The Papacy: St. Peter (1st Century)

The following are some notes I cobbled together upon reading John Julius Norwich’s 2011 single volume history of the papacy Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy. The book is a delightful survey of this most curious and enduring institution –the papacy– offering erudite and concise summaries of key moments in the unfolding character and history of the papacy. I also used Diarmaid MacCulloch’s 2009 work of popular history, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years as a reference as well. After recently completing a survey of the kings and queens of England using several different sources (including Winston Churchill’s History of English Speaking Peoples) I decided to turn my gaze toward that other contemporary monarchical tradition spanning two millennia. How is it that a religion which venerates the “meek” and the “poor in spirit” has managed to elevate a supreme pontiff to govern the faithful like a global king?

The broadly accepted view is that the papacy begins with Peter of Galilee (also called Simon in Greek and Symeon in Hebrew). Tradition holds that he was a fisherman who was in business with his brother Andrew (a disciple of John the Baptist) as well as James and John. According to the Gospels, Peter became the first of Jesus’s disciples, perhaps introduced to the new messianic prophet through John the Baptist who was another apocalyptic preacher prophesying a forthcoming kingdom.

When Jesus or “Joshua” (later referred to by the Greek world “Christos” meaning “Messiah” or “Anointed One”), the humble son of a carpenter, began his ministry in shadow of John the Baptist by encouraging people to renounce their earthly possessions and love all people –including their enemies– preaching of a forthcoming kingdom to the scattered peoples throughout the occupied region of Judea. A province along the outer border of the Roman Empire, Judea was already a powder keg of Jewish nationalism. Eager to shake off the Roman yoke, ordinary people in Judea were increasingly drawn to unconventional, rebellious preachers –especially ones who preached a return to the long-lost greatness of King David. Some businessmen like Peter decided to join Jesus and his wandering ministry, though in truth, demonstrations of magical acts or miracles persuaded people to a far greater extent, as in the case of Peter in The Gospel of Luke. At any rate, Peter is often portrayed as a deeply flawed person, or at least a man lacking in wisdom and courage. He regularly questions his commitment to Jesus. Nevertheless at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus still apparently remarks to Peter: “Thou art Peter, and on this rock I will build my church… I will give unto thee the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 16:18-19). Based on these few words, now inscribed at the base of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the Catholic Church was founded (at least according to latter day theologians, especially the 2nd century theologian, Irenaeus). Indeed, our English word for Peter comes from the Aramaic word kephas or cephas, translated into Greek as Petros meaning “rock” or “stone.” We often receive our cultural imagery of Peter with shaggy hair, a beard, and brandishing a pair of keys. He often stands beside Paul –Peter being tasked with converting the Jews, while Paul converted the Gentiles.

However, as we have already established, Peter was a man of many frailties, from violent outbursts to personal self-doubts. He traveled widely from Asia Minor with his wife (Paul notes that all the disciples were married, even though Paul himself was dismayed at the practice) and so Peter headed westward to Rome where he likely converted people to the new faith (even uncircumcised people, which greatly angered early Jewish-oriented Christians). Peter was apparently imprisoned a number of times, as was Paul, though Peter was supposedly rescued from imprisonment by angels among a string of other supernatural events (including numerous instances of exorcisms which only appear in the New Testament Gospels).

A 6th century mosaic of Peter found in the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna.

Despite the significance of Peter being allegedly selected by Jesus as his political successor, the story of early Christianity is presented to us by Paul, a former Turkish businessman whose birth name was Saul. He was a “tent-maker” from Tarsus in present-day Turkey. After witnessing the stoning of Stephen (an early Christian martyr), Paul was traveling on the road to Damascus when he supposedly received a divine revelation which convinced him to become a leading convert of the new “way.” It should be noted that our received narrative and theological authority for these early years of Christianity comes to us exclusively through the lens of Paul –his letters being the earliest known Christian writings– and his teaching was often in direct confrontation with the new “Christ movement” in Jerusalem which was led by James (brother of Jesus) and Peter. After Paul embraced the nascent religious movement, he transformed the wandering nomadic fellowship of Jesus into a formidable network of churches which largely upheld the social status quo by proselytizing in prosperous commercial hubs throughout the Greco-Roman world. However infighting was a persistent problem. Even Paul and Peter had a notorious dispute over the future of the faith, a disagreement which is rife within the writings of early Christianity. We might only speculate as to what might have happened had any of the confirmed writings of Peter or James survived today (there are several disputed writings in the New Testament and a panoply of non-canonical works written in their names). Nevertheless, in the following centuries as the church began to appeal to educated people throughout the decaying Roman Empire, it became apparent that a direct lineage to Jesus (through Peter) would be a more appropriate source of religious authority than a man like Paul who never actually met Jesus, and so Peter was nominally proclaimed the first Pope with the charitable benefit of hindsight. The term “papa” (“father”) or Pope was first used by various early Christian leaders prior to the 9th century. As time passed, the papacy gradually became a centralized form of religious authority the world over, and its own unique history began to be written in texts like the Liber Pontificalis. The papacy’s theocratic kingship is part of the reason why Diarmaid MacCulloch calls the papacy “one of Christianity’s most noble and dangerous visions” (111).

A close-up image of Jesus handing the keys to Peter, a fresco displayed at the Sistine Chapel and painted by by Pietro Perugino (1481–82). Peter is often portrayed brandishing a key. Note the delicate portrayal of Jesus and his disciples.

Sadly, the New Testament is maddeningly cryptic about the fate of Christianity’s first pope. What happened to Peter? Was he truly crucified upside down at his own request as rumor would have it? Tacitus graphically describes the brutal torture of the new Jewish sect of “Christians” under Nero’s reign after they were blamed for the Great Fire. However, Luke provides no answers as to Peter’s fate, nor does Paul even mention Peter in his Epistle to the Romans. Perhaps both men were martyred around the same time in Rome, Peter being crucified and Paul martyred by beheading. A shrine was apparently constructed at the spot where Peter may have been buried at Vatican Hill overlooking the Tiber River. A large Church was later constructed by Constantine near the shrine. Today speculation abounds as to whether or not Constantine truly constructed the basilica on the spot where Peter was buried, though various burial fragments have been found near the site and the Catholic Church has been quick to accept these fragments as the true bones of Peter. In addition, amazingly enough in 2002, near St. Paul’s Basilica outside the city walls in Rome, the Vatican unearthed a sarcophagus with a handful of bone fragments dating back to the 1st or 2nd century bearing markings indicating it may have been the burial spot of Paul. Perhaps these were the true resting places of Peter and Paul in Rome –we may only wonder.

The Crucifixion of Saint Peter (1601) by Caravaggio.

In the century or two that followed Peter’s death, the fragmented Christian Church –while ceaselessly squabbling over heresies and jockeying for power and authority– ultimately fell under the dominance of the Church in Rome which sought to justify its power through a link to Peter, while the Church in Jerusalem fled into obscurity after a series of Jewish revolts took root. Christians throughout the Roman Empire sought to distinguish themselves from their rebellious forbearers in Jerusalem. Thus the emerging Church created a revisionist history wherein Peter was venerated as the first pope and the Church in Rome was linked directly to Jesus but it had, in all truth, transformed into something entirely new. The rapidly expanding authority and political power of the new church sought to mirror the long-resented global empire of Rome. However, with rapid growth came infighting in the form of new “heresies” like Marcionism or Gnosticism. And the humble wandering brethren of a once apocalyptic spiritualist had now devolved into a universalist body politic, or a Catholic Church, which sought to conquer and rule the earth.

For this reading I used John Julius Norwich’s 2011 single volume history of the papacy Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy and Diarmaid MacCulloch’s 2009 work of popular history, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years.

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