The 2001 Commentaries

Was Peter the first Pope?

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The teaching that Peter was the first ‘Pope,’ ‘Papa,’ or ‘Father’ of the Christian Church, and that he ruled from (and died in) Rome, is a common but unsubstantiated religious supposition. For if Peter had been in Rome during the time of the Roman Emperor Nero while Paul was there, this would have been written about in the book of Acts, since he surely would have visited Paul, while Paul was under house arrest.

Yet, there is no mention in the Bible book of Acts of Peter being there during that period. In fact, Peter is no longer spoken of in the Acts from the 15th chapter on.

So, it seems that sometime before Paul’s last visit to JeruSalem (when he was arrested and sent off to Rome), Peter was either already dead, or in far-away Babylon, as he wrote in 1 Peter.

Why was Peter in Babylon? As ‘the Apostle to the circumcised’ (see Galatians 2:9), Peter’s ministry focused on reaching those in large Jewish settlements…

Which was true of the country around Babylon.
Notice, for example, that he said at 1 Peter 5:13:

‘I send greetings from the woman that was also chosen along with you, and Mark (my son), from Babylon.’

It is true that the City of Babylon (as some have said) may not have really been inhabited by the time of Peter. So, those who say that he was really in Rome, claim that when he said Babylon, he really meant Rome. However, remember that Babylon wasn’t just the name of a city, it was the name of a vast empire at one time. And the city that replaced Babylon in the country of Babylon (Seleucia) was heavily populated by Jews (those to whom Peter was an Apostle). Therefore, it seems logical that this is where Peter had gone with his wife and his friend Mark during the period that Paul was undergoing his trials in Rome.

So, when it comes to the claim that Peter was the head of the early Christian Church and that he ruled from Rome, there is no substantiation for this in the Bible.

Notice what Paul wrote at Galatians 2:9:

‘When they came to know the loving care that was shown to me;
James, Cephas (Peter), and John (the ones that seemed to be pillars) gave BarNabas and I their approval to go to the nations, while they would go to the circumcised.’

As you can see from Paul’s words, Peter’s assignment wasn’t to preach to the gentile Romans, but to Jewish communities.

It is also clear from those same words that there was no earthly ‘head of the Church’ at the time. There were just three ‘pillars,’ or, ‘the ones that seemed to be taking the lead,’ and they were living in JeruSalem during this earlier visit by Paul.

Then if you read Galatians 2:11-21, you will see how just a few verses away, Paul reprimanded Peter for separating himself from gentile converts… that’s not something Paul would have done if Peter were the ‘infallible’ head of the Christian Church.

Also notice that a close examination of Jesus’ words to Peter, found at Matthew 16:18, 19, don’t really seem to indicate that Peter was to be the head of Jesus’ ‘Church.’

For what Jesus really said was:

‘I also tell you this:
You are Peter;
But I will build my congregation (or ‘Church’) on this bedrock
so that the gates to the place of the dead won’t overpower it. I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, so whatever you make binding on earth will be bound in the heavens.
And whatever you set free on earth will be set free in the heavens.’

Notice how verse 18 reads word-for-word in Greek:

Su ei Petros kai epi taute te petra oikodomeso mou ten ecclesian,’
You are Bedrock, and on this but bedrock I/will/build my the calling (or Church).’

You can see that Jesus didn’t say:

‘I will build my Church on you.’

He said:

‘I will build my congregation (or ‘calling’) on this bedrock.’

What ‘bedrock’ Jesus was referring to? Was it Peter?

At Revelation 21:14 we read of a future city whose walls ‘had twelve foundation stones, and the names of the twelve Apostles of the Lamb were written on them.’

From this, you can see that Peter was described as being just one of the twelve foundation stones of that city, not the primary foundation or bedrock.

Then, who or what was this ‘bedrock’ upon which Jesus was going to build his ‘Church?’
At 1 Corinthians 3:11, we read:

‘No one can lay a foundation other than what is already laid, Jesus the Anointed.’

And at Ephesians 2:20, we read:

‘You’ve been built upon the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets, whose cornerstone is the Anointed Jesus himself!

Therefore, it appears that Jesus was using a play on words. Indeed, especially in the Aramaic versions of the gospels, there are many plays on words. All he was saying at Matthew 16:18 is that, as the name Peter meant Bedrock, Jesus’ body (after his death) would serve as the bedrock or foundation of the Christian Congregation (or Church).

In other words, ‘this bedrock’ that the Congregation would be built on was the body of Jesus, not on Peter. For, notice what Peter himself said at 1 Peter 2:4-6:

Approach him as though he’s a living block of stone that was for a fact rejected by men but was chosen as something precious by God… [Upon whom] you are being built as living blocks into a spiritual [Temple] – as a Holy Priesthood – to offer spiritual sacrifices that are acceptable to God through Jesus the Anointed One.
For the Scripture says:
{Look!} I am laying in Zion a select and precious cornerstone, and those that put faith in it will never be shamed

Also, look at the actual sentence structure of the words found at Matthew 16:18:

‘Su ei Petros kai epi taute te petra.’ 

The word te appears before petra, which according to Greek grammar indicates that petra was used as a parallel to Petros… so this was just a play on words.

Note that te is not a common Bible word. It is what is referred to as an ‘enclitic particle,’ which is often translated as and, because it is used to couple parallel thoughts. However, the Greek word that is normally translated as and, is kai. So if it’s used instead of the usual word, there’s a reason for it.

According to The Complete Word Study Dictionary of the New Testament:

Te is employed generally when something is subjoined, and does not thus directly and necessarily follow.’

Therefore, ‘te’ is better translated as ‘but’ in this particular case, which indicates that that Jesus was drawing a parallel between the meaning of Peter’s name (‘Rock’ or ‘Bedrock’). So Jesus was drawing a parallel between the name ‘Peter’ and his own body that would be sacrificed as, ‘the rock that the builders rejected.’

There is certainly no indication in any other part of the Bible that Peter was ever viewed as the ‘Pope’ or that he ever took the principal lead in governing the early Christian Church. In fact, when the matter of gentile circumcision was raised before the elders in JeruSalem, the decision was given by (Jesus’ half-brother) James, not by Peter.

Also, appointing Peter as ‘the head of the Church’ would have gone against Jesus’ own instructions to his Apostles at Matthew 23:10-12:

Nor should you be called leaders, for you have but one Leader, the Anointed One.
However, the greatest among you must be your servant…
Whoever promotes himself will be humbled and whoever humbles himself will be promoted.’

As to Peter’s being given ‘the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven,’ this refers to the leading role that Peter was to play in identifying and explaining the outpouring of God’s Holy Breath. This first happened on the Jews at Pentecost (see Acts 2:14-39), and later upon the first gentile converts (see Acts Chapter 10). All of this had to do with opening the opportunity to become rulers (first to Jews, then to gentiles) in the ‘Kingdom of God.’

But, wasn’t Peter told that he would be given even greater powers by God? For at Matthew 16:19 Jesus tells him:

‘I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of the heavens, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in the heavens. And whatever you set free on the earth will be set free in the heavens’

Yes, but notice that these same promises were made and repeated to all of the Apostles at Matthew 18:18.

Then, where did Peter actually die?

Well, we do know that he died violently for his faith, since that is what Jesus foretold would happen at John 21:18-19. So Peter likely died at the hands of Jews or Romans in Babylon sometime before the destruction of JeruSalem (66-70 CE). For there is no Biblical record (or any other authenticated historical record) of his ever traveling to Rome or being martyred there.

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