Was Peter the First Pope?
The title “Pope” was first used by Tertullian in the early part of the 3rd century. He used the term in a sarcastic rebuke of Pope Callixtus I who he felt was exercising too much power in the church. The title is not found in Scripture.
Catholics will point to the account in Matthew 16 where Jesus asks the disciples who they say he is and Peter replies by calling him “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus comments that this revelation did not come from Peter but from the Father. He then makes a statement that the Catholic Church has used ever since as justification for their belief that the church is built on Peter and he was the first Pope.
13 xNow when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say yJohn the Baptist, others say zElijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, a“You are bthe Christ, cthe Son of dthe living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, e“Blessed are you, fSimon Bar-Jonah! For gflesh and blood has not revealed this to you, hbut my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, iyou are Peter, and jon this rock2 I will build my church, and kthe gates of lhell3 shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you mthe keys of the kingdom of heaven, and nwhatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed4 in heaven.” 20 oThen he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.
Much has been made by the Catholic Church on verse 18. To Catholics, this is proof Jesus singled out Peter to be the head of Christ’s church on earth, and by extension, his successors. Arguments have been put forth about the play on words taking place. Peter’s name means “rock” in Greek but two different Greek words are used in the text. Peter’s name is written as Petros which we are told means “small stone” whereas “on this rock” the word Petra is used which means a boulder. Thus, two different “rocks” are in mind.
Catholics will counter that Jesus would have been speaking in Aramaic and in Aramaic, there are not two different words for rock as in Greek, and that Greek grammar necessitated using the two different forms of “rock” not any play on words by Jesus. That ignores the fact that Matthew’s gospel was written (and inspired) in Greek and the different words may have been intentional to point out that Jesus did not mean that Peter was the foundation of the church.
Catholics will point out that there are other Greek words for “rock” beyond those two. One of them more clearly means boulder or foundation. So why didn’t Jesus use that word rather than Petros? One could respond, why didn’t Jesus say “on you Peter I will build my church?” That would have made it abundantly clear.
Personally, I would not try and resolve this dispute based on the wording. To my mind, Jesus could have had Peter in mind or Peter’s confession of faith. So how do we know which it is? This is where we must look at all of Scripture to find out the answer.
What’s interesting is that nowhere else in the NT is any mention made of Peter having a special role or being the head of the church. Tradition has it that James, half-brother of Jesus, was the head of the Jerusalem church. In Acts 15, we have recorded a record of the so-called Jerusalem conference. The occasion is Paul’s return to Jerusalem after several years of missionary church planting. He is bringing an offering of money collected for the relief of those suffering from famine in the city. He meets with his fellow Apostles to update them on his journeys and he shares with them an issue he has run into with the Gentile converts pertaining to the eating of meat sacrificed to idols. Those gathered discussed the issue (we are not given the dialog) and finally Peter speaks out and gives an opinion which reads like a summary of what has been discussed. James, acting as the presiding leader, summarizes and assigns himself the task of writing a letter to be distributed regarding these matters.
Catholics see in this Peter acting as “pope” in that he gives the answer and sees James as merely a scribe or secretary tasked with documenting Peter’s decision. Others see James acting as the leader and making the final decision which is in keeping with his being the bishop of the church in Jerusalem. I think several points are worth noting:
- This is the only meeting of the Apostles to discuss an issue we know of. One conference is not enough to make assumptions about roles especially when the details are sparse. The description in Acts does not identify anyone as presiding or use any titles.
- We are not given the entire dialog. We don’t know if what Peter spoke had already been said by others and he was just summarizing or if those were his thoughts alone. We don’t have enough of the dialog to draw any conclusions.
- History identifies James as the bishop of Jerusalem, not Peter.
If Peter were the head of the church, this would have been an opportune time to identify him as acting in that role. Luke could have written that “Peter, acting as head of Christ’s church on earth, decided that…” but he wrote no such thing. There is nothing about this account that identifies Peter as acting in any official leadership position. Those who see that are importing a belief into the text.
When Paul writes about the foundation of the church, he says:
Therefore you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the cornerstone. In Him the whole building is fitted together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord. And in Him you too are being built together into a dwelling place for God in His Spirit. (Ephesians 2:19-22) (emphasis added)
“God’s household” is the church. Paul says it is built on the foundation of the apostles (plural) and the prophets but shows Christ as the true foundation on which all depends. This would have been a great opportunity to identify Peter as the earthly foundation of the church but Paul does not mention Peter except indirectly as part of the Apostles. We simply find nothing in the Book of Acts that shows Peter as head of the church. Peter himself makes no mention of being the head in his letters (epistles).
Another interesting point of consideration is the gospel accounts of the same discussion found in Matthew 16. Let’s compare them:
14They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
15“But what about you?” Jesus asked. “Who do you say I am?”
16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
17Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!b For this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by My Father in heaven. 18And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
20Then He admonished the disciples not to tell anyone that He was the Christ. (Matthew 16:13-20)
28They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”
29“But what about you?” Jesus asked. “Who do you say I am?”
30And Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about Him. (Mark 8:27-30)
One day as Jesus was praying in private and the disciples were with Him, He questioned them: “Who do the crowds say I am?”
19They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, that a prophet of old has arisen.”
20“But what about you?” Jesus asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Peter answered, “The Christ of God.” (Luke 9:18-20)
70Jesus answered them, “Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!” 71He was speaking about Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. For although Judas was one of the Twelve, he was later to betray Jesus. (John 6:67-71)
Note how only in Matthew’s account is the part about Peter and the rock mentioned. Nothing is said about it in the other three gospels. Mark’s account is especially interesting. Mark, or John Mark, traveled with both Paul and Peter and it is assumed Mark got the information for his gospel from Peter. John Mark was a young man when Jesus was with the Apostles. He was not an Apostle and did not overhear these things himself. His information would have come from Peter.
His account says nothing about Peter being “the rock” upon which the church is built. Had Peter been “the rock”, surely Mark’s account would have mentioned it. Peter would want it to be known that the Lord chose him to lead the church. Not in a prideful sense but simply to make clear the Lord’s wishes. These gospels were written by different men in different places at different times. The authors weren’t gathered comparing notes and deciding who would include which details. The fact that only Matthew’s account includes the part about the rock, the keys, etc, does not mean Jesus did not say those things. Matthew was inspired as were Mark, Luke, and John. However, two of the four gospel authors were present (Matthew and John) and Mark got his information from Peter who was present. Yet only one account includes the part about “the rock.” Not many accounts of Jesus are included in all four gospels. This one is yet only one of the four accounts that include the comment on “the rock.” If Jesus had meant that Peter was “the rock” on which his church would be built, it seems odd that only one account mentions that important proclamation.
The Catholic Church argues that Jesus made Peter the “rock” or foundation of the church. An equal or greater argument could be made that it was Peter’s confession of faith that is the foundation for it is by that same confession of faith we become part of Christ’s church. Those present would have known which meaning Jesus had in mind. We can debate what Jesus meant but they would have known. Yet only one account even includes that part of the discussion which would seem to be a major omission if Peter was commissioned by Jesus to lead the church. That would be a major truth they would want to be recorded.
We don’t see Peter identified as the leader of the church in the Jerusalem council. Three of the four gospels don’t include Jesus’ words about “the rock.” None of the NT epistles make any mention of Peter being the head of the church. Despite the profound silence of the NT on Peter being the head of the church, the Catholic Church clings to Matthew’s account insisting it establishes Peter as the head of the church even though it could rightly be understood to be his confession of faith that is the foundation of the church. Even history does not establish Peter or anyone following him as leading the church. We are not even sure Peter visited Rome so how did the bishop of Rome become the supreme head of the church? Why not the bishop of Jerusalem? Is that not where the church started?
Scripture does not establish Peter as the head of the church. That was a later development by the church in Rome that was then backdated in an attempt to establish a line back to Peter yet no one was functioning in any capacity as “pope” until centuries after Peter. The Eastern churches never accepted the Bishop of Rome as having authority. This eventually led to a schism between the eastern and western churches that remains to this day.