It is ten years this year since my first trip to Rome. A friend of mine had given me ‘Rubicon’ by Tom Holland to read. It’s a book that chapters the fall of the Republic and the rise of Octavian. The epic nature and the timeless names of the final years of the Roman Republic, with all its contradictions, had me hooked from the first page of the book, and I endeavoured to visit the city. At that time, it never occurred to me that Rome was the cradle of not just one masterful empire, but two.
The Via della Conciliazione leads from Castel Sant’Angelo to St Peter’s Square. It’s a relatively narrow street given how central its location to Papal power. Far narrower than the Mall leading to Buckingham Palace in London. It feels like a tunnel that comes to an end at the vast opening of St Peter’s Square. St Peter’s is an odd contradiction. A beautifully crafted plaza surrounded by stone Saints and the genius of Bernini, yet funded by the hideous robbery of the poor by the church through the sale of indulgences. It was the sale of indulgences that started the ball rolling of the rejection of Papal authority, through what became the reformation.
Inside the walls of the Vatican stands St Peter’s Baldachin. Bernini’s towering Baroque structure is said to stand directly above the tomb of St Peter, which apparently – though very doubtful – lies underneath St Peter’s basilica. The giant structure and its placement echoes the power and supremacy of the Roman Catholic Church, built upon the ‘rock’ of St Peter. Which leads to the question, what is the Biblical justification for the presumed power and supremacy of Rome, and for the legitimacy of the line of succession from St Peter to Pope Francis, and all in between who have had such vast power and influence?
You will have to excuse my overlooking of the question of whether the Biblical Peter actually visited Rome at all, or in fact, actually existed. I want instead to focus on presumed Papal authority and its fundamental justifications.
Paragraph 882 of the Cathechism of the Catholic Church says:
“… the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.”
– The problem with this declaration is twofold. Firstly, there is no Biblical reason to accept that the Church in Rome was considered supreme in authority over any other sees. There is likewise no early Christian writings that establishes Rome as the supreme centre of Christendom for at least a century following the death of Peter. And even then, Irenaeus’s suggestion at the power of. Roman Catholic authority is dubious, due to its many translations. Secondly, there is no Biblical justification for a line of supreme authority succession from the Roman “Vicar of Christ”.
On the first point, it is generally argued that ‘1 Peter’ establishes – by Peter – the episcopal see in Rome as the supreme church governing all churches, with this particular verse that Peter supposedly wrote to several churches throughout early Christendom:
“The church that is at Babylon, elected together with you, saluteth you; and so doth Mark my son.”
– It is this that the Vatican uses primarily to place Peter in Rome. The common argument is that ‘Babylon’ was an early Christian code-word for Rome. The Book of Revelation similarly calls Rome ‘Babylon’, and this is used as further evidence that Peter thus used ‘Babylon’ as code for ‘Rome’. Though there is a vast difference between the writing style of Revelation – figurative, mythological – and the reference to ‘Babylon’ in 1 Peter – a plain, rather boring, matter-of-fact salutation. Revelation is also written decades after the death of Peter, and there is no reason to think Christians at the time of Peter were already using “Babylon” as a code for Rome. Also, Revelation is not speaking directly to any group in particular. Peter is tasked with speaking to Jewish communities. We know from Josephus, that Babylon had a great number of Jews at that time, and it isn’t unlikely that Peter was writing from the actual Babylon on the Euphrates itself.
The Vatican’s insistence that Rome was established as the supreme church is curious for several more reasons than just the writing style of 1 Peter. Firstly, Peter isn’t only thought to have established the episcopal see in Rome, but also the episcopal see at Antioch. And by early Christian standards, Antioch was a far more important place than Rome. And if we are to consider the idea that the word ‘Babylon’ in 1 Peter refers to another city, I’d suggest it’s far more likely to refer to Antioch, than to Rome:
Rome isn’t mentioned once as an important Christian city in the New Testament, but Antioch plays a vital role. Indeed, the importance of Peter in the early spread of Christianity, is echoed in the importance of Antioch. In Acts 11:26 we see just how important Antioch was for the early Christians:
“…And when he had found him, he brought him unto Antioch. And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people. And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch. And in these days came prophets from Jerusalem unto Antioch.”
– The concept of being ‘Christian’ comes to us from Antioch. ‘Prophets’ – whomever they are – came specifically to Antioch all the way from Jerusalem, suggesting that Antioch was a city with great importance and influence for the early Christian communities across the empire at that point. This is also where Peter specifically chooses to establish a Church.
The fascinating pre-Christian history of Antioch brings up an unexpected link with Babylon. It was Alexander the Great’s general Seleucus I Nicator that built and established Antioch as his city of governance for the new Seleucid Empire in the fourth century BC. Seleucus established himself in Babylon in 312bc, which is the year given for the beginning of the Seleucid Empire. The importance of Babylon at that point cannot be overstated. Seleucus soon noticed that the Western section of the empire including Syria, and Turkey, had considerably more advantages than the Eastern section. The Eastern section contained Babylon. The Western section needed a Babylon of its own. So Seleucus had Antioch built in the West, and soon flocks of people from the east – including a great number of Babylonians – were now moving west, to Antioch. The establishment of Antioch and other cities by Seleucus was one of the key reasons for the decline of Babylon. Indeed, it was the Babylonian Priests that dominated Antioch at that time. Antioch was so incredibly Babylonian a few years later, that the historian Franz Cumont noted:
“There can be no doubt that Babylonian doctrines exercised decisive influence on this gradual metamorphosis and this latest phase of Semitic religion. The Seleucid princes of Antioch showed as great a deference to the science of the Babylonian clergy as the Persian Achaemenids had done before them.”
“It was Babylon that retained the intellectual supremacy, even after its political ruin. The powerful sacerdotal caste ruling it did not fall with the independence of the country, and it survived the conquests of Alexander. The researches of Assyriologists have shown that its ancient worship persisted under the Seleucids, and at the time of Strabo the Chaldeans still discussed cosmology and first principles in the rival schools of Borsippa and Orchoe.”
– From the clear influence of Babylonian culture on the foundations of Antioch, and from the clear central importance of Antioch to the early Christians, I would suggest that if we are to follow Papal reasoning, that Peter was not referring to Bablyon – then the reference to ‘Babylon’ in 1 Peter is more likely a reference to Antioch, and not to Rome. The Seleucid’s may have moved to Antioch, but remained the Kings of Babylon. This seems too significant for me, to simply overlook.
So, if we cannot reasonably suggest that Peter had established the church in Rome as the supreme authority, and placing aside the translation issues of the often quoted Irenaeus passage for the supremacy of Rome from around 120 years after the death of Peter – is there any Biblical reason to presume the supreme authority of Peter, and that of the established line of Papal succession?
Biblical scholars date the Gospel of Matthew to between 80ad and 110ad. At best, around fifteen years after the death of Peter in Rome, and at worst around half a century after the death of Peter in Rome. Between the death of Jesus, and the Gospel of Matthew, there is no hint of justification for the supremacy of the Bishop in Rome. Whilst Peter is given a special place among the apostles in spreading the message of Jesus, his establishment is never suggested supreme over all others, and the other apostles certainly are not told that they are subordinate to Peter.
The authors of the letters of Paul and Peter themselves appear to have no conception of Roman church supremacy. As shown, there is certainly more reason to suggest the primacy of the Church at Antioch, than Rome. Paul certainly isn’t preaching the supremacy of Rome, and in fact appears to consider himself to be the authority on early Christian doctrine especially in relation to gentiles. It is Paul who by his own words rebukes Peter over Peter’s apparent hypocrisy. In Galatians 2:11-14 Paul says:
“When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.
14 When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?”
– Paul here – and later – argues that old Jewish laws should not apply to gentiles. Peter didn’t seem to know where he stood on certain Theological questions of the early Christians, which Paul then goes on to argue and address. The only mention of Peter, by Paul, is an argument between the two, and Paul rebuking Peter. It is afterall not the case today, that Christians must observe the laws of Moses.
Indeed, the author of 1 Peter himself seems to hint that Christians in Asia Minor are also to be considered stones upon which Churches are built, in much the same way as Matthew describes Peter:
“4 As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— 5 you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house[a] to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”
– Later in the same chapter of 1 Peter, the author’s use of language is not demanding – as one might expect from the supreme leader of the Church over all other Churches – but simply one of an advice giver:
“11 Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.”
– He ‘urges’. There is no authoritarian demands, as one might expect from the single authority of Christian dogma. There is simply suggestion. He has no authority to demand. He isn’t ever claiming to be an authority on the entire church.
It is clear from the Gospels that Peter doubtlessly plays a more pronounced role in the spread of Christianity, but not as the single supreme authority on the new faith. There is no hint in Peter’s letters in the New Testament, that he considered himself to be the supreme head of the entire Christian faith. This idea seems to come from one brief and ambiguous passage in Matthew – written decades after Peter’s death, and presumptions of superiority due to his elevated status among the other apostles. There is no hint anywhere in the Bible that Peter ever set out to establish a supreme Church to rule all the churches, from Rome. There no hint in the Bible or in the writings of Peter or Paul, that an apostolic line of succession for the Bishops of Rome would forever be the ultimate Christian authority. There is nothing from Paul to indicate that he had any idea of the supremacy of Peter – indeed, Paul rebukes and argues with Peter – or the necessity for a central authority in Rome. This has no basis in anything but later conjecture, that seems to begin with the Gospel of Matthew and – as usual – relies heavily on cherry picking.
So the question remains; for such a powerful institution that has controlled and influenced the land, the art, the expression, the sexuality, the thoughts and the lives of so many Christians and non-Christians over the centuries, on from clear Biblical basis does the Roman Catholic Church derive its power?