restricted to the Gentiles: In fact Paul preached to Jews everywhere he went; his first stop was always the local synagogue (Acts 13, 14, 17, 18, etc.). Peter likewise ministered to the Gentiles: in fact it was to Peter, not Paul, that Christ gave the definitive vision that salvation was for the Gentiles as well as the Jews, and Peter is responsible for the first prominent Gentile converts in the family of Cornelius (Acts 10). To quote Peter himself at the Council of Jerusalem:
Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. (Acts 15:7)
This is not even to mention that there was a large and prominent population of Jews in Rome which Peter pastored: as many as the first ten popes are believed to have been Jewish Christians.
Apostle St. Paul (c. 1612), by El Greco.
Paul, in his letter to the Romans, writes of “imparting a spiritual gift” to the Roman Christians, that they may “be established” (Romans 1:11); so the Church at Rome was not established at the time of Paul’s writing and could not have been founded by Peter.
Nobody claims that Peter or Paul are responsible for the first Christian converts in Rome; Paul’s letter very well indicates that there was already a Christian community there. Also, nobody claims that Peter single-handedly founded the Roman Church: the Church teaches that the early ministries of both Peter and Paul, through Christ, laid the foundations of the Church, the pillars upon which the Church was built. By analogy, George Washington didn’t “found” the U.S., but he was nonetheless its first president and is called a “Founding Father,” even though many men had worked for the cause of revolution and independence before him. Likewise Peter and Paul are the “Founding Fathers” of the Roman Church.
Paul never mentions in any of his letters that Peter was in Rome, especially not in Romans 16 when he offers greetings to the people of the Church there, or in the accounts of Paul’s arrest, trial, and imprisonment in Rome (Acts 28). Therefore Peter was not there in Rome.
He wasn’t there yet. Paul likewise hadn’t set up permanent residence in Rome yet, but we know that Peter and Paul ministered there at the same time and both died there. Tradition holds that Peter ministered in Antioch (where he was also the first bishop) before coming to Rome, and together with Paul, in Corinth. All of this would have taken place after the Epistle to the Romans, the Acts of the Apostles, and many other New Testament documents, were written.
At the end of Paul’s life, in his final letter, Paul states that “only Luke is with me” in his final imprisonment in Rome (2 Timothy 4:11) — therefore Peter was not there.
Paul’s statement that “only Luke is with me” is not a statement that there were no other Christians in Rome — in fact there was a thriving Christian community by that time, or else there wouldn’t have been a letter to them. Certainly he meant “only Luke is with me” by his side, in prison, or in his house arrest.
The Crucifixion of Peter, by Caravaggio
Paul’s statement also that at his trial “all deserted me” (2 Timothy 4:16) likewise does not entail that “all” of the Church, or Peter specifically, deserted him, or were not in Rome at all. Certainly there was a substantial Church at Rome, as history records the first bloody persecutions of a great number of Christians under Nero around that time, during which both Paul and Peter met their martyrdom. In the context of this statement, Paul is clearly not referring to his desertion by the leaders of the Church, but by men of high rank or influence with whom he’d become acquainted whose testimony might have made a difference in his trial.
In fact, Peter himself tells us that he was in Rome:
She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings, and so does Mark, my son. (1 Peter 5:13)
Certainly Peter was not literally writing from the ancient “Babylon,” which had lain in ruins for centuries, but from the modern Babylon, the great whore that John describes in the Revelation — Rome itself.
You don’t have to take my word for it. Here is the interpretation of the editors of the well-respected Protestant ESV Study Bible:
1 Pet. 5:13 She who is at Babylon, who is chosen almost certainly refers to the church in Rome, not a literal woman (cf. “elect lady,” 2 John 1, 13). Although the Babylon of the OT was in ruins, the reference resonates with the OT, where “Babylon” represents a center of earthly power opposed to God (cf. Isaiah 13:14; Jeremiah 50:51; see also Revelation 17:18), and in Peter’s day that city would be Rome. The language of “Babylon” and “chosen” forms an inclusio (a literary envelope) with the first verse of the book: the OT background to “Babylon” reminds believers that though they are exiles, they are “elect exiles” (1 Pet. 1:1) who will receive the promised inheritance. Mark is the same John Mark who traveled with Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey (cf. Acts 12:25; 13:5, 13; 15:36:39). Though he left Paul and Barnabas, he was later restored to his former usefulness (Col. 4:10; 2 Tim. 4:11; Philem. 24). Peter would have known Mark from the earliest days, because the church met in his mother’s home (Acts 12:12). In addition, this verse shows a close relationship between Peter and Mark (my son) and is one indication of the validity of the early church tradition that Mark wrote his Gospel at Peter’s direction.
These are only a few of the common Protestant objections to the claim of Peter’s ministry in Rome; but the facts speak for themselves, through incontrovertible biblical, historical and patristic, and archaeological evidence. The See of Peter can only be denied by denying these truths on their face.