Was the Apostle Peter the first Bishop of Rome and the first Pope?


As we will see, there is no biblical evidence, which would support this conclusion. We should, first of all, notice, that Christ did NOT say that Peter would be the first Pope. A Scripture sometimes quoted for this assumption is Matthew 16:18. We discussed this passage in a previous Q&A, as follows:

“Christ said to Peter, beginning in Matthew 16:18: ‘And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it…’

“The word ‘Peter,’ i.e., ‘petros’ in Greek, means ‘a little stone.’ The ‘rock,’ on which Christ would build His church, is ‘petra’ in Greek, meaning a solid rock. Christ was not saying here that Christ would build the church on ‘Peter,’ but on THE ROCK — Christ Himself. It is CHRIST who is identified as ‘THE ROCK’ in passages such as 1 Corinthians 10:4. Peter, as well as the other apostles, in addition to the prophets, are part of the foundation, but Christ is the CHIEF cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20). The Church is built on Christ, who is the LIVING Head of the Church (Ephesians 4:15). That is why the ‘gates of Hades’ or ‘Death’ cannot overcome or defeat it. Christ, as the LIVING Head of the Church — as the foundation of the Church — has overcome death, having the ‘key of Hades and of Death’ (Revelation 1:18). Paul explains that no one can lay a foundation other than the one that is laid, which is Christ (1 Corinthians 3:11).

“Unger’s Bible Handbook agrees, as follows: ‘”Thou art Peter [petros, a stone] and upon this rock [petra, great ledge of rock] I will build my church (cf. 1 Pet 2:4-6, where the apostle made it clear he was never to be thought of as ‘the rock’).”‘

“The Broadman Bible commentary points out:

“‘In the Greek text, two forms appear in “you are Peter” [Petros], and “on this rock” [petra]… The masculine form, Petros [and]… the feminine form, petra… If [Peter] is the rock, it is strange that the impersonal “this rock” follows the personal “you are.”… Although Peter and all the apostles (Eph. 2:20; Rev. 21:14) were in some sense the foundation upon which the church was built, the New Testament never allows this in an absolute sense. Jesus Himself is “the rock” upon which the church is built… there could be a church without Peter, none without Christ. Peter is neither the head nor the foundation of the church. Jesus founded it; it stands or falls with [Him]; and [He] is yet its living Lord and head.'”

As mentioned by Unger, above, Peter referred to CHRIST as the “chief cornerstone” and as a “ROCK of offense” in 1 Peter 2:4-8. He did not imply that he, Peter, was the rock on which the Church was built.

But what else can be said about the idea that Peter was the first Bishop of Rome and the first Pope?

Scripture fails to confirm that Peter was even sent to Rome to minister in that area–which is in contradiction, of course, to the human tradition which places him in Rome as its first Bishop.

The Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. 9, 1967 edition, states under the subheading, “Tradition of Peter in Rome”: “The problems surrounding the residence… of Peter are the most complicated of all those encountered in the study of the New Testament and the early Church. The absence of any reference in (the books of) Acts or Romans to a residence in Rome gives pause but is not conclusive…”

However, an honest evaluation of the New Testament Scriptures leads to the conclusive conclusion that Peter was not in Rome to establish and teach the church there.

We read in Galatians 2:7-9 that Paul had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised (Gentiles, including those living in Rome, who were physically uncircumcised) just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised (Jews who were physically circumcised). Paul writes:

“… when they [the apostles in Jerusalem, see verse 1] saw that the gospel for the uncircumcision had been committed to me, as the gospel for the circumcised was to Peter (for He who worked effectively in Peter for the apostleship to the circumcised also worked effectively in me toward the Gentiles), and when James, Cephas [Peter], and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that had been given to me, they gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised…”

Rome was essentially Gentile–even though some Jews resided there–and it was Paul, then, who went to Rome. It is true, however, that Peter was led to OPEN the way to salvation to be offered to Gentiles, by baptizing Cornelius, following a miraculous vision (compare Acts 11).

Paul confirms in Romans 15:16-20 that he was a minister of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, and that he made it “his aim to preach the gospel, not where Christ WAS named, lest I should build on another man’s foundation” (verse 20). Paul is telling us here that he would not want to establish or lead a church which was already being led by another apostle, including Peter. He emphasizes the same principle in 2 Corinthians 10:13-16. When Paul was in Rome, he preached to the Gentiles there. He tells us in 2 Timothy 4:11, while imprisoned in Rome, that ONLY Luke was with him. Peter is not mentioned, which would be strange, if Peter was in Rome at that time. The same can be said regarding Paul’s additional “prison epistles” which were written during his first imprisonment in Rome (about 60-62 A.D.)–Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon. No mention of Peter can be found in these letters.

In Romans 1:7, Paul addressed his letter to all of God’s beloved in Rome, without mentioning Peter. In Romans 16, he again addressed greetings to twenty-nine specific persons–in some cases their collective households–but again, he failed to mention Peter. Paul wrote the letter to the Romans about 57 A.D.–probably from Corinth. And even though tradition tells us that Peter had established the church at Rome in the 40’s A.D., we find no mention of Peter in Paul’s letter to the Romans.

It is also noteworthy what is stated Acts 28:22. Jewish leaders residing in Rome asked Paul about the gospel, when he had been brought as a prisoner to that city: “‘But we desire to hear from you what you think; for concerning this sect, we know that it is spoken against everywhere.’ So when they had appointed him a day, many came to him at his lodging, to whom he explained and solemnly testified of the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus from both the LAW of Moses and the Prophets, from morning till evening.”

When the Jews disagreed amongst themselves, after having heard this message, Paul announced to them that he would now preach the gospel to the Gentiles in Rome, which he apparently did for two years (verses 24-31). This passage tells us that, even though they had heard about the sect of the Christians, they had not been taught the gospel when Paul arrived in Rome. This shows that Peter could not have been there for 12 years, prior to Paul’s arrival, to preach the gospel in Rome.

It is for these reasons that Henry Chadwick concluded in his book, “The Early Church,” Volume 1, 1967, page 18, that the idea that Peter was in Rome for twenty-five years is merely a third-century legend.

If Peter, then, was not in Rome, where was he? In Acts 12 we see that Peter was cast into prison by King Herod in Judea around 50 A.D. After his miraculous release, we are told that he met Paul in Antioch (Syria) around 50-56 A.D. (compare Galatians 2:11). Still later, around 64 A.D., he resided in Babylon (1 Peter 5:13). Many Jews lived there at that time. Tradition, however, puts Peter in Rome during all this time, and some commentaries equate “Babylon” in 1 Peter 5:13 with the city of Rome. This, however, is in error. While John refers to Babylon, meaning the city of Rome, in the prophetic book of Revelation (compare Revelation, chapters 17 and 18), Peter actually resided in the literal city of Babylon at the time of his writing.

John Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible points out:

“Some, by ‘Babylon’, understand Rome, which is so called, in a figurative sense, in the book of the Revelations… but that Peter was at Rome, when he wrote this epistle, cannot be proved, nor any reason be given why the proper name of the place should be concealed, and a figurative one expressed. It is best therefore to understand it literally, of Babylon in Assyria, the metropolis of the dispersion of the Jews, and the centre of it… there were great numbers [of Jews] which continued here, from the time of the captivity, who returned not with Ezra; and these are said by the Jews… to be of the purest blood: many of the Jewish doctors lived here; they had three famous universities in this country, and here their Talmud was written, called from hence… Babylonian.”

The commentary of Jamieson, Fausset and Brown agrees and adds:

“Babylon was the center from which the Asiatic dispersion whom Peter addresses was derived. Philo [The Embassy to Gaius, 36] and Josephus [Antiquities, 15.2.2; 23.12] inform us that Babylon contained a great many Jews in the apostolic age (whereas those at Rome were comparatively few, about eight thousand [Josephus, Antiquities, 17.11]); so it would naturally be visited by the apostle of the circumcision… Clement of Rome… mentions Paul and Peter together, but makes it as a distinguishing circumstance of Paul, that he preached both in the East and West, implying that Peter never was in the West. In 2 Peter 1:14, [Peter] says, ‘I must shortly put off this tabernacle,’ implying his martyrdom was near, yet he makes no allusion to Rome, or any intention of his visiting it.”

Based on the information provided in this Q&A, there should be no dispute concerning Peter’s position within the Church of God and the fact that Peter was not the head of the Church. Nor should there really be any dispute that Peter never even resided in Rome for many years; nor, that he occupied the position of Bishop of Rome or the title of Pope.

Lead Writers: Norbert Link and Bill Koeneke

©2024 Church of the Eternal God