Is there an unbroken "apostolic succession" of Roman bishops extending from Peter to the present Pope Benedict XVI? What does history reveal about long-standing claims of special authority for the Bishop of Rome?
Is the Pope in Rome really the current earthly representative of Jesus Christ, in apostolic succession from the Apostle Peter?
The Roman Catholic Church is the world's largest religious organization, comprising almost 60 percent of those who call themselves Christians. It presents itself as the sole modern representative of a tradition that it says can be traced back to the apostles. Roman Catholics believe the current Pope, the Bishop of Rome, to be the direct successor of the Apostle Peter, whom they call the first Pope.
But is he, really?
Your Bible shows that religion and religious figures will play significant roles on the world stage at the end of the age—and that religious deception will be widespread. Jesus Himself warned, "Take heed that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name… and will deceive many" (Matthew 24:4–5). So it is vital that we understand what is behind the claim of papal primacy. Is it an indisputable fact, a legendary tradition, a myth or a matter of political intrigue? This issue will have a dramatic impact on your life and the future of the world in the years just ahead!
Scripture records an exchange in which Jesus told the Apostle Peter, "you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church" (Matthew 16:18). Roman Catholics use this verse as evidence that the "office of the Pope does not derive from any human authority, nor from the Church, but directly from God. It is God's creation, 'for the preservation of unity,' as St. Thomas Aquinas remarks. It was given by Christ Himself to St. Peter and to his successors to the end of time. Our Lord [Jesus Christ] declared the primacy of Peter" (Catholic Belief, Cartmell, p. 16). Roman Catholics assert that when Jesus told Peter, "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven" (v. 19), those keys "are a symbol of supreme authority" and made Peter "master" of the kingdom of heaven (ibid.).
The Roman Catholic Church claims to be "apostolic in her origin because she has been built on 'the foundation of the Apostles' (Ephesians 2:20). She is apostolic in her teaching which is the same as that of the Apostles. She is apostolic by reason of her structure insofar as she is taught, sanctified, and guided until Christ returns by the Apostles through their successors who are the bishops in communion with the successor to Peter… The Pope, Bishop of Rome and the Successor of Saint Peter, is the perpetual, visible source and foundation of the unity of the Church. He is the vicar [substitute or representative] of Christ" (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, pp. 61–63).
Are these claims valid? One key piece of evidence for Petrine primacy is the assertion that the Apostle Peter founded the Church in Rome and was martyred there, as indicated by early writers including Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Dionysius of Corinth and Irenaeus of Lyons. The Catholic Encyclopedia claims, in its article, "Peter": "It is an indisputably established historical fact that St. Peter labored in Rome during the last portion of his life, and there ended his earthly course by martyrdom." The article mentions the tradition of a "twenty-five years' episcopate for St. Peter" in Rome from about 42 to 67ad, and notes that Peter's first epistle was written from "Babylon"—which it takes as a coded name for the city of Rome. The article then insists: "The essential fact is that Peter died at Rome: this constitutes the historical foundation of the claim of the Bishops of Rome to the Apostolic Primacy of Peter."
Is this a valid claim? As recently as 1950, pronouncements by Pope Pius XII that "Vatican archeologists had found the tomb of St. Peter beneath the high altar" of St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome appeared to confirm Catholic teachings and validate a belief that originated before the time of Constantine (Time, January 1951). However, there is more to the story!
Certainly, the doctrine of papal primacy based on apostolic succession from Peter—the so-called "Petrine theory"—has been standard Roman Catholic teaching for centuries. It rests on a particular interpretation of one key passage of Scripture, in which Jesus stated, "you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church… I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven" (Matthew 16:18–19). However, a careful study of this passage and other scriptures reveals something quite different. In the original Greek text, Jesus' statement is actually a play on words. The Greek word for "Peter" is petros (meaning a small stone), and the Greek word for "rock" is petra (meaning a huge rock or mountain). The Bible clearly shows that Jesus Christ is the "Rock" upon which the Church was founded (see 1 Corinthians 10:4; 1 Peter 2:4–8; see also Psalm 118:22; Isaiah 28:16). Jesus was referring to Himself and His teachings as the petra on which the Church was to be founded, and acknowledging Peter (a petros) as one of the foundation stones. This agrees with other scriptures that show the Church was not founded upon Peter alone, but was "built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone" (Ephesians 2:20). Notice how in the above quote from The Catechism of the Catholic Church, this vital last part of the verse is omitted—to misleadingly suggest a very different meaning! Such twisting of Scripture is one reason why the Roman Catholic claim for power based on Peter's supposed primacy has never been accepted by the Eastern Orthodox churches, and why it was rejected by the Protestant reformers (see Civilization Past & Present, Wallbank, p. 133).
Upon closer examination, other early evidence that supposedly "proves" Peter lived, worked, founded a Church and died as a martyr in Rome also becomes less than convincing. The Book of Acts is silent about where Peter went after he was released from prison in Jerusalem around 33ad—it merely says he "went to another place" (Acts 12:17). According to Scripture, Paul confronted Peter in Antioch over the issue of circumcision ca. 45ad, and Peter appears in Jerusalem for a conference around 49–50ad. Yet, according to Catholic tradition, Peter had already been the Bishop of Rome for some years at this time! The suggestion that Peter's salutation from "Babylon" (1 Peter 5:13) meant that he wrote the book in Rome ca. 60–64ad—is merely a supposition. In fact, the first cryptic scriptural reference to Rome as "Babylon" is found in Revelation 17:5, which was written some 30 years later!
It is interesting that Catholic scholars want Peter's reference to "Babylon" to indicate Rome, to validate the idea that he labored in Rome—yet they shun any suggested link between Rome and the woman referred to as "Mystery, Babylon the Great" in Revelation 17:5. This is not being consistent with Scripture!
Another early source, sometimes cited to support Peter's sojourn and martyrdom in Rome, is a much-disputed passage in the First Epistle of Clement, written ca. 100ad. However, the passage only mentions that Peter suffered "many torments" before he died, and as scholar Oscar Cullman notes, "the place where Peter suffered many torments, is not mentioned at all"—it is simply assumed by scholars interpreting the text (Peter: Disciple-Apostle-Martyr, pp. 91–93). The Letter of Ignatius of Antioch to the Romans, which dates to the beginning of the second century ad, refers to commands given by Peter and Paul but, as scholars note, "not a word is said to indicate that the two apostles were in Rome"—it is surmised by those interpreting the text (ibid., p. 110). Professor Cullmann, a German-born theologian and ecumenical scholar, concludes that on the basis of the evidence available, "The founding of the Roman Church by Peter can neither be proved nor regarded as probable.… Of an episcopal office of Peter nothing is ever said" (ibid., p. 113). Other modern reference works offer the same conclusion: "The tradition that Peter was the founder of the church at Rome and its first bishop lacks historical evidence. The Bible gives no indication of such. In fact, there is no historical proof that Peter was ever in Rome, although historians grant the possibility of his going there toward the very end of his life" (The New Unger's Bible Handbook, p. 633).
Even the alleged location of Peter's grave—supposedly under the altar in St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome—does not hold up under closer scrutiny. Although Pope Pius XII announced in 1950 that St. Peter's relics had been found, evaluation of the evidence by other scholars failed to validate the Pope's claim (see Time, January 1, 1950). The relics later turned out to be the bones of a woman and some farm animals. A more recent text makes this statement, "since all reliable information about the place of Peter's execution and burial is lacking, the possibilities concerning it continue to remain as so many open questions" (History of the Church, Jedin, p. 118). The bottom line is that nothing has been proved about either the death or burial of Peter in Rome—it all rests on dubious tradition!
So, if there is no historical proof that Peter was ever in Rome, that he founded the Church in Rome, or even that he died in Rome, how and why did the idea of papal primacy based on succession from Peter develop? Two informative books by noted Roman Catholic scholars (Saints & Sinners by Dr. Eamon Duffy of Cambridge University and The Catholic Church by Dr. Hans Kung of the University of Tubingen) provide parallel accounts of the rise of the idea of papal primacy and the dogma of apostolic succession from Peter. Both acknowledge that nothing in the New Testament links Peter with Rome. The Bible reveals that the Apostle Paul wrote the book of Romans, and Paul fails to even mention Peter in the greetings he conveys to more than 20 brethren in Rome (Romans 16). When Paul came to Rome ca. 60ad, he found that the Jewish leaders there had not even heard about the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God (Acts 28:17–24). If Peter had been the bishop of Rome for decades by that time, would Christ's message really have been unknown there?
The idea that Peter was in Rome is a second century ad notion that grew in prominence in the fourth century ad, after Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Scholars Duffy and Kung demonstrate how bishops of Rome made a concerted effort to gain preeminence over other churches through a variety of claims and schemes. Irenaeus of Lyon compiled a list that purportedly traced the leaders of the Roman Church back to Peter and Paul. However, Dr. Kung points out, "Bishops of the Catholic Church (like those of the Anglican and Orthodox Churches) are fond of calling themselves 'successors of the apostles'… [yet]… It cannot be verified that the bishops are 'successors of the apostles' in the direct and exclusive sense… the earliest list of bishops [compiled by Irenaeus]… is a second century forgery" (Kung, pp. 30–31).
Several early bishops of Rome tried unsuccessfully to assert that their power rested on Jesus' words to Peter in Matthew 16:18–19. Toward the end of the second century ad, Bishop Victor of Rome tried to force the churches of Asia Minor to keep the Roman Easter instead of the Passover, but his efforts were resisted by Church leaders in Asia Minor, who traced their observance of the Passover to the teachings and example of the Apostle John. Around 250ad, a bishop of Rome named Stephen claimed supremacy over other churches in a dispute over which church had the better tradition, but the other churches resisted his claim (Kung, p. 49). A bishop of Rome named Damasus (ca. 380ad), described as a "ruthless power broker," used the saying about Peter as the "rock" to bolster his claims for power. He also spoke of his "apostolic seat" as if no other church mattered, and he constructed monuments to martyrs to enhance the position of the Roman Church (Duffy, pp. 37–39).
It is important to remember that although all of these bishops of Rome are called "Popes" today, the first to actually claim that exclusive title was Siricius (ca. 390ad). By 450ad, Leo the Great was "hammering home" the supposed Petrine link to Rome and the papacy, even likening the founding of the Roman Church by Peter and Paul to the founding of Rome by Romulus and Remus (Duffy, pp. 43–44). At the Council of Chalcedon (451ad), Leo's supporters declared that "Peter had spoken through Leo" (Duffy, p. 45), yet the Council rebuffed Leo's expansive claims of supremacy and gave Rome and Constantinople equal status (Kung, pp. 64–65).
Increasingly grandiose papal pretensions continued into the Middle Ages, as ambitious and unscrupulous Popes used blatantly forged documents to support their assertion of universal power. One such document is the Donation of Constantine, purportedly formulated by the Roman Emperor Constantine in the 330s ad out of his supposed gratitude for being schooled in the Christian religion and healed from leprosy by Pope Sylvester I. This document granted Sylvester and his successors sweeping power to preside supreme over all other bishops, and also over much of Europe and Africa. Although widely accepted as authentic during the Middle Ages, the document was later determined to be an outright forgery, created ca. 750ad. In fact, during Sylvester's lifetime, he was never referred to as a universal Pope, and his cure of Constantine's leprosy is nothing more than legend.
Another notorious forgery, the Pseudo-Isadorian Decretals, contains hundreds of falsified documents— purportedly from earlier centuries—seeming to support medieval Popes' claims to power. As later scholars recognize, the forgeries "gave the impression that the early church had been ruled by papal decrees down to the details of its life" (Kung, p. 82). Even today, some careless teachers accept and repeat these papal claims for universal authority, forgetting or ignoring the fraudulent basis of these claims.
Roman Catholic claims for papal primacy also rest on the idea that their organization has faithfully preserved the teachings of Jesus Christ and the apostles down through the ages. Yet, when you actually compare Roman Catholic teachings with Scripture, glaring discrepancies become obvious. The Bible reveals that Jesus Christ, the Apostles and the early Church all observed the Sabbath and the biblical Holy Days (see Luke 4:16; John 7:8–10; Acts 17:2; 1 Corinthians 5:7–8). However, the Roman Catholic Church, beginning around the time of Constantine, appropriated Sunday worship, Easter, Christmas and a host of "saints' days" from paganism—yet not only is there no biblical precedent or command to do this, Scripture actually warns against adopting pagan practices (see Deuteronomy 12:29–32; Jeremiah 10:2).
Scripture shows that the early Church taught that the Kingdom of God would be established on this earth at Jesus Christ's return, yet the Roman Catholic Church has taught that it is the Kingdom of God, and has rejected as heresy the true biblical teachings about the Kingdom of God. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that Mary, Jesus' mother, remained a perpetual virgin, yet Scripture clearly shows that she had other children after Jesus (Mark 3:31–32; Luke 8:19–21). Even though Peter and other apostles were married (Mark 1:30; 1 Corinthians 9:5), the Roman Catholic Church has established a "discipline" of priestly celibacy, despite Scripture's plain instruction that the forbidding of marriage is a Satan-inspired idea (1 Timothy 4:1–3). It is interesting to note that in contrast to the long-standing Roman Catholic custom of kneeling to kiss the ring of a bishop or pope, the Apostle Peter refused such homage (Acts 10:25–26). These are just a few of many examples of how the Catholic Church has departed from apostolic teaching!
For more than 1,500 years, ambitious individuals have sought to use the Roman Catholic bishopric of Rome to advance their claims of universal authority, using social, political, theological, legal—and even military—pressure, along with deception and forgery, to achieve their goals. These clever and sometimes unscrupulous men have departed from the doctrines of the early Church—even claiming to be the supreme and exclusive vicar of Christ on this earth. But even many Catholic scholars recognize the falsity of their claims. As Kung plainly states, "The claims that they made may have had no biblical and theological foundation, but over the centuries these [claims] entered church law as accepted facts. Thus to many people today, both inside and outside the Catholic Church, what the Roman bishops of the fourth and fifth centuries attributed to themselves in a growing awareness of their power seems to be what is originally Catholic" (Kung, p. 50). Thus we see that the claims of papal primacy based on apostolic succession from Peter do not rest on solid evidence, but on dogma—ideas stated with authority, but lacking in real historical evidence! In the last analysis, these claims rest not on history or Scripture, but on dubious human traditions!
Just how do these sobering facts of history relate to us today? End-time Bible prophecies offer important and informative insights. As we have seen, Jesus warned that false teachers would cause massive deception at the end of the age (Matthew 24:3–5). The Apostle Paul warned that leaders would depart from the true Church and use false and misleading teachings to gain followers (Acts 20:29–37). Paul also warned that at the end of the age, many people would "turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables" (2 Timothy 3:1–8; 4:1–4). Paul further warned that just before the return of Jesus Christ, a powerful and influential religious leader would do miracles that would delude many people into believing lies—because they would not love the truth (2 Thessalonians 2:1–12). This false religious leader will be in league with a powerful political leader who will gain control of a revived Roman Empire that will arise in Europe (see Revelation 13; Revelation 17; Daniel 2). You need to realize that the claims of a soon-coming religious leader, who will use his supposed "apostolic succession" to assert primacy over a universal church, will be based on nothing more than dogma and fraud. Beware!