The Biblical Evidence
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 Luke 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, Paul indicates he hadn't yet been to Rome:
Romans 1:8-13- “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world. God, whom I serve with my whole heart in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you in my prayers at all times; and I pray that now at last by God's will the way may be opened for me to come to you. I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong-- that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith. I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now) in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles.”
Romans 15 clearly contradicts the tradition that Paul founded the Church at Rome with Peter:
Romans 15: 20-24- “It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else's foundation. Rather, as it is written: "Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand." This is why I have often been hindered from coming to you. But now that there is no more place for me to work in these regions, and since I have been longing for many years to see you, I plan to do so when I go to Spain. I hope to visit you while passing through and to have you assist me on my journey there, after I have enjoyed your company for a while.”
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. As Lorraine Boettner has pointed out,
“[Paul] did not address his letter to Peter, as he should have done if Peter was in Rome and the head of all the churches, but to the saints in the church in Rome. How strange for a missionary to write to a church and not mention the pastor! That would be an inexcusable affront. What would we think of a minister today who would dare to write to a congregation in a distant city and without mentioning their pastor tell them that he was anxious to go there that he might have some fruit among them even as he has had in his own community (1:13), that he was anxious to instruct and strengthen them, and that he was anxious to preach the Gospel there where it had not been preached before? How would their pastor feel if he knew that such greetings had been sent to 27 of his most prominent members who were mentioned by name in the epistle (Ch. 16)? Would he stand for such ministerial ethics? And if he were the most prominent minister in the land, as allegedly was the bishop of Rome, such an affront would be all the more inexcusable. This point alone ought to open the eyes of the most obdurate person blinded by the traditions of the Roman Church.
If Peter had been working in the church in Rome for some 16 years, why did Paul write to the people of the church in these words: "For I long to see you, that I may impart unto you some spiritual gift, to the end ye may be established"? (1:11). Was not that a gratuitous insult to Peter? Was it not a most presumptuous thing for Paul to go over the head of the pope? And if Peter was there and had been there for 16 years, why was it necessary for Paul to go at all, especially since in his letter he says that he does not build on another's foundation: "making it my aim so to preach the gospel, not where Christ was already named, that I might not build upon another man's foundation"? (15:20). This indicates clearly that Peter was not then in Rome, and that he had not been there, that in fact Paul was writing this letter because no apostle had yet been in Rome to clarify the Gospel to them and to establish them in the faith. At the conclusion of this letter Paul sends greetings to the 27 people mentioned above, including some women; also to several groups. But he does not mention Peter in any capacity."
While many Roman Catholics abhor the work of Boettner as extreme anti-Catholic bias, comments from the Jesuit scholar Joseph Fitzmyer echo his conclusions:
“…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.” [Source: Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., Romans, A New Translation with introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Bible Series (New York: Doubleday, 1993), p. 30].
Regardless of the “Romans” problem, Catholics argue that simply because something is not explicitly in Scripture, does not mean it isn’t there in some less obvious form. Catholics cling to a small handful of verses (properly interpreted!) to substantiate their claims. In these verses utilized, keep in mind that no infallible declaration has ever been made by the Papacy as to their correct interpretation.
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 shew 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.” E. Schuyler English though has pointed out:
“The silence of the New Testament concerning a matter on which Roman Catholicism places so much emphasis is significant. Of course it is “possible,”… that Peter could have gone to Rome after his providential release from Herod’s imprisonment of him, when he “went into another place” (Acts 12:17). The date would have been around A.D. 42-45. But the Jerusalem Council was held in A.D. 49, and Peter was there (Acts 15:7). Other possibilities are numerous if not limitless, however. “Another place” might have been Bethany, or Caesarea, or Capernaum, or even another part of Jerusalem. Any of these would have been more accessible to Jerusalem than Rome. We know that at some time prior to the years A.D. 49-52 Peter was at Antioch (Gal 2:11), and before A.D. 56 he may have been in Corinth in view of the fact that there was a Petrine party in that city (1 Cor 1:12).” [Source: Bibliotheca Sacra Volume 124 (Vol. 124, Page 317). Dallas Theological Seminary].
John Gil suggests a far more probable explanation:
“...and he departed, and went into another place; to Rome, say the Papists, but without any foundation; if he went out of the city, and to any distant place for more safety, very likely he went to Antioch; but the words do not necessarily oblige us to conclude, that he went out of the city at that time, only that he went from Mary's house; "and went", as the Ethiopic version reads, "to another house": where another company of saints might be assembled, and where he might be more private and secure.”[Source: John Gil’s Exposition of the Entire Bible, note on Acts 12:17 ].
Some might wonder why Roman Catholics would interpret this verse as meaning “Peter went to Rome.” Is it really that important? Yes. The primary means of substantiation that Peter founded the Church at Rome is found in the “Tradition” from the testimonies of the early church fathers. 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 determining the correct “Tradition”.
Adam Clarke commenting on this verse said, “Some popish writers say that [Peter] went to Rome, and founded a Christian Church there. Those who can believe any thing may believe this”[Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible, note on Acts 12:17]. “Tradition” forces some Roman Catholics to this interpretation, and as will be demonstrated later, the “Tradition” of Peter’s twenty-five year Roman episcopate is not well substantiated.
1 Peter 5:13
The church that is at Babylon, elected together with you, saluteth you; and so doth Mark my son.
This is the most popular proof text used by Roman Catholics. It is claimed that this verse establishes beyond question that the apostle was writing from his residence at Rome. For example, the Catholic Encyclopedia states, “St. Peter's First Epistle was written almost undoubtedly from Rome…” Catholic Answers argues:
“These references [by Peter] can’t be to the one-time capital of the Babylonian empire. That Babylon had been reduced to an inconsequential village by the march of years, military defeat, and political subjugation; it was no longer a “great city.” It played no important part in the recent history of the ancient world. From the New Testament perspective, the only candidates for the “great city” mentioned in Revelation are Rome and Jerusalem.”
Similarly, The Catholic Encyclopedia states, “ “St. Peter's First Epistle was written almost undoubtedly from Rome, since the salutation at the end reads: "The church that is in Babylon, elected together with you, saluteth you: and so doth my son Mark" (v, 13). Babylon must here be identified with the Roman capital; since Babylon on the Euphrates, which lay in ruins, or New Babylon (Seleucia) on the Tigris, or the Egyptian Babylon near Memphis, or Jerusalem cannot be meant, the reference must be to Rome, the only city which is called Babylon elsewhere in ancient Christian literature."
Many scholars as not so convinced. Albert Barnes has pointed out:
“In regard to the objection that Babylon was at that time destroyed, it may be remarked that this is true so far as the original splendor of the city was concerned, but still there may have been a sufficient population there to have constituted a church. The destruction of Babylon was gradual. It had not become an utter desert in the time of the apostles. In the first century of the Christian era a part of it was inhabited, though the greater portion of its former site was a waste… All that time, there is no improbability in supposing that a Christian church may have existed there.”[Source: Albert Barnes Notes on the Bible, comment on 1 Peter 5:13].
E. Schuyler English has suggested:“If my chronology of the New Testament is reasonably accurate, there is one more intimation that Peter’s “Babylon” was literal Babylon. Mark, who was in Rome in A.D. 60, intended to travel in Asia Minor (Col 4:10). In the year 65 Peter, writing from Babylon, said Mark was with him there (1 Pet 5:13). Two years later Paul wrote to Timothy in Asia Minor (2 Tim 4:13; cf. 1:15 ), instructing him (Timothy) that when he came to Rome he should bring Mark with him (4:11 ). So Mark was prepared to visit Asia Minor in A.D. 60. Did he wait four or five years, until after Peter wrote from Rome (as a point of illustration supposing “Babylon” to denote Rome in 1 Pet 5:13), and then journey to Colosse in the year 67? Or did he depart from Rome at about the time that Paul wrote to the Colossian church (c. A.D. 60), arriving in due course in Babylon in Asia Minor and from there going to Colosse? An affirmative answer to the latter question appears to be more in keeping with reason; and if this be so, the First Epistle of Peter was sent from Babylon, not Rome.”[Source: Bibliotheca Sacra Volume 124 (Vol. 124, Page 318). Dallas Theological Seminary].
John 21: 18-19
Jesus said, "Feed my sheep. I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go." Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, "Follow me!"
Most Protestants agree that in these verses John records for us that Peter would be martyred, and crucifixion is possibly being implied. Interestingly, the phrase “Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God” somewhat parallels what John records earlier in 12:33, “[Jesus] said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.” Thus, I find it within the realm of possibility that Peter did suffer martyrdom by crucifixion, and it is possible Jesus meant “crucifixion” here.
The Catholic Encyclopedia states,
“That the manner, and therefore the place of his death, must have been known in widely extended Christian circles at the end of the first century is clear from the remark introduced into the Gospel of St. John concerning Christ's prophecy that Peter was bound to Him and would be led whither he would not -- "And this he said, signifying by what death he should glorify God"... Such a remark presupposes in the readers of the Fourth Gospel a knowledge of the death of Peter.”
I tend to agree with the Encyclopedia (yet no specific mention of Rome or crucifixion is present). As will be demonstrated later, Peter’s martyrdom in Rome seems very likely. Whether or not being martyred in Rome substantiates Peter’s founding of the Papacy is another question entirely.
Calvin though is a notable exception. In his Commentary on John 21:18 he denies the certainty that Peter was crucified. He says, “Another will gird thee. Many think that this denotes the manner of death which Peter was to die, meaning that he was hanged, with his arms stretched out; but I consider the word gird as simply denoting all the outward actions by which a man regulates himself and his whole life. Thou girdedst thyself; that is, “thou wast accustomed to wear such raiment as thou chosest, but this liberty of choosing thy dress will be taken from thee.” As to the manner in which Peter was put to death, it is better to remain ignorant of it than to place confidence in doubtful fables.”