Many are asking, "Is the new Pope really the successor of the Apostle Peter?" Will he be the last? What do history and Scripture tell us?
As the world’s eyes fall on the former Jorge Mario Bergoglio, some wonder if he was prophesied to be the last Roman Catholic pontiff before Jesus Christ returns. Others, however, ask a more fundamental question: “Is he really the successor of the Apostle Peter?”
Bergoglio’s choice of papal name—Francis I—was striking enough. It reminds us of the medieval Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan religious order. That “Francis” was known for his itinerant preaching, simple lifestyle—and his stated mission to “repair” the Roman church. But it is not this association with Assisi, or his training as a Jesuit, that gives Pope Francis his presumed authority. Rather, it is his supposed heritage as the successor of the Apostle Peter, whom Roman Catholics consider the first bishop of Rome.
But was Francis’ papacy predicted hundreds of years in advance? Some have pointed to the mysterious “Prophecy of St. Malachy”—allegedly the work of a twelfth-century monk, though it first appeared in 1590 and is now widely considered a forgery—as evidence that Francis was predicted to be the final pope before Christ returns. The “prophecy” contains a list of more than a hundred brief mottoes, said to describe more than a hundred popes, beginning with Celestine II (who served in the office from 1143–44). Counting forward, the prophecy would tie the next-to-last motto on the list to the now-retired Benedict XVI.
So, must Francis I be the final pope? Even supporters of the prophecy acknowledge that the answer is “No.” The Catholic Encyclopedia states: “It has been noticed concerning Petrus Romanus, who according to Malachy’s list is to be the last pope, that the prophecy does not say that no popes will intervene between him and his predecessor designated Gloria olivae. It merely says that he is to be the last, so that we may suppose as many popes as we please before ‘Peter the Roman’” (Article: “Prophecy”).
If Francis I need not be the final pope, what can we learn about his connection to the first bishop of Rome? The assumption of papal primacy based on apostolic succession from Peter 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, in the original Greek text, we should notice that 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).
Upon closer examination, even the supposed early evidence of Peter living, working and dying as a martyr in Rome is unconvincing. 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 (Galatians 2:11–16), and Peter appears in Jerusalem for a conference around 49–50ad (Acts 15:6–7). Yet, according to Catholic tradition, Peter by that time had already been the bishop of Rome for several years! 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, 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!
Even the alleged location of Peter’s grave—supposedly under the altar in St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome—is highly questionable. Although Pope Pius XII announced in 1950 that Peter’s relics had been found, bone analysis by scholars invalidated his claim (TIME, January 1, 1951). Pope Paul VI made a similar assertion in 1968, yet many scholars remain unconvinced. A more recent text states that, “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). Nothing has been proved about either the death or burial of Peter in Rome—it all rests on dubious traditions!
So, if there is no historical proof that Peter was ever in Rome, that he founded a church there, or even that he died there, 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 Küng of the University of Tubingen) 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. 64ad, he found that the Jewish leaders there had not heard of the Gospel of the Kingdom of God (Acts 28:17–24). If Peter had been the bishop of Rome for 25 years 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 his version of Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Scholars Duffy and Küng demonstrate how bishops of Rome strove to gain preeminence over other churches through their claims and schemes. Irenaeus of Lyon compiled a list that purportedly traced the leaders of the Roman Church back to Peter and Paul. However, as Küng 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” (Küng, pp. 30–31).
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 leaders there 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 had the better tradition, but the other churches resisted his claim (Küng, 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 link between 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, “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 (Küng, pp. 64–65).
When we 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 seventh-day 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 church, beginning around the time of Constantine, appropriated Sunday worship, Easter, Christmas and a host of “saints’ days” from paganism—though there is no biblical precedent or command to do this, and 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 church has taught that it is the Kingdom, and has rejected as heresy the true biblical teaching that Christ would literally return to rule on the earth. The Roman 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 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 also 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 Roman 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. However, even many Catholic scholars recognize the falsehood of Rome’s claims. As Küng 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” (Küng, 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? Francis I may present himself as a reformer, dedicated to the repair of a church in crisis. Yet a close examination reveals, as we have seen, that the very foundation of Francis’ church is built on calculated assumptions and the perpetuation of false teachings.
This should be no surprise to students of Scripture. The Apostle Paul warned that religious 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 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 remember or 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).
It is too early to gauge the extent of Francis’ likely influence on end-time events. When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI in April 2005, some rashly assumed that he would be the final pope before the return of Jesus Christ. They were wrong. Remember, John Paul I served for only 33 days in 1978, the “year of three popes.” Francis’ papacy may be brief, setting the stage for a more charismatic successor—or it may be lengthy and full of drama. What we do know is that, based on the clear record of history and Scripture, Francis’ claim to be the successor of Peter and the modern holder of Christ’s authority is an overreach based on human traditions, not on the word of God. Christians must be on guard and not be deceived by false claims, especially as the end of the age approaches and religious deceptions increase.