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Was Peter the First Pope?

Does the Bible or history support this Catholic dogma?

By Rabbi Shlomo Nachman © November 08, 2010 (last update May 20, 2015)
A reader named Emmanuel wrote me:
The Catholic Church has a complete record of Apostolic succession leading back to Peter. The RCC was not founded 300 A.D. For 2000 years, the Catholic Church has had an earthly shepherd, a rock upon which the Church is built:
Matthew 16:13 When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?
16:14 And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets.
16:15 He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am?
16:16 And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.
16:17 And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.
16:18 And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
16:19 And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

Jesus was obviously giving very special, unique power and authority to Peter to be the rock upon which his Church would be built. If, like Jesus said, His Church would last forever, then there would obviously have to be a succession of this authority, this shepherd for the faithful. Hence the hundreds of Popes in succession from Peter to Benedict XVI. Peace and All Good Be With You!

My response

Hi Emmanuel,

Catholic teaching is as you say.

As a student of the Bible and history I am convinced that this claim is verifiable false. Matthew 16:13-19 is not describing the creation of the papacy and Peter was never the lead disciple in the group.

The leader of the first century Way community was James, not Peter (example Acts 15:20). James fulfilled the role 'chief rabbi' and arbitrator for the reform Jewish group. Paul was by far the most influential teacher/theologian of Jesus' movement. Peter confirmed this when he referred to Paul's writings as "scripture" that one must carefully study in order to understand (II Peter 3:16). Peter never held the type of authority claimed by Rome ecclesiastically (as did James) nor doctrinally (as did Paul).

The "rock" upon which the ecclesia (i.e. the Way Jewish congregations) were established was not Peter according these verses. It was Peter's affirmation that "You are the Messiah, the son of the living God." The "rock" upon which the reformed Jewish sect rested was their conviction that Jesus was the promised Messiah (Greek: Christos). It was not Peter, it was his view of Jesus.

This conviction was disproved even before the birth of Christianity in 325 CE by Constantine and his bishops: Jesus/Yeshua was executed. He did not established the Messianic government, as the Messiah must do in order to be accepted in that role. That he is not the Messiah is evident anywhere we look. When Mashiach comes there will be global peace. There will be no disease, no death, no poverty, all the Jews will return to Israel, the Temple will be built... there are many many clear signs.

The Catholic claim that there exists an historically verifiable list of Popes dating back to Peter is simply not correct. Bishop Pontian (who reigned from July 21, 230 – September 28, 235) and who is on the most widely accepted list of popes, was the first 'Bishop of Rome' with established dates; but he was not called "pope" nor did he wield such authority. The papacy arose much later. One can not establish certain dates before him.

It was not until the Bishop of Rome proclaimed himself supreme potentate in opposition to the autocephalic Eastern Orthodox congregations that the office of Pope as we know it today became established. Prior to this the local bishops accepted the authority of no one but themselves and their communities. After Jesus' brother James there was no recognized authority over all the believers (and he was not without his detractors). Even then, as Paul notes, there was not a pope or supreme leader for the group. Each congregation pledged allegiance to different apostles -- I Corinthians 1:10-19. Until the split from Judaism was finalized, the followers of the Way sect were considered religious anarchists, under the control of none (save their personal convictions).

Even after the Church was established as a separate religion, from the time Constantine founded the Catholic (Christian) Church at Rome, it was ruled by essentially autonomous local bishops throughout the Empire. These men often disagreed on various points, giving rise to sometimes contentious factions within the communities of the Believers. While most "Christians" agreed that the Roman See held a certain undefined primacy, as the political power of the Empire diminished a conflict arose between the See at Constantinople (which was being called New Rome by some) and that of Rome. In response to this Emperor Theodosius II and Valentinian III proclaimed the Roman bishop to be "Rector of the whole Church" (Jean Henri Merle d'Aubigne, 1846; History of the Reformation in the sixteenth century). There was no Papal office still. It was not until 1054 that absolute Roman authority was rejected and the office of the Pope was instituted as a reaction.

The two main 'straws that broke the episcopal camel's back" so to speak were the issues of filioque (i.e. a dispute over whether to use leavened or unleavened bread for the Eucharist) and the Bishop of Rome's usurpation of universal jurisdiction as "Vicar of Christ" (from the Latin Vicarius Christi). This claim sought to overturn the established policy of relative Pentarchy (i.e. co-rule by the heads of the five major patriarchates or previously independent episcopal sees). Until then there was no papacy and so there can be no historically valid lists of popes predating this edict.

Prior to this change the churches of the Roman Empire were delegated to the ruling bishops of the region: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. Now attempting to halt factionalism (and to ensure his own power and prestige) Leo, the Bishop of Rome proclaimed himself "heir to the Throne of Saint Peter" (an unbiblical concept the Romans created with no historic nor biblical support) and Ultimate Potentate and Pope (i.e. Father) of the entire Church (in open defiance of I Timothy 2:5). How, Bishop Leo (c. 400 - November 461), argued, could the One Church have more than One head? So he proclaimed himself to be the one and only Pope (Papa) of the world, thereby altering what had been believed for the past 300 years among the catholic (or "universal") sectarians.

The split between the Eastern and Western Catholic Church was finalized when the legate of Bishop Leo excommunicated Michael I Cerularius, the Patriarch of Constantinople. Before serving the papers however the Bishop Leo died, making his excommunication of Bishop Michael technically null and void under Roman Church Law. In a tit for tat maneuver for legitimacy Bishop Michael performed a ceremony of excommunication against Bishop Leo. Because Bishop Leo was already dead however this excommunication was equally invalid, since Church doctrine forbids posthumous excommunication. These legally meaningless actions resulted in the schism between the Greek and Latin rite churches as well as the institution of the Roman Papacy and the enthronement of the Pope.

The Eastern Orthodox Church continues to embrace the rule of the individual patriarchates, although the Eastern rite congregations generally choose to bestow added authority on Constantinople as they once had upon Rome. It is noteworthy that neither the Greek nor the Roman bishops were ever actually made subject to excommunication. For this reason -- unlike the Anglicans and Protestants who are refused communion by both bodies -- both Sees accept the members of the other communication as part of the One Universal Church.

This "Great Schism" was long in the making. Its currents had been evident for many years before the split between the Eastern (Greek) and Western (Latin) branches of "the One Universal Church" finally became official in 1054. The church split was partly due to the ravages both sides suffered at the hands of the rising Islamic Ummah. The greater reason however was that once the Church finalized their abandonment of biblical religion Europe was plunged into the Dark Ages and confusion reigned supreme.

Church politics aside, Peter is never referred to as the pope (papa etc) in the New Testament. He was never the head of the Way reform movement. Historically there is no evidence that any Way elder, including Peter, ever occupied such an office nor that Jesus intended the creation of such an office. Its a very non-Jewish approach to authority as well. Rather, when contentions among the faithful arose they were settled by the counsels (compare Acts 15) where the presented issues were decided by the leaders of the Church in the same way Jewish battei din (religious courts) make rulings. Peter did not rule over these assemblies as would a pope. Like the others, he submitted to James.

Acts 15:13 And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, Men and brothers, listen to me...
The involved parties called for a beit din and then a presiding elder on the court, like James, would issue decrees on behalf the community.

As we read:

Nothing in the Bible nor in history suggests that Peter held such an office nor established such a lineage.

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