The following is from a paper I wrote in June 2004
“The Lord made St. Peter the visible foundation of his Church. He entrusted the keys of the Church to him. The bishop of the Church of Rome, successor to St. Peter, is "head of the college of bishops, the Vicar of Christ and Pastor of the universal Church on earth."-Catechism of the Catholic Church
Roman Catholics firmly believe that Peter established the church at Rome, served as its first pope, and was eventually martyred there. This historical information plays a key role in the establishment of the Papacy. The apologetics organization Catholic Answers states, “It is enough to say that the historical and scientific evidence is such that no one willing to look at the facts with an open mind can doubt that Peter was in Rome. To deny that fact is to let prejudice override reason.” Likewise the Catholic Encyclopedia states, “…[W]e may conclude that Peter laboured 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.” The claims are imposing, and the evidence put forth can appear compelling.
While certain facets of the tradition of Peter’s martyrdom in Rome seem probable, it is my contention that the overall evidence does not support Peter establishing the church in Rome. The “Tradition” that Roman Catholics utilize as substantiation for their beliefs about Peter in Rome comes with a set of insurmountable historical difficulties. This entry will evaluate the claims made by Roman Catholics on this topic. It will be shown that neither the Biblical evidence nor the testimony of “Tradition” establishes what seems so certain to Roman Catholics. F. J. Foakes-Jackson, in his book Peter: Prince of Apostles, rightly says, “It must strike every student that, whereas the unanimous voice of the Church from the first acknowledges and reverences St. Peter as the founder of the Roman Church, when we search for a strictly historic proof of even his having ever visited Rome, we have to acknowledge that it is wanting”[Source: F.J. Foakes-Jackson, Peter: Prince of Apostles (New York: George H. Doran Company, 1927), p. vii].
Roman Catholic Claims About Peter
In order for Rome to validate its supremacy over the Christian world, Peter had to establish the Papacy in Rome. It is claimed that Christ ordained Peter head of the church in Matthew 16:18, thus the church is said to be built on Saint Peter. The Catholic Encyclopedia says, “Here then Christ teaches plainly that in the future the Church will be the society of those who acknowledge Him, and that this Church will be built on Peter."
Since every sovereign has a kingdom from which to rule from, Peter established his “throne” in the city of Rome. Since “the gates of Hell will not prevail” over the church, the Roman Church must always exist as the ecclesiastical head of all Christendom. The office that Peter held in Rome is passed on from generation to generation. It is essential that Peter went to Rome at some point in his life.
However, Catholic Answers argues: “if Peter never made it to the capital, he still could have been the first pope, since one of his successors could have been the first holder of that office to settle in Rome. After all, if the papacy exists, it was established by Christ during his lifetime, long before Peter is said to have reached Rome. There must have been a period of some years in which the papacy did not yet have its connection to Rome”) . What makes this answer interesting is that it allows for the possibility of uncertainty that Peter was actually in Rome. The answer suggests that it is not essential for Rome to be the headquarters of the Church and the Papacy. This would contradict the Catholic Encyclopedia which sees it as “essential” for Peter to be in Rome: “The essential fact is that Peter died at Rome: this constitutes the historical foundation of the claim of the Bishops of Rome to the Apostolic Primacy of Peter.”
The Catholic Encyclopedia argues, “…Christ conferred upon St. Peter the office of chief pastor, and that the permanence of that office is essential to the very being of the Church. It must now be established that it belongs of right to the Roman See. The proof will fall into two parts: (a) that St. Peter was Bishop of Rome, and (b) that those who succeed him in that see succeed him also in the supreme headship.”
“The significance of Rome lies primarily in the fact that it is the city of the pope. The Bishop of Rome, as the successor of St. Peter, is the Vicar of Christ on earth and visible head of the Catholic Church. Rome is consequently the center of unity in belief, the source of ecclesiastical jurisdiction, and the seat of the supreme authority which can bind by its enactments the faithful throughout the world. The Diocese of Rome is known as the “See of Peter,” the “Apostolic See,” the Holy Roman Church, the “Holy See” — titles which indicate its unique position in Christendom and suggest the origin of its pre-eminence." [U. Benigni, “Rome,” Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911), XIII, p. 164.]
“Tradition” posits that 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. For instance, Roman Catholic writer Art Kelly states, “As the Vicar of Christ, St. Peter had a universal responsibility. Like Pope John Paul II, who has visited 117 countries and traveled the equivalent of nearly 28 times the circumference of the earth, St. Peter undoubtedly traveled frequently throughout the known world.”
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.
Roman Catholic accounts speak of Peter’s martyrdom (with Paul) in Rome by Nero in the late sixties. According to “Tradition,” Peter was crucified at Rome. Since earlier in his life he had denied the Lord, Peter is said to have requested to be crucified with his head downward. Peter felt himself not worthy to die in the same exact manner as Jesus Christ.
There are three lines of evidence used by Roman Catholics to substantiate these claims:
1. Biblical evidence
2. Historical evidence from “Tradition”
3. Archaeological evidence
Continued: A look at the Biblical Evidence allegedly saying Peter was in Rome.