The “succession lists” of the bishops of Rome were created after the fact, for apologetic purposes, using names that were known to have existed in the various sees. Paul Johnson cites a number of successions in various cities that are a total mess. Irenaeus’s is probably the “cleanest” list. He uses a list created by Hegesippus (166 ad). But Irenaeus’s list has definite problems as well. “Peter and Paul founded and organized the church at Rome,” he says. But Peter’s presence can barely be attested there, whereas Paul has quite a bit of biblical history in Rome.
1 Clement is not much aware of Peter’s activities in Rome (“many trials”), but he knows and relates great detail about Paul: “seven times in chains … driven into exile … stoned … preached in the east and west … having reached the farthest limits of the west … testimony before rulers …” (96 ad?, 1 Clement 5)
Marcion in 144 faced only “presbyters and teachers,” in the synod that was challenging him, even though he had donated more than 200,000 sesterces to the church there, and it was being returned to him. If someone had donated $200,000 to your church, and you had to return it, would you be there? Or would you allow a session of your elders to handle it? The authority in those years was merely “presbyters and teachers.”
William Lane, in his essay “Roman Christianity during the Formative Years from Nero to Nerva,” from the volume “Judaism and Christianity in First-Century Rome” (Donfried and Richardson), notes:
Ignatius and Hermas provide evidence that even in the first decades of the second century Rome was not centrally organized under the administrative authority of a single bishop. In six of his seven [thought to be legitimate] letters, Ignatius insists on the importance of the office of bishop. His silence in regard to this pastoral concern in the Letter to the Romans is explained best by the absence of a monarchical bishop in Rome. Hermas refers only to “the elders who preside over the church.” The existence of several house churches only loosely connected with one another throughout Rome [see also Romans 16] suggests why diversity, disunity, and a tendency toward independence were persistent problems in the early history of the Christian communities in Rome. (213)
It should also be noted that of these presbyters in Rome, Hermas says, they “quarrel about status and honor. (Shepherd of Hermas, Vis. 3.9.7-10; Sim 8.7.4-6). “They had a certain jealousy of one another over questions of preeminence and about some kind of distinction. But they are all fools to be jealous of one another regarding preeminence.”
I’ve cited a document dated from the third century, cited by Daniel William O’Connor, “Peter in Rome,” suggesting that it was Paul, not Peter, who ordained Linus, whose name appears as first in all the succession lists:
This version also contains a list of those ordained by the apostles: “First in Jerusalem, James …. And in Antioch, first, Evodius [ordained] by Peter; and after him Ignatius, by Paul …. And in the Church of Rome, first, Linus [ordained] by Paul; and after him Clement, who was ordained by Peter.” …. The Ethiopic version, preserved by the Monophysite Church of Abyssinia, thus protected the traditional place of Paul in the Roman Church, which had been deemphasized since the beginning of the third century. [This document] reveals some knowledge of a relationship of both Peter and Paul to the Roman Church, but is not specific as to the character of such relationship. The two apostles are not mentioned specifically as either founders or bishops, but simply as apostles. … While the document is late and reflects use of the [apocryphal] Acts of Peter, the dual, undefined leadership of both Peter and Paul in Rome seems to be an echo of a second century tradition such as is found in Clement of Rome and Ignatius.
Shotwell and Loomis write, in the introduction of their work, “See of Peter,” (which discusses virtually every reference or “proof text” that has been used in defense of an early papacy), that
“with reference to the Petrine doctrine, however, the Catholic attitude is much more than a “pre-disposition to believe.” That doctrine is the fundamental basis of the whole papal structure. … That Peter went to Rome and founded there his See, is just as definitely what is termed in Catholic theology a “dogmatic fact.” It has been defined by an eminent Catholic theologian as “historical fact so intimately connected with some great Catholic truths that it would be believed even if time and accident had destroyed all the original evidence therefore.” (Shotwell and Loomis, “See of Peter,” 1927, from the introduction)
And, well, yes, in the intervening years, historical study has very much “destroyed all the original evidence.” I've written extensively about some of the historical research that is simply discrediting Roman accounts of the early church. My hope is to put more of that up for review here, but for now, I'd just like to paint with broad brush strokes.
It is no wonder, as Roger Collins writes, that in the fourth and fifth centuries, after the Roman Bishops had become the focus of attention (because of Constantine), “It is no coincidence that the first systematic works of papal history appear at the very time the Roman church’s past was being reinvented for polemical purposes.” (Collins, “Keepers of the Keys of Heaven,” pg 82).
In spite of the forgeries and simply the rewriting of history, Joseph Ratzinger, in his work "Called to Communion," says that the early church "faithfully developed" the primacy.
If anyone thinks I am being a bit overstated, this is from Robert Reymond, “A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith,” pg 818:
Rome’s exegesis of Matthew 16 and its historically developed claim to authoritative primacy in the Christian world simply cannot be demonstrated and sustained from Scripture itself. This claim is surely one of the great hoaxes foisted upon professing Christendom, upon which false base rests the whole papal sacerdotal system.
Not only can Rome's claims NOT be demonstrated from Scriptures, but the historical sources I've found strongly suggest that the papacy was more a case of Luke 14:8: "When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, 'Give your place to this person,' and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place."
I pray for the day when someone tells the Bishop of Rome, "go sit in a lower place."
Roman bishops, with the full knowledge and consent of the Roman emperors, took, stole, usurped a place of honor in the church that was not theirs. And once the Roman emperors passed out of Rome, the Roman bishops were in a place to twist arms, to commit murder, to put out forgeries in pursuit of their own power.
For example, several times, prior to Constantine, Roman clergy were exiled from Rome because they were fighting over the bishop's seat. Once the emperors were out of the way, "Pope" Damasus could, for example, kill 137 followers of his opponent, with impunity. See Roger Collins, "Keepers of the Keys to the Kingdom" and also here.
The Council of Nicea, no doubt reflecting current understanding of the authority structure in place in the Christian world for nearly 300 years, gave Rome and Alexandria equivalent authority within their respective spheres. The Council of Constantinople explicitly stated that honor was due to Rome because it was the old capital of the empire. Canon 28 of the council of Chalcedon, which essentially repeated what Constantinople had said, was just plain ignored and rejected by Pope Leo I. But by that time, there was no other authority in Rome, secular or otherwise, to suggest otherwise.
I've already alluded to Rome's predisposition to "re-write" history in its own favor, here.
But there is compelling evidence that Roman bishops accepted the honor that was due that city for being the capital, but they lied, killed, and twisted it for their own ambitions.