Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul
Was Peter at Rome?
It is on this day, June 29, that the Roman Catholic Church celebrates the feasts of Sts. Peter and Paul. According to tradition outside the church, and required by faith within the church, during the reign of Emperor Nero, Peter was arrested and executed at Rome, although the Church would say he was martyred there. The foundation of the Catholic Church rests on Peter having established the papacy from a historical seat in Ancient Rome. So the essential historical question is, "Was Peter ever at Rome?"*
Christian apologists have wisely distanced themselves from the prophetic pun from Jesus reported in Matthew: "thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church." The Greek word for Peter is Κηφᾶς which is from the same root as the word for rock (Κηφᾶ). As for building a church, the problem is that in the time of Jesus, Peter would not have known what this strange thing, ἐκκλησία** in Greek, could be — there were no churches then, and no word for church in Hebrew or Aramaic. The line in Matthew is a late forgery upon which was built a papacy.
The testamentary evidence of Peter visiting Rome is weak: there is no explicit word in the Bible either way, but saying there is nothing contradicting Peter's presence in Rome is as foolish as saying there's nothing contradicting his present in America! The burden of proof lies on the assertion. So we have 1 Peter 5:13 saying, "The church that is at Babylon ... saluteth you." We are told Peter was using a code-word for Rome to hide his whereabouts from the authorities. If Babylon really is a code-word for Rome, it would seem an easy one to penetrate; but no matter: Scholars say Peter's first epistle is a counterfeit.
As for evidence outside the Bible, we have some late Churchmen: Ignatius of Antioch, over a generation after the fact; Irenaeus, five generations after the fact; Tertullian, long after the fact; Clement of Alexandria, whose Sketches are excerpted in Eusebius of Caesarea's Ecclesiastical History, also long after the fact (Eusebius was a notorious ecclesiastical liar); and finally, Lactantius, in the early fourth century. None of these was an eyewitness.
Well, what about archaeological evidence? After a chance discovery beneath the high altar of the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome, Pope Pius XII announced, on 23 December 1950, that the tomb of Peter had been found. Pope Paul VI pronounced, on 26 June 1968, that Peter's actual bones had been identified. If this seems a bit too good to be true, it will not surprise you to learn that the whole affair is tainted with cover-up and conforming the facts to a wishful story. "Peter's bones," once examined, turned out to be from three people, one of them a woman, and from a variety of barnyard animals!
The supposed tomb itself is located where Constantine first built a basilica, around 325, atop a pagan cemetery. A lot of bones got tossed around in the process. And, according to the 6th century Liber Pontificalis, the first Christian emperor enclosed Peter's remains in a five-foot-high cubical bronze structure. Constantine's basilica was replaced by a much grander structure in 1626.
Excavators discovered a scrawl — one could hardly call it an inscription — which some scholars argue reads, "Peter is in here." The slippery Eusebius did write that monuments inscribed with the names of Peter and Paul testify to their martyrdom at Rome and are still visited in the cemeteries of the city. But Eusebius said cemeteries, not . And on this feast day of Sts. Peter and Paul, the preponderance of evidence on Peter ever having seen Rome and thus founding a church there, in the absence of anything positive, is clearly negative.
*"No challenge was ever mounted to the tradition of Peter's residence and martyrdom in Rome prior to 1324," says the apologist website Catholic.com. Well, no one challenged the divine creation of humanity until Darwin. And we didn't discover the germ theory of disease until the 19th century. So time marches on. What's their point?
**The Greek=ἐκκλησία in Matthew 16:18= "that which is called out"; an assembly of townspeople called out for legislative purposes. The Hebrew word for "rocks" is kephim, and Jesus may have spoken Hebrew and/or Aramaic. He well may have spoken Greek, since the Essenes were courting the Greeks.
Originally published June 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.
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