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Treating the Old First-Pontiff Phobia

“Young people!” Dr. Bob Jones Jr. called out from the pulpit. “Those Catholics say Peter was the first pope. But nowhere in the Bible does it say Peter ever even went to Rome. There’s not a scrap of historical proof that he did go to Rome! If he was never in Rome, how could he be the first bishop of Rome? And if he wasn’t the first bishop of Rome, how can the pope claim to be his successor? It’s all a load of silly legends and make-believe.” Dr. Bob often spoke colorfully about the Catholic Church being the “whore of Babylon” and the pope being the “spawn of Satan.” I was a student at Bob Jones University at the time, and I believed him.

Dr. Bob Jr. has now gone to the place that Christ has prepared for him, so I’ll never know whether his teaching was an intentional lie or whether he was just ignorant of the facts. As I moved away from the world of Bob Jones University, through Anglicanism, and eventually into the Catholic Church, I supposed such views had died out. But I was confronted with the old first-pontiff-phobia recently when an email correspondent named Jimmy came up with the same assertion that Peter never went to Rome. His confrontational style demanded a response, and got me searching.

Once I started looking at the Bible, Dr. Bob and Jimmy seemed right. The Acts of the Apostles doesn’t tell us that Peter went to Rome. Peter didn’t write any epistles to the Roman Church; neither are there any writings in which Peter states clearly that he is in Rome. However, there are some Biblical clues and hints that drew me into a fascinating treasure hunt.

The first one is a verse in 1 Peter. The Church has recognized 1 Peter as being canonical, and Biblical scholars are virtually unanimous that it was written by Peter-probably with some assistance from Silvanus, since the Greek is smoother than a Galilean fisherman might have been capable of. Peter tells us as much himself in chapter five, verse twelve: “By Silvanus, a faithful brother as I regard him, I have written briefly to you.”

The earliest external reference to 1 Peter is in 2 Peter 3:1, where the writer says, “This is now the second letter that I have written to you, beloved.” The letter of Clement written about the year A.D. 95 also knows of Peter’s first letter. Polycarp quotes it. The writer of the Gospel of Truth (c. 140-150) is acquainted with it. And the fourth-century church historian Eusebius says the epistle was universally accepted by the Church as coming from Peter himself.

So the credentials of the first epistle of Peter are flawless. Here is a letter of the apostle Peter not to a specific church, but to “the exiles of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit for obedience to Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1-2). But where does he write from? The hint comes in chapter five, verse thirteen: “She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings; and so does my son Mark.” But why is Peter writing from Babylon? And who is “she who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen”?

There are only three options for the location of Babylon. The first is the military outpost in Egypt that was called Babylon. That seems unlikely. There is no record of Peter going to Egypt. The next was the ancient city of Babylon in present-day Iraq. But at the time of Peter’s writing that Babylon was just a grubby village in the back of beyond. Thirdly, “Babylon” was a code name for Rome. The book of Revelation gives the answer. In chapters seventeen and eighteen John sees the great city of Babylon with all her depravities. The identity of the city is given in chapter seventeen, verse nine. It is the city with seven hills: the city of Rome. So Peter writes from “Babylon”-or Rome; and “she who is at Babylon” must be the addressees’ sister church in Rome.

That little clue is the clearest scriptural reference to Peter’s presence in Rome. But there are other intriguing hints and pieces to the puzzle that, when put together, make it difficult to argue the fact that Peter did indeed end up in Rome.

The key to proving Peter’s presence in Rome is the person he calls “his son”-Mark. In the same verse that places Peter’s epistle in Babylon-Rome, we’re told that Mark is there with him. We know from the rest of the New Testament that Mark ended up in Rome. Mark’s life and witness is the strongest link between Peter and Paul, and his presence in Rome in the A.D. mid-sixties confirms that Peter was there as well.

We first meet Mark when we learn that his mother had a house in Jerusalem that was a meeting-place for believers. (Acts 12:12). This was the house Peter went to when he miraculously escaped from prison, and so Peter’s first encounter with the young man he would later call “his son” probably took place on that dramatic night. Mark was also the cousin of Barnabas and went with Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey (Acts 13:5). Mark deserted them and Paul refused to take him on the second journey, causing a dispute between Paul and Barnabas.

We don’t hear of Mark again in the Acts of the Apostles, but we know he was reconciled to Paul by the time Paul was in Rome, because Mark was with Paul during his first imprisonment when Paul wrote to the Colossians and Philemon (Col. 4:10; Philem. 24). We can also assume that Mark joined Paul again in Rome around the year 66 during Paul’s second imprisonment, because Paul asks Timothy to bring Mark with him (2 Tim. 4:11). It’s probable that when he wasn’t traveling with Paul, Mark was helping Peter on his own missionary journeys. We are told so by Eusebius, quoting Clement of Alexandria (190) who says that Mark “accompanied Peter on all his journeys.” So we can take these details from Scripture and confidently place Peter in Rome in the mid-sixties in the middle of the harsh persecution of the church by the Emperor Nero.

The Bible may be enough for Bob Jonesers and Jimmy, my e-mail debater, but there is more historical evidence than the New Testament to draw on. The New Testament clearly links Peter with Mark, and so with Rome, and the early Church records tell us the same thing. Papias, writing in the year 140 and referring to a more ancient witness, says, “Mark, who had been the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately everything that he remembered. . . . He attended Peter, who adapted his teachings to the needs of his hearers.”

Papias doesn’t mention where the Gospel was written, but other ancient writers do. The Anti-Marcionite Prologue (c. 150) says the Gospel was written “in the regions of Italy.” Irenaeus (177-200) and Clement of Alexandria (c. 190) say that it was written in Rome. The same authors say the Gospel was linked with Peter. Eusebius (260-340) quotes Clement of Alexandria: “After Peter had announced the Word of God in Rome and preached the gospel in the spirit of God, the multitude of hearers requested Mark, who had long accompanied Peter on all his journeys, to write down what the Apostle had preached to them.” This is not “silly legends and make-believe” but accepted historical sources quoting other ancient writers, who in turn refer to much older historical witnesses.

There are other details in the Bible that link Mark’s gospel with Rome. The Gospel explains Jewish customs and Aramaic language references, presumably for its largely Gentile audience. In addition, there is an intriguing detail in the epistle to the Romans, which cross-references to Mark and may link the Gospel to the Roman Church. In Mark 15:21 we are told that Simon of Cyrene-the man who helped carry Christ’s cross-is the father of Rufus and Alexander. In Romans 16:13 Paul gives greetings to a member of the Roman Church named Rufus. Mark 15:21 refers to Rufus in a way that sounds like his audience would have known the man. Could it be that in recording Peter’s memories for the Roman Church Mark included the detail about Simon of Cyrene because Simon’s own son Rufus was amongst the Roman congregation?

As far as Jimmy was concerned I still hadn’t proven Peter’s presence in Rome. But in addition to the ancient Christian sources there are non-Christian documents and archeological evidence that point to Peter’s presence in Rome. Cambridge historian Eamonn Duffy, in Saints and Sinners, his recent book on the papacy, best sums up the other evidence:

“There is no reason to doubt the ancient tradition that both Peter and Paul were put to death in Rome during the Neronian persecutions of the mid-60s A.D. The universal acceptance of this belief among early Christian writers, and the failure of any other church to lodge competing clams to the possession of the Apostles’ witness or relics, is strong evidence here, especially when taken together with the existence of a second-century cult of both saints in Rome and their “trophies”-shrines at their graves or cenotaphs over the site of their martyrdoms. These monuments were mentioned by a Roman cleric around the year 200, and their existence was dramatically confirmed by archaeology in this century. Building work in the crypt of Peter’s in 1939 uncovered an ancient pagan cemetery on the slope of the Vatican Hill on top of which Constantine had built the original Christian basilica in the fourth century. As excavation proceeded, it became clear that Constantine’s workmen had gone to enormous trouble to orientate the entire basilica toward a particular site within the pagan cemetery over which, long before the Constantinian era, had been placed a small niche shrine or trophy dateable to 165. This shrine, though damaged, was still in place, and fragments of bone were discovered within it. . . . The mere existence of the shrine is overwhelming evidence of a very early Roman belief that Peter had died in or near the Vatican Circus in Rome.”

Not only did no other ancient churches claim the remains of Peter, there are no competing traditions about his final days in Rome, his presence behind the gospel of Mark, and his final martyrdom under the Neronian persecutions in the mid-sixties.

It is true that the Biblical witness of his record is slight, and there is little written material from the earliest days of the Roman Church. But when we consider that the church of that time was an underground movement under extreme persecution, is it any wonder the presence of the leader of Christ’s apostles was kept secret? The fact that Peter used the code word “Babylon” in his first epistle is signal enough that the Roman church wanted to keep his presence quiet. Their other premier leader, Paul, was already chained in a cold dungeon (2 Tim. 1:16; 2:9; 4:13). Peter probably kept on the move—based in Rome, but with long periods away visiting other churches and preaching throughout the area.

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